In recent years, the epithet ‘Glasgow’ has developed, for some, into a tongue-in-cheek characterization of a particular aesthetic in contemporary art: cool, handsome abstraction that skips through the ruins of Modernist formalism. Such a generalization sells short the diversity of Glasgow’s art scene, but there is nevertheless a sense that the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art is concerned as much with reinforcing the city’s image on the global art stage as it is with reinventing it. Many of the artists involved in this year’s edition – such as Claire Barclay, David Shrigley and Douglas Gordon – will be forever associated with Glasgow whether, as with Barclay (who showed an elegant body of work in the Glasgow Print Studio), their work is seen as epitomizing a regional aesthetic or, as in Shrigley’s case, their vision is more idiosyncratic.
Make no mistake – Glasgow is intensely proud of its international profile, and GI (as it’s known) seems to showcase the city’s brightest and best more for a visiting audience than for its own residents. In its fourth iteration, Katrina Brown, director of The Common Guild, has inherited the festival’s directorship from Francis McKee. She has upped the ante across the board – increasing the local ambition of the venture as its wider reputation strengthens year on year.
This is an unusual kind of visual art festival: neither a conventional biennial with a single curatorial vision nor an open-application exhibition, it nevertheless attempts to infiltrate all corners of the city’s art spaces. From museums to commercial galleries and artist-run projects, 45 venues were marked on the official GI map, although not all were involved on the same terms. While it wasn’t always obvious which were which, some, such as Shrigley’s interventions in the marvellous Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, were curated directly by Brown and her team, mindful of the festival’s theme: ‘Past, Present, Future’ (with the emphasis more often than not on ‘past’ rather than ‘future’). Others, such as a crammed show by the ever-popular (and overrated) Jim Lambie inaugurating The Modern Institute’s swish new premises, were primarily serving commercial interests. If it was hard to spot anything that definitively failed to touch on the festival’s theme, perhaps that says as much about the current concerns of artists than about the breadth of Brown’s curatorial net.
Many of the core exhibitions were not by Glasgow-based artists at all. Irish artist Gerard Byrne was commissioned to make a video installation, A Thing is a Hole in a Thing it is Not (2010), that was shown at a temporary space called the GI Hub. Recreations of real and imagined moments in the history of Minimalist art exposed some of the ways in which the movement continues to thrive in our contemporary cultural imaginary. In a show next door, Zagreb-based David Maljkovic´’s films, collages and installations illustrate, conversely, just how little Modernist optimism has endured into the present.
All of the above exhibitions, though relevant to the theme and tone of the festival, offered few surprises for those already familiar with these artists’ work. More unexpected inclusions were an older piece by Fiona Tan, Tomorrow (2005), a film panning across a line-up of Swedish students, in the Gallery of Modern Art, or the results of Jimmie Durham’s residency earlier this year at Glasgow Sculpture Studios, which compared the shared plights of Native Americans and rural Scots, each displaced by golf-course developers. Glasgow artist Kate Davis collaborated closely with the now deeply un-hip Feminist artist Faith Wilding for an exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Arts, both artists producing work that amounted to more than the sum of its parts due to the intimacy and thoughtfulness of their dialogue.
The progressive aspirations of an earlier age were disinterred elsewhere by the Glasgow-based environmental arts group NVA (an acronym of ‘Nacionale Vitae Activa’, a Roman term denoting ‘the right to influence public affairs’) who recreated an initiative from 1965 by anarchists in Amsterdam, whereby white bicycles were made available for free public use. In Glasgow, the code for the locks on 50 bikes was publicized in festival literature. Perhaps inevitably, at the end of the first day (rumour had it) just five bikes had been recovered.
Glasgow is blessed with an abundance of magnificent architecture, and many artists found themselves challenged by unusual temporary exhibition spaces. In the Charles Rennie Mackintosh-designed School of Art, Alice Channer rose to the occasion with strips of seersucker-effect paper that hung gorgeously from the Art Nouveau building’s high rafters. David Noonan was invited by the gallery Washington Garcia to exhibit his freestanding figures in a vast barrel-vaulted room in The Mitchell Library, but, despite the quality of his work, was cursed by flimsy temporary walls around its edge.
A rash of smaller projects proliferated through the city. In a patch of wasteland infested with Japanese knotweed, the artist group Lowsalt had hacked back the bushes to create an entertaining, if silly, dystopian sculpture garden (‘Vestiges Park’, 2010). Rob Churm, Raydale Dower and Tony Swain opened a temporary café, Le Drapeau Noir, which hosted a nightly series of music and performance events, while under three bridges on the River Clyde recordings of Turner Prize-nominated Susan Philipsz’ plaintive voice could be heard singing divergent versions of the traditional ballad ‘Lowlands’ (Lowlands, 2010). (‘Sinéad O’Connor?’, a passing drunk enquired as I stood listening.)
On the south side of the city, at Tramway, Christoph Büchel constructed his own spectacular space: a bar-cum-prison-cum-forensic-incident-centre, at the centre of which an entire commercial airliner lay in charred pieces, sorted and tagged, as if being pieced back together for post-disaster analysis. Apparently the artist had a decommissioned airliner specially exploded for the project, presumably with the 1988 terrorist plane bombing over the south Scottish town of Lockerbie in mind. The project’s expense and its desperate ambition to impress, or shock, or both, left me with the feeling that a comment of similar complexity might be made with paper and pencil. Its title, LAST MAN OUT TURN OFF LIGHTS (2010), reflects the crashing (and indulgent) nihilism of Büchel’s project. A second show by Byrne, at The Common Guild, was a refreshing tonic: black and white photographs, which, though all taken in the US over the last five years, looked decades older. Büchel could learn from Byrne’s lightness of touch, his political incisiveness and subtlety. By and large, Glasgow International managed to avoid grand gestures – as is fitting in a city in which misleading generalities abound – and was all the stronger for it.