Review of Marvin Gaye Chetwynd’s The King Must Die at Edinburgh Art Festival

London-based artist Marvin Gaye Chetwynd contributes to the Edinburgh Art Festival’s commissioning strand The Improbable City, with a hallucinatory possession of the world of historical novelist Mary Renault’s The King Must Die. Chetwynd’s project takes the form of a performative installation. Renault’s novel is entwined with themes from kitsch cinema adaptation and television serials: Jules Vernes’s Jouney to the Centre of the Earth, Star Trek, Children of the Stones, and Jerry Lewis’s The Nutty Professor, a parody of the Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It is a jamboree of references staged within a deserted debating chamber.

The space, with its resemblance to a law court, sits within the former Royal High School. Closed in 1968, it subsequently shifted operation to a temporary parliament. It is infrequently used. Its present day atmosphere is heavy with stale mouldy air and abandoned practices. The chamber has three sunken tiers, each seat has a microphone, and each voice is silenced, while three elevated chairs dominate – these are spaces for judges and legal representatives, speakers and parliamentarians. An upper viewing gallery allows the debates, with their rituals and procedures, to be observed. Higher still its ceiling is decorated with roses; throughout are flourishes of ornate wood and ironwork.

Chetwynd’s discordant and purposefully precarious installation opens on a papier-mâché laboratory for an impossible scientist. It is decorated with a loosely painted Periodic Table of chemical elements. Alongside it are hurried ink drawings of two chemical reactions or molecular models, one suggesting the synthesis of alcohol, perhaps the manufacture of moonshine? A table for dissections is decorated with zoomorphic legs. A whiteboard for mathematical equations has been erased. All the while a haunted house soundtrack fills the air: dead voices are spliced with samples of horror and science fiction film music.

The debating chamber’s high chair is the resting place for a giant monster faux fur horned judge. Meanwhile the court’s accused, an oversized turtle, awaits its verdict. Overhead mutant bleached white butterflies are captured by white tree branches. Flora and fauna are held together with taut tethered lines. Red glowing lamps are shone onto the assembled cast throwing spectrums of pink light and grey shadows across the room. The tiers are draped in lengths of white paper like flowing water. Here Chetwynd pays homage to Czech scenographer Josef Svoboda who sculpted his sets, with magical effect, in light, shade, projections and the power of the imagination. Meanwhile her awaiting inanimate costumes have a suggestion of statuary “tableau vivant” or “poses plastiques” dramas. She brings into her array other worlds of live performance and light entertainment from Happenings to Vaudeville.

Nothing much here takes itself seriously. The work has a make-do-and-mend appeal. It is a craft-making gathering, replete with an acceleration of cultural references stitched together with duct tape and poster paint aesthetics, proudly hoisting its Edinburgh Art Festival “Hello” flag in the domain of the amateur.

Alexander Hetherington

Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, The King Must Die, until 30 August, Edinburgh Art Festival, Regent Road, New Parliament House, Edinburgh, EH7 5BL.

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1. Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, Home Made Tasers, Studio 231, New Museum, New York , 26 October 2011 to 1 January 2012. Courtesy of the artist.