MY IMMERSIVE EXPERIENCE of the opening days for the sixth Glasgow International biennial began the morning after my arrival, when I had an appointment at a nail salon, part of Alistair Frost’s AZQ<>$@•^. I am usually pretty suspicious of feel-good art, especially when it’s participatory, but this was like a less demanding version of being pampered at the hairdresser, and I left with appliqued pinkies and thumbs. Was I shortchanged any subtexts of gender trouble, gentrification, artistic or social critique? I am not sure. Someone later told me I should have left a tip. Next time.
A morning of gallery viewing in the environs took in a small-but-great show of Chicago imagist Christina Ramberg at 42 Carlton Place and a group show at Modern Institute, where Tobias Madison, Emmanuel Rossetti, and Stefan Tcherepnin had divided the space in two using flesh-colored office carpeting. Madison talked about a month he’d spent going to experimental noise shows in Japan. Tcherepnin told me he had seen zombies in the street after a particularly late install night. It boded well for the artists’ own performance, with several more collaborators, as the band Solar Lice a few days later. “It’s interesting, but not worth ruining my ears for,” one friend said.
Still, it was a counterpoint to the kinds of work that curator Sarah McCrory had chosen for the “Director’s Programme,” the official focus of the Glasgow International. She described her choice to me as an “anti-theme” approach, which left lots of room for a range of work. At one extreme was Anthea Hamilton and Nicholas Byrne’s Love, set in a beautiful disused swimming pool filled with inflatables, including a bouncy cube version of Robert Indiana’s LOVE. I may have once jumped around on Jeremy Deller’s blow-up Stonehenge with my nephew, but I apologetically declined to take off my shoes to get into what Hamilton described as “the love box.” McCrory told the local newspaper that this exhibition might suit people who aren’t sure “if modern art is for them,” describing the inflatables as “lovely objects to look at, and fun.”
More nourishing fare, and no need to remove shoes, was at the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA). During the opening evening, Aleksandra Domanović pointed out the Snow White references in her large celluloid prints of images from sci-fi films, anchored in a 1938 rejection letter from Disney explaining that “women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen.” Upstairs, a gorgeous, lo-fi gallery of Sue Tompkins’s typed words and typographic symbols on sun-marked paper was complemented by an opening-night performance, to a packed room, of the Glaswegian artist’s sound-poems, which seemed half-remembered, half-improvised, and half-read. Urgent, playful, and by turns melancholic and beautiful, they were like Dada-ized E. E. Cummings lyrics, with more beatbox FX.
The McLellan Galleries made for the core venue of McCrory’s curated program. These long-disused spaces without running water (or heating) were also the setting of the opening-night speeches. There was foot stomping and throaty whooping, from what seemed like the entire Glasgow art scene plus friends, as Sarah McCrory started hers: “I’m going to do an HUO, I’ve got my notes on my phone, just so you know I’m not texting my mum,” she said, only then to be repeatedly interrupted by text messages from the audience, one suggesting (it later emerged) she “tell the one about the priest.”
Guests then had some time to look at the works by four artists in this venue: Avery Singer’s large computer-generated paintings responding to modernist forms; Xerox copies of body parts and collage-diaries mixing classical statuary and homoerotic porn by the late Brazilian artist Hudinilson Jr. (a recent discovery of McCrory’s, on a research trip to Brazil); and an ensemble by Charlotte Prodger, who had (inter alia) set Perspex disks next to the holes for electric sockets in the floor, creating an opportunity, at the opening, for accidental shuffleboard. The lower floor of this building was devoted to a miniretrospective of film and video by Jordan Wolfson, who in his work (no less than in person) disorients me with the consistency of his on-brand sound bites. In Glasgow he told me, “I am the happiest I have been in my life so far” and “every work is like digging up a corpse, like excavating it.” One early film in particular, 2004’s The Crisis, made me rethink the sincerity of Wolfson’s artistic ambition, which now, confusingly, seems incredibly sophisticated and incredibly naive at once.
Bedwyr Williams and Michael Smith shared the other main GI space, at Tramway, whose opening festivities were the day after. Williams built a dramatic installation with a dystopian film about a neo-feudalist future ruled by those with the most “stuff.” This space was just as busy as the bar area during the opening; and people leaving the installation of Smith’s films (four works on view in a cinema space, with a disco-ball backdrop and timeline) also left smiling, perhaps humming the catchy melody from Go for It, Mike. Smith’s work leaves no doubt that seriousness is a bad criterion for art. Insight needs humor. But what if our postapocalyptic future is mainly, also, or simply the setup to a funny story? Fair enough, I guess.
The news in Glasgow after the opening was about the city’s (since canceled) plan to demolish the Red Road Flats, a notorious housing estate, as part of the celebrations of the Commonwealth Games later this year. The failure of modernist aspiration turned into spectacle, for voyeuristic enjoyment on TV. There are also wrong ways to make the feel-good feel good. Heading out to one of many afterparties, however, I found myself more in tune with a line of Tompkins’s: “It’s Totally allright to feel upside down and listen.”