Nicky Bird & Art Walk Projects, Portobello

How much do we really know about our surroundings? Living in towns and cities, there are fragments of past lives and clues to how the environment has changed scattered all around us, if we look carefully. That careful looking, backed up by detailed research is how artist Nicky Bird is spending her LAND MARK residency with Art Walk Projects, based in Portobello. The starting points for her project are the two bottle kilns close to the shore (dated 1906 and 1909), the only fragments left of the large Buchan Pottery complex, which dominated the area close to the shore, but closed in the early 1970s.

One of the bottle kilns, an alien industrial fragment adrift in a sea of new builds

Portobello is a seaside town between Leith and Musselburgh, east of Edinburgh city centre. It’s a beautiful walk along the promenade, more a place of leisure than of work, but until relatively recently it was an important industrial hub – there was a paper mill and a chocolate factory all within easy reach of the Pottery.

Today a small group, led by Bird, helped to revive a memory of that recent industrial past, through a walk event which told the decorators’ stories. These were the women who painted the ceramics before they were fired in they kiln, who occasionally raked through the spoils to try out their own designs and have them fired on the sly. Like a band of investigators searching for clues we walked around the area and examined maps from different phases of the area’s history.

Classic Buchan Portobello pottery, set against the backdrop of the beautiful kiln bricks

We also looked at examples of the pottery the women had decorated, and two fellow participants told me they recognised the design – it used to be sold in all the tourist shops in the 1970s, but they had never realised it had been made in Portobello itself. It felt good to participate in reviving that part of the town’s story, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for pieces of Buchan pottery in Edinburgh’s shops from now on. Even the most everyday objects can be brought to life through giving a voice to their past, which is why art projects like this one, which evoke memories that have been lost, are so important, especially for communities that have changed as much as Portobello.

Nicky Bird’s residency with Art Walk Projects is culminating with an event in February, so this walk was really a launch for her project. The completed work promises to be one that shakes off the dust that has settled on Portobello’s recent history, and I’ll look forward to seeing what else is revealed.

Ivon Hitchens, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester

I’ve been meaning for a while now to write about a lovely, focused exhibition I saw at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester last week. I’d never been to the gallery before, and unfortunately I didn’t have enough time to explore its permanent collection, which is based around modern and contemporary British art – I’m looking forward to exploring that the next time I go.

So many important creative people of the twentieth century, including members of the Bloomsbury Group, the poet Edward Thomas and visual artists like Eric Ravilious, seem to have been drawn to spend time in Sussex at some point in their lives, so it makes sense that this Sussex gallery represents some of the most important artistic developments of the last century. While Ivon Hitchens (who I hadn’t heard of before seeing the show) isn’t someone who rewrote the rulebook of modern art, his work shows a talent for noticing and capturing the remarkable detail within the big picture, the abstract patterns he experimented with in his early career continuing playing a major part in the landscapes he is primarily known for today.

The Celadon Bowl (1936)

Some of my favourite of his works were early ones like The Celadon Bowl (1936), in the way that it delicately treads the line between abstraction and figuration, the scrubby brushstrokes of the teal and khaki squares in the backdrop adding texture to the plain white canvas. In a sketchbook annotation, he wrote “don’t try to find a picture. Find a place you like and discover the picture in that”, which is true of every setting he painted, interior and exterior.

Woman playing the piano, c.(1942)

He left London during the war, and lived in a caravan called Greenleaves with his wife and their baby, set in a forest clearing. Living in the heart of the countryside clearly gave Hitchens more than enough subject matter for his art, and he set about painting the landscape, not focusing on grand vistas, but on his favourite spots that he visited repeatedly, capturing the view in different seasons and at times of day.

I love the Sussex countryside and have enjoyed walking on the South Downs, in the woods and by the rivers that Hitchens lived alongside, and so I may be biased, but I found his landscapes very evocative and able to capture the magic of the place. Perhaps there’s something in the water that makes it special.

Winter Walk, no.3 (1948)

Winter Walk no.3 (1948), really captured me. The earthy brown and scratchy red tones, mixed with the evergreen of the avenue of pine trees towards the right of the picture perfectly sum up the colours of winter which are beautiful too, in their muted way.

The theme of the exhibition, how artists use their works as an exploration of their surroundings and of place more generally, was underpinned by the audio element of Simon Roberts’ Inscapes exhibition, which were dotted throughout Hitchens show. Roberts is an artist-photographer whose work focuses on identity and people’s connections with the landscape around them, and as part of the exhibition was invited to revisit the settings that so fascinated Hitchens. His soundscapes of the countryside (cattle lowing, brooks babbling, branches creaking in the wind) brought Hitchens’ landscapes to life in new ways, and the pairing of the two artists’ work brought out the best in both of them.

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.

Edinburgh Art Festival is here

It’s been a bit quiet on the blog recently while I’m trying to knuckle down and get my dissertation done. Apologies! However, Edinburgh Art Festival has just opened and I’m going to try and see as many of the exhibitions as I can and write about them on here over the next couple of weeks, so watch this space.

So far, the only things I’ve booked are both related to the same work, Night Walk for Edinburgh by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. My slot for the walk is next Sunday, and it sounds like an unusual and immersive experience. From what I can gather, the artists have created a site specific work which you carry with you on a walk around the streets of central Edinburgh, using a tablet and headphones. They become your tour guides in an experience which mixes reality and fiction. The artists are delivering the keynote lecture at the National Gallery of Scotland this evening, which will cover what it was like to make the work in Edinburgh, and will touch on their art practices more generally.

I’ll be back with more updates as and when I get to more Art Festival exhibitions and events. In the meantime, here’s a photo of some excellent curation I noticed recently at the National Gallery in London, pairing two recent works by Sean Scully, Landline Star and Landline Pool (both 2017) with the work that inspired them, The Evening Star (1830) by J. M. W. Turner.