Night Walk for Edinburgh, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller

On Sunday night I took part in an art experience that had been intriguing me since I first saw it advertised as part of Edinburgh International Festival several weeks ago. It fell into the category of “must go” because it sounded unique (commissioned especially by the Fruitmarket Gallery), immersive and slightly odd, making the perfect cocktail for someone who likes thinking, writing and talking about art.

Starting at the bottom of Cockburn St near the Royal Mile, the Fruitmarket staff gave me a short briefing (which made me ever more intrigued and slightly trepidatious about what was coming), armed me with a pair of headphones and a small screen, and away I went. What followed was a cross between virtual gaming, crime drama, ghost tour and art piece.

Edinburgh’s Old Town is the stage set for this discombobulating drama

Janet Cardiff’s voice whispers in your ear, half talking to you, half musing to herself. The walk winds through the backstreets, closes and alleys surrounding the Royal Mile, strangely empty, dusty and damp compared to the garish, touristy brightness of the Mile itself. Arrows on the ground sometimes indicate the way, but mostly you are guided by Cardiff’s instructions, enhancing the sense that you are taking part in a game in which your own agency is reduced to zero.

The narrative weaves in and out of fiction and reality, with the film element of the walk emphasising the idea that the city is a canvas or a stage, and we as its residents, its visitors, its participants, are part of the multiple layerings that make up its history, and its identity. Marks on the canvas are left behind by former inhabitants: chewing gum pressed into the crevice of a wall, string delicately tied around a lamppost, pieces of scattered clothing lost, left behind. The work delves into Edinburgh’s macabre history, but is also rooted in the banal fabric of the city itself, drawing attention to air vents, street signs and shop windows.

The walk draws your attention to all sorts of details, making the banal into something noticeable

The sound effects, with snatches of conversations, song, sirens, and the noises of city life unfolding around you make the stories of the walk all the more convincing. I can’t count the number of times I turned around to check whether the footsteps approaching me were part of the fake cinematic narrative I was immersed in, or belonging to life itself. The artists play with the uneasy gesture of looking over one’s shoulder, the sound of footsteps is inherently creepy and unnerving and puts the participant/viewer on edge throughout the walk, in a way that is both thrilling and memorable.

Weaving their way through the city, Cardiff and Bures Miller have made a fascinating and haunting piece that interweaves history, the digital, magic, reality, memory and storytelling. If you’re interested in any of the above, this is something you won’t want to miss.

Senga Nengudi, Fruitmarket Gallery

Walking into the Senga Nengudi exhibition at Fruitmarket Gallery, I was struck again by how weird art is. Immediately visible were two pieces that looked so utterly different, you would never think they were by the same artist. One was a large section of the gallery floor covered in sand, with what looked like little mole hills spattered with colour. The other was like three giant ice pops that had melted in their plastic sheaths, with bubbles that had formed where the garish colours met the surface of the clear plastic. This work was wholly artificial where the other was primarily natural. My first urge was to reach out and touch these kitsch water features, to poke the plastic and watch the bubbles move and see the tube take a different shape. However, being a natural rule-abider, I didn’t. Didn’t want to be told off.

I often feel that by being a postgrad History of Art student, I ought to know what’s happening with ALL artworks. What are they about? Could I explain them to someone else, who maybe wasn’t as keen on art as I am? But at this stage of the exhibition, I was quite lost and I couldn’t really get my head around the artist’s aesthetic choices. Perhaps the invigilator noticed I looked baffled and handed me the Gallery guide, which was helpful. This has happened to me a couple of times at the Fruitmarket and I always think how great it is that the invigilators are encouraged to interact with the public.

The guide explained that the giant melted ice pops were part of a series of early works known as Untitled Water Compositions.

“When they were first made and shown for short periods of time, they were designed to be activated by the audience, to be pliable and responsive to touch as flesh might be, challenging the static, intransigent nature of much minimalist sculpture of the 1960s. The works we are showing have been recreated for this exhibition. We ask you not to touch them as they become extremely fragile over the longer time of the exhibition.”

This really irks me. What’s the point of something which was conceived by the artist as kinetic, which is now static? The meaning and substance of the work is completely altered. For artists like Nengudi who work with performance, the fragility of the piece is surely essential to its conception? Plus, on a practical note, these aren’t even the ‘original’ pieces, so that plastic can’t be that fragile. It is sometimes difficult to know who makes these decisions. Is it the host gallery, the external curator, the gallery representing the artist, or the artist herself? The whole thing reminded me, in a bad way, of one of my most frustrating exhibition experiences at the Alexander Calder exhibition at Tate. There was a key piece of sculpture which took up an entire room. The conceit of the work was a pendulum that swung and hit the different objects in its path, thus creating different patterns of sounds and a unique journey through the space each time it was set off. The sculpture was not permitted to move because the estate of Alexander Calder didn’t want it to be damaged: the ultimate example of how monetary value can totally eraticate the aesthetic value of a work.

I made my way upstairs feeling a bit pissed off about the whole thing. But the upstairs was where the exhibition really started to come together, the R.S.V.P sculptures Nengudi has created with tights/stockings having the biggest impact. These were first created in the mid-1970s, way before Sarah Lucas created her tortured forms using stockings (I’m thinking of Tate’s Pauline Bunny, 1997). The tension between the stretched nylon and the stones/sandbags weighing them down was palpable. Particularly striking and important was the use of dark brown tights, depicting black skin. It brought to mind the difficulties women of colour can face when trying to do a simple thing like buying tights: “flesh coloured” is a loaded term, and many beauty products still haven’t caught up. These seemingly simple works allude to absent female bodies which are simultaneously weak and fragile, powerful and tenacious, able to withstand their own tortured forms. They say a lot even though their forms are simple, their materials part of the everyday. That was the part of the exhibition that will stay with me and helped me to better understand the other works I had almost dismissed.