Please do touch: Franz West brings mischief to Inverleith House, Edinburgh

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

A major exhibition at the Edinburgh Festival features the collaborative ventures of the late Austrian artist Franz West. Visitors are encouraged to interact with the works and Adrian Hamilton joins in the fun

Franz West, who died a year ago, was the most loved and lovable of Austrian artists. Variously described as a prankster, a mischief-maker and a joker, he was above all engaging – engaging in his personality, engaging in the way that he sought in his art to make light of the consumerist society  his country had become and, most  urgently, engaging in the way that  he worked to attract the viewer to  interact with the sculptures and installations he created.

It’s only right therefore for Edinburgh’s ever adventurous Inverleith House to pay homage to him not with a survey of his works or a  retrospective  but with an exhibition of the collaborative ventures he  involved himself and others in through much of his career.

Good for Inverleith, a once gracious mansion set in the midst of the cultivated vistas of the Royal Botanic Garden. If conceptual art is to have any meaning, and Franz West was a leading light, it need not be stamped with the hand of a single author. Commercial galleries of course would have us believe otherwise but then their promotion of their own “artists” demands they do so.

West would have none of that. Although he was an artist of supreme individuality – even in his installations he kept firm control as primary instigator of the works – he didn’t see them as expressions of himself so much as living objects to fill the mind and the physical embrace of the public. The artist was the enabler not the owner. Collaboration with other artists was not simply acceptable but creative. Honoured with the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale in 2011, the year before his death, he produced an installation, Extroversion, in which he turned his Viennese kitchen inside out and showed the works of his artistic friends on the outside that was inside. It was playful but also supremely generous.

Certainly it is the pleasure principle which comes across most strongly in this seven-room show in Edinburgh where the young staff, unnervingly  entitled “invigilators”, eagerly  persuade the visitor that, yes, it’s  perfectly all right to touch this object or sit or lie on the divan to see the  picture suspended above. Indeed, you are positively encouraged to pick up one of his Passtücke’ (Adaptives) staffs with their amorphous papier mâché forms at their end, and twirl them around, march with them on your shoulder, attempt to dance with them or do any other silly thing you wish in the privacy of the cubicle of newspaper front pages he designed with Michelangelo Pistoletto.

Anselm Reyle and Franz West’s ‘Hans, Otto, White Wall’ (2011) Anselm Reyle and Franz West’s ‘Hans, Otto, White Wall’ (2011)

West’s collaborations were as  various as his friends. The list of  associates in this show reads like a roll call of the old as well as young protagonists of action art and multi-media  experiment. Pistoletto, now turned 80, is one of the senior figures of the Italian Arte Povera movement. Invited to provide a mirror for the Passtücke cabinet, he joined in with a raft ideas for using newspapers to line the walls as well as the mirror to reflect the viewer’s sense of themselves.

West’s work with the Austrian  cabinet-maker and furniture designer, Mathis Esterhazy is an intriguing and in some ways baffling assembly of  ordinary objects cast in metal with a video explanation by Esterhazy to  accompany it. Ealan’s Desire, as it is called includes rakes, sieves, a hurdle and hooded cover and a steel arc positioned at the corner of the walls. One of the objects, called Pis-Aller, which apparently inspired West to create the installation, was placed between buildings to discourage men from urinating in the corners. Gathered together the pieces are both familiar and, in their metallic force, unnerving. A rake, by being made in steel, appears like an instrument of aggression, a sieve transformed from wood to steel becomes constrictive, a hurdle made up of rods and bars is made into an obstacle  rather than a leap.

The exhibition works best where the installation fills out the room. A first gallery devoted to collaborative work with Anselm Reyle, the young German artist with whom West had a particularly close association, is decked out like a café, with the bright colours, the painted chairs, the chained light fixtures and the wall collages which West took up with especial enthusiasm  towards the end of his life. There is a sculpture made out of an old bicycle and bed springs, a light hanging seemingly held up rather than down by a chain and chairs painted as if they were made of laminated wood.

In another room, there is a collaboration with the Scottish artist Douglas Gordon, in which two of West’s favoured three-seater divans (three because the additional space adds an element of openness but also squeeze) face each other while a line of words based on, but upending, the song “Every time I Think of You” run along the walls. A  further section also shows off a group of some 15 white sculptures of mostly elongated form, each made by one of a group of artists West assembled for an installation he entitled Edelweiss with a group photograph of them all in alpine garb used as a poster.

A bare room arranged by West  with fellow Austrian, Heimo Zobernig, has lines of chairs facing a blank white box projecting out of the wall, an  object waiting to happen. On the pond below Inverleith House floats a raft, also a collaboration between the  two Austrians, with the words “Le Bateau” inscribed round its base in large white letters.

Down in the basement, Talk without Words, a joint exercise with the Viennese photo reporter and photographer, Marina Faust, records four people around a table batting with their heads a large woollen ball  between each other.

Sarah Lucas, another late collaborator who came to West’s attention for her sculptures fashioned out of chairs, is represented by a papier mâché rock with a fried egg on its top as well as a figure made out of lengths of pasta like tubes, called Spaghetti West. With his wife, the Georgian artist, Tamuna Sirbiladze, West made a wall-sized painting, Canale Grande of painted Molino, steel and plastic, with two plasticised chairs beneath.

‘Epiphanie’ (2011) by Anselm Reyle and Franz West ‘Epiphanie’ (2011) by Anselm Reyle and Franz West The British are not renowned for their sense of fun in art still less a  willingness to interact with works on display. “Don’t touch the objects” is  ingrained in all of this. But if the  visitors I saw seemed hesitant at first, by the time they got to the top floor there was at least the odd smile and a nervous effort to participate.

What makes the work of West and his collaborators so attractive is not just the ideas, witty as some of them are. However many variations you can make of a chair, there comes a point where the fun is had by the artists thinking it up rather than the viewer regarding the furniture. Where West scored, however, was in his feel for  texture and his passionate belief in art as an object, albeit a playful one.

The son of a coal dealer and a Jewish dentist, brought up in a social housing development in Vienna, he never joined the Actionism and Expressionist movements around him. His real  influence was far more the Arte Povera movement in Italy, with its concern for found and ordinary materials and its sense of engagement with the viewer. “It doesn’t matter what the art looks like,” he argued, “but how it is used.”

The Inverleith hasn’t got the giant, writhing sculptures he made with papier mâché and ordinary materials which are perhaps his finest and most characteristic works. Organic in shape, twisted in structure and immensely tactile in feel, they intrigue, challenge and cheer all at once. What Edinburgh has instead are the things he made with others in a spirit of creative fun which we can share. An exhibition to go to with an open mind and a twinkle in your eye.

Mostly West: Franz West and Artistic Collaborations, Inverleith House, Edinburgh (0131) 552 7171)  to 22 September

News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
    How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

    How to find gold

    Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
    Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

    Not born in the USA

    Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
    10 best balsamic vinegars

    10 best balsamic vinegars

    Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'