Making a Monument

Making a Monument
Jenny Messenger

Tucked away on Chalmers Close off Edinburgh’s High Street, disembodied voices and choral songs from Trinity Apse filter through the noise of the city. Inside, a video of interviews with community choirs from New Zealand shows a parish priest talking about how buildings aren’t everything.

Olivia Webb’s Voices Project relocates a series of sound installations created for sites in Christchurch, New Zealand (where community spaces were devastated by the 2011 earthquake) to the deconstructed space of Trinity Apse. An aural monument, Voices Project is part of Edinburgh Art Festival’s recent commissions programme, ‘More Lasting Than Bronze’, which explores the manifold ways in which art, language and material monuments inhabit our towns and cities.

Trinity Apse is just one of the unusual and often unused buildings the artists have worked with – the apse was all that could be rebuilt with the remaining stones that were not damaged or missing, after the original medieval Trinity College Church was demolished to make room for Waverley Station.

Another commission is Roderick Buchanan’s video portrait Understanding versus Sympathy, housed in St Patrick’s Church, the centre of ‘Little Ireland’ in the Old Town. Here, Irish historian Owen Dudley Edwards talks on screen about Edinburgh-born James Connolly, a key figure in the 1916 Easter Rising. The camera switches between shots of his face, lips moving furiously and hands gesticulating. He is in full storytelling mode, barely drawing breath, but he slows his lightning fast prose to recite a few lines from W. B. Yeats’s poem ‘Easter, 1916’.

While Buchanan looks at how the past shapes the present, Sally Hackett’s The Fountain of Youth explores our forward-looking, youth-centric society. In the rear courtyard of the Museum of Edinburgh, Hackett’s bright blue fountain is double-edged, shot through with shards of glass. Around the tiers of the fountain are ceramics decorated by children from Tollcross Primary School, depicting images ranging from an alien (a vision of the future?) to a glowering figure proclaiming ‘I feel so much younger’.

Under New Street Rail Bridge, shadowy even on a sunny day, is Graham Fagen’s A Drama in Time. The five neon images, inspired by city planner Patrick Geddes’s idea that ‘a city is more than a place in space, it is a drama in time’, suggest both late nights and early mornings, with the two outer images showing the sun as it rises and sets. When I visited, the central image – a skeleton – had been vandalised and removed; the human link between the two ships of journeys, trade and new beginnings was just an empty space.

From there, at the top of Jacob’s Ladder on Regent Road, Bani Abidi’s Memorial to Lost Words makes use of a building that has fluctuated between identities for years, the Old Royal High School, or New Parliament House.

The space is filled with Punjabi folk songs sung by women, and a new song composed by poet Amarjit Chandan based on censored letters written by Indian soldiers during the First World War. Translations of both are available at lecterns in the middle of the room – at last a position of power, or at least visibility, for these largely unheard voices.

Across the road at the Burns monument, another building with a fragmented identity (having lost its Burns statue), Jonathan Owen has repurposed a 19th century statue of a nymph to create an unsettling hybrid, part classical sculpture and part futuristic cyborg.

The final stop is further out, docked in Leith – Ciara Phillips’s Every Woman. Forming part of the ‘Dazzle ship’ series commemorating the First World War (co-commissioned with 14-18 NOW and available to see into 2017), the dazzle ships make use of a trick that helped disguise a ship’s direction and speed in the war.

Phillips has ‘dazzled’ the MV Fingal with a striking design, as well as encoding it with the retro-reflective message ‘Every woman a signal tower’ to flag up both the ship’s former role delivering supplies to lighthouses and the multitude of women in work during the war.

Drawing inspiration from the Roman poet Horace, who proclaimed that his words would outlast more traditional bronze monuments, these seven commissions examine what knits communities together, using monuments that are often unused and inaccessible to the public. It is programmes like this (and Cupar Arts Festival) that open up the landscapes of our towns and cities, challenge old authority and inscribe new meaning.

Images: ‘Dazzle Ship’, Ciara Philps; ‘Untitled’, Jonathan Owen; ‘A Drama In Time’ (detail), Graham Fagen; ‘The Fountain of Youth’, Sally Hackett. Image Credit: Jenny Messenger