Having recently relocated from London to Scotland, I am very keen to hoke about in Glasgow’s more intimate nooks and crannies. The sixth iteration of Glasgow International (GI), with Sarah McCrory as its latest Director, made the city visible as an archive by kicking down doors, jimmying vaults and mining what has been misplaced, to expose esoteric findings in more than 70 exhibition sites. This reviewer, then, is experiencing a dilemma about which forced doors to show you behind, dear reader: much occlusion is necessary.
Young Glasgow-based artists Lauren Hall and Jay Mosher’s ‘Comfortably Warm’ at Friends' basement-flat gallery was a fragile enunciation of consumer objects. The artists’ five new interpolating works attempted to articulate changes in the quality of life between the residents of the lower and upper floors of tenement housing. This was an obscure exhibition. Its plastic contents were deeply abstracted, with branded products such as two Nomex IIIA ponchos, an engraved Zippo hand warmer and Epsom Salts emptied (literally) of their use value, but patient nonetheless for us to find a way to use them. (An epilogue: on leaving the gallery I stood blinking across the Clyde towards the buildings on the opposite bank, all I could see were signs reading ‘TO LET’, demonstrating Miguel Ángel Asturias’s poetic assertion that ‘the stiffness of death lurks behind every living thing’.)
The McLellan Galleries – a disused Victorian museum building on Sauchiehall Street – is a big flaking beast: a wee part of the ceiling dropped onto my head while I was watching one of the works. Hudinilson Jr., Charlotte Prodger, Avery Singer and Jordan Wolfson were curated together, each showing separate, substantial bodies of work in the cavernous space, as one part of the Director’s Programme. Tramway was the auspicious host for the other major element of McCrory’s programme, where Michael Smith’s everyman avatar, Mike, seemed nice and Bedwyr Williams’ disaster zone diorama Echt (2014) made me feel strangely safe.
Here I can focus only on two works in detail, but each one of the artists mentioned above could merit a whole review, for they muster the spirit of volatile collective subjectivity that I love about Glasgow. Wolfson’s eight films at the McLellan are insanely perfect and peculiar. The artist often uses commercial producers and animators – the surface of his work is highly polished, slippery. Several are gripped by penile passion: Animation, Masks (2011) murmurs Richard Brautigan’s poetry and young lovers’ discourse through an animated caricature of an orthodox Jew. Wolfson’s work is often front-loaded but Perfect Lover (2007) acts as a coda, in that it perfects the hopelessness of real-time living. While watching this short 16mm film of apparently stock footage of crows in rural North American settings, it takes a while to realize that the crows’ beaks are subtly animated, Disney-red inside as they count the passing of the hours – nine, eleven, ten, midnight, one etc. – getting confused, coughing and resuming. As time passes, syntactic mistakes increase, we listen, nothing is learnt, they count, mate and die.
Extramundane animals also fizz in Prodger’s work. Trancing bull terriers ripped from YouTube are shown as one element of the beefy installation Nephatiti (2014) in a room bifurcated by a huge haulage tarpaulin used on the side of articulated lorries. The bull terriers prance with dainty paws around pot plants, their backs soothed by the green leaves. As I watched, I heard the first person narration from another work, AAB (2014), a yoga teacher adjusting another’s posture. It leads me to wonder: Who can train these dogs? Prodger is precisely excising one element of the animals’ behaviour, to help us to comprehend clearly that what is natural is not necessarily what we might expect, and there’s nothing we can do about it.
I missed the one-off performance of Glasgow-based Lucy Reynold’s A Feminist Chorus at Glasgow Women’s Library, but I did hear it in the ‘Hen Run’ (a top floor corridor in Glasgow School of Art [GSA] so named because of the proliferation, or ghettoization, of women students in adjacent studios). Reynold’s tripartite score bangs about the space, compressing historic and contemporary time. She invited women-only chorus members to select and perform extracts from rich archival sources including: the occupation of GSA by female students and their fathers in 1900; the biblical text in which the Queen of Sheba sees ‘all the wisdom of Solomon’; and Glasgow Herald’s feature on the Lady Artists’ Club Tableaux Vivants from 1895. Paced to individual breath, the deliberately amateur (and I mean this in a good way) chorus embodies collectivity, I can hear the compassion in everyone’s voice.
A non-comprehensive list of other highlights for me: everything in ‘Reclaimed: The Second Life of Sculpture’ at The Briggait; The Burning Sand, a semi-annual magazine edited by Sarah Lowndes; Counterflows festival of experimental music which took place across the city, nestled like a hungry eaglet amidst the main GI programme; Aleksandra Domanović's open access DVD library at the Gallery of Modern Art; Khaled Hourani’s Picasso in Palestine (2011) at Centre for Contemporary Art; Stephen Kaltenbach’s Artforum adverts (1968–69) at OHIO gallery; Fiona Jardine’s stain resistant performative lecture, Spark for Artists, on the role of art in Muriel Spark’s writing, at Gilmore Lecture Theatre; Christina Ramberg’s blown felt-tip drawings at 42 Carlton Place; Sue Tompkin’s use of the pilcrow, sunk as calligraphic fiction, in Come to Ozark (2014) at the Gallery of Modern Art.
The staging of large-scale contemporary art events in deprived, former industrial cities, seems to have accelerated over the last ten years. Derry’s hosting of the Turner Prize last year, the Liverpool Biennial and Glasgow International are all UK-based examples happening now in cities that are still undeniably tough, often infrastructually malnourished and shamefully socially derided. I’m not sure what all this art means collectively. But, a large number of the many GI spaces I visited had lots of folk in them looking at the work – and seemingly not all with a professional interest, like me – which strikes me as a good thing: citizenry celebrating and enjoying their own city, but only if they choose to.
‘Reclaimed: The Second Life of Sculpture’, 2014, installation view at The Briggait
Opened during the Glasgow International Exhibition of 1901, and originally named the Palace of Fine Arts, the baroque edifice of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum is a foghorn blast of imperial pomp, essayed in red sandstone. Within its walls, visitors encounter stuffed elephants and suspended spitfire aircraft, Egyptian sarcophagi and Salvador Dali’s vertiginous Christ of St. John of the Cross (1951). Amongst these disparate treasures, Simon Martin installed his film Untitled (2014) on three modest screens, each sited in a different room. We see a male hand leafing through a series of books bearing photographs of museum pieces, most of them sculpted heads from far-off places and times. Now and then, objects from Martin’s gnomic personal iconography (a CGI tree frog, waxy lemons) overlay the pages. Something very deliberate is taking place here, to do with framing and context, isolation and comparison, and the grain of human attention, but its logic is never fully disclosed. Beyond the screens’ borders, Kelvingrove’s visitors paced and milled, the museum reconfiguring itself with each fresh glance.
Commissioned for Glasgow International 2014 (GI) as part of Sarah McCrory’s Director’s programme, Martin’s Untitled provided a coda of sorts to a city-wide initiative composed of over 70 exhibitions and events, most of them convened independently by artist-led spaces and studios, and commercial galleries. GI isn’t a show, or even a biennial in the usual curatorial-thesis-plus-supposed-artistic-proof sense, but rather an uncommonly stylish and thoughtful exercise in civic boosterism, a temporary and hyper-dispersed Palace of the Arts, built not through imperial diktat, but through a very modern coalition of public institutions, private businesses and self-organized groups. All of this makes GI difficult to review in toto. McCrory’s programme had, for all its avowed themelessness, some intriguing chimes and echoes (shared concerns included bodies, tech and a certain pop swagger) but the broader festival was less a carefully crafted mix-tape than an iPod on shuffle. A visitor might skip from Michael Stumpf’s installation This Song Belongs to Those Who Sing It (2014) at Glasgow School of Art, in which he made a subtle, at times beautiful, but inevitably doomed attempt to cohabit with the rowdy ghost of the building’s architect, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, to Beatrix Santiago Muñoz’s film Post-Military Cinema (2014) at Transmission Gallery, in which an overgrown former US naval base in Puerto Rico becomes the stage for an elegiac botanical shadow play, and then on to Jesse Wine’s solo show at Mary Mary, in which ceramic self-portraits such as Chester Man II (2014) vibrated winningly between the hieratic and the absurd. Anne Collier continued her coolly clever investigation into the nature of photographic depiction at The Modern Institute’s Aird’s Lane space, while Tobias Madison, Emanuel Rossetti and Stefan Tcherepnin clad its Osbourne Street mothership in panels from a fairground House of Horrors. Inside, the trio created a provisional architecture from salmon-coloured carpeting, ectoplasmic resin and damp spritzes of iodine, which was far creepier than any ghost train. The effect of seeing these exhibitions in quick succession, trusty festival guide in hand (GI had no catalogue or contextualizing essay), was closest to doing the gallery rounds of a global art city on a particularly propitious long weekend – the word ‘festival’, we might note, connotes both ‘holiday’ and ‘feast’.
Another Mary Mary project, Alistair Frost’s ‘AZQ<>$@Ł•^’ (2014), took the form of a working nail bar, in which GI’s visitors could have their cuticles pimped with patterned stickers (Pollock splatters, lipsticks, bikinis) and snap selfies in front of paintings seemingly composed of vintage clipart imagery and hieroglyphic letters that spelled out the word ‘C C C CUNT’. As a satire on politically self-satisfied participatory art, it was nicely judged, not least because of the faux-naïve cockiness with which it shoehorned the canvas, or its adhesive proxy, into the social field. At SWG3’s exhibition, ‘La chose encadrée’ (The Framed Thing), curators Camille le Houezec and Joey Villemont were also preoccupied with painting, presenting a conceptually sparky exploration of the physical and contextual frame through the work of Gabriele Beveridge, Paul Cowan, Landon Metz and Jesse Moretti, which was thrown wildly off balance by the inclusion of Michael Krebber, whose nth dimensional gamesmanship made his young co-exhibitors appear underdeveloped and flat. Across town, Wasp Artist’s Studios filled The Briggait’s vast atrium with an island of wooden pallets for ‘Reclaimed: The Second Life of Sculpture’, on which were arranged large objects by some 20 artists – among them Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, Matthew Darbyshire, Nick Evans and Jessie Flood-Paddock – in claustrophobic proximity. Here, composition (purposefully) edged out meaning, rendering each work a zombified version of itself.
If Gabriel Kuri’s solo show at The Common Guild – featuring sculptures formed from bedding and toiletries that was to be gifted to a local asylum seekers’ charity at the show’s end – spoke to the movement of goods, and of people, occasioned by GI, so too did ‘Samsonite’, a ‘suitcase show’ of monochrome works by US artists brought over from New York by former Glasgow resident Jamie Kenyon, and installed at 100 Eastvale Place with the help of co-curator Neil Clements. The best of these was Cameron Rowland’s Deal Tray (2013) – a security receptacle used by liquor store clerks to pass over commodities and cash, presented without comment on a white plinth. We might almost imagine finding it in Kelvingrove, among the dinosaur bones, flintlock pistols and work of the Scottish Colourists.