Scotland may have voted ‘No’ in last year’s independence referendum, but many in the country remain energized by the sense of possibility it sparked. Artists, in particular, have been drawn to the discussion around what kind of country Scotland could be. This group show, which took its title from an essay by the scholar and anarchist David Graeber, questioning the ability of activists to recognize their own successes, featured five artists from Scotland, Northern Ireland, Greece and Palestine. Presented across CCA’s three ground-floor galleries, it both directly referenced the Scottish experience and more obliquely explored ideas around the language of political discourse – whether written, spoken or expressed by other means.
For The Referendum Made Me Horny – Totes (2014) – one of two pieces by Glasgow-based In the Shadow of the Hand (Virginia Hutchison and Sarah Forrest) – canvas tote bags were screen-printed with the work’s title. These formed part of an installation drawing on research that collected words used 99 times or more on Twitter in the three months before the referendum. A list of the words – ‘Scotland’ (6,431 times), ‘debate’ (492), ‘reasons’ (117) – was pinned to the wall alongside a turntable and five playable cardboard discs. While this created the expectation of an audible, analogue conversion of this digital dialogue, the muffled, scratchy sound quality made the records impossible to decipher. Perhaps, the artists seemed to suggest, it is through deeper, less fleeting discussion that ideas endure.
Found words were also the material for poet and artist Alec Finlay’s work, a better tale to tell (2015), a poem presented as a wall installation of 62 A5 pages (also available as a booklet). Consisting entirely of extracts from the 18,000 public submissions to the commission – set up to look at the further devolution of powers to Scotland – Finlay captures the shifting language and passions of people on both sides of the argument. The fact that these voices were absent from Lord Smith of Kelvin’s final report makes the work as much a piece of social history as art. On the adjacent wall, a series of 59 postcard-sized photographs by Oraib Toukan, produced as part of a study of West Bank architecture from the late 1940s–70s, explored how the language of architecture reflects and interprets state ideology.
Scotland’s recent past was this show’s starting point, but it was a work that took us to another country and different era – Northern Ireland in the 1970s – that provided the most memorable touchpoint. Snatches of Mairéad McClean’s video, NO MORE (2014), could be faintly heard throughout the exhibition, its soundtrack of rumbling bass and clicking camera shutters seeping from behind the floor-to-ceiling black curtain that encased it on three sides. At the end of this narrow corridor, a TV monitor showed black and white footage from Jerzy Grotowski’s Polish Laboratory Theatre, in which actor Ryszard Cieślak demonstrates exercises derived from hatha yoga. Intercut with this meditation on the liberating potential of the body, which was filmed in 1972, are the clenched tones of Northern Ireland’s prime minister Brian Falconer, recorded a year earlier, announcing the introduction of internment. (McClean’s father, a civil rights activist, was interned for nine months.) The contrast between a government imposing its will by containment and Cieslak’s assertion of the human need for free expression provided a simple but compelling dichotomy – and an utterly mesmerizing film.
The body also features in Antonis Pittas’s Clips (2015), in which the hand gestures of politicians are restaged and presented as photographs to be flipped through on clipboards made from metal and sandstone. These were arranged around Landart (2012), a re-creation of one of the marble steps up to the Greek parliament building in Syntagma Square. Here, the step was printed with the phrase: ‘Some people in this room want to shout down those who disagree with them.’ Nearby, curator Remco de Blaaij had created a seating area scattered with cushions for a programme of screenings, performances and further reading – a clear statement of the show’s role in a wider and ongoing conversation. Such an approach could have made for a dry, ‘now listen carefully’ experience but, instead, ‘The Shock of Victory’ avoided curatorial didacticism in favour of work that asked questions without ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answers.