Art used to be a clear-cut construct; it was oil paintings in gilt frames and marble statues, selling in auction houses and galleries for the price of a small mortgage.
But art has taken a step away from the traditional. Artists are experimenting with new mediums and themes in their work. They reinvent old techniques like photography or sculpture in order to say something new about our society. But are alternative art forms gaining the recognition they deserve? And how does Edinburgh embrace this new form of culture?
Tania Kovats is a sculptural artist who works primarily in non-traditional landscapes. She uncovers patterns and movements from the natural world in an abstract way, and believes that the role of modern art is to “be apart from everything else, and hold its own status or space that takes you out of what is familiar.”
Her most recent exhibition was held in the Fruitmarket Gallery and was a conceptual piece about the oceans of the world – it incorporated bottles of seawater that people sent her from all over the globe. She has also previously exhibited in the Natural History Museum in London. Tania says that Edinburgh is a uniquely inspiring place for contemporary artists to work. “Edinburgh is an important cultural city that is interestingly self-reflective, seems to think deeply about what it is, where it’s come from and where it is heading. Not many cities have such an interesting conversation going on about its own identity.”
Samantha Jack, a textiles artist and gallery curator, sees contemporary art as a way to handle and promote discussion of social issues. “There’s less of a focus on the ‘gallery setting’ and more of a focus on opinion, public setting and politics.”
Art has always been used as a means to give a voice to those who lack one, and Sam’s views on how alternative art can influence change are apparent through the community art shows she has curated. She is optimistic at how new art forms will continue to develop and earn regard in Edinburgh; “I think there is potential for an even stronger community element to the scene.”
Robyn Myna is a photographer and sculptor living and working in Edinburgh. Her work challenges the idea of sex and gender, and explores the role of the internet in the modern world. Contemporary art is often used to examine the parts of life that are seen as taboo; it acts as a distorted funhouse mirror with which we can take a rare, honest look at ourselves and the human condition as a whole.
Like Samantha, Robyn sees alternative art as a new form of activism, and agrees that it is gaining respect from more traditional sectors. “The first ever digital art auction recently took place in New York. I think that’s symbolic of the shift towards more recognition and respect of modern art practices.”
As alternative art spreads out from the cultural epicentres of New York, London and Paris, it gains more legitimacy and becomes an accepted form of expression. The Turner Prize – one of the most prestigious art events in the calendar – focuses mainly on conceptual work. It was most recently hosted in Derry/Londonderry in Northern Ireland; the first time it has left England since it began in 1984. Alternative art is beginning to travel and this will not only help artists gain recognition – it will also inspire others to start their own work.
Edinburgh has art running through the veins of its streets; there will always be the need for new blood. There is certainly no shortage of talented candidates working, living, and exhibiting in the city today.
Although artists are challenging the boundaries of traditional media, the overriding themes of their work remain the same. Sex, death, politics and nature have been fundamental motifs in art since the first cavemen dabbed images of their kill on stone walls. Just because art can now be created on a computer or using bottles of water, it does not mean that it has become more removed from us. With alternative art gaining a footing in galleries and grassroots organisations alike, we venture into new territory – one where nothing is off limits.
Modern art – Edinburgh’s highlights
The National Gallery of Modern Art is a favourite, displaying works by Tracey Emin and Andy Warhol.
Pop into the Fruitmarket Gallery next to Waverley Station – home to a wide variety of modern art pieces.
To step off the beaten track, try the Collective Gallery (Cockburn Street) which displays work by emerging Scottish contemporary artists.
Also on Cockburn Street is Edinburgh’s first gallery dedicated entirely to photography, Stills.
Article reproduced here was published in print by Impulse Magazine (2014)