Aspex Gallery, The Vulcan, PO1 3BF
Monday 01 October 2018 – Wednesday 31 July 2019
Image: In Kind, Janie Nicoll and Ailie Rutherford.
Glasgow International launched its eighth edition last month with a packed programme of art, performance and events. Rowan Lear reports back from ‘a city with its guts on display’ and considers how a project of this scale might fit into the visual arts ecology of Bristol...
Cellular World: Cyborg-Human-Avatar-Horror is the chaotic vortex at the heart of Glasgow International. It’s a group exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art that, like the city itself, takes delight in putting its guts on display. Screens have bare chipboards and exposed electronics; every wall and facade reveals its own masquerade. It’s a space polluted by the infectious remnants of Sam Keogh’s opening intergalactic performances and in which Jesse Darling’s installation is well-suited – dirty laundry, children's toys and barbed wire are strung in lines over the length of the gallery. But the disarray and cross-contamination does little for other works – Jamie Crewe’s film Adulteress, for example, would benefit from more space to breathe. And Mai-Thu Perret’s sculpture – a girl reading placidly beside her assault rifle – seems arbitrarily dropped in, rather than forming a quiet but radical resistance. Cellular World... parades the brazen disorder of a life lived online, in which highly-curated and organised appearances thinly conceal a maelstrom of psychic, social and ecological catastrophes.
If these are the abject entrails of GI, they’re matched by sensual pleasures in abundance. With effortful wrappings of cellophane and discarded video tape, Nnena Kalu spins colourful cocoons and vivid constellations at Project Ability, while Lotte Gertz’s paintings on unprimed linen assemble a luscious symbolic vocabulary. At Market Gallery, Aniara Omann’s bioplastic assemblages – fleshy facemasks of glutinous mycelium and mould – are fitting companion species to the more cerebral video works by Gary Zhexi Zhang. At CCA, Ross Birrell’s installation The Transit of Hermes is infused with the dry must of strawbales and horse sweat. And though I visit The Hidden Gardens on a dreich morning, Josée Aubin Ouellette’s tactile bulbous objects roam freely across the grass, pursued by small, happy children.
Other high moments include Corin Sworn’s WORK HOUSE at Koppe Astner, which features a soundtrack punctuated by explosive feedback, sawn walls, intermittent soap dispensers, painted-over sketchbooks, and bodies moving through the broken space. There’s dark humour in Susannah Stark’s Unnatural Wealth, an accumulation of audio-video work shown over two days in the CCA cinema. She surreptitiously records property viewings with awkward letting agents, whose voices betray the swaggering uncertainty of financial capitalism: "Can't afford to leave a flat like this empty”, one scoffs, pausing before reflecting: “Unless you're a millionaire.” Against wailing guitar feedback and the rattle of a snare drum, a female voice chants “Who is the keeper of the house?”.
Conversely, an introspective – and peculiarly masculine – melancholia makes several appearances: there’s Mark Leckey’s syphilic figure of Nobodaddy, named for William Blake’s rejected Christian god, who sorrowfully ponders his isolation in the centre of Tramway’s vast, darkened exhibition hall. At Street Level Photoworks, James Pfaff ruminates over a road trip and a relationship, reworking photographs and notebooks with red paint and whitewash. The exhibition title Alex & Me recurs, handwritten, in a laboured repetition of memory and desire. And at The Modern Institute, Urs Fischer’s mechanical snails glide in endless labyrinthine circles around an otherwise vacant cube.
These pensive ruminations rub friction against projects with more overt political and decolonial commitments. Perhaps the most subtle of these is the installation of clay tobacco pipes threaded into intricate webs, containers and lines in the airy Briggait, in an area of the city that was built on the proceeds of slave-grown tobacco plantations. In a new commission, Nadia Myre – a Canadian artist with First Nations heritage – unravels the detritus of Glasgow’s historic links to colonial conquest, while the title of her exhibition, Code-Switching and Other Works, draws attention to the effort of communicating across cultural borders. That this is a labour disproportionately borne by precarious bodies is expressed provocatively in (BUT) WHAT ARE YOU DOING ABOUT WHITE SUPREMACY?, a programme by London-based collective sorryyoufeeluncomfortable at Many Studios, while the raucous remains of South African iQhiya Collective’s invite-only ‘Plenary’ dinner, form the centrepiece at Transmission, performing a politics of exclusion in response to the structural erasure of Scotland’s black artists.
Other interventions aimed at highlighting existent inequalities in the local art scene, include an exhibition by Yon Afro Collective, connecting solitary experiences of women of colour artists, and In Kind, a project by artists Janie Nicoll and Ailie Rutherford mapping the hidden economies and unpaid labour that produce large-scale cultural events like GI. That the latter project made the national news reflects the importance of this conversation to the arts ecology across the UK, not least in light of the cry for help from the volunteer-run Transmission in 2017. It is well-documented that public arts funding often fails to reach the mouths of artists themselves, with rampant low pay threatening the diversity of those able to consider careers as artists. But institutions are slow to respond, and perhaps resistant to change – note the calculatedly delayed release of the 2016 Artist Livelihoods report.
The announcement of the first Glasgow International in 2005 was greeted by many of the city’s artists with undisguised ambivalence. As Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt noted at the time, the biennial was seen by many as a placatory gesture on behalf of a city council that had long neglected its contemporary art scene and consistently failed to produce a visual art policy. In 2018, the festival bestrews a sprawling city, with over 90 venues spanning 12 miles from the suburb of Easterhouse to Pollok Country Park in the south-west. Despite its uneasy beginnings, GI is considered now to be one of the most significant events and a plucky cornerstone of the contemporary visual arts in the UK.
It’s probably for this reason that it was name-dropped in Arts Council England’s commissioned Bristol Visual Arts Review, a report triggered by the withdrawal of regular funding and the threatened closure of Arnolfini. But for artists, the insecurity of the city’s flagship institution is matched by increasingly precarious conditions on the ground. Rent has rocketed by 20% in three years and continues to rise, artists are being evicted from their studios in favour of development, and lack of affordable space means artist-run projects are few and far between.
While the Visual Arts Review accurately identified some of the issues affecting artists in the city, rather than proposing serious investment in support structures for artist-instigated or artist-led initiatives, what was proposed amounted to a rebranding of existing activity as an event with the moniker, ‘The Bristol project’. Considering the astonishing cuts to arts funding delivered by a beleaguered Bristol City Council, it seems unlikely that anything near the ambition of GI – funded by Glasgow Life, a contentious privatisation of the council’s cultural provision – could occur in the near future, without an exceptional philanthropic backer as the not uncontroversial Folkestone Triennial billionaire founder.
Artists would also do well to heed the findings of GI project In Kind and note that this kind of activity is unlikely to result in material – by which I mean cash – support for local artists. On the flipside, local artist-led activities like those of Bristol Biennial and the ceased Hand in Glove, provide well-paid commission and development opportunities for emerging and mid-career artists, in collaboration with arts and community organisations. Instead, the Visual Arts Review tends towards a large-scale event organised by a coterie of institutions, a project that would surely hasten Bristol’s gentrification, creating an ever more hostile environment: for artist survival or meaningful engagement with communities that are themselves under threat.
Like Glasgow, Bristol is built on the proceeds from slavery; today the city is afflicted by serious racial inequality and the visual arts scene lacks diversity in all intersections. Rather than a ‘celebratory’ initiative that performs as a positive city branding exercise, there would be more gravity to a project that turned itself inside out: attending to the city’s vulnerabilities and deficiencies, and making room and giving resource to the critical interventions required to decolonise. While there have been promising, if belated, moves by institutions – note the renaming of Colston Hall – as GI exhibits, it is more often artists who are leading the charge.
Rowan Lear is an artist, writer and organiser.
Working towards a South West where talented artists thrive, and a resilient and connected visual arts ecology that inspires more engaged and diverse audiences to value and advocate for its work.
Part of the Contemporary Visual Arts Network