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
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
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
, 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.
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
slick installation on tiered plinths was a delightful contrast to the glazed
collapsing faces and rusty figurative pots on show. The gallery invited
to create a
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 ’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
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.
International runs April 4th through 21st. Learn more here.