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August 16 2012

Scent of a kitten: the 20 irrefutable theories of book cover design

Do you judge a book by its cover? Designers Jon Gray and Jamie Keenan shared their theories on attracting readers – from cute cats to alluring perfume – at the Edinburgh book festival

1. Face theory

Research suggests that human beings spend 48.6% of their lives decoding facial communication, so a big draw for a potential book buyer will be the familiarity of a face. The cover of Nick Hornby's Otherwise Pandemonium, for example, uses a cassette tape to create the image of a face.

2. Association theory

Human beings make a connection with a given stimulus that leads to how they respond to something they see. The image on the cover of Luca Turin's The Secret of Scent uses the familiar image of the Chanel No 5 perfume label to help the reader respond to the idea that the book is about scent.

3. Zen theory

This theory presents a challenge to the human mind that some will accept and some won't. A zen theory cover mainly involves text with few images, telling the reader little about the book other than the name of the author. This is often used for books from well-known authors, such as Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, who will attract readers with their name alone.

4. Type as image theory

This theory uses original or customised typefaces to create images and ideas. The type often becomes the image, such as on the cover for Steven Levy's The Perfect Thing.

5. Textual plasticity theory

The human mind reads words as a whole not individual letters. If a letter is missing, the brain will still understand the word. The design for James Gleick's Faster has all the vowels missing from the author's name and title on the cover, but is still readable.

6. Overdetermination theory

The image on a cover using Overdetermination theory suggests the beginning or snapshot of a narrative rather than an overall end result.

7. Ringfence theory

The difference between positive and negative space can determine what the reader sees. The Rubin vase is a good example, where some people see two faces and others see a vase. In this cover, the iPod headphones shape a womb and two lovers' faces.

8. Zoom theory

Zooming in can give a taster of a narrative without giving too much away, while zooming out creates a bigger picture, depending on what is required. The pen nib on the cover of Miguel Syjuco's Ilustrado is an example of close zoom.

9. Encapsulation theory

Typeface and image combine to create one unified image for the reader. Unity is more attractive to humans, as making connections doesn't require as much effort. The cover of Marina Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian has a picture of a tractor and the word "tractor".

10. Molecular theory

Layers of symbols that make up a whole, understandable theme define molecular theory. The cover of Karen Maitland's The Company of Liars uses skull symbols inside a silhouette of a dog to symbolise that this is "a novel of the plague".

11. Unheimlich theory

This theory takes a familiar image or symbol and makes it strange or unsettling. One cover of Lolita uses the image of a girl's bedroom wall to represent a girl's legs and underwear.

12. Absent presence theory

A gap is left on the cover, a missing image or text, that implies something. By having this space, the reader is forced to fill the gap with their imagination in order to understand the meaning.

13. Ju Jitsu theory

The opponent, the cover, forces a view or conception upon the defender, the reader, such as the bloody, violent implications on the cover of Anthony McGowan's love story Stag Hunt.

14. Toy theory

A fixed image allows the reader to remain passive and distance themselves from a cover. A fluid image, like the one on William Boyd's Fascination requires the reader to actively explore the cover and become curious about the content.

15. Obfuscation theory

If something is hidden it suddenly becomes more interesting to the curious nature of the human mind. The cover of an edition of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day obscures the image that depicts the content with white lines and text.

16. Combination theory

Because a book is static, two ideas can be presented at once to create a doubly effective but meaningful image to the reader. Moses Isegawa's novel Abyssinian Chronicles is about modern Africa, and the cover uses old books to create the shape of the continent.

17. Navigation

The eye is deliberately led via an understandable pattern; left to right, bottom to top, to create an easily recognisable overall image. Hannah Holmes's Quirk depicts the brain through a mind map.

18. Turd theory

A single, unsightly object can be seen as repulsive. Multiply the image and use bright colours, and it can become attractive. Usually used in series design, the effects can be seen in a sequence of Georges Simenon books designed by Keenan.

19. Maximisation

Everything is huge and thrown on to the cover. Bigger images and text can catch a reader's eye in a sea of detailed designs. The cover for Zadie Smith's new book, NW, is a good example of maximisation.

20. Fluffy kitten theory

Nothing draws a reader to a book like a picture of a fluffy kitten. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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August 11 2012

Dieter Roth: Diaries; Philip Guston: Late Paintings – review

Fruitmarket Gallery; Inverleith House, Edinburgh

Dieter Roth was a celebrated sculptor, performer, film-maker and draughtsman whose work has been displayed all over the world since his death in 1998. He was also an alcoholic. His last video installation was a record of his final year, lived in the knowledge that he was slowly dying of the consequences.

You can watch Solo Scenes – for hours, potentially for days – on 128 video screens at the Fruitmarket Gallery, part of Dieter Roth: Diaries. It is one of the most significant shows in a particularly strong edition of the Edinburgh art festival. There he is, this old man in a soft cap with his solitary ways, seen in the low brown glow of his apartment. He is a figure fit for late Rembrandt or the novels of Samuel Beckett.

He works, he eats, he writes, he thinks. He hangs out his meagre washing. In bed, beneath the lamp, he reads late into the night; in the morning there is toast to make. Snow gathers outside, spring comes and he tends his plants. Each scene is conspicuously framed (the camera judders and shakes) before Roth appears within it. This is one of the longest time-lapse self-portraits in art: literally, life passing from moment to moment.

And what does Roth do, faced with this mortal dread? He simply goes on working, a common and quiet heroism, as the dawn-to-dusk structure of the work implies. Perhaps some concession is made to comfort – the artist very often appears in his dressing gown, frequently with a blanket – but the low buzz of activity never ceases, even against the faint soundtrack of a clock.

There are drawings to make and letters to write. Some kind of art is gathering, quite apart from these videos themselves. In the studio there are occasional glimpses of self-portraits, sculptures, paintings; and hundreds of ring binders neatly arranged in library shelves.

The actual shelves are installed upstairs at the Fruitmarket Gallery, each file containing the ill-considered trifles of Roth's daily life: bills and tickets and restaurant napkins, bank statements and parking tickets, anything and everything that was less than 5mm thick, preserved in this orderly archive entitled Flat Waste.

Shoring up the fragments was not just a compulsion for Roth, it was an aesthetic principle. He made fantastically elaborate environments – a studio, an entire bar complete with empties and overflowing ashtrays – out of junk. He also worked with chocolate, baking dough and soft cheese, the inevitable deterioration of each piece equated with life's decline. The materials of art were indivisible from the materials of life.

It might have helped to include an earlier work for those unfamiliar with Roth. But the Fruitmarket has several ingenious self-portraits rapidly executed in ballpoint (the artist as a whirring fan, a speech bubble, a weeping pig) and many of his copiously illustrated diaries. These are written in his native German, but there are tantalising entries in English: "Dorothy loves you madly. She hopes to get through this phase and love you more." What happened with Dorothy, one longs to know, after that declaration in 1967?

The diaries, like the videos, put everything on the same par, from the love letter to the last cup of coffee. And that is the ethos of the whole show. It doesn't feel desperate – a clutching at straws – so much as ravenously interested in everything that exists. Solo Scenes is only finished, so far as I can tell, in that there is a last monitor showing a last piece of video. The death is unrecorded and the work feels energetic, relishing every minute of every day. Roth's curiosity never dies.

The art festival this year feels pensive, profound. The Ingleby Gallery has a rediscovered work by that great Scottish original Ian Hamilton Finlay – a lethal air-sea battle played out on an ironing board with wooden planes and irons, tragedy somehow miniaturised with no loss of effect. At lunchtime each day, in response to Edinburgh Castle's one o'clock gun, you can hear the disembodied voice of the Turner prize winner Susan Philipsz hanging in the air at evocative staging posts around the city: a siren song drawing you into the past.

And the Dutch artist Melvin Moti has made a spectacularly beautiful work for the National Museum of Scotland simply by passing UV rays over objects from the collection – scorpions, fluorescing fossils, perfume bottles made from uranium – and filming the high-chrome effects. These visions appear vast and small, planetary and yet subatomic.

But best of all is the show of late paintings by the American master Philip Guston at Inverleith House, the first to be staged in Scotland. This is the Guston of the great tragicomic period with its near-cartoonish vocabulary: men with heads like lima beans, huge flatiron shoes, hoods riding the streets smoking cigarettes in open-top cars, gigantic hands reaching down from the heavens to make a point (in this case, the point of a pencil).

In The Studio, a hood paints his own portrait, appraising his art through Disney eye-slits and smoking as he works. The cigarette has been airbrushed from the picture on the easel, along with the light bulb, the palette and the one-handed clock, but in every other respect he paints himself exactly as he is painted by Philip Guston himself.

For this is Guston's allegorical self-portrait: the artist as antihero and nicotine addict, getting through two packs of Camel a day. The picture is full of jokes, from the rueful allusion to Velázquez in the silver, pink and black of the colour scheme to the fact that you can't tell whether the smoke is issuing from the cigarette or the paintbrush.

The bulb, the Klannish hood, the ciggy with its orange tip: Guston evolved a pungent vocabulary of forms that couldn't stand for anything except themselves and yet always meant so much more. Those hoods, hugger-mugger in some kind of office, what are they up to with their arms raised against each other? That curious citadel, pink, fat and squat, ascending like Brueghel's towering Babel, seems both ancient and yet so modern you might turn a corner and find it before you today, a sinister bureaucracy rising up to blood and milk clouds.

Guston's late paintings have become archetypes, irreducibly simple, translating the world. Like good cartoons, and great paintings, they reveal what cannot easily be said.

This is an ideal introduction for newcomers and a perfectly condensed anthology for Guston's admirers, especially since many of the works have never been shown in Britain before. There are only nine paintings, all borrowed from private collections in the United States. But with Guston, a little goes a long way. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 10 2012

Edinburgh festival: art comes out of the gallery

A haunting sonic work, a pub crawl and films projected on to the walls of a department store – this year visual art at the Edinburgh festival is coming into the open. Karen Wright reports

In past years, the visual arts have always appeared to take a back seat during the Edinburgh international festival. Perhaps it seemed impossible to compete with the cacophony of the main festival, the fringe and the book festival. Sorcha Carey, director of the art festival, has decided to redress the balance with Festival Promenade, a series of works intended to bring the visual arts out of the galleries and into the places where people will be gathering for events. This "magical playground" will feature commissions allowing the artist "to create works that interrogate their spaces". To quote one participating artist, Anthony Schrag, "art is the thing that allows us to ask interesting questions about your life".

Carey's first commission as director of the arts festival in 2011 was a permanent "legacy" installation, Martin Creed's Work number 1059. The work, 104 outdoor steps clad in differently coloured marbles, accompanied Creed's retrospective show at the Fruitmarket Gallery. This year, with a commissioning budget of £250,000, she has turned away from permanent installations and chosen instead to commission a daring set of new interactive works, declaring that the choice is "unabashedly about showcasing Scottish artists". While the ambitious list includes some well-known artists, including Susan Philipsz, the 2010 Turner prize winner, and Callum Innes, a 1995 Turner prize nominee, it also embraces recent graduates of Scotland's art schools.

Carey says her chief aim is "to establish the delicate but important balance between the permanent and temporary in this massive World Heritage Site". I first met her during the opening week of dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, where she introduced me to Philipsz, whose Study for Strings, a sound piece responding to the history of the Hauptbahnhof, was one of the most affecting works for many visitors.

Philipsz confessed that when she made her first site visit to Edinburgh she did not really know the city. As a child growing up in a large Catholic family in Glasgow, she spent little time in Edinburgh, later studying in Belfast and New York and eventually settling in Berlin. She says her inspiration for Timeline, her Edinburgh work, was the spectacular view spread out below Nelson's Monument, and the tradition of the daily one o'clock gun in Edinburgh Castle, which was originally connected by a mile-long cable to the ball-drop on Cable Hill for sailors at sea to set their chronometers.

Philipsz's work will replace the long-removed cable, her sung tripartite chord being taken down the hill through seven individual speakers in a kind of domino effect. The work is a homage to Edinburgh resident John Robinson, who invented the siren, and to the sirens from Homer's Odyssey who lured sailors on to the rocks with the devastating beauty of their sound. Philipsz plays me the chord, simple and pure, which sounds to her, she says, "somewhat like a train". Its magic in Edinburgh will be its fleetingness, under a minute in all, and the mystery of where the sound is coming from.

Philipsz's sound trajectory will finish near the gun itself, in the gardens beneath the castle, where Edinburgh College of Art graduate Emily Speed will stage a one-off performance of Human Castle. The work will be composed of 10 "acro-balancers" in cardboard costumes, counterbalancing to form a castle-like shape before dismounting. Carey observes that Speed "draws out fragility in something that we often think of as solid and immovable by making them animate".

This is Speed's first performance back in Edinburgh, having left the city in 2002 to live and work in Japan before settling in Liverpool, and will be the first time she has not taken part. Instead she will assume the role of director: "It's quite strange to lose control of the work," she says. "It's terrifying but exciting working with the acrobats and I know that people will ask if it is acrobatics or a piece of art."

She describes the commission as "an act of faith", saying Carey "is not scared to take risks." When I speak to Speed she is in the midst of making the costumes. "I won't know if it works until they do it," she says. "I am asking the acrobats to do something they have never done before: counterbalance." There will be only one performance lasting a few minutes, but it will be filmed and screened throughout the festival.

In her determination to integrate the programme into the city, Carey identified Rose Street, a short road dominated at one junction by a brutish modernist BHS, as an ideal location for works. The Rose Street film programme will include Speed's film and will show on small screens in shop windows along the street in daylight, while at night films will be screened on BHS's large external wall.

Rose Street will also be the location for Kevin Harman's work 24/7. Carey first saw the work of Edinburgh native Harman in his degree show. She says his work is "engaging people about the world and the art, 24/7," and her ambitions for the festival as a whole seem to be summed up in the way she describes his piece as a "facilitation of dialogue".

Harman stole 210 of his neighbours' doormats from three enormous tenement buildings, leaving notes that they could be reclaimed at his degree show, where they were arranged as a giant work of art. The work sought to bring the community together in an unexpected way. Harman says he "comes to an environment open to the ideas of the viewer". He chooses not to talk about details of his festival project, saying: "If I think too much about the project it becomes too contrived."

The contribution of artist Anthony Schrag – a pub crawl tour – is bound to be popular. It too will take place on Rose Street and is part of Carey's aim to "encourage people to broaden their idea of what art can be". Although Schrag is currently based in the city, he is billed as the Edinburgh "Tourist in Residence", reflecting his interest in the changing landscape of his beloved city. He will take small groups around Edinburgh on unusual outings ranging from an early morning walk to a blindfold tour and a communal nap in a park, as well as the Rose Street pub crawl. Although the majority of Schrag's work has been produced outside the gallery context, he does not see himself as a performance artist. He observes that "unlike in performance art, the viewer takes equal part in the creation of the work". Rather than the city's beauty spots, his tours will explore the dark alleyways, turning away from the idea that "art looks at beautiful things".

Of all the artists participating in Festival Promenade, Callum Innes, an Edinburgh resident who shows with a local gallery, could be called the most traditional, with his paintings unashamedly exploring pure abstraction. But for the first time, he works here in light: in his installation The Regent Bridge, two "paintings" made of light will change colour with random variations. He says he wanted to "bring attention and to re-emphasise" the structure and beauty of the Regent Bridge. "This is such a dark part of Edinburgh, behind the station, that the changes have to be quick. It's a work of art, not a Georgian project," he says firmly. Like many others, Innes felt that the "festival has always deserved a good visual arts festival", so he donated his fee and says nervously, as he has not seen the finished work yet, "it challenged me and works for the city".

The Glasgow-based artist Andrew Miller provides the seeming centre of the installations with The Waiting Place, a temporary structure that will provide shelter from the elements, a starting point for Schrag's tours, and information including artist Peter Arkle's fantastical yet useful map of the festival. Miller has been exploring the interplay between design and art for years. I tell him that his piece seems the most imposing, in a sense, and he laughs. "It's hard to find – you have to go off the path and go into the trees, and after the festival it will disappear unless someone comes and decides to buy it and they have both space and a tree to put it round." I point out how different this seems from the more grandiose Serpentine Pavilions. Miller admits that he had a "quite generous budget, but the structure, while it is temporary, is robust. This is a cross between an Alvar Aalto summerhouse and a Trinidadian shack." The Waiting Place appears to be more of a whimsical summerhouse, and is appropriately named after a line from Dr Seuss: it offers a space "in which you're welcome to simply enjoy the act of waiting for something to happen". Miller says "it will keep you dry, but it is well ventilated deliberately, as it is about looking out. People animate it."

In Edinburgh, Carey is channelling artists' energy to act outside the cossetted space of the white cube. But if interactive work is not your thing, there are promising shows of Dieter Roth, Philip Guston, John Bellany and the blockbuster Picasso and Modern British Art, recently at Tate Britain, in Edinburgh museums. For me, though, I imagine Susan Philipsz's haunting sounds will hang in the air long after the festival, encouraging tourists to retrace the mile-long journey of her lost chord. After all, the definition of "promenade" is to walk with pleasure.

Edinburgh Art festival runs until 2 September © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Edinburgh sees the light in show that will run and run

Speed of Light, an art project that sees volunteers in light suits dashing around Arthur's Seat, will illuminate the festival city

It will put some in mind of constellations forming and reforming. Others will think of sea creatures unspooling across the inky ocean floor, or of strings of delicate fairy lights shivering in the breeze. A higher than usual percentage of late-night Edinburgh revellers – 5am closing times are permitted during the festival – will presumably wonder what exactly is dancing before their eyes.

Speed of Light, a major new art project that marks this weekend's opening of the Edinburgh international festival, defies categorisation: a vast community-created spectacle that crossbreeds high-tech digital light show with ancient land art, robotic choreography with eerie sound installation. Appropriately enough for an event designed to coincide with the closing weekend of the Olympics 400 miles south in London, it also has more than a hint of endurance athletics.

Employing some 4,000 volunteer digital-light-wearing runners and walkers, for 20 nights Speed of Light is occupying one of the most dramatic spaces in this most dramatic of cityscapes: Arthur's Seat, the craggy extinct volcano that lours over Edinburgh's graceful classical buildings like a reminder of a more primitive and brutal age.

Although fragments of the show can be glimpsed from the city down below, reportedly from as far as three miles away on a clear night, the best views are reserved for those who ascend the peak on one of the nightly guided walking tours – a minor feat of endurance itself, given that Arthur's Seat is 250 metres above sea level.

Yet the challenge of being in the audience pales alongside that being taken on by the runners, according to the project's creative director, Angus Farquhar. He said: "There are 29 run leaders leading the groups each night, running 50-odd miles, ascending a total of 35,000ft over the 20 nights of the project, the equivalent of going higher than Everest."

He added: "It's public art in the truest sense. The work is made by everyone who takes part."

Farquhar has dreamed of doing a project like this for the past 25 years, but only recently perfected the technology – and found the six-figure sum – required to make it reality. Each of the runners wears a specially constructed suit studded with lights, each of which is controlled remotely. Sometimes they flash green, or red; sometimes they appear multicoloured, or throb pure white, like electricity pulsing along a cable. Their bodies dappled with these chameleonic patterns, the runners are choreographed to follow a range of moves on the dark hillside – spinning slowly around in wobbly ellipses, clustering tightly in nodes, racing together to a single point then emitting outwards like a burst of energy into black space.

"The timing requirements are meticulous," said Farquhar. "Our choreographer Litza Bixler, who works in Hollywood, said it's the hardest job she's done."

The one thing that cannot be rehearsed, naturally, is the Scottish weather: although final rehearsals have taken place in ideal conditions, the runners ascending in dusky light against coral-coloured, tranquil skies, much of the previous training has taken place in this summer's sheeting rain. More challenging still is Edinburgh's notorious haar, the easterly fog that races in from the Firth and blankets the city like soggy cotton wool.

But the international festival's artistic director, Jonathan Mills, insisted that the work's responsiveness to the environment was very much the point: "You'll experience something no matter what the weather conditions are. In fog the sound appears at a lower altitude. Even in extreme weather conditions you'll still see the light."

Speed of Light is a risk, and not just for those taking part – never before has the festival done community-led art on this scale. During the six years of Mills's stewardship it has attempted to loosen its strait-laced and somewhat starchy reputation. Two years ago the theme was the New World ; last year, Asia loomed large. This year's festival is experimenting with something its anarchic, sometimes delinquent offspring, the fringe festival, does as a matter of course: popping up where audiences least expect.

"A festival is nothing but a pop-up, in a way," said Mills. "But we're trying to do it on a large scale with some of the finest, most important and innovative artists in the world. We're constantly asking ourselves what the festival can be, who it's for."

Also new is the decision to spend nearly half a million pounds constructing three temporary, custom-made theatre spaces in an exhibition hall at Ingliston, next to Edinburgh airport. Festival audiences will be bussed out for three spectacular, immersive shows – one of which, performed by the much-garlanded French troupe Theatre du Soleil, is a genuine coup for Mills. The company's director, Ariane Mnouchkine, is regularly described as one of the world's leading theatre directors; despite travelling widely elsewhere, this is their first time in the UK for 20 years.

Another Ingliston production, a cinematic-scale version of Macbeth by the young Polish company TR Warszawa, will be live-streamed on the Guardian website on Monday – also a first. Other highlights include the arrival of the renowned Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki and a three-part visit by groundbreaking French company Ballet Preljocaj.

At the final rehearsals for Speed of Light, though, Farquhar's runners were simply concentrating on where exactly they were planting their feet on the treacherous hillside. Emma Davidson, 36, a who is running later in the week, was upbeat: "It'll look absolutely amazing, I think. As long as we don't fall over."

Five fringe and international festival highlights

• Mies Julie, Assembly Mound, until 27 August

Yael Farber's gut-wrenchingly fierce adaptation transposes Strindberg's class-ridden classic to the bitter realities of contemporary South Africa

• 2008: Macbeth, Royal Highland Centre, Saturday night until 18 August

TR Warszawa's cinematic, militarised version doesn't hold on the videogame horror. Live-streamed on the Guardian's Culture site on Monday night

• Caesarian Section – Essays on Suicide, Summerhall, until 20 August

Polyphonic singing, broken glass, howling despair – what more could you want from the fringe?

• Will Franken, Just the Tonic at the Caves until 26 August

San Francisco-based fringe rookie offers sharp-clawed standup on US culture and liberal piety.

• Les Naufragés du Fol Espoir (Aurores), Royal Highland Centre, 23–28 August

Parisian collective Théâtre du Soleil are one of the world's most revered companies; this spectacular seaborne version of a posthumous novel by Jules Verne captures the 20th century on the cusp of modernity. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 09 2012

Speed of Light at the Edinburgh festival - audio slideshow

Throughout the Edinburgh festival, Arthur's Seat is coming alive with patterns of lights and a musical score created by hundreds of runners and walkers

August 04 2012

Edinburgh fringe theatre roundup

Peep; Still Life; Coalition; After the Rainfall; One Hour Only

On the first day of the Edinburgh festival fringe last week – "preview Wednesday", when venue staff are still wallpapering every flat surface with posters for the month's attractions, and early-up spectators wander around trying not to feel like unworldly partygoers who arrived at the exact hour written on the invitation – I was reminded how shockingly intimate fringe theatre can be.

Nudity did it. Unblinking, close-quarters nudity. Day one at Edinburgh had in previous years cast me as a reluctant hula dancer (that was 2011's Dance Marathon) and a ranging urban troublemaker (2010's En Route, asking of its participants trespass and minor acts of graffiti). This year, hardly off the train, only just done with the great annual question of whether to get a post-journey jacket potato from Tasty Tatties or a scotch pie from Auld Jock's, I was squatting down in a peep show-style booth trying to maintain a stern and professional expression while a candid play about sex unfolded six inches from my face.

Peep was an odd production, a triptych of 20-minute playlets for which the creative team had constructed a new makeshift venue outside the Pleasance Courtyard. Four actors performed in a room little bigger than a double bed, an equatorial line of one-way glass ringing the space at waist height. Behind this sat audience members, each in their own tiny compartment. We were supposed to feel sordid, peering in on performers from our cubicles, and I did. This was especially so during the short entitled "69", a montage about the pleasures and problems associated with sex in modern Britain. At one point, without warning, the semi-clothed actors spun to the glass and hovered close, glaring – giving the audience some idea of what it's like, perhaps, for the luckless who've worked in such booths in real life.

Costume, again, was an impermanent thing across town in the white-walled confines of the Whitespace gallery. Here I saw Still Life, a one-woman show about Henrietta Moraes, Francis Bacon's famous model and muse. Sue MacLaine played Moraes, clad, sometimes, in a burgundy robe, more often in nothing at all. The audience were asked to cluster around with handed-out paper to draw pencil sketches.

"I will hold this pose for one minute," said Moraes, interrupting the story of her life to stand straight-backed. "I will hold this pose for eight minutes," she said later, explaining that Bacon had once asked for her to be photographed in just such a reclining position. The resulting pictures inspired his A Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, which sold this year at Christie's for £21m. The original photographs of Moraes, meanwhile, were sold on as porn in a Soho pub. "Ten bob each."

Written by its gutsy performer MacLaine, Still Life interwove affectionate elements of biography with a more oblique sense of what it cost to be the human starting point for lasting art. Moraes was an alcoholic and heavy drug user. Bacon made her an immortal, but his close attention might have left behind trouble. At one point in the play Moraes begged her scribbling audience: "Draw me now and see if you can get beyond almost… Show it back to me. Show me myself."

Still with the sheaves of sketch paper in my pocket, I went on to the entirely different Coalition, a political comedy at the Pleasance Dome. It presented a near-future Britain, the alliance between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats almost over, the Lib Dems in ruin. No Cameron, no Clegg, the key players here were fictional, the Lib Dems led by Matt Cooper (comedian Thom Tuck), a likable weakling so beaten down by "coalition chess" he can't really remember why there should be anything wrong with the idea of 48 new British nuclear plants. An enjoyable comic play, a little baggy at 90 minutes. Good but not great.

I still wanted great – that brilliant play, seen in its first few outings at the fringe, impressive enough to make you its missionary. Everybody! Everybody! Abandon your plans, get tickets! A single gem is enough, in week one, to make all the early-bird aimlessness and guesswork of the emergent festival worthwhile. On Thursday I saw two brilliant plays, back-to-back.

After the Rainfall told a woozily complex story that strung together ideas about colonialism, revolution, social media and, somehow, ant hills; a story of parallel lives (a scientist, a spy, a sister, a student) lived out over a span of more than 70 years. The group behind the play, Curious Directive, staged a fringe hit last year, Your Last Breath, that was similarly layered, jumping about in time to tell a story about extreme human endurance. Its high point was a memorable dance sequence involving coloured string that criss-crossed the stage.

After the Rainfall needed no similar centrepiece. Its flourishes were fainter: rolling landscape, seen from the window of a low-flying plane, summoned by a simple piece of canvas being manipulated under a spot. Such subtlety characterised script and performance, the unfairness of colonial Britain's artefact-pinching, for instance, inferred not in a lecture but in a believable conversation between strangers on a train. As well as vibrant design, a strength of this rising company is a talent for compactness. After the Rainfall achieved more in a single hour than would seem possible. I left heavy with its weight, eager to sit down and think it all through.

But no time. I was straight to the uppermost floor of the Underbelly venue on Cowgate to watch a third play in two days about sexual exposure. And One Hour Only threatened, for a minute or so, to be as intense as Peep, as solemn as Still Life. In fact it was neither; instead, a terrifically simple love story, a modern Brief Encounter, staged in a brothel with the ticking away of costly minutes threatening the growing liking between prostitute Marley (Nadia Clifford) and customer AJ (Faraz Ayub). Marley and AJ are Londoners, clever and studying to better themselves, but young and naive enough to assume that their knowing, 21st-century ease with paid-for sex will never trouble them intellectually. Of course it does – the worse, over their 60 minutes together, as they begin to fall for each other.

Written by performance poet Sabrina Mahfouz (who last year impressed with dramatic monologue Dry Ice) the play did not spend much time decrying the sex trade. That has been done well, and often, at fringes past. Instead, Mahfouz made quiet study of the strange and even hostile places like-minds can find each other out. Staged in the uppermost room of the Underbelly, a hangar-like auditorium that is arguably the least cosy at the festival, One Hour Only achieved an intimacy that surpassed even those productions put on in a mocked-up peep booth, a life drawing class. The story, not the setting, forced audience proximity here. Everyone kept leaning in closer and closer. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Edinburgh festival diary: news and gossip

Valentina makes tea, comics pose with pets and a man plays dead for a month

T stands for tedium

Bravest performer at this year's fringe? Early shout for Valentina Ceschi, one half of the duo who perform the offbeat play Captain Ko and the Planet of Rice (Underbelly). For at least 10 minutes Ceschi mimes the role of an absent-minded, tea-making elderly lady. She slowly turns on a kettle, opens cupboard doors, closes them, turns on the kettle again… It goes on and on. In opening week it's fair to say the audience were restless. Some fell to giggles and a few, inevitably, walked out. Ceschi never once flinched. Bravo!

Live on stage? Well, dead actually

A different type of commitment is being shown this month by a supporting player in Matthew Osborn's Shopping Centre at the Gilded Balloon. A man plays dead on stage for the show's entire 55-minute running time. That'll require roughly 1,500 minutes of deadness over the course of the festival. Double bravo!

Pets win prizes

It isn't looking like a vintage year for comedians' promo posters in Edinburgh (and not just because Richard Herring, in a recent broadside against the commercialisation of the fringe, likened festival poster campaigns to "atomic warfare"). There seems to be an unexpected minor vogue for portraits of standups clutching pets: Tania Edwards holds a restless cat, Jim Jeffries a sleepy-eyed dog. Pete Johansson goes for shock, smoking a crack pipe. Loretta Maine, meanwhile, illustrates her show Bipolar with a picture of two polar bears. Mm.

Does that ring a bell?

Verbatim sporting play The Prize (Underbelly) bravely teases the Olympic bother-police by putting circular award crests on its posters. This seems to suggest, from a distance, the famous rings. If we see any stage invasions of The Prize by uniformed IOC strong-arms, you'll know why.

Hooray for Harry's hobby

As well as trialling material for his forthcoming UK tour over the first few days of the fringe, Harry Hill is also showcasing his artistic talents in his first public exhibition of paintings and sculptures, My Hobby, which opened on Friday at White Stuff and runs until 2 September. Characteristically surreal, it features celebrities depicted as you've never seen them – including Philip Schofield as Munch's The Scream (it really suits him), and Britpop stars painted on coconuts. There's also a specially commissioned interview between Hill and cult artist David Shrigley. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 02 2012

Edinburgh art festival - in pictures

From Mickey and Minnie tapestries to movie screenings for monkeys, Edinburgh art festival has the lot. Plus, new and rare works by Susan Philipsz, Vincent van Gogh, David Hockney and Dieter Roth

August 01 2012

Dieter Roth: the video-diary Rembrandt

Dieter Roth chronicled the stuff of life with a poetic, sarcastic eye. He also filmed his death in meticulous, heartbreaking detail. Jonathan Jones on the standout show of this year's Edinburgh art festival

Dieter Roth sits at his desk, wearing a silk dressing gown and a soft cap. A lamp casts a warm glow as he studies a sheet of paper in front of him. Elsewhere, on another screen, we see the German-born artist watering his plants. He turns the camera so that it catches him walking outdoors where, in pallid sunlight, he pours nutrient-enriched water into a watering can. Soon he will be dead.

Dieter Roth made Solo Scenes in 1998, the final year of his life, thanks to an illness caused by alcoholism. At this time of all times, he chose to put himself under surveillance by setting up cameras throughout his house and studios in Germany, Switzerland and Iceland, filming himself going about his daily activities. On screen after screen, 128 in all, the sick artist, born in 1930, draws, makes notes, and just sits at his desk thinking. He looks busy, but it is hard to tell if he is creating new works or simply cataloguing old ones. Cameras catch him pottering about, even sitting on the toilet. Again and again, Roth's face peers in concentration at his work. His body in the dressing gown is large, his beard noble.

As I watch Solo Scenes, on show at the Fruitmarket gallery as part of this year's Edinburgh art festival, I start to feel as if I'm looking at a Rembrandt self-portrait reimagined as a video diary. Throughout his life, the 17th-century Dutch artist painted himself, scrutinising his face from every angle, posing as a knight in armour or the Prodigal Son. Then, in old age, he showed himself with a harrowing dignity. Those final self-portraits look back at us with a terrible truth: we age, we die.

Roth must have known he looked like old Rembrandt in his farewell video. The anglepoise lamps that light his nocturnal labours give him the twilight colours of Rembrandt's kindly brush. Roth bows out with dignity, even when we see him on the loo – because, even there, he is reading, thinking.

What would you do if you had a year to live? Roth worked on. In almost every scene, he is intent on his art. Even when he is not producing, he is thinking about producing. Thinking, thinking. It is his dedication and his seriousness that come across. Once you know what he was facing, this autumnal kaleidoscope of flickering screens becomes an emotional tidal wave. Solo Scenes is about what we do in the face of death – and what Roth does is insist on life. From scribbling on a pad to caring for his plants, he clings to its everyday beauty.

People video themselves in every moment, every embarrassment, these days. Art needs structure. Roth was more controlled. Cameras are placed at carefully chosen positions to capture powerful shots of this private world. The formal composition lends this intimate work grandeur, the sense of planning and order adding to the feeling of self-discipline in the face of disaster. It's what makes this such a harrowing encounter with the big things.

Who was Dieter Roth that his passing was so special? He was one of the most elusive and brilliant artists of the late 20th century. His works, the fragments of his sprawling creativity that can be seen in museums or tracked in private collections, include an old zinc bathtub filled with chocolate-covered busts of Beethoven; and an installation called Bar 2, a fully functioning bar complete with overflowing ashtrays.

Roth, from that generation of redemptive Germanic artists who emerged in the 1960s, looked at the stuff of modern life with a sarcastic, poetic eye. He kept diaries in which he worked out all his ideas and sketched out all his fantasies. In this exhibition, his diaries are shown as works of art in their own right, allowing us a glimpse into his reeky creative mind. One series of drawings seems to show his own head exploding into cosmic squiggles and monstrous caricatures. Another, sketched on a visit to Chicago, depicts his guardian angel.

Although an extraordinary draughtsman, Roth was not interested in turning that skill into something he could sell. His attitude to money, success and the consumer society is summed up in Flat Waste, his most stupefying diary of all. On rows of tidy shelves sit scores of files, each containing a month's worth of waste from his studio (anything that was less than 5mm thick). Plastic binders hold the detritus. Scrap paper. More scrap paper. A Gauloises cigarette pack. A Marlboro cigarette pack. Hotel stationary. A torn-up bill. The stuff of life, the stuff of death.

Few artists so fulfilled the great 20th-century tradition of art, begun with Dada, that spurns all self-indulgence, ultimately becoming identical to real life. The fact that he kept his beauty for his diaries, and rigorously avoided summing up his achievement in any saleable, elegant form, makes Roth, after his death, a monumental human archive – one that's just beginning to be opened up in this important, heartbreaking exhibition.

As an intense and inward artist from northern Europe, Roth would have warmed to the spooky fjords and winter suns in Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape, at the Scottish National Gallery (also part of the festival). In the late 19th century, artists began to look at the world through spectacles tinged absinthe green and suicidal black. Symbolism rejected outward appearances in favour of inner truth. The world is shown in shockingly subjective ways: mountains became nightmarish symbols of death, the sea a phantom.

This excellent survey excels at setting the titans of the age – Van Gogh, Gauguin, Munch, Monet – alongside the less well known and sometimes wickedly eccentric artists. With its radiating sea and sky captured in unreal colours, Albert Trachsel's The Island of Blossoming Trees (Dream Picture) looks like a psychedelic album cover, yet it was painted around 1912. And if you thought The Killing was an eerie journey into Scandinavian bleakness, take a look at Eugene Jansson's 1899 painting of Riddarfjärden: the Stockholm lake is transformed into a pool of midnight darkness strangely illuminated by phosphorescent sea creatures, with a horizon tinted blood-red.

It is enough to send you running to the nearest comedy venue.

• Both shows end 14 October. Details: © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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