In 1969, Douglas Huebler wrote: ‘The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.’ His statement emerged in a booming American society characterized by industrial production and material abundance. Five decades on, the seventh edition of Glasgow International takes place in an era of disappearing things: records and books displaced by glowing screens; coal, shipbuilding and, now, steel industries allowed to wither away. Members of online communities and service economies, we are increasingly conscious of having lost our grip on the material world.
This anxiety might be a cause for art’s recent turn towards the object, a tendency explored in director Sarah McCrory’s curated programme, which is loosely themed around the ‘legacy of industry and the relationship artists have to making, production and craft’. Alexandra Bircken exploits Tramway’s history as a depot for Glasgow’s now-dismantled tram network – a potent symbol of the mismanagement of Britain’s industrial cities in the 1960s – by creating a series of gawkish steel trolleys with wheel gauges fitting to the tracks that still run through the central space. Trapped uselessly in the gallery, they bring to mind the handcars that Buster Keaton and Wile E. Coyote pumped down railroads in pursuit of their desires. Some of the tracks are clogged with Sheila Hicks’s fibrous sculptures: it is as if her multicoloured fabric tower, Mighty Mathilde and Her Consort (2016), has taken root and sprouted from the concrete, an atypically triumphant gesture in this context.
Obsolescence and renewal are also the themes of Lawrence Lek’s digital simulation QE3 (2016), housed within one of the steel shelters constructed for the show by Martin Boyce. Its tongue-in-cheek proposal that the QE2 liner, constructed in the Cyldebank shipyards, be repurposed as a new home for the fire-damaged Glasgow School of Art makes a neat point about the art world’s ambiguous relationship to the industries whose former spaces it so often colonizes and whose products it appropriates. Lek’s digital rendering shares with Amie Siegel’s spellbinding Provenance (2013) a fondness for the long tracking shots characteristic of promotional videos for luxury apartments. Beautifully realized and cleverly conceived (the piece was itself sold at auction and the sale filmed and exhibited, to complete a neat circle), Siegel’s cinematic work exposes the magical processes by which utilitarian objects – in this case the furniture designed by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret for their grand modernist project in Chandigarh – are endowed with value in a speculative economy. Mika Rottenberg makes a similar point, less economically, in her uncomfortably surreal films about labour, dependency and excess, NoNoseKnows (2015) and Squeeze (2010).
The near-derelict Kelvin Hall, another host venue for McCrory’s programme in the city’s West End, stands as a ruined emblem of industrial decline. Claire Barclay responds to its crumbling architecture with a room-sized installation inspired by the 1951 Exhibition of Industrial Power, part of the Festival of Britain. The elegiac tone and symbolic treatment of materials recalls Jannis Kounellis, while its languid sprawl echoes Anthony Caro. In its formal properties as much as its basis in archival research, Bright Bodies (2016) looks to the past to comment on the present. It’s a position that might once have been dismissed as politically conservative but which now, as the Left scrambles to preserve rights that only recently seemed inalienable, feels timely. Barclay’s imposing work is cleverly complemented by Helen Johnson’s enigmatic, highly textured paintings on unstretched canvas, suspended by wires from the ceiling downstairs.
Tamara Henderson populates the ornate hall of the Mitchell Library (founded by a bequest from a wealthy manufacturer in 1877) with a motley troupe of nomads draped in astonishing hand-sewn costumes. Clustered around a dune buggy of the type you might drive around the Australian outback after a devastating ecological crisis, they conjure a pre- (or perhaps post-) industrial world of community and ritual. Aaron Angell’s charmingly bockety ceramic sculptures, nestled among the begonias in Glasgow’s Botanical Gardens, enact a more literal return to nature. They, too, evoke a craft-based society without recourse to mechanical reproduction, and the priority of the handmade over the mass-produced is a recurring theme.
At the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA), Tessa Lynch transforms the winding upstairs gallery space into a fragmentary dérive through the colours and patterns of Glasgow’s streets. Lynch identifies and abstracts the particular forms of masonry, facades or fencing and develops a bright, metrical visual grammar expressed in canvas stretched across sloping frames, digital photographs and small punched sheets of steel. The atmosphere changes dramatically, however, when you descend to GoMA’s central space to be confronted with a five-metre-long missile straddled by an absurd white bird, the centrepiece of Cosima von Bonin’s multimedia exhibition ‘Who’s Exploiting Who in the Deep Sea?’ By re-creating the scene in Dr Strangelove (1964) that precipitates the end of life on earth, the artist casts an apocalyptic pall over a crew of stuffed toy sea creatures, of the kind that normally comfort children, engaged in a variety of inscrutable acts. Our hankering after the reassurance of physical things, Von Bonin’s work suggests, is a symptom of our fears about the future.
Lead image: Lawrence Lek, QE3, 2016, still from HD video simulation, commissioned for Glasgow International. Courtesy: the artist