BY Neil Mulholland in Reviews | 10 SEP 00
Featured in
Issue 54

If I Ruled the World

CCA, Glasgow, Scotland

BY Neil Mulholland in Reviews | 10 SEP 00

'If I Ruled the World' was an eclectic mix of work by eight Glasgow-based artists, all of whom explore utopian ideas from a relaxed perspective. Rose Thomas, Orla Ryan and Bryan Hand's The Fire Department (2000), is a proposal for an art library/gallery to donate texts to Glasgow's public library system. Envisaged as a curated exhibition, a publishing house and debating chamber, the project has the distinctly dystopian quality of being achievable. Brynd Snebjörnsdóttir's Stowaway max c067 (1999) - which consists mainly of a cargo crate large enough to contain a polar bear - is apparently disconnected from such concerns. Allusion to the exhibition's leitmotif, however, is in the Latin definition of Utopia: no-place, a description that aptly applies to the ice floe-covered seas of the Northern Hemisphere.

Utopia is evoked in other works that attempt to accentuate the tension between individual freedom and social determinism. Roderick Buchanan's Brazil vs Italy (1999) comprises a stereo trumpeting Brazil's national anthem 'Hino Nacional', followed by Italy's 'Fratelli d'Italia'. Far from being an examination of group identity politics, the work is a half-liner. Brazil's anthem is the subject of much controversy: composed for Brazil's Independence, its lyrics refer to the 'dazzling rays of the sun of Liberty', while an alternative version sings praises to a Brazilian monarch. In contrast, 'Fratelli D'Italia' is an unambiguous call for Italian unity: 'Let's press like cohorts, we are ready to die'. Perhaps dumbfounded by the ponderousness of the world's greatest footballing nations, Buchanan simply presents the anthems as orchestral versions for a brass band. Informed faith is miraculous, blind faith is dangerous.

A more astute use of ceremonial music is found in Ross Sinclair's makeshift cardboard podium and stage set, Not as it is but as it could be (1999). Sinclair alludes sardonically to the Zeppelin Field rallies at Nürnberg - which opened with Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1867), Hitler's favourite opera - and promotes his self-initiated cult of 'Real Life' with Tony Bennett's cheesy ballad 'If I Ruled the World'. A grocer's son from Queens turned world ambassador of popular song, Bennett typifies the aspirational utopianism of 1960s America. An active proponent of the Civil Rights movement, he marched from Alabama with Martin Luther King, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Harry Belafonte. Backed by Bennett glorifying egalitarianism with a polished, optimistic swing, Sinclair invites us to take to the rostrum and rally ourselves to the cause of 'Real Life'. Hopefulness is here posited as a wish, the creation of a self-initiated myth that might become reality. As Barthes explained, myth is not defined by the object of its message, but by the way in which it is uttered. Sinclair thus enacts his myth by unmitigated subterfuge, fusing his icon and his audience.

The predicament of the little man striving against dystopian Modernity was perfected by Jacques Tati's burlesque alter ego, Monsieur Hulot. Martin Boyce and Simon Starling's retro-Futurist Pavilion for Playtime (1999), screens Tati's movie Playtime (1967) in a model Miesian gazebo, a homage to Tativille, the Modernist set built for the film on the outskirts of Paris. The film revolves around Hulot wandering through a labyrinth of Modern architecture filled with the latest gizmos. There is little character development, narrative, or dramatic conflict. Tati's Minimalist comedy simply resonates what is possible in real life. In the Pavilion, paper facsimiles of the artists gaze at the screen, synthesising with the singular structural rhythm of Tati's detailed comic tableaux. Hulot progresses from fear of his ultra-Modern environment to a poetic transcendence. Perhaps Boyce and Starling covet something similar.

Alternatively, it could be that such utopian references to an emaciated Modernism lack naivety and nuance, highlighting the exhibition's shuddering prosaic heart. This cannot be alleged of Claire Barclay and Clara Ursitti who read 'Utopia' as circumstantial descriptive storytelling. More Sex, Death & Fly-Fishing (1999) converges on fly-fishing, a sport which, despite its prevalent macho image, captivates an unparalleled amount of women. Women have been fly-fishing for centuries; the first essay on the subject 'A Treatyse on Fysshynge with an Angle' was written by Dame Juliana Berners in the early 15th century. The installation purports to examine pheromone links between salmon and women, cited as a key to their fishing proficiency. However, rather than subjecting us to a lecture in biology, Barclay and Ursitti make playful underwater videos, dress as tweedy 1920s fisherwomen, visit local tackle shops, deposit a waterbed in the gallery and exhibit a model of the record-breaking 64 pound Tay Salmon caught by Georgina Ballantine in 1922. None of this enlightens, which is perhaps the point. Like most of the artists in the exhibition, Barclay and Ursitti seem healthily preoccupied with myth making and dreaming, sensibilities appropriate to creating work roused by the serene pursuit of fishing. Perhaps, given a bit of rest and relaxation, more artists will finally cease aestheticising 20th-century utopianism and get on with the chore of living by proxy.