How We Remember The Past: Edinburgh Art Festival 2016

Review and photography by Kira Kim

Edinburgh is always vibrant… and then there was the start of the Edinburgh Arts Festival which, from July 28th, unleashed various art commissions and exhibitions across the city. 

The festival showcased the spirit of visual art which the city has cherished for many years. Installations are directly commissioned in relation to the annual theme, and, in total, seven artists took part. During my trip, I followed the trail of their artwork, while enjoying the best of what Edinburgh could offer: the environment, its historic architecture, and the weather.    

The title of the commission-based art exhibition, which I saw written boldly on the festival’s latest guide, More Lasting Than Bronze, caught my attention. While the physical is directly pictured before you, we are invited to contemplate what exists beyond the tangible, what outlives the physical: in fact, everything that resides at the opposite end of what we can easily notice and recognise. The exhibition's title originates from a poem written by Horace: “a monument that is more lasting than bronze”. This triggers a discussion point as to whether a physical monument can be valued and commemorated more by future generations, outliving the valuable material.

Jonathan Owen’s redeveloped 19th century marble sculpture of a nymph is located inside the temple of the Burns Monument. Named Untitled, her neoclassical purity and grandeur is maintained. Rough carving techniques, which are typically applied to wood, have been used to create interlinked chains to support her upper body. The contrast between the two extreme textures of rough and smooth marble create strong and complex physical imagery for the observer. Here, Owen boldly delivers the notion of woman (represented in the form of a nymph) trying to break away from the inevitability of immortalisation and physical idealisation. Owen describes this as “anti-monumentalising in order to reflect on who and how society seeks to immortalise”. While it is inevitable that some monuments will be forgotten over time, the ones that do survive deliver themselves from one generation to the next. This highlights the interaction which is caused to prevail between the past and the present. 

The second piece of artwork I encountered was by Bani Abidi. Abidi unfolded the forgotten and unrecorded history of many Indian soldiers who fought during the First World War. She achieved this through a sound installation located in the debating chamber of the New Parliament House. Her Memorial to Lost Words had speakers located on both sides of the chamber, whereby two songs would play to replicate vocal communication. In one instance, the words from letters which were either censored or never delivered became the lyrics for one of the songs, while the other speaker responded with a folk song sang by mothers and wives who pleaded with their loved ones not to go to war. Her choice of sound evoked a strong impact upon the senses. The listener was allowed to become emotionally attached, and this was heightened by the nature of the chamber. 

The New Parliament House has a history of being used, abandoned and left behind. The debating chamber, which could have been the venue for Scottish Parliament debates, symbolises words which have been lost, whether those words belong to politicians or to the WW1 soldiers who had no voice. Despite these lost words brought to life again by Owen and Abidi, however, the way we choose to do so depends on our own imagination.

ST.ART MagazineKira Kim