Art Walk Porty, Portobello: Land Marks – Alec Finlay, Jenny Cope

Alec Finlay: Minor Walk Manifesto, detail

Art Walk Porty runs until 15th September

Artist-led, and volunteer-run, the Art Walk Porty project gathers local artists and audiences to examine, mark and enjoy Portobello’s public spaces and creative community. Based around a ‘walk’ lasting up to eight days, the project ranges from open art-houses, films and markets, to two-year residencies and commissions. For visitors, it’s as much about engagement as visiting exhibited works, encouraging audiences to interact with the artists and their works through learning, discussing and participating. Its central series of events, Land Mark, is a far-reaching set of public commissions, residencies and resultant works that examine the shifting landscape, communities and work, and the relationships between these.

Although it piloted as recently as 2015, such is the scale of this year’s Art Walk Porty that there is much to see every day, and its hierarchy is complex: Alec Finlay‘s piece The Minor Walk Manifesto is part of the Footprints series of walking and cycling-related projects, involving some exploratory activity, that in turn forms one of the components comprising Land Mark, all focused within the town of Portobello and its seaside, as distinct from Edinburgh and its surroundings.

ArtMag spent time walking along Portobello’s seafront and esplanade, along the western portion of which you can see, flapping in the breeze, the vivid windsock-like sculptures of Jenny Pope’s Material Land project, affixed to the lampposts around the Figgate Burn and the disused kilns – the centre of Portobello’s heavy and dangerous industry in the early 1800’s, with dreadful and toxic working conditions at a time when the safety of employees,  and the enforcement of legislation protecting them, were very poor. Recalling maritime flags, they are a bright and colourful reminder of a paradoxically dark past, in that the pigments produced – Prussian blues, blood reds, mustard and white lead – all resulted in deaths and chronic illness to both workers and locals, through pollution, poisoning, and dust. As much a history and science undertaking as an art project, the sculptures indicate the direction of the wind, which, two hundred years ago carried deadly toxins, and the parallels with modern-day airborne environmental threats are made clear.

Jenny Cope: Material Land
Jenny Cope: Material Land, sculpture affixed to lampposts near Figgate Burn, Portobello esplananade

 

Son of famous sculptor Iain Hamilton-Finlay, Alec Finlay is a thoughtful and engaging artist, who for his project Minor Walk Manifesto has examined the largely-unexamined ‘minor walk’ and how it is defined: short distances which generally are walked not ‘for going on a walk’, but for unheroic everyday purposes such as shopping or visiting. But for many, the minor walk is the extent of their walking ability – those with mobility limitations, the very young, the very old, the infirm. Can their walks be given significance, marked or enhanced in some way, and their meaning or uses extended?

As an individual struggling with ME, he has focussed on allowing access to rural estates for people affected by disability. In his exhibition, housed in the Travelling Gallery bus parked on Portobello’s High Street, he champions the Day of Access campaign, that aims to have an annual day when estates open their land to people with disabilities, who will have the rare means to appreciate the outdoors and its landscapes. As an artist and writer, he believes in the power of ideas and creativity to effect change for good, and that working imaginatively within accepted constraints hold the key to a vigorous and distinctive response to illness, and the display largely comprises pages from books about walking, illness, healing and exploring, overwritten with Finlay’s maxims and short-form wordplay – some of it forming the Manifesto – and pinned to a garden trellis. The rear of the bus housed a bed-like space, with sound coming from the blankets and pillows – a collaboration with Rachel Smith, a dancer who has written dance movements for the bed-bound; the blankets resemble a landscape, echoing Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Land of the Counterpane, whose bedding became an imaginative landscape when ill as a child. It’s this opening-up of imaginative possibilities that interests Finlay.

Alex Finlay: Minor Walk Manifesto, detail
Alex Finlay: Minor Walk Manifesto, detail

 

Alex Finlay: Minor Walk Manifesto, detail
Alec Finlay: Minor Walk Manifesto, detail

 

After reading and discussing the Manifesto, the assembled audience was invited to take their own Minor Walk along the High Street to Portobello Bookshop, and to make it personal in some way. With plenty of time allowed, I decided to photograph the semi-circles I encountered, but disappointingly was the only individual who had anything to say about their walk when we assembled at the Bookshop for a discussion lead by Finlay, with the German-Scottish artist Claudia Zeiske. Finlay’s thoughts were stimulating: an interesting idea was his proxy-walks, in which, he explained, a volunteer would walk on behalf of someone house-bound, who will give them instructions as to where to go. Both the walker and non-walker would record in writing their ‘observations’ and thoughts about the route covered – actual, imagined or remembered – and exchange these in a discussion on their return, rooted in the loving desire to give, and thus completing a piece of art.

Two strong threads became apparent here, which many find strange to think of as art: the idea of a piece of art being a sequence of events set in motion under the most basic instructions by the artist, with scant but key parameters with the idea that whatever happens, this can only be a positive and enriching journey, however minor, for all involved. Secondly that Finlay clearly believes in the artist’s manifesto as a vehicle for turning notions and ideas into progressive action – itself an ancient and enduring idea in art and society.

Outside Portobello Town Hall
High Street, Portobello
EH15 1AF

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