Summerhall’s origins as a place of scientific learning spills over into its approach to art, with a genuine appreciation of the experimental
“I want it,” says Paul Robertson, as he leads the way out of a former veterinary laboratory where a challenging video installation narrated by the late Richard Briers is playing, “to be like a German Kunsthalle. That’s the model. In my mind.”
Summerhall, the sprawling arts complex where Paul is a curator, is all that and more. The former Royal Dick School of Veterinary Studies, known to everyone as the Dick Vet, is a vast Gormenghast of the avant garde with many of its mammal hooks, fume hoods and laboratory benches still intact. Bought by eccentric Edinburgh millionaire Robert McDowell when Edinburgh University was upgrading its vet school to something a little more 21st-century, it launched in 2011 as a Fringe venue. Following a triumphant 2012 Festival it has remained open, a beacon of bonkersness on the south-eastern edge of the Meadows.
“The architecture here isn’t a standard white cube. There is only one room we can say is a typical gallery space”The two-acre site includes a Brutalist tower block, an elegant neo-Baroque college with its original wooden lecture theatres, a horseshoe-shaped church and a courtyard with wi-fi which, come August, is full of Polish performance artists and women in unusual hats. As well as visual art, which is Paul’s remit, it is used for theatre, music and cabaret performances, poetry and fashion shows. There are paying tenants, including a giclée printer. Richard Demarco’s archives live in the building. A café doubles as the staff canteen and meeting room while the Dissection Bar opens at 12 noon for those artists – there are also dozens of studios dotted around the property – going through their Toulouse-Lautrec phase.
Having a building on this scale (no one is quite sure how many rooms it has – with the tower block included, Paul estimates it at 520) allows plenty of curatorial leeway. “The architecture here isn’t a standard white cube,” he says. “There is only one room we can say is a typical gallery space.
“We’re very aware of the architecture when we decide what we’re putting in. It’s not site-specific work. We sometimes play against type, putting a very modernist piece in a room that’s full of veneered wall panels. In another space, we may put something very ornate on a laboratory bench.”
Paul mixes up newcomers with established contemporary artists as well as plundering his own collection and contacts to present an eclectic and enormous programme. There have been 70 shows since August. At the moment there are 14 different video and sound installations in the building, from Karen and Patrick Lauke’s deeply creepy racket in a dark basement to Rachel Maclean’s post-MTV video, Lolcats, in part of the old church. That’s just one themed strand; the white cube space is currently dedicated to The Beautiful Book, Jack Smith’s influential text. Next door to the metal screechings are Graham Miller’s photographs of children with Down’s syndrome.
Upstairs, in a large former laboratory, Paul and the inhouse team have built vitrines on top of the lab benches. On display inside are 400 choice items from the curator’s own collection – he is also a dealer and compulsive buyer of prints, sculptures, special-edition beer bottles, catalogues, surrealist tracts, letters and art ephemera.
This is just a taster, you can browse the full article with more stunning photography on pages 145-148, issue 89.
Words Anna Burnside
Photography Peter Dibdin