A Saunter through Summerhall

Buildings loom over us and persist beyond us. They have the perfect memory of materiality

Longevity has no chance without a serious structure

Stewart Brand – How Buildings Learn

We finally got the chance to have a good investigative wander around the Summerhall building.  Just in time before the Edinburgh Art Festival exhibitions close.

Summerhall is the old Dick Vet building (The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies of the University of Edinburgh) which has now been transformed into what must be one of the most unique art and performance spaces in the UK. (Europe/World/Cosmos?).

A previous visit was during the full-on party atmosphere of the Edinburgh Festival.  Archie Shepp was performing in the Dissection Room, blowing his fire music and détourning jazz standards for the animal spirits. Quite a contrast to a September Saturday when you could wander through the building and its environs and rarely encounter another soul. With over 500 rooms, located over three floors, a basement and outbuildings, wandering the footprint of Summerhall is more like exploring a Borgesian labyrinth where encounters and exhibits are chanced upon and randomly discovered. Quite unlike the mapped-out, directional flow of the conventional gallery experience. Even spending most of the day at Summerhall, we still didn’t ‘find’ everything that was here – around thirty discrete exhibitions that are incorporated into the existing fabric of the  building.

And what a building. Whispering from the walls and corridors, you can sense the stories and sounds that are soaked into this space.  Stories not only of the human, but also the animals who have inhabited and passed through here: the corridors, the stables, the animal hospital, the dissection rooms…

Above the Entrance to 7x7th Street

First exhibition stop is the, rather playful, outdoor installation 7×7 by Jean Pierre Muller in collaboration with seven musicians: Robert Wyatt, Archie Shepp, Sean O’Hagan, Mulatu Astatke, Kassin, Nile Rodgers and Terry Riley. Muller and his stellar band of sonic explorers have created 7x7th Street consisting of seven wooden huts linked to a letter, a colour of the rainbow, a day of the week, a chakra, and a specific place. Riffing on these associations, each musician has then created an interactive sound sculpture tapping into their own diverse personal histories to create “new connections of knowledge, meaning and poetry”.

Robert Wyatt’s hut is ‘A’ for the Alhambra, the Red Palace. Monday, the first day of the week, so the day of the Moon.

Robert Wyatt 7×7

Inside Wyatt’s Alhambra, everything is under the influence of Clair de Lune.  Audrey Hepburn strums a guitar and sings Moon River, Louis Hardin, aka Moondog, keeps watch over the lunar rockets and Neil Armstrong prepares for take-off.

Robert Wyatt 7×7 Interior

Archie Shepp’s hut is ‘B’ for the Blues and the B-line to Brooklyn. The colour of orange sits well with Tuesday, the day of Mars.

Archie Shepp 7×7

Archie Shepp 7×7 Interior detail

Perhaps our favourite is Terry Riley’s ‘G’ for Galaxies, the colour violet and seventh day of the week, Sunday, day of the Sun. A hut of the Cosmos, the domain of The Sun King,

Terry Riley 7×7

Terry Riley 7×7 Interior detail

What is noticeable in Terry Riley’s interior panel is a much reduced number of visual elements.  Instead, symbols and motifs are treated to repetition, distortion, diffraction and linked up through connecting space. Much like Riley’s music!

A few pictures from the other huts:

Kassin – 7×7 Interior detail

Nile Rodgers 7×7 Interior detail

Sean O’Hagan 7×7 Interior detail

Mulatu Astatke 7×7

Robert Wyatt 7×7 Exterior

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After the jaunty, neo-pop art of 7x7th Street, a sharper contrast could not be made visiting the Old Stables. Tucked in behind Robert Wyatt’s hut, this is the scene of Robert Kuśmirowski’s installation Pain Thing. There is a palpable change in atmosphere as you enter the building from the street.  The colours of 7×7 Street leach out of the retina and fade to dirty cream and grey. Flecks of what looks like dried blood stain the floor and an oppressive air starts to envelop and smother.  When we arrive in the main room – an asthmatic room – it feels like we are witnessing the aftermath of some post-apocalyptic scene. An animal experimentation zone where something has gone horribly wrong. The paraphernalia and apparatus of the medical research establishment lies around, test tubes, bell jars, pumps and instruments, some scattered on the floor. The torso of a unidentified creature lies on a hospital style trolley, limbs severed, bone sliced through:

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This is not a place we wish to linger.

Inside Summerhall, the building retains its institutional air. Long corridors, unmarked closed doors, stairwells and the cell like structures of the basement. Signage still indicates past functions: The Post-Mortem Room, The Demonstration Room, The Anatomy Lecture Theatre.  It is a great place to simply wander around, listening out for whispered narratives layered into stone, wood and glass. The fabric of the building is also used to good effect. The original laboratory benches are used for display purposes and basement cells exude a sinister ambience. One room hosts what looks like some restraining, torture chair and in another a dark sticky ooze spreads on the floor, apparently the residue from some long decomposed water melons.

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Chance discovered highlights include stumbling into Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Fewer Laws, More Examples which examines Finlay’s response to and fascination with The French Revolution. An ambivalent mash-up of principle and virtue, but also fear and terror. Robin Gillanders’s The Philosopher’s Garden Redux portrays ten photographs taken in the Parc Jean-Jacques Rousseau at Emenonville where Rousseau spent the last years of his life. Each photograph represents one of the ten walks of Rousseau’s last (uncompleted) book Les Reveries du Promeneneur Solitaire (1782).

“These hours of solitude and meditation are the only time of the day when I am completely myself”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The Richard Demarco Archives host a treasure trove of photographs and posters and are a wonderful tribute to Demarco’s visionary approach to curating art. There are legendary documented events featuring Joseph Beuys, Marina Abramovich and Tadeusz Kantor and Scottish artists such as George Wyllie and Jimmy Boyle. There is also a reminder that Demarco would take his productions over to Fife with photographs of Valery Anisenko’s production of Macbeth at Ravenscraig Castle, Kirkcaldy in 1996. A hand scribbled NB reads:

“MacDuff was the Thane of Fife. His Castle lies 8 miles down the Coast”

which indeed it still does at East Wemyss. Now a ruin, the site is associated with the MacDuff Earls of Fife, the most powerful family in Fife in the Middle Ages.

Venus with Severed Leg is a collection of photographs by William English documenting the early days of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s ‘ Sex’ shop. The crucible for the birth of The Sex Pistols and Westwood’s influential punk stylings.

Venus-With-Severed-Leg (c) Summerhall

Phenotype Genotype (PhG)  is a collection of documents, artists books, object multiples catalogues and other ephemera from 1900 to the present day.  Displayed on the original  college laboratory benches, it is perhaps a bit strange and even disconcerting to see Debord’s La Société du spectacle and Patti Smith pinbutton badges, displayed like museum exhibits, encased behind glass.

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Also in the same room, painted directly on to the wall is The Periodic Table of Art. Executed with a certain touch of humour and perhaps also playing upon what appears to be a fundamental human need to catalogue, and document almost anything into a ‘meaningful’ taxonomy.

The Periodic Table of Art (Extract)

The Periodic Table of Art (Extract)

Michaelek-After-Muybridge (c) Summerhall

The absolute standout piece, however, is David Michalek’s Figure Studies and Slow Dancing.  An utterly mesmerising, beautiful and thought-provoking  3-screen film installation inspired by the pioneering photography of Eadweard Muybridge.  Michalek works with choreographers, dancers, actors and people from the streets of New York and has filmed them, unclothed, performing various 5 second human ‘actions’ in extreme high-resolution. These 5-second actions are then played back over a period of 7 minutes with every nuance of movement captured on the human body over this elongated time frame. The rich diversity of human form is portrayed across age, gender, ethic diversity, shape and size.  It also raises the question of whether ‘class’ is written on the unclothed body. This is a work that not only enriches and enthralls but helps you to see the world afresh outside of clock time. The work is further enhanced by the (uncredited) soundtrack which is used to great effect to compliment the images. The unmistakable slow breathing of Morton Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet.

Just before closing, we are trying to find our way out when we turn a corner and find ourselves facing the iconic image of Joseph Beuys. It is as if he is walking towards us, puposefully, the reflecting light creating a halo around him. As we leave, it is good to know that the spirit of Joseph Beuys is patrolling the corridors of Summerhall. We wonder if the vets ever treated a Coyote?

Beuys Halo – Summerhall

Now Playing: Terry Riley – Descending Moonshine Dervishes

About fifepsychogeography

Wandererings in liminal space
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6 Responses to A Saunter through Summerhall

  1. dianajhale says:

    Amazing collection of artworks, ripe with cultural references, and some of them sounding as though they were responding to the setting. I have never heard of this building in spite of my many visits to Edinburgh over the years and in fact have not read anything about the exhibition either. I love the soundscape huts although not too sure about the paintings – unless I think of them as sophisticated graffiti! Robert Wyatt, Demarco and Beuys are old favourites. Thanks for the review!

  2. Jean McEwan says:

    Looks like a day of riches. I would have loved to have seen 7 x 7 but your words and images capture it really I kind of feel like I have! The Michalek work looks stunning. I will check him out. Thanks!

  3. Pingback: J.P.Muller-7×7-Online review of the Summerhall Aug-Sept art exhibitions | Printmaking

  4. Fantastic exhibition of artworks, and intriguing that 7x7Street is associated with some of my musical heroes too – Robert Wyatt, Mulatu Astatke, Archie Shepp. I would have loved to witness the latter playing in the dissection room.

    • Thanks Laurence. Yes it was a real privilege to see Archie Shepp play. Robert Wyatt and Alfie Benge were also in the audience. Shepp played the song Memories (Hugh Hopper/Soft Machine) that Robert also recorded solo. Shepp told the story of playing this song on a session for Bill Laswell’s Material which featured a young, up and coming singer named Whitney Houston!

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