The most talked-about work at the fifth edition of Glasgow International (GI) – an 18-day citywide biennial with no thematic remit beyond its location – was Jeremy Deller’s Sacrilege (2012), an inflatable replica of Stonehenge installed in the city’s oldest public park. On the day I visited, lashing rain meant that the bouncy castle-like structure was closed; an air of sadness clung to it like a mist, its wobbly bulk more threatening than genial (on sunnier days, the work calls to mind another faux-henge: the miniature stage-prop in the 1984 spoof documentary This is Spinal Tap). Part of the UK-wide Cultural Olympiad, Sacrilege is due to tour around Britain over the next few months and Deller has suggested that the project deals with ‘British identity’, which he appears to view as being rooted in bathos. The work may be tongue-in-cheek, but it feels particularly insensitive to its site (an icon of English Heritage on Scottish turf!). Such confusions make for a troubled project, due in part to what Tom Morton described in the last issue of this magazine as the Cultural Olympiad’s proclivity for funding ‘monuments to a committee’. I had hoped for more from Deller, an intermittently brilliant artist.
But Sacrilege summed up salient aspects of this year’s GI: temporariness and mobility. Most exhibits were keenly aware of their own evanescence – even those whose physical presence suggested otherwise. At the city’s Gallery of Modern Art, Karla Black has installed Empty Now (2012), a monumental layer-cake of sawdust, stratified into layers of darker and lighter chippings. Seventeen tonnes of chipped wood were shipped from Amsterdam (the specific wood couldn’t be locally sourced), and once the exhibition closes it will be transported to a nearby farm for compost. Physical weightiness evidently doesn’t equate with ethical caution, but then such issues really don’t seem to bother Black. She is an old-fashioned materialist who uses ‘feminine’ substances (lip-gloss, eyeshadow) in a manner that could be compared to Janine Antoni’s early 1990s installations, were it not for the sense that, 20 years after those works, such motifs render the fetish as a cliché rather than as a critique.
More engaging were the various iterations of dance in evidence across town. Alexandra Bachzetsis’s terse performance at the CCA, A Piece Danced Alone (2011–12), was a tour de force of double-bluffs and sarcasm, redolent of Jérôme Bel’s audience-conscious productions. Two performers (Bachzetsis and Anna Geering) occupied the stage alternately, acting and dancing as different versions of the auteur-choreographer-dancer, reading a parodic version of a CV, in which each claims to have started dancing from a very early age before going on to work with all the major dancers, choreographers and musicians in the Western world. There was lots of dance-as-quotation (including a startling imitation of Ian Curtis’s spasmodic jitter), and the whole thing could have been merely academic if it wasn’t for the brilliance of the performers themselves, who moved with electric precision and whose well-scripted words were keyed in to anxieties and gender expectations (a minimal mock-striptease, in which a shirt button was undone and done back up again, was a key moment).
Rosalind Nashashibi’s superb new film Lovely Young People (Beautiful Supple Bodies) (2012) was made in conjunction with the Scottish Ballet, and installed at the GI Hub (a temporary exhibition space created for the festival). Inviting small groups of locals to watch the ballet’s studio-based rehearsals, Nashashibi filmed their reactions and captured moments of hesitancy (as contrasted with the defined movements of the dancers), incidental looks and hints of the slightly prurient or nostalgic act of looking (the title comes from words uttered by one audience member). Nairy Baghramian’s sculptural intervention at The Mitchell Library was also subtle and architectonic. In the building’s vast former reading room, she had installed a long, thin metal tension bar across the space, held in place by hidden mechanisms screened behind rather worn false walls and jammed between the building’s pillars. The wire was installed at the same height as a ballet barre, lending the work a sense of imminent action.
At Tramway, the cavernous arts centre and former tram depot in the south of the city, the works tended toward the spectacular. Kelly Nipper’s durational dance work and installation, Black Forest (2012), was installed in a single large gallery space decorated with wall murals alluding to Rudolph Laban’s mystic geometry; four dancers clad in red dresses and masks (like Mexican wrestling masks fabricated according to the rules of Suprematist theatre) enacted manoeuvres on a large white dance mat. The work edged towards engaging ideas, but felt burdened with references. Graham Fagan and Michael McDonald’s high-budget meta-film-installation The Making of Us (2012), was filmed as a performance in front of a live audience on the opening weekend. I missed this event, but the remaining installation was an impressive set for a melodrama. Also at Tramway, Redmond Entwistle’s new film Walk-Through (2012) is an interesting, if somewhat academic exploration of pedagogical innovations at CalArts; and Moyra Davey’s Les Goddesses (2011) is an epic, diaristic exploration of intertextual identity.
A number of other shows concentrated on archives and works on paper: a wonderful collection of Paul Thek’s notebooks are on view at The Modern Institute; an enlightening show of prints by the Black Panthers’ ‘Minister of Culture’, Emory Douglas, at Kendall Koppe; Richard Wright’s drawings are installed at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum; Wolfgang Tillmans’ ever-seductive photos at the Common Guild; Ruth Ewan’s engaging archive of material related to socialist Sunday Schools at the Scotland Street School Museum; and ‘The Art Lending Library’ at The Mitchell Library, which allowed locals to borrow works of art by a number of younger artists. While few of these (with the exception of Ewan’s project) related much to Glasgow as a place, there was something meditative and satisfying about delving into these hidden corners of creativity. The interest at this year’s GI lay largely in its more reflective moments.