If one measure of a successful art installation is the degree to which it elicits a response, then Cat Madden's Mind-Wandering Corridor
is a triumph. Rather than something created by the artist, however, a sign written by a staff member gets the most attention. This is hung in the corner over an exhibit 'a book for those who are easily bored'. The sign explains that the piece of furniture on which it rests 'is not a table for empty drinks cups! It is one of our beautiful artworks!' This elicited chuckles and bursts of laughter ('what's so funny?' asked one child) as well as puzzled expressions.
is a work of collage displayed in one of the many liminal spaces in the (Old) Royal High School, home to the Hidden Door Festival this year. Hidden Door specialises in finding 'forgotten spaces' for art. As well as visual art, Hidden Door features music, theatre, dance and spoken word. After taking place in a single space last year (at Granton Gasworks), this year they have taken over a much larger, labyrinthine space which has been mothballed for many decades – a source of much controversy. The people roaming around this corridor near the West Terrace seemed unsure of where they were heading. Was it the way to the bar or had they reached a dead end? The location and piece are imbued with uncertainty.
is emblematic of the dozens of exhibits in Hidden Door, which makes use of every corner of the building, including the slightly mysterious 'Building 5'. Madden's piece plays on an old trope regarding some modern and contemporary art; the idea that a child could have created it. The work is displayed almost casually, as if it were on a classroom wall. With a stiff breeze flowing through the corridor, it indeed has the feel of an abandoned school (images of Pripyat are brought to mind). A number of the fragments flap about in the wind, while visitors, their thoughts wandering, carelessly brush into some of them.
The pieces are not carefully labelled; the titles are instead 'artlessly' scrawled on the walls, as if giving directions to a decorator. The whole feeling and aesthetic is of haphazard playfulness – daring the viewer to dismiss the collages as disposable and trivial. One collage, Spot the difference
, is game-like. The artist explains that her work incorporates studio leftovers and misfits on a serendipitous basis. This work combines collage, printmaking, drawing and painting. Underlying the pieces are themes of waste, recycling and reuse.
Madden's piece feels like a collection of early, rejected drafts. In many art forms, the early sketches and demos can be intriguing and often offer a purer vision than the polished final piece. Many music critics are salivating at the upcoming release of Lou Reed's earliest Velvet Underground demos. This 'unfinished' aspect encapsulates a theme of Hidden Door. Namely, finding creative ways to reimagine places, such as the Royal High School, which have, for too long, been neglected and undervalued.
One of the key features of this year's Hidden Door is the Pianodrome. This small amphitheatre and performance space is built from parts of old pianos, now surplus to requirements. As a venue, the Pianodrome is characterful, the seasoned wood allowing the sound to reverberate naturally. An intimate setting is created by the proximity to the performers. A fantastic use of redundant objects. Most of the festival's musical performances will be held in the Pianodrome and the Indoor Music Stage, although some will be held in a hidden basement area.
The real star of Hidden Door is undoubtedly the Royal High School building. Considered by the architectural historian Keith Rutter to be 'the defining Scottish Greek Revival Monument', its original inspiration was the Temple of Hephaestus (and the Propylaea) in Athens. It gives Calton Hill, with its assembly of varied monuments, a unity and coherence. Originally conceived as a Scottish temple devoted to democracy and learning, with a commanding position in the city. Its glory is faded but unceasing. Hidden Door hopefully presages a reawakening.
With the exception of its elegant Debating Chamber, the building looks dishevelled. Thankfully, some of the serious structural issues have been addressed. Many walls are bare and even the decorated areas are full of peeling paint. Floor coverings, where they exist, are threadbare. Clearing the area around the entrance gates took many weeks, and debris is still lying around.
For an arts festival like Hidden Door, where every ragged corner can be used creatively, it is ideal. It's certainly very different from the carefully curated and dignified art spaces such as the National Galleries. If it is to become a fully functioning music school, the Royal High School will need a lot of work. Hidden Door has helped demonstrate the building's potential as part of an enriched public domain. Hopefully, after decades of disuse, this will be realised in the years to come.
Hidden Door Festival 2022 continues until 18 June at the Old Royal High School, Edinburgh.
Charlie Ellis is a researcher and EFL teacher based in Edinburgh