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Edinburgh art festival review – ugly beauty in the Jekyll and Hyde city

Monster, 1977 Douglas Gordon s self-portrait as a Jekyll and Hyde character. Photograph: Adagp, Paris

Calton Hill in Edinburgh is, architecturally, the sanest place in Britain. This deliberate recreation of the Acropolis of ancient Athens is graced with early 19th-century classical temples that express a belief in science, philosophy and education, embodying the spirit of the Scottish Enlightenment1 when thinkers such as David Hume and Adam Smith led Europe towards a future of sweet reason.

Edinburgh Art Festival Review – Ugly Beauty In The Jekyll And Hyde City Jonathan Owen with his untitled chained figure in Edinburgh s Burns Monument. Photograph: Jane Barlow/PA

The Burns Monument is one of its loveliest designs, a small, round temple commanding stupendous views of the wild heathery hills just outside the city. As I enter, I admire a marble nymph whose graceful form perfectly mirrors the elegance of its dome. But wait. Something is wrong. Her slender body is harmonious enough to please the most Enlightened philosopher, but her throat is missing. It has been replaced by massive chains carved out of marble.

Closer up, the horror and disturbance grow. It s not that the statue has had chains added to it; they have actually been carved out of the original stone. This is a real 19th-century statue, and someone has very patiently, very cruelly gone at it with a chisel to reduce the neck and shoulders, leaving her head to hang like that of a murder victim. Who has been here: Burke and Hare3? The infamous grave robbers and murderers did operate in the cemetery nearby, but this is the work of Scottish artist Jonathan Owen4, who has form for attacking statues in this way. He says he s exposing their patriarchy revealing the chains in which the beauty myth binds women and yes, I see that. But the result is troubling, surreal and, to be frank, utterly bonkers. He s done it again at the Ingleby gallery down the road, this time taking the face out of a marble bust of a woman who wears a cross round her neck and is got up like Mary Queen of Scots. Like the Chapman brothers, Owen purchases real works of art he bid for these neoclassical sculptures at Christie s just to have his way with them. His art is grotesque, violent, and utterly fascinating.

Edinburgh Art Festival Review – Ugly Beauty In The Jekyll And Hyde City Utterly fascinating Jonathan Owen s statue Untitled, 2016. Photograph: John McKenzie

It is an irrational stain spreading across the sensible stones of Calton Hill, as if the unconscious was seeping out of its lairs in Edinburgh s Old Town to pollute the classicism of the New Town. No city mirrors the divided nature of the human psyche as marvellously as Edinburgh6. Its 18th-century squares and classical monuments assert the Enlightenment. Yet its older, gothic, shadowy side speaks of evil and madness. This is a Jekyll and Hyde city.

This year s Edinburgh art festival proves Scottish art thrives on the same duality engraved in the topography of its capital. I found myself following the opposite thread to the one Theseus followed to escape the Minotaur s labyrinth. My journey through the art festival led me ever deeper into unreason. Shaken by Owen s shocking violence against statues, I rested a moment in another classical building on Calton Hill to hear a piece of sound art by Bani Abidi that recreates the lost voices of men from the Punjab who fought in the first world war and the women who pleaded with them not to go. Cast in song, their dialogue plays on speakers in this debating chamber. It s lyrical, yet fails to be sculptural or dynamise the space. It s like listening to an album in a big empty room.

Edinburgh Art Festival Review – Ugly Beauty In The Jekyll And Hyde City Into the netherworld Graham Fagen s A Drama in Time.

It is as if the unconscious is seeping out of its lairs in the Old Town to pollute the New with evil and madness

Descending a precarious staircase called Jacob s Ladder down the steep side of Calton Hill, you plummet into the netherworld, or anyway, under a railway bridge where it s probably not a good idea to linger. Stay just long enough (about a minute) to take in Graham Fagen s neon installation of a skeleton flanked by two sailing ships and two tropical islands. It looks like a beacon for a pirate-themed bar and glows, feeling appropriate in this shady underside of the city. We re down in Mr Hyde s world now. Following his trail into the Old Town, the darkness accumulates nicely. Afternoon idlers dot the sinister Cowgate. Inside St Patrick s Church, some old soul is going on and on about the Easter Rising. No wait, this is the historian Owen Dudley Edwards, filmed by Roderick Buchanan, in an extended, indeed quite possibly endless, discussion of socialism, nationalism and the Irish leader James Connolly, who was actually born in Edinburgh. Not a lot of people know that.

A stone s throw or a knife thrust from the Cowgate you ll find my favourite exhibition of this year s festival, something anyone interested in modern Scottish art must see. The Scottish Endarkenment7 at Dovecot explores Art and Unreason in Scotland since 1945. One of Owen s grisly statues is here. So is Douglas Gordon s self-portrait as a Jekyll and Hyde character. On the left, Gordon looks at you calmly and sensibly. He might be a young Edinburgh lawyer. In the righthand picture, he has taped up his features to turn himself into a brutal monster. It s just a stunt, yet somehow the effect is genuinely scary. Which is the real, inner face? Evil is just a roll of Sellotape away.

Edinburgh Art Festival Review – Ugly Beauty In The Jekyll And Hyde City Detail from Christine Borland s video SimBaby, 2009. Photograph: Christine Borland 2009

Christine Borland s video SimBaby manages to be even more unsettling. Borland has filmed a robot baby designed for medical training. As it twitches its plastic hand, its clicking digital heart slows down. Help the poor baby, for God s sake! The android infant just lies there, needing to be loved. It s a macabre masterpiece and what Scottish artists do best. The new Scottish art first grabbed attention in the 1990s when Gordon slowed down Hitchcock s Psycho and Borland studied the legacy of Josef Mengele8. This exhibition shows that Scotland s art scene is now mature enough to sustain rich historical scrutiny. A couple of years ago, the mega art show Generation9 hyperbolically celebrated contemporary art as a Scottish asset. The Scottish Endarkenment is much more intelligent because it offers an interpretation of what makes this art so special, laying claim as it does to the uncanny heritage of Robert Louis Stevenson10 and of James Hogg s gothic novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner11. It also takes a big historical view of modern Scottish art, with chunky expressionist paintings alongside the video and photography.

Edinburgh Art Festival Review – Ugly Beauty In The Jekyll And Hyde City Portrait of Joseph Beuys, 1980 by Andy Warhol. Photograph: The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Best of all there is Ian Hamilton Finlay12 s classical relief carved in stone that takes the madness right back to the classical heights of Calton Hill. Just as this Edinburgh landmark recreates the painted landscapes of Claude and Poussin, Hamilton Finlay s headstone pays homage to Poussin s painting Et In Arcadia Ego13. It is death that implicitly haunts Poussin s classical landscape. Hamilton Finlay makes death more tangible and violent. He personifies it as a Panzer tank. Did this poet and artist14 ever meet Joseph Beuys15, who regularly appeared at the Edinburgh festival in the 1970s? While the Scot was fascinated by Panzers, the German visionary sculptor, draughtsman, performer and radical politician was haunted by a Stuka crash in the second world war that nearly killed him.

In the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art s powerful Beuys survey16, archive photos and film show the burn scars Beuys tried to conceal under the hat he always wore. He was saved by a Siberian shaman, he said, and in the great drawings at the heart of this exhibition, Beuys sketches shaman figures along with whales, witches and sensual women, summoning up all the powers of myth. Leda, the Greek nymph seduced by Jupiter in the form of a swan, is a recurring presence. So are fat and felt17, the substances in which Beuys was swaddled by his Siberian saviours and that he appropriated as images of life, death, salvation and hope.

Related: Fat, felt and a fall to Earth: the making and myths of Joseph Beuys18

Above all, his drawings are dominated by great thick abstract expanses of Braunkreuz, a paint traditionally used on German rural houses. Its matt colour is at once earth brown and the fading red of a dried wound. This colour of blood and earth speaks of sex, death and the endless metamorphoses of life. Beuys tried to save the world. He certainly saved art. At a time when it was becoming a toy of the postwar consumer society he revealed its darker, deeper, grander powers. Beuys clearly loved the closes of old Edinburgh where he kept coming back to perform and campaign. The irrational is not just destructive, and that s why you ll find more people in the bars down on Cowgate than contemplating reason on Calton Hill.


  1. ^ the Scottish Enlightenment (
  2. ^ Burns Monument (
  3. ^ Burke and Hare (
  4. ^ Scottish artist Jonathan Owen (
  5. ^ Like the Chapman brothers (
  6. ^ Edinburgh (
  7. ^ Scottish Endarkenment (
  8. ^ Borland studied the legacy of Josef Mengele (
  9. ^ the mega art show Generation (
  10. ^ Robert Louis Stevenson (
  11. ^ The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (
  12. ^ Ian Hamilton Finlay (
  13. ^ Et In Arcadia Ego (
  14. ^ this poet and artist (
  15. ^ Joseph Beuys (
  16. ^ powerful Beuys survey (
  17. ^ fat and felt (
  18. ^ Fat, felt and a fall to Earth: the making and myths of Joseph Beuys (

Finding Dory review – strikingly lovely

Pacy and playful : Finding Dory. Photograph: Disney/Pixar

The very best of the sequels attempted by the Pixar studio manage to combine a familiar milieu with the opportunity to explore entirely different themes to the original films. Toy Story 21 (which was written but not directed by Finding Dory co-director Andrew Stanton), for example, looks at the fear of mortality through the prism of the playroom. Toy Story 32 takes on the aftermath of a relationship breakdown. Finding Dory, meanwhile, is slightly less adventurous thematically, in that it reprises the central motif of Finding Nemo3: that of the enduring parent-child bond, and the special embrace of family, in all its permutations. However, it is approached with such charm and warmth that it hardly matters that the two films share such similar arcs.

In this case it is Dory, the amnesiac blue tang (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres4), who starts to piece together the recently unearthed fragments of her childhood memories and realises that she has a family, somewhere in the vast ocean. Her quest to find them takes Dory to the other side of the world and a California marine park (a voice cameo by Sigourney Weaver as herself, delivering the public address announcements, is one of the joys of the film). The rehabilitation tanks of the aquarium sick bay are home to the breakout star of the picture: Hank, the escapologist octopus (snappily voiced by Ed O Neill). Hank s endless repertoire of disguises is a sight gag that never gets old.

Pacy and playful in its humour, the film pauses only occasionally to let us appreciate the beauty of the animation. It is a strikingly lovely picture: the palette of velvety blues is accented by facets of shimmering light. Thomas Newman s score is equally well judged, emphasising the emotional but never drowning us in sentiment.

Ellen DeGeneres on Finding Dory: Her disability becomes her strength video interview5


  1. ^ Toy Story 2 (
  2. ^ Toy Story 3 (
  3. ^ Finding Nemo (
  4. ^ Ellen DeGeneres (
  5. ^ Ellen DeGeneres on Finding Dory: Her disability becomes her strength video interview (

Finding Dory – review: Pixar sequel about forgetful fish is sadly so forgettable

Well, it couldn t last for ever. From A Bug s Life to Inside Out by way of Ratatouille and The Incredibles, Pixar1 delivered animated hits for everyone. For 21 years, the studio has tugged at our heartstrings, dazzled our eyeballs and kept our brains engaged since Toy Story. Then came the tepid Cars 2, followed by Monsters University while your reviewer was the only person with anything good to say about last year s The Good Dinosaur. This sequel to 2003 s beloved Finding Nemo turns out to be a disappointment too, a toon that may appeal to ankle-biters but feels several steps backwards in terms of storytelling and visuals.

It s the sort of movie that would have seemed quite special 15 years ago but now looks positively stale. And I never thought I d say that about a Pixar movie. As ever, the film is preceded by a short, concerning the adventures of a young sandpiper struggling to retrieve food from the edge of the sea. It s sweet, charming and a true showcase for Pixar s gifted animators.

Alas, the technical virtuosity proves to be in sharp contrast to the main feature that follows.

Ellen DeGeneres2 voices forgetful regal tang fish Dory who, when separated from her parents (Eugene Levy and Diane Keaton), teams up with clownfish Nemo and his dad (Hayden Rolence and Albert Brooks) to cross the ocean for a reunion. The voice cast also includes Bill Hader, Willem Dafoe and, most memorably, British actors Idris Elba and Dominic West as a pair of sea lions. As anyone who s seen Finding Nemo will realise, the plot is a reheat with the feelings of deja vu not helped by jokes concerning Dory s memory loss that are repeated at least 10 times too often.

The same goes for a celebrity cameo that s milked for all it s worth. The visuals also seem to be a throwback to 2003. While the marine creatures are nicely animated with pleasing expressions, the ocean they call home has a slightly murky, muddy quality to it.

It s ironic that a film about a forgetful fish should be so forgettable.

The Reel Lowdown

Best quote: Dory to her parents: If I forgot you, would you forget me?

Best bit: The short film, Piper, that plays before the main feature.

Worst bit: Weak effects and storyline.

If you liked… The Incredible Journey, Ice Age: Collision Course, Cars… you ll like this

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  1. ^ Pixar (
  2. ^ Ellen DeGeneres (
  3. ^

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