Edinburgh Art Festival: An Interview with Sorcha Carey

Edinburgh has plunged into its annual August madness, as it plays hosts to numerous festivals over the month, from the Fringe Festival to the International Festival, and even the Edinburgh Book Festival. We caught up with Sorcha Carey, the Director of Edinburgh Art Festival, the only major annual festival dedicated to visual art in the country, which is running its 15th edition this year.

Culture Calling: Edinburgh Art Festival is the only major annual festival dedicated to the visual arts in the UK. Why do you think Edinburgh is the perfect city to host this?

Sorcha Carey: I think there are three reasons for that. The first is that our city has got a very strong festival culture that goes back 70 years, the founding festival - The Edinburgh Festival - started in 1947. We’ve also come out of a city with an strong visual art culture. We have an extraordinary range of galleries ranging from National Institutions such as Scottish National Gallery, through to leading international contemporary art spaces like The Fruitmarket and the Talbot Rice Gallery. And then obviously we’ve got lots of pop-up, artist led, smaller scale initiatives like Rhubaba and The Number Shop. Collectively those galleries came together to found the festival, and I think they present a really rich and extraordinary range of contexts in which to present visual art. And then finally, there’s something to do with the scale of our city. Not all cities are good festival cities. Edinburgh is such a perfect size for festivals and has this beautiful context and backdrop of an amazing world heritage site and wonderful historic buildings, giving you all the ingredients you need for a good festival.

Image Credit: Maurizio Crespi via Flickr

CC: Edinburgh has such a sense of community and homeliness compared to cities like London…

SC: There’s something extraordinary about what happens in the city. The population doubles in the month of August and you have a complete influx of people, with visitors from all around the world who want to experience the very best in cultural activity.

CC: And this is the 15th edition of the EAF?

SC: Yes. We’re not formally celebrating it as an “anniversary”, but as it’s our 15th edition we clearly have reached a greater scale, in terms of the number of art exhibitions but also in terms of the number of visitors that we’re receiving every year that we’re very proud of. We feel this edition continues to exemplify the strength of the festival, and the way we’re such a great showcase of the very best in visual art, from both historic periods, but also leading and emerging contemporary artists.

Image Credit: Canaletto, The Bacino di San Marco on Ascension Day c.1733-4. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

CC: As you say you’re showing big names from art history, with landmark presentations of Canaletto, Rembrandt and Emile Nolde, but also more contemporary artists. How do you feel like these different periods in visual art sit alongside each other in the festival? Is there a specific theme that ties them together?

SC: I think that really is one of the unique characteristics of our festival. I’m finding it hard to think of a comparable festival that actually brings together a historic programme and contemporary art practice. It really makes us a festival that’s about discovering new things. There will be many visitors who are real contemporary art aficionados, who will be drawn in to also experience the more historical work, and vice versa.

We don’t theme the festival as a whole, but what I think is interesting is the way in which, through the collective programme, each year there are quite strong strands emerging. For example, there’s a real celebration of female artistic talent in this year’s programme.

CC: Was that intentionally to reflect the anniversary of Women’s Suffrage?

SC: Clearly this is a great year for celebrating women’s contributions to society. All of our exhibitions in our programme are directly curated by the host institutions, so I suppose it’s truer to say that rather than having a theme, we find that naturally, there’s a zeitgeist that gets expressed in the programme.

In terms of female artists, there’s great solo presentations by Tacita Dean, Lucy Skaer and Jenny Saville. Phyllida Barlow has made an amazing work for Jupiter Artland. We also have a showcase that’s focused on young emerging talent, and this year we have an entirely female selection, which again, was completely organic.

Image Credit: Phyllida Barlow in her studio. Photograph courtesy of the artist

CC: Being in Scotland’s capital, you also have a strong focus on Scottish art. Did this come about in a similar, organic way?

SC: Our programme is very international, but it also has a very strong presence of Scottish art. Scotland is a leading centre for contemporary art and artists, and it’s important that our programme reflects that. The Travelling Gallery is a very good example. They’re a bus that travels around Scotland and brings cutting edge contemporary art to communities all across the country, some of them quite rural. This year they’re looking back on their rich 40-year history, which has included working with very well-known names in Scottish contemporary art.

Also in our commissions programme, the focus is on supporting Scottish artists to make ambitious new projects (though we always have an international invitation as well). This year Ross Birrell and David Harding are making an amazing project for Trinity Apse, we have Ruth Ewan collaborating with magicians, and there’s a younger artist called Adam Lewis Jacob who’s made an incredible moving image installation. And of course there’s our international commission Shilpa Gupta.

CC: The works you’ve just mentioned are seemingly pushing the boundaries of contemporary art, and collaborating with different disciplines…

SC: It’s really interesting, because, especially in our commissions programme there are some key themes emerging, and one of those is a profoundly collaborative approach. Each of the commissions has rested on a collaboration with other art forms. Shilpa Gupta’s work for example is coming from very deep research into poets who have been jailed for their writing through time. But also, through producing the soundscape which that research has materialised into, she has collaborated with performers. So it’s a very rich work that has rested on relationships beyond her core art form. Similarly, Ross Birrell and David Harding are themselves a collaborative duo, and really interested in the boundaries between different art forms, such as the relationship between music and colour. They’re very interested in the phenomenon synaesthesia, where composers have famously seen music as colour. One of the elements in their commission, which is called Triptych, is this extraordinary colour composition they’ve made for the windows of Trinity Apse. Ross has taken the text of a poem and translated it, first into a series of notes, and then into colour tones which have been applied to the window of this very historic building.

Image Credit: Shilpa Gupta, For, in your tongue I cannot hide, 2018.

CC: EAF obviously runs at the same time as the famous Edinburgh and Edinburgh Fringe festivals. Is there any cross over between the organisations? Do they feed into each other in anyway?

SC: A great specific is Ruth Ewan’s work. She was really inspired by the extraordinary context of Edinburgh where the whole city effectively becomes a stage in the month of August. Her work, Sympathetic Magick, is a collaborative project with a group of magicians. She was inspired initially by the work of Ian Saville, who said “magicians like David Copperfield bother themselves with silly tricks, like making the statue of Liberty disappear. But I’m much more concerned with important magic tricks, like making capitalism disappear.” He really wanted to use magic to effect change in society, so Ruth’s encouraged the magicians she’s been working with to think about what they would like to do if they could change the world with their magic. They are going to be performing all over the city, with some of them actually using the Fringe sites. It demonstrates really nicely how our festival weaves nicely between the others happening in the city, and builds conversations with their programme.

Many visitors who are coming to the city are coming for a pan-festival experience, and they will be dipping into the different elements of all the individual festivals. As a collective it’s extremely rich, there’s not much repetition. The visual art offering is especially rich within that, because with the Fringe, the International Festival and the Book Festival, all of those experiences are ticketed and timed. But the Art Festival is there from 10-6 every day, you can be flexible and pop in for 20 minutes before you see a show.

Image Credit: Ruth Ewan - Ian Saville performing as part of Ruth Ewan's 10 Ventôse CCXXIII at Camden Arts Centre, 2015. Photo: Hydar Dwachi.

CC: But EAF has got some special, timed events as well as durational exhibitions right?

SC: One of the very popular events is Art Late, which is like an animated tour through the city. Every Thursday, we have a series of bespoke, 3-hour evening tours, where they will go and see 4/5 exhibitions, have special encounters with either a performance or curators tour, and then it always finishes with live music at the end. It’s already pretty much sold out! One of the reasons people really love it is because it’s a great way to see a lot of the programme in a very condensed space of time. And there’s a great range - you might end up going from Canaletto to an exhibition by someone who graduated from art school a few years ago! There’s a sense of a magical mystery tour, and the chance to see things you might not have chosen yourself.

Edinburgh Art Festival runs until 26 August at locations around the city of Edinburgh. Look at the full programme here.