Below the Blanket

Jul 28 2019 | By More

★★★★☆    Twilit contemplation

RGBE: Wed 24 July – Sun 25 Aug 2019
Review by Thom Dibdin

What’s not to love about wandering through the Botanics at twilight? Always a great place to escape the bustle of city life, it becomes even more so if you visit after the gates have officially shut.

Cryptic, the Glasgow-based arts organisation which brings a sense of theatre to its presentation of modern music and contemporary sculpture, buys straight into the idea in Below the Blanket, an after-hours walk curated and directed by Cathie Boyd, taking in ten works of sonic and sculptural art along its marked-out route.

The view from Flow Country by Malcolm Lindsay. Pic Thom Dibdin

Wandering through the Scottish heath garden, behind the rock garden, through the upper woodland garden down past the Magnolia walk, then up the hill to the Rhododendrons and back to the East Gate via the Queen Mother’s garden, it is a chance to appreciate the sights and smells of the gardens in a completely different way.

In the evening light, if you pick the right spot, the vistas take on an almost hallucinatory quality. Even more so, with the ambient, electronically generated soundscapes from the likes of Kathy Hinde, Matthew Olden and Luci Holland providing a hypnotic backing track.

The sonic interventions add another layer of information too. About the environment of the Flow Country in the north of Scotland, the great peat bogs, where sphagnum moss has been building up for centuries, storing more carbon than all the forests in the rest of the UK and providing a rich but little understood habitat.

At its best, it is a bliss-inducing and near transcendental experience of a kind you might normally associate with a heightened state of consciousness – whether naturally or artificially achieved.

Hidden space

It probably doesn’t get better than listening to Malcolm Lindsay’s latest choral work, Flow Country, recorded by the Dunedin Consort and broadcast on a loop under the RBGE’s giant cedar, or finding a hidden space to take in Karine Polwart and Pippa Murphy’s recording of The Moor Speaks, as you watch the garden’s birds flying roost-wards for the night.

Chirp & Drift by Kathy Hinde. Pic Neil Jarvie

It almost doesn’t happen, though. The event is part of the Peatland Partnership’s Flows to the Future Project, which is all very worthy and led by RSPB Scotland. But the opening film about the Flow Country is a truly awful, breathless propaganda travelogue of the kind that gives tourist information services a bad name.

Grit your teeth and get past such vapid nonsense – what it has to say is fine and the visuals alone work well, but it is the voiceover that is so execrable – and you are in for a treat.

Behind the orientation signs – which often mirror the initial video’s tone – the merging of scientific data and electronic music as Kathy Hinde and Matthew Olden do, or Malcolm Lindsay’s use of a litany of scientific names for the botany and biology of the Flow Country as the lyrics, ensures that there is meaning to what would otherwise be perceived as purely abstract art.

The whole walk is expected to take at least 50 minutes but will last much longer if you want to really get inside the music. And while an umbrella is probably advisable in rainy weather, many of the places where you might want to linger are under big shading trees which will shelter you from the worst of it. Although not from any marauding flies, so a squirt of insect repellent might be a good idea.

Kinetic sculpture

There is kinetic sculpture, too, with a video work about visual artist Hannah Imlach’s visits to the Flow Country and the sculptures she created there. Which, sadly, have not been replicated in situ at the RBGE – something of a missed opportunity.

Skylark Walk by Kathy Hinde. Pic Neil Jarvie

Perhaps the most visually and audibly conventional piece of art comes towards the end of the walk. In Chirp & Drift, Kathy Hinde has perched a flock of white paper bellows – which vocalise through accordion reeds – in the red branches of the paperbark maple tree opposite the main door to the palm house. The result, with each pair of bellows lighting up when it is activated as the whole sculpture taps out the names of birds in morse code, is curiously entrancing.

And for a proper show-stopping finale, Hinde has made a sonic piece using skylark song at its core, Skylark Walk, which is played to each walker through their own inner-lit umbrella, handed out before the gentle meander back to the start.

Like going to the theatre or a gig, this is best appreciated as a silent member of the audience – those conversations carry far in the still evening air. But catch it right, and this is a truly rewarding experience in its theatrical combination of smells, sounds, nature and art.

Running time – allow at least 50 minutes. Probably twice that.
Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, East Gate, Inverleith Row, EH3 5LP
Wed 24 July – Sun 25 August 2019 (not Tue)
Evenings: Start times every 15 minutes, 7pm – 9pm.
Tickets and further details: Book here.

Cryptic website:


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