A simultaneous and city-wide expellation of relief could blow art students off the bridge over Charing Cross, so take it easy. Glasgow City Council has realised that contemporary arts opportunities have to be made before they can be grasped, invested in before there will be cultural (and, let’s face it, financial) pay offs. There may be something desperate sounding in the title Glasgow International, a bit paranoid and maniacal—one half expects a bracketed and exclamation marked ‘(honest!)’ after it—but this could be because this event seems so desperately overdue. Or, that’s what every artist over the age of thirty something will tell you—the rest know the timing is perfect. There are just enough voices, just enough styles, just enough venues and up-and-coming and mature artists that this may well work. ‘How Glasgow Stole the Idea of Contemporary Art’—what a timely prospect.
The unexpected and heady union of aesthetics and power seems to connect the work shown in many of the venues—unexpected because we are told in the Glasgow International literature that there is no overall theme, but more than this, because it represents an unbelievably self-confident, dramatic and unified debut. These are truly universal concerns, subtle and potent in their all-pervasiveness. Barbara Kruger’s installation (as part of the 13-month programme Rule of Thumb, highlighting violence against women at GoMA) embodies this, forcing the viewer to literally take a stand on the issues surrounding domestic abuse and violent acts of misogyny. The graphic and text-based work is unrelenting, dominating those passing through the room. The use of green and white, and the enormous amount of light that floods into the space make everyone look so alive, but the mood remains sombre. Silence and serious introspection descend.
This brooding atmosphere is developed in the selection of work entitled This Peaceful War from Mexico City’s Jumex collection, where, in the hanger-like gallery at the Tramway, acts of artistic coercion are recorded on the walls. The relationship between art—its making and its social reverberations—create problematic psycho-social dramas, acted out in film and photography, among other media. The eight-foot line tattooed along the backs of Santiago Sierra’s unemployed volunteers separates more than vertebrae—opinions are forcefully divided. Viewers are compelled to ask themselves what this abstract action means socially, and how art both highlights and preys upon the plight of the subaltern as ‘material’. Robert Smithson’s work and writings haunt much of the work shown. Doug Aitken’s ‘The Diamond Sea’ 1997, records a journey through the remains of the diamond mines of Namibia – nature in an industrial landscape and vice versa (quoting Smithson’s ‘A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic’ 1967), and Melanie Smith’s filmed aerial view of Mexico City, ‘Spiral City’ 2005, references Smithson’s ‘Spiral Jetty’ 1970. Both works bombard the viewer with evidence of industry and civilisation beautifully scarring and horribly augmenting nature. This ambivalence is borne out of late modernist, specifically minimalist concerns that refuse to sacrifice ‘traditional aesthetics’ by making an obvious political point too clearly.
That said, RISK at the CCA counters the neo-formalist trend in recent art and criticism, attempting to drag agitational anti-formalist and anti-art concerns into the white cube. What does it mean when art employs social realism or explicitly political sloganeering to achieve its multifarious and usually ambiguous aims? You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t acknowledge the political role of art, but when that is your art form, mad-cap antics and humour seem to be the only available interesting vehicles. If you’re thinking about a clown car, you’re on the right tracks—the ‘Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army’ needs you! A glut of artists and workers for the culture industry fill the space, and the sweetly ignorant question of ‘but is it art?’ permeates without being answered.
In the Intermedia Gallery inanely smiling gallery-goers sit in a circle around a revolving wall in some kind of personnel induction session. Robb Mitchell and Steven Dickie present the monotonous sounding and blank face of power, where Scotch-Guarded furnishings inhabit MDF office cubicles, spinning in the gallery like a dour merry-go-round. Newcomers have to push the wall to enter and choose which gang they belong to.
A wall also moves and poles swing and thud in 64 Osborne Street. In the oncoming darkness, the sunset pokes through pierced hardboard, separating you from the familiar outside. Smith and Stewart create a sense of incarceration and order beyond one’s ken, yet there is something pervasively sublime, beautiful and hypnotic about this installation. The sprawling space is made intimate by the restricted light sources; familiar fixtures and fittings become both welcoming and threatening.
Light and vibrant colour tickles the everyday objects in Jenny Hogarth and Kim Coleman’s Creative Review in the Glasgow Project Room with Babak Ghazi. A corner becomes a bedroom where fag ends, music, dreams and days collect. We are presented with a short shock of pop paganism—the elements are tamed and projected as cartoon glyphs on venetian blinds; a cheap paper lantern becomes an electrified peach-like sun, lowered slowly into darkness. Matiushin and Kruchenyk’s Russian Futurist ‘Victory over the Sun’, 1913, is ingeniously invoked without Malevich’s ubiquitous ‘Black Square’ in sight. Pop sensibilities are also honed then exploded in Spencer Sweeney’s Million Dollar Paintings at the Modern Institute. ‘Le Flambeur’ oil on canvas 2005, records the bind between surface and subject, where graphic concerns and painterly abstractions attempt to overthrow each other.
Michael Stumpf at Sorcha Dallas Gallery marries something of Craigie Aitchison’s sparsely populated planar landscapes to Caspar David Friedrich’s sturm und drang romanticism. Art’s magical genesis creeps through German expressionist film sets and over European fairytales; denim and pewter throw craft at art and the result hypostatises a gallery corner, girding a psychic landscape. There is nothing of the overt darkness that has enveloped much of the art in the festival, but it lurks there as subject matter. ‘Where they sit together in darkness’, a pewter text-sculpture, hides in a corner, like a poem or an incantation quietly murmuring to itself.
A semi-alternative and exhilarating history of painting in Glasgow, from the 1960s to the present day, covers the walls in the main gallery of the Mackintosh building at Glasgow School of Art. Campbell’s Soup is a collection of paintings moving around and through Steven Campbell’s influence. The unifying theme seems to be the idea of the working class artist as dandy, the paintbrush-wielding proletariat ‘otherising’ the story of modern and postmodernist painting. Campbell’s glorious ‘Waiting – Byrnicus Paizleycus Virus Invading Mr Gray’ 2005, rightfully steals the show, but Alisdair Gray’s bashed and bruised ‘Cowcaddens in the Fifties’ 1964, keeps it in check. This show would worry the most hardened art cynic—contemporary Glasgow-based artists such as Alex Pollard and Michael Fullerton demonstrate that the tradition of confident artistic creation in the city is stronger than ever. Their respective works ‘Violence being viewed from the wrong end of a lens’ 2004 and ‘Fruits of Passion 1985’ 2003, create a triumphant triad and a formalist’s wet dream with Gray’s ‘May Six’ 1987.
It’s only when you start listing the galleries and art spaces in Glasgow showing contemporary art (that’s galleries that don’t show or sell pseudo-Scottish colourist landscapes) that you realise just how significant and obvious bringing them together under the Glasgow International umbrella is as an idea. Twenty or so are involved, and well over a hundred artists and their ilk. But what is it other than an idea, a press release, a few openings and a leaflet? GI offers even the most mashed up, deconstructed and reconstructed audiences and art critics alike, some very delectable art-fix prospects. Think Kublah Khan’s pleasure dome on the Clyde (rather than the Alph), with challenging objets d’art and hip kids dressed in black next to neds in white tracksuits.
Alexander Kennedy is an art critic and tutor at the University of Glasgow