Edinburgh International Festival: The Enlightenments

The official visual arts contribution to this year’s Edinburgh International Festival is a series of works under the umbrella of “The Enlightenments”, brought together by Australian curator Juliana Engberg.

The main body of the exhibition is at the Dean Gallery, a former orphanage that forms part of the National Galleries of Scotland. Presented here are four new commissions, by Greg Creek, Lee Mingwei, Gabrielle de Vietri and Nathan Coley, along with existing works by Tacita Dean and Joshua Mosley. Three other new commissions are on show elsewhere—Joseph Kosuth at the Talbot Rice Gallery (part of the University of Edinburgh), Susan Norrie at the Collective Gallery and Juan Cruz with a bluetooth piece accessible via mobile phone at various locations throughout the city.

Ms Engberg’s vision is to present a variety of aspects of enlightenment, from religion, mysticism and spirituality to the realm of the intellectual. “The most important thing in the title is the ‘s’,” she says. “Rather than the Enlightenment, it’s the Enlightenments, and so this is a number of observations or contemplations that perhaps deliver us towards a position of enlightenment. It’s not necessarily the classically formed idea of the philosophical, 18th-century Enlightenment.”

Tacita Dean’s film piece, The Presentation Sisters, documents the daily lives of a very small group of Irish nuns. “There are many passages that show washes of light coming through windows, like Vermeer, who was very good at bringing spirituality into the secular, ordinary experience of everyday life,” says Ms Engberg. In Joshua Mosley’s animation Dread, the philosophers Blaise Pascal and Jean-Jacques Rousseau encounter each other in a forest and talk about God and nature. Lee Mingwei’s Elevation—stairways that have been installed on the top floor of the gallery—is about an idea of “self-enlightenment”, says Ms Engberg. “You can obtain a higher level of knowledge by going through a process of elevations.” Glasgow-based artist Nathan Coley has made a piece that progresses from his Lamp of Sacrifice work created for Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery in 2004—cardboard models of every place of worship in the city, now housed permanently in the National Galleries of Scotland. “Nathan has always been interested in the usefulness and the value that we give to buildings,” says Ms Engberg. “He’s come up with something that’s like a forest but it’s not, it’s like a natural cathedral but it isn’t, it’s like a sanctuary but perhaps it’s actually more spooky than that.” Gabrielle de Vietri has devised a performance work, Hark!, with singers greeting people as they arrive in the gallery and delivering the day’s news. The idea is to evoke the time before mass literacy, pre-Enlightenment, when the population relied on word of mouth and town criers to find out about the world. The final artist in the Dean, Greg Creek, is showing a large-scale drawing of Edinburgh’s Enlightenment buildings mixed in with various real and fictional elements. “One of the great things that Greg found when he was here doing his research was that he located the last orphan who had lived in the Dean…and that man is still alive, he lives in London now,” says Ms Engberg. “Greg went down to London to meet him and drew his portrait, which will be part of the Atlas [drawing].”

Joseph Kosuth’s new commission is in the Georgian library at the Talbot Rice Gallery, a room in which Charles Darwin first started to think about writing his Origin of Species, and Kosuth’s work will reference this aspect of the venue. “Joseph is a great bibliophile, he loves libraries and he loves history,” says Ms Engberg. At the Collective Gallery, Susan Norrie is showing her existing video work Enola, about a nuclear trauma, alongside the newly made SHOT, which looks at the recent Japanese rocket launch to send up a satellite. “The Enlightenment was all about an omnipresent vision,” adds Ms Engberg. “The knowing and the empirical. I wanted to take us out of space to look back down upon us, referencing that eye in the sky that features so prominently in so many Enlightenment texts and drawings.” And finally Juan Cruz’s bluetooth-delivered stories, short pieces of text downloaded to visitors’ mobile phones when they activate their “bluetooth” function, will “link together as people navigate their way around my venues and other venues in the festival”, says Ms Engberg.

This article was published in The Art Newspaper, July-August 2009, p49. To see it in context, please click the PDF link below

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