Edinburgh Art Festival: Young female artists are leading the pack

A gallery turned upside-down and half a million plastic cups are among the highlights

Now in its 12th year, the Edinburgh Art Festival is the youngest of Edinburgh's festivals, but it has grown in stature to become the largest visual arts festival in Great Britain. Work by more than 100 artists is spread across 30 venues, and it had 300,000 visitors last year. The current director, Sorcha Carey,was appointed five years ago, and it now has an ambitious commissioning programme.

There is always something to discover amid the cacophony of shows, and this year is no exception. My finds include young artists Emma Finn, Samara Scott and Fabienne Hess, who are all on the verge of being discovered by a wider audience. Jupiter Art Land was established seven years ago by passionate collectors Robert and Nicky Wilson. Their love for the land surrounding their home has seen them acquire permanent outdoor works for the park, as well as staging temporary exhibitions in tandem with the festival. This year, they bring New York-based Tara Donovan and London-based Scott to sit alongside their new permanent commission, from Glaswegian Sara Barker.

Donovan is well known in America for her large, site-specific installations. This set of three pieces is a good introduction to the artist's practice, in which she explores materials that are uncommon for traditional sculptors. I met her briefly as she was installing and she told me that her first works involved toothpicks.

Like other conceptual artists, she sets herself rules, choosing not to use glue when assembling her works. It is a rule that she broke only when she started composing a set of works entirely made out of Elmer's glue, similar to the white PVA gloop used in British primary schools. She also eschews the "baggage" of colour, choosing instead materials that respond to light with their reflective and translucent properties.

Donovan achieves her scale from repetition, created with the help of a team of loyal assistants. Untitled (Plastic Cups), 2006, in the recently completed and grandly appointed ballroom, is made up of more than 600,000 plastic cups. Nothing quite prepares the viewer for the impact of entering this voluminous space with its carpet of sculpted (but not glued) cups producing a magical landscape. Light and shadow emerge from the way they "crest" at different heights, the floor creating shadows through the lower stacks. The effect is a minimalist work made from a maximum amount of simple materials.

Samara Scott, also at Jupiter, is a young artist who works without assistants. Her installation is composed of collaged, cut and hand-painted industrial carpeting, with her trademark combination of images. The mash-up of Morandi, Ernst Kirchner, Munch and fashion advertising is clear when I view the yet-to-be-finished installation, which promises to amuse and confuse the viewers who ascend to the claustrophobic, padded space.

In the grounds, Sara Barker's Separation in the Evening (a celestial blossom in front of the yellow house) is the latest to join the roster of permanent works by international and Scottish artists in the grounds, including Anish Kapoor, Antony Gormley, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Nathan Coley and Marc Quinn. This graceful yet powerful sculpture, beautifully and unashamedly feminine, reflects Barker's painting roots – she trained as a painter at Glasgow School of Art. With the inclusion of "proper sculptural" materials such as steel and automotive pieces, Barker's work is a worthy addition to the increasing list of outdoor works.

Across the city, Hanne Darboven: Accepting Anything Among Everything, at the Talbot Rice Gallery, is the first Scottish exhibition for this enigmatic German artist, who died in 2009. It is drawn largely from the large series of work she made – classified as a single piece – Life/ Living, based on her systematic representation of the years 1900 to 1999. It incorporates musical scores and a form of mechanical repetitious mark-making, that attempts to capture time. There is a meditative quality about this installation, but also a disturbing quality displaying an obsessive compulsive disorder. The sense that it is the work that kept the artist sane is palpable to the viewer.

Shown alongside Darboven is a small show, Hits and Misses (from the Archive) by the Swiss artist Fabienne Hess. She was invited as an emerging artist to be placed next to the veteran; it is a serendipitous juxtaposition. Over the past few years, Hess has obsessively downloaded the 25,000 odd images in the University of Edinburgh archive, which are being digitised. She then transformed them into a visual record, having them woven in sumptuous silk, the edges left fraying to show the disintegration of the archive. Like the work of Scott at Jupiter Artland, it's an attempt to make sense of the cacophony of images that assault our contemporary lives in very different ways.

Emma Finn, a promising young Irish artist, was commissioned by the festival to make a new video work to be shown in a vacant unit inside the St James Centre, a brutalist concrete structure and former shopping mall that is due to be demolished. I love the idea of innocent shoppers coming upon this modest yet wondrous work.

Her film, Double Mountain, is a montage of characters drawn from a wide variety of influences. Finn claims that the characters emerge from the drawings she makes. It is the mountains and the fossils speaking, she explains, and if that sounds strange it is a reflection of the work's surreal, puzzling but often funny quality. Simply made, with small details making a large impact, it is reminiscent of the early work of Nathalie Djurberg.

Over at the Fruitmarket Gallery is Phyllida Barlow: Set, an exhibition that occupies the entire building, creeping into the café and bookshop. Barlow's "brief to self" was to turn the gallery upside down. Barlow, born in Newcastle in 1948, is having an upside-down career. Having taught for more than 40 years, she joined a large, international gallery and has had a series of larger and larger shows in more and more prestigious places. Almost blockading off the upper gallery, she allows the struggles of paint and installation to remain on the walls, creating a claustrophobic, cave-like installation. Barlow's obsession with her choice of constituents – cardboard, extruded foam and board – continues in the downstairs gallery, with a parade of richly coloured, sculptural objects.

There is no coincidence that the artists I have chosen to focus on are all women. Much of the great work being done today is by women, and Sorcha Carey repeats the mantra that women are making some of the most interesting art around. It is this engagement with materials, whether digital or physical, that unites these artists, and it is the way that they manipulate material in a deeply personal way that makes the works rewarding. Give me a Phyllida Barlow over a Jeff Koons any day.

The Edinburgh Art Festival continues until 30 August at various venues (www.edinburghartfestival.com)

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