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Art under the stars: Collective at the City Observatory

ByReuben Fox McClure

Feb 15, 2019

Atop the beloved Calton Hill sits the newly restored City Observatory, new home to Collective, an Edinburgh-based arts group committed to supporting contemporary work by artists who are at a pivotal stage in their development.

The walled hilltop site once housed pioneering Enlightenment astronomers who fulfilled the vital role of timekeeping for the city by observing the transit of stars across the night sky. However, after the Astronomical Institution moved to Blackford Hill in 1896, cash-strapped amateur stargazers allowed the observatory to fall perpetually deeper into disrepair, its roof’s lead stolen and its interiors eaten by rot.

Although the telescope still remains, it is the arts not the stars that now draw footsteps beyond the quadrangle’s walls. Through extensive renovation, the revitalised complex boasts two exhibition spaces, a library, a restaurant and a space for learning, linked together through pleasing modern landscaping and undulating paths dotted with geometrical sculptural seating.

Collective features two dedicated gallery spaces, both of domestic scale. The Hillside, sleek, modern and nestled under the Observatory is currently closed whilst its first exhibition is installed. The City Dome, perched on the north-east corner of the complex, is a pleasant bricked rotunda which presently hosts [when spirituality was a baby], an installation by Dineo Seshee Bopape. The piece, an opening commission by Collective to draw on the site’s rich history, discusses notions of cosmology, astrology and spirituality through an immersive arrangement of earthly materials of clay, feathers, liquid and string. The viewer is placed in the midst of a terrestrial constellation, an exploration of humanity’s pining devotion to wrestling with the stars.

At present, the site as a whole feels a little insubstantive. The centrepiece, the charming neo-classical City Observatory, houses not much more than its astronomical relics and a library disappointingly scant of books that sits in almost insulting contrast to a presumptively well-stocked gift shop. Don’t expect a scenic latte either: the site restaurant’s hill-top views have sky-high prices to match.

The art that lies ahead, however, looks hopeful. Collective, established in 1984, previously occupied a gallery in New Town and has hosted an eclectic range of artists across a variety of mediums. The not-for-profit organisation aims to facilitate rather than dictate those artists it supports, cultivating a dynamic community of emerging creatives who work and live locally. “People expect the National Galleries” says director Kate Gray, “[but] that’s really not who we are.” Although a little empty right now, Collective’s spirited ethos paired with its enjoyable new site and iconic positioning set it in good stead to shine alongside the brightest of Edinburgh’s gallery circuit.


Image: Carlos Finlay

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