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What struck me the most about Glasgow’s international contemporary art biennale wasn’t so much the work but the spaces it was exhibited in. The palatial expanses of the numerous empty factories, warehouses, centres of administration and manufacturing are both an indictment and monumental visual document of a city that was once a mighty force of industrialism. For artists it’s a welcome by-byproduct as these idle shells are once more inhabited and put to use. It’s a theme of what is a relatively new addition to the contemporary arts calendar, the post-industrial transformation of what was once a global manufacturing, steelmaking and shipbuilding powerhouse.

Now enervated and in fluxes as the once skilled craftsmen and women and labourers of the Clyde are forced to face the transformation that has devastated a similar host of cities in the western world. None of this is new of course, Glasgow has been in this transient state for decades. And despite it’s industrial past has always had an equally vibrant, rich and world-beating reputation as a cultural titan, punching well above its weight. Just recently Glasgow has, for the first time, hosted the Turner Prize, due in part to that reputation, and because it has supplied 30% of the grand art prizes winners and nominees. And despite the inevitable problems, austerity and social imbalances of Glasgow society, the fact it is so far north, detached from London, and is relatively one of the cheapest cities (recent surveys named it as one the UK’s ten most affordable cities) to live in has its bonuses for the arts community. Rents are relatively cheap and generous on the space front. As I’ve already said, there is a staggering amount of it available. The trouble, though this will change overtime, is that at the moment some exhibitions seem lost, whilst others spaces are more run-down and unintentionally on occasions take over from the art: the architecture of Glasgow is almost unparalleled in its magnificence, and so seeing the peeling old wallpapers, crumbling features and distressed craftsmanship of the buildings themselves is almost as interesting, sometimes more so, than the artwork. Filling these cavernous stages can be daunting, and some of the work is either too insular or small to fill it. But this seems a minor quibble for a festival in only its twelfth year, already one of the most eagerly anticipated and energetic of its kind on the world stage.

Jock Mooney

Jock Mooney




Glasgow at least seems like a city that encourages its artists. Yet unlike the Basel’s and Venice’s of the more gaudy contemporary art industry, the lucre and investment camarilla seem to be missing. This is a festival of actual ideas rather than commodity. The price tags removed entirely. It is in many ways refreshing.

Staged across the city, with sporadic enclaves in every direction, spreading out from the epicenter of Glasgow, there is over seventy shows, 50 live performances and 220 artists to see during the festival’s 18 days programme. We have so far covered 20 miles in two days, and still only seen a third of the shows. Here’s our meandering guide to those spaces and artists we did see, starting from our home on the Southside in Shawlands to over the Clyde in Trongate.


Southside/ Sheriffs Court

Part of the Director’s programme, tapping into the central theme of production, manufacture, culture, design, history and labour, the group show at Glasgow’s Tramway makes use of the original structures industrial past. Once home to the, much-missed trams of Glasgow, long since renovated into a colossal arts space, it is a smaller scale turbine hall Modern Tate. The features, including the rail grooves, which once were used to transport the trams around on, are utilized for a duo of mixed media and knitted appendage covered trolleys by Alexandra Bircken. In a corner of the same space, Shelia Hicks’s Mighty Mathilde And Her Consort large ‘Menhir tower’ of tangled wool, kept together by fish and pigeon nets, creeps up a column to the ceiling, whilst a few strands stretch out into those same rail grooves and against the opposing wall, another large display of wool is this time used almost like a type of insulation and barrier.


Lawrence Lek

Lawrence Lek




Greeting the visitor, in-between the sheets of corrugated concrete, is a narrated film and a scale model of Lawrence Lek’s QE3. Conceived as a fantastical project, explained and illustrated by a virtual reality video that imagines the long since decommissioned Clyde built QE2 renovated as a new home for the Glasgow School of Art. In a journey from its Dubai dry dock – where it lays presently languishing, unused – across a sea voyage of various hotly contested topics (from passing by refugee boats on the Med and oil rigs of the North Sea), it returns to its spiritual home. It says many things of course, but it also drew comparisons between the two countries, both reinventing themselves out of a necessity, as even Saudi Arabia knows its once rich oil reserves are both limited and steadily losing value in a post-crash world.

Kate V Robertson

Kate V Robertson




Moving onto the Gorbals, heading towards the Clyde itself, the area that surrounds Glasgow Sheriff court is rich in both pop-up and sporadic gallery spaces. Kept almost discreet, there are some great derelict and left previously unused rooms, hallways and staircases to investigate. The first of these, Oxford House, you’ll need to buzzer in, before making your way through what looks like a Premier Inn styled corridor and up a flight of stairs into a massive, distressed space – the ceiling stripped entirely to show its old wooden beams. Underfoot as you make your way into the room is Kate V Robertson’s concrete casts of various food containers: hundreds of them. From discarded Chinese/Indian take away plastic tubs to yoghurt pots, Robertson’s palette of subtle grey cobbles are allowed to crumble into dust. Already, only on day three of the event, the site-specific floor was beginning to show signs of heavy ware. By the end of the festival, I’d imagine it would be completely grounded into the original wooden floor. A giant discolored hand hangs over the strange building site, whilst at the edges there is another concrete structure made of balanced cones, and a spiraling cymbal, held to the ceiling by a string of cast fingers. It’s an odd exhibition but somehow these strange sculptures seem to fit their surroundings congruously.

In the next set of rooms there is a series of sketches and paintings by the painter Carol Rhodes. A quiet but interesting discovery, off the beaten track, Rhodes lovely muted depictions of industrial landscapes, forests, car parks and quarries pose questions of authenticity and naturalism. The flat topography of her work is to some extent illusory. Flattened and subtly abstracted renderings, the geography is made up perhaps of what we might believe we saw at a glance whilst passing overhead. The roads and lie of the land is itself a mystery: are we following the trail south to north, east to west or in an entirely different direction?

Carol Rhodes

Carol Rhodes




Around the corner, facing the Sheriffs court itself, is 16 Nicholson Street, a narrow building that features two gallery spaces over two floors. For the festival the site is showing both the work of Duncan Marquiss and Toby Christian, a congruous pairing if there ever was one, not just to each other but the environment. Their work is quite minimal in production and aesthetic, with a series of pulsing flecked and ghostly paled monochrome grainy videos and various wallpaper like exercises in mark making. If anything the work, as I’ve said before is equally sharing the billing with the space, the visitor (as the accompanying catalogue says) invited to, ‘occupy it momentarily and change its topology with their presence’.


Louis Michel Eilshemius

Louis Michel Eilshemius



Further up the road, spitting distance of the Clyde is the lawyers and solicitor district. Located in a classical Glasgow three-storey (with basement) Georgian townhouse, the occasional exhibition space 42 Carlton Place is displaying a number of outsider, naïve, paintings and miscellaneous items of the late eccentric artist Louis Michel Eilshemius. The USA’s answer to France’s Henri Rousseau who was championed famously by Picasso, Eilshemius was likewise championed, or indulged, by marcel Duchamp – though whether compelled by irony or subversion we’ll never know. It is whatever the spin terribly painted. Almost all the effort applied to the background, or on the face of a blushing nubile muse, washing her hair and bathing under a waterfall, the concentration is ad hoc at best, the picture never quite right and perspective…well, tossed out of the picture altogether. The falling from the edge of a hilltop soldier in the daft War would make even Tony Hancock’s comedic artist from The Rebel embarrassed. If he didn’t exist, and I’m still unconvinced he did despite the evidence to the contrary, you’d have to make I’m up. A poor man’s Puvis, celebrated by the Avant Garde for his naivety and unique style, he was a dabbler if anything, his mental instability and struggles played out on the canvas for our whimsy.


Central

Heading over the Clyde, onto the northern bank of the city, we visited the Dixon Street gallery of spaces to see a series of luminesce cartoon paintings by Emily Mae Smith. Featuring Mickey Mouse’s sorcerer’s apprentice broom as a vessel character, Smith’s vibrate palette depicts the protagonist in a guise of artistic styles, from Warhol to airbrushed psychedelic posters of the 1960s American west coast. Framing some of her paintings with rows of squared teeth, waiting to chomp down on the viewer, our gaze is often reflected back at us (through the mirrored glasses of the cosmic Honest Espionage for example) in a nonplussed, nonchalant manner. In effect we become the subject.


Cosima Von Bonin

Cosima Von Bonin




A big-hitter of the international scene in recent years, the German installation artist Cosima Von Bonin receives an auspicious platform at the GoMA. Featuring the soft furnished sea creatures in anthropomorphic diorama staples of Bonin’s recurring underwater themed projects, Who’s Exploiting Who in The Deep Sea? is a disturbed, adult Dreamworks Aquatic version of the world above. Well made and crafted, a series of tableaus depicting cuddly clams, lobsters and octopuses in humanistic circumstances, whether sitting at a school desk, or spread-eagled on a bathing chair, are interspersed among a number of interesting appliqué canvases – mixing layers of patterned fabric, speech bubbles and sown doodlings. Three larger scale pieces run parallel down the centre of the gallery, including a hunched-over soft character sitting astride a massive rocket, a group performance of toys hooked up to various instruments, effects pedals and microphones, performing a techno soundtrack and a pair of stilted huts, dubbed ‘Scotland’ and ‘England’. All facets of humanity are enacted, the analogy of the shallow and deep end made apparent, in this collection, which serves as a mini retrospective, with works dating from as far back as 2006. Though conception and making is done well, the whole tableau, diorama, call it what you will, feels like an anticlimax: the life all but missing.

Cosima Von Bonin

Cosima Von Bonin





Trongate/Merchant City

Slightly off-centre, though not exactly in the east end, the artistic, cultural hub of Trongate can already boast a number of high-profile galleries. First off our list was the impressive Briggait, a renovated fish market come studio and office space that houses a host of arts charities, dance companies and a rather decent café. Showing in the front gallery spaces of the Briggait, the vivid colourist print and installation artist Jock Mooney asks ‘Who Are You and What Do You Want?’. With garish displays of turd and cookie-dough smeared cartoon cat and Marie-Antoinette heads and ritualistic food-related installations are placed on the brightest of lurid printed mats, Mooney’s palette is extremely bright and grotesque, its subject matter not only his own personal concerns and fears, but the extremely rare two-face congenital genetic condition known as ‘diprosopus’ that affects both humans and animals. Alongside these strange tableaus are a series of inked drawings that mix up a cornucopia of tattoo, skateboard and religious symbols. It’s all well executed of course and leaves a lingering impression.

Jock Mooney

Jock Mooney




With two spaces within walking distance, The Modern Institute featured a duo of exhibitions in both its atelier Aird’s Lane site and Osborne Street HQ. In the first of their spaces, across the road from the Briggait, the Polish artist Monika Sosnowska had remade a twisted, distorted sculptural site-specific replica of an original stairwell from the Osiedle Slowackiego estate in Lublin, Poland. A meditation on the ‘Open Form’ philosophy of constructing sociological spatial structures on the principle of human activity, the imposing monument lies in a state of scrapped distress, all mangled and unloved. It seems very much at odds, squeezed into its Glasgow space, though fits with the festivals overriding theme of working within the confines of a post-industrial landscape.

Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan

Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan




In the main gallery, a short walk away towards the Trongate area of the city, Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan were pondering with ‘A Petition For An Enquiry Into A Condition Of Anxiety’. Previous artworks (such as the reimagined Loch Ness monster piece from their Direct Serious Action Is Therefore Necessary show, here made into a cute ‘four-part cruet set’) by the duo are scaled down to 1:20 size and turned into decorative ornaments and fancy paper weights for a Memphis group style desk hub, which emits a soliloquy on the expectations and pressures of the institutions that exhibit such art. Behind this central receptionist desk come media centre is a display of black and white photographs depicting a number of Glasgow artists in their studios. Some are instantly recognizable but all are well known within the city; working in isolation the window from their garrets looking out onto the (that word again) industrial landscape that both feeds into and inevitably affects their art.

Another Glasgow institution of contemporary art practice, Transmission offers various opportunities with both a number of gallery spaces, studios and printmaking facilities. All housed in the same complex, it offered the greatest concentration of shows to investigate. The first of which, just off the main street, attacked the senses with its upstairs-situated computer-generated film of a copulating avatar sticking it to misshapen lumps of potato as a soundtrack of techno music pumped away at our ears. Downstairs in the low ceilinged basement it was like entering a Tresor fuck club, as the music bounced off the confined space and assaulted us. It was an overload of noise and flashing imagery that left us exiting in a hurry from the artist Sidsel Meineche Hansen’s dungeon, but then it was called ‘No Right Way 2 Cum’, which may indeed be true, but it’s something we weren’t willing to wait around to find out.

Cameron Morgan

Cameron Morgan




There are countless artists cooperatives, self-help groups and charities at work in the city, one of which, Project Ability is hosting two shows at Transmission, where they have workshops and space for those with various mental and physical disabilities. The first of which is by the self-taught Scottish multi-media artist Cameron Morgan, who has been attending the studio since the early 1990s. Unburdened by the pressures and self-referential art history of much of the work at this festival, Morgan’s clearly joyful journey through iconic television shows is immediate and uncomplicated. It’s the only work that seems to be produced because the artist simply wishes to share an interest, rather than enter a clever discourse or philosophical commentary, hidden beneath multi-layers of meaning. From Doctor Who to The Voice, he puts each show in its time, framed by a suitable TV set and wallpaper design from the era – the Laurel And Hardy being a particular favourite. An accompanying video takes you through his process, embodying a non-cynical spirit of art practice. Morgan’s series of ten vibrant, excitable and simply rendered paintings will bring a smile to even the most cold-hearted and snobby of art lovers: Sometimes its just life affirming to see art for art’s sake, or as a therapeutic process. If anyone is a poster boy/girl for this year’s festival than it’s Morgan.

Also appearing under the Project Ability project banner, the self-taught artist from New York, Derrick Alexis Coard, is showing his first exhibition outside his native city. Afflicted to the Healing Arts Initiative, and curated by Matthew Higgs (synonymous for curating and promoting some of the most cutting conceptual work of British artists over the last two decades, now the director of New York’s White Columns) Coard’s sketched and painted bearded African American men portraits are named after biblical, spiritual and cultural quotes and titles. They are all imaginary, not perfect but embodying a positive role, rather than pity or outrage they are meant to shine a sympathetic light on the African American community. It is a repetitive process, each character essentially the same but somehow subtly changing over time, fashion and stylistically, and is, as Coard puts it in his artist statement a ‘symbolic expression for possible change in the African American community.’

Walking well over 20kms in two days, and still only seeing a third of the exhibits, without even counting the various performance pieces, the Glasgow International is still a modest affair. Down back streets, inside shopping arcades, distressed and dilapidated buildings that have long since lost their original purpose, one generation takes back spaces previously used for commerce and industry one step at a time. There are of course the massive empty shells too, but even in these locations the artwork is kept small, those sprawling spaces almost intimidating.

With austerity biting hard, and a long history of deprivation, Glasgow’s artists are bringing a welcome attention to the city we now call home – moving here in the summer of 2015. This is especially the case with tourism – taking over from Scotland’s capital Edinburgh –, which may just, if it hasn’t already, become Glasgow’s most important and biggest industry. They can certainly host the grandest and most magnificent of events, as we’ve experienced, with the International biennale being no exception.


 

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