Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art: Tomorrow’s world today

The Herald
21 April 2010

One half of Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho Back and Forth and To and Fro at Tramway. Picture: The Herald

First off, a word of warning to anyone who had considered making off with one of the 50 white bicycles released into the city as part of NVA’s interactive Glasgow International work White Bike Plan: you’re being watched. An informal network of bike spies has sprung up on Twitter, using the hashtag code #whitebikes to keep tabs on where the white bikes are for other users, as well as photographing and shaming those spoilsports who’ve attached their own padlocks to the bikes, effectively taking them out of free circulation. The point of White Bike Plan is that the bike is only yours until the next rider who knows the padlock code comes along: your reporter managed to secure one at the GI Hub on Miller Street (where there’s a handy courtyard space to practise in case you’re rusty in the saddle) but after two hours parked outside Tramway the bike had been Tweeted about and reclaimed back into the wild. Artistic anarchy in action.

It feels appropriate that a reworked version of a 1960s anti-car project should be monitored on Twitter as part of a festival themed loosely around ‘past, present and future’: this year GI has a new director in Katrina Brown and a new set of priorities. During 2008’s festival, the main gallery space of GOMA was given over to Jim Lambie’s kitschy, hypercoloured sculptural set Forever Changes. The impact of this year’s flagship piece, Fiona Tan’s 2005 video installation Tomorrow, is deliberately more muted: a perpetually looping film projected over two juxtaposed screens runs over the pupils of a Swedish high school, lining the streets. Its message is effective, if simplistic: this is tomorrow. This endless line of kids who flirt, hug, look bored, and make private jokes we can’t hear or understand, whose jeans and bomber jackets jar against GOMA’s Victorian grandeur, is our future.

By contrast, Croatian artist David Maljkovic has turned his lens on the past. Images With Their Own Shadows uses flickering, dated-looking 16mm film and noisy Soviet-era projectors to screen two short films connected to pieces of public architecture created in the heyday of the former Yugoslavia. The pleasure pavilions and war monuments shown here were designed to commemorate or celebrate, built as everlasting reminders, but, as a series of collaged works juxtaposing the original architectural plans for Zagreb’s 1949 Yugoslav Pavilion over contemporary photographs of the site (now a car park and fleamarket) shows, proved themselves as susceptible to the destructive mechanisms of history as the Yugoslav state itself.  Referencing the EXAT 51 movement of the post-war years, which began rejecting the dominant Soviet-style social realism for abstract expressionism, Maljkovic examines how architecture manipulates and influences public political feeling: particularly unsettling are shots of modern day Croatian teenagers opening their mouths and being unable to talk, layered over audio footage of an interview with Vjenceslav Richter, one of the key EXAT 51 architects.

Maljkovic seems to have tapped into a theme underpinning many of the exhibitions at this year’s festival: the way publically accessible imagery, whether on the street, distributed through the media or accessed through pop culture, feeds a collective consciousness.  This has always been Douglas Gordon’s area of expertise of course, and for GI he revisits one of the pieces that first brought him to public attention, in the very venue that first commissioned it. 24 Hour Psycho Back and Forth and To and Fro is a 2008 update of Gordon’s original 1993 piece, with two versions of the Hitchcock’s classic horror film running at different speeds on a huge splitscreen. Psycho is now such public property that a pop culture-informed audience cannot be as surprised or thrilled by the plot as intended. Gordon’s split screen plays on that foreknowledge, but this new reframing for GI uses the cavernous, pitch-black space of Tramway 1, where the only sound in the room is the eerie screech of ravens from his smaller, Gothic-referencing, video installation Looking down with his black, black ee, to reawaken us to the film’s ability to elicit fear.

It’s perhaps unfortunate for Keren Cytter that her video work Four Seasons, which also references Psycho, has been programmed just across the corridor from Gordon’s, as they’re two artists with wildly different budgets and aesthetic approaches. Framing a story of domestic violence with the sweeping soundtrack of a 1950s Hollywood thriller, Four Seasons features a number of shots of fake blood dripping down tiled surfaces, as well as a mysterious male protagonist who spends his time bellowing ‘Stella!’ a la Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. The acting on show is tooth-grindingly bad, but while artists’ films don’t tend to be considered in Best Actor races come Oscar time, what they usually manage to do, even with deliberately lo-fi production values, is promote a coherent aesthetic. Strangely, given her promising reputation, Cytter never seems sure enough of her reference points to establish their connection with the viewer, and the Hitchcockian potential of spiral staircases and candles is wasted in a meaningless jumble of badly-shot iconography.

Next door in Tramway 2, Christoph Büchel’s huge, immersive installation LAST MAN OUT TURN OFF LIGHTS engages instantly, plunging its viewers into three interconnected set-pieces, all intricately-recreated versions of environments off-limits to outsiders. Two narrow pub spaces, their entrance separated by a rusty urinal, back onto each other, one decked out with Rangers scarves and memorabilia, the other Celtic green; the various rooms of a high-security prison, and finally some sort of salvage yard, into which the fuselage of a plane, ripped apart by some sort of impact and surrounded by tables of passengers’ belongings, stacked, categorised and terrifyingly charred, has been brought. This part of the exhibition has attracted outrage from protestors who feel that it exploits the Lockerbie disaster, but although the installation may be understandably distressing for a Scottish audience, there’s nothing here that especially suggests that specific tragedy. This plane could be any crash we’ve witnessed briefly through our television screens, brought close enough for us to touch the burnt-out seats, shattering the safe complacency of voyeurism. All three spaces have been completely abandoned, mid-use — the absence of people, even as we still smell them and are surrounded by the very banal evidence of life, is almost sickening. A spilled can of Pepsi drips stickily down a filing cabinet, televisions still fill the empty pubs with the roars of football crowds, printed notices demanding ‘This door must be locked at ALL TIMES’ peel away from prison doors hanging worryingly open. Clearly, a disaster has occurred, but in the absolute absence of context our brains are left to race through vast archives of news footage and cinematic imagery the installation evokes to create our own narrative explanations, an indictment of a collective consciousness all too prone to sensationalism.

Originally published here.

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