The Glasgow International Festival Proves its Continuing Relevance

Glasgow International (GI) festival is the most biennial-like non-biennial in the world. That less obvious titling reflects how GI manages to keep its freshness, focusing on the emerging and inventive. To misquote Shakespeare, “a rose by any other name smells as sweet.”

This year’s festival is curated by Sarah McCrory, who made her name as curator of Frieze Art Fair’s London Frieze Projects. It’s a good first effort with 70+ exhibitions at galleries, museums, and project spaces across the Scottish city. GI’s strengths and faults are similar to many biennials: It is impossible to cover the breadth of the festival in a few days, especially the numerous smaller project spaces and the many performances continuing throughout the event. Like Venice, the architecture of Glasgow itself is a star of the event. Wildly beautiful examples of Georgian, late Victorian, and Art Deco buildings litter the city, often in a state of disrepair.

A perfect example of how that environment is used is in Anthea Hamilton and Nicholas Byrne’s “Love” at Govanhill Baths—a closed Victorian swimming pool. The installation, originally shown at the Poplar Baths in London to coincide with the Olympics, consists of giant inflatables printed with images of romantic-themed artworks such as Robert Indiana’s infamous Love text piece and Rodin’s and Brancusi’s respective Kiss. At the heart of the pool is a hollow bouncy castle containing a video work depicting a primitive sculptural head, with psychedelic moving imagery behind its cut-out eyes like a retro lava lamp.

Another disused space that was reopened for this year’s festival was the grand McLellan Galleries, which contained four large solo presentations. Alongside the technology-infused references of three younger artists (Jordan Wolfson, Charlotte Podger, and Avery Singer), the late Brazilian Hudinilson Urbano Junior stood out a mile. Queer scrapbooks, wall collages made from old spoons, building flotsam and magazine clippings, and Xerox self-portraits were a fitting retrospective for this rediscovered name.

Women are noticeably central to McCrory’s programming—from Sue Tompkins’ text works to a fascinating reading event curated by Laura Maclean-Ferris. Aleksandra Domanović took over the central hall space of the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA), filling it with hanging Perspex sheets printed with futuristic, semi-robotic, unrealised machines—playing with ideas of sci-fi and creativity—culminating in a refusal letter by Disney to a wanna-be female animator in the 1930s. Alongside the installation, Domanović put together a free DVD library of sci-fi films. The female relationship to the cybernetic is a discussion she places at the heart of the work in a refreshingly visual way.

Interestingly, it was two private galleries—Mary Mary and The Modern Institute—who put on some of the best presentations of the festival. Mary Mary’s main space was filled with the ceramic works of Jesse Wine, whose slick installation on tiered plinths was a delightful contrast to the glazed collapsing faces and rusty figurative pots on show. The gallery invited Alistair Frost to create a pop-up show off-site, where he created an entirely branded nail bar and showed hyper Pop emoji-illustrative paintings and had his recognizable smileys and martini glass motifs painted on visitors’ nails.

Nearby, The Modern Institute showed Anne Collier’s first solo show in Scotland. The stunning new photographic pieces continue her exploration of the representation of the photographic image, the female body, and the process of looking. The muted calm of the images was an interesting contrast to the gallery’s second group show “Life & the Invitation & Vapour in Debris,” which was entered through the facade of a horror house and consisted of pink-carpeted, angular walls and floors, iodine pump sculpture, and the tinny chirp of mechanical birds.

There were two shows, however, that stood out from the entire festival—Bedwyr Williams and Michael Smith at Tramway. Williams, who gained many fans for his incredible installation and film at Wales in Venice during last year’s Venice Biennale, created a dystopian, trash-culture nightmare for Glasgow. Entering Tramway’s cavernous main space though a small fake woodland, viewers encountered a large coach bus with its lights on, surrounded by discarded suitcases. The cases and bus doubled as seating, where viewers could watch a film depicting an apocalyptic Britain in chaotic, violent decline from over-consumption and class upheaval. Williams asserted himself as a true original.

Michael Smith is less known in the UK, especially to younger audiences, and this show emphasises how relevant and contemporary his work is. The artist had two rooms at Tramway; one was filled with small corner installations riffing on the sets in his video pieces, which were shown on old TVs, alongside photoworks, projection pieces, and ephemera. His performance film Baby Ikki Changing Station (1978/2013) was shown on a screen sitting on a diaper-changing table. His second space was a large, seated theatre where four of his films were screened, including the slideshow work USA Free Style Disco Championship (1973/2003), which documents Smith’s entrance to an empty, sad dance contest, and Go For It, Mike (1984), an exceptional pastiche of televisual clichés and the American dream. In between each film, the screen became transparent, revealing a twirling disco ball, a puff of dry ice, and colored stage lights. The results were a hypnotic representation of the passing of time.

In many ways GI is a perfect summation for a lot of the trends in contemporary art practice: the rediscovery and re-contextualisation of the past; the relationship between technology, society, and medium; an emphasis on video and animation, context and space. The seriousness of its visitors, which included the Kunsthalle Zurich’s Beatrix Ruf and Martin Clark from the Bergen Kunsthall, as well as a large swathe of young artists from across the UK, prove Glasgow and the festival’s continuing relevance.

Images: Sarah McCrory, Director of Glasgow International 2014; photograph by Donald Milne. Anthea Hamilton and Nicholas Byrne’s Love at Govanhill Baths; Avery Singer at the grand McLellan Galleries; Hudinilson Urbano Junior at the grand McLellan Galleries; Jordan Wolfson at the grand McLellan Galleries; Aleksandra Domanović installation at GoMA;  Bedwyr Williams at Tramway; and Michael Smith at Tramway.

The Glasgow International runs April 4th through 21st. Learn more here.