Issue 208
May/June 2019

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Jul 18, 2019

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Observations on Edinburgh's new Collectivised Observatory

Nick Jones climbs Calton Hill to visit the Observatory re-born and to take a crane's eye view of the city below

The Lookout Restaurant

I'M STANDING on a jewel in the crown of Edinburgh's multi-facetted avant garde art scene, trying not to slither off, or be dazzled.

This is Collective, on Calton Hill, a “new kind of city observatory, bringing people together to look at, think about and produce contemporary art”. Also here, lost in observation, bemused foreign tourists, absorbed in selfie-taking, seemingly unaware of and unimpressed by the glitterarti surrounding them.

They haven't got all day and nor, on this occasion, have I. Looking around for some unexpectedly meaningful cultural statement, I'm distracted by the blocky, jarring modernity of The Lookout Restaurant, an outpost of The Gardener's Cottage, an exclusive place to see and be seen eating small portions of pricey food.

I'm thinking of drinking a mochachino on the terrasse when I see it: a twisted cycle security cable, complete with combination lock, artfully draped over the outside table, securing the benches alongside. Very clever, mixing messages of welcome and comfort with threat and control.

A subtle reference to Trinity College Church, surely? Demolished in 1848 to make way for Waverley Station, each stone was carefully numbered, then carried up Calton Hill for temporary storage, prior to rebuilding elsewhere. Most of the stones were stolen by canny locals, to be embedded in the gracious buildings of the New Town. If only they had had better security!

Artennae twitching now, I head into The Hillside Gallery office, thinking it must be another exhibit, only to be re-directed to a darkened room, with nobody else. Here be moving images of cars, and sunlit Californian avenues. Just what I've ascended to escape, glorying in observing Edinburgh from on high. Stumbling outside to read more about Kimberley O'Neill's 'Enigma Bodytech', I realise I have completely missed the point, hostage to my short attention span, used to absorbing artworks quickly, with a time-limited slot, and a queue behind me.

Kimberley's work looks intriguing, exploring the origins of Silicon Valley, and how it has transformed modern life. She draws parallels between subtle physical energies of far-eastern mysticism, communication technology, and 1960s counter culture.

Next, to the City Dome. Here another dark space screens 'Workers!', by Petra Bauer, in association with Glasgow's SCOT-PEP, giving voice to sex-workers' professional pride, rights, and status.

Also here is Fiona Jardine's banner, in the Trade Union and Durham Miners Gala tradition. Eyes adjusted, I admire the brickwork inside the dome. In a time of ever shortening attention spans, with oh so little time to stop and stare, it feels odd being in a dark room looking in, on top of a great place for looking out. For thirty eight minutes. I long to be outside.

Next up is the City Observatory, housing a shop and a small display of original telescopes and associated equipment. There are leaflets about six Observers' Walks inspired by the history, geology, flora, fauna, contemporary and future uses and scenarios for Calton Hill, each with associated recordings.

It would take around three hours to walk them all. So, to do Collective's offer justice, and to respect the need to slow down and take your time to appreciate its programme, allow at least a day, preferably more.

I push on, past the neo-classical Playfair Monument, a lumpish, unispiring neo-Classical cornerpiece, a reminder that this was the 'Athens of the North'. More illusion, vanity and delusion. Placemaking is such a skill, and using the arts to complement and adapt old buildings usually works well. Not here.

Very good that the Observatory has been restored and given new life, with commissions inspired by the place. Good too that Collective contributes to the contemporary art scene, but insensitive not to recognise that Calton Hill and most of its visitors expect and deserve some content that is less outré , more inclusive, more accessible, and requiring less time to see, hear and absorb.

Placing the current programme centre stage in one of Edinburgh's tourist hotspots is a mismatch, like promoting Becket's Waiting for Godot as a popular musical, in a station waiting room, and wondering why everybody walks out before the interval. It's also a missed opportunity to attract those art lovers who, looking at Collective's programme, think twice about struggling up the hill, when there's plenty to see elsewhere.

Looking down on the giant cranes rebuilding the St James Centre, I imagine them stalking the city, picking up objects at will, like their avian namesakes.

Now they've lifted the octagonal rooflight off a building down beyond Broughton Street. Can it be....? It is! The Glasite Meeting House, aka the Kale Kirk, now the Ingleby Gallery. They're peering in. Of course! They're attracted to Charles Avery's extraordinary constructions, meticulously drawn for his 'Gates of Onomatopeia' exhibition.

Avery's imaginary island echoes the cityscape from Calton Hill. Not only that, the Ingleby Gallery has understood the subtleties of adapting an architectural gem, honouring the integrity of place to complement art.

This meeting house was built in 1834 for the Glasites, a breakaway from the Church of Scotland. Worshippers fortified themselves during lengthy services with regular bowls of kale soup, hence the nickname. No restaurant, but if there was, I can guess the specialité de la maison. 38 Calton Hill, EH7 5AA 33 Barony Street, EH3 6NX

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