CLEAN THE CLUTTER AND REPEAT
APRIL 1998 “Glasgow: Onwards and Upwards”, Art Monthly, No.216, May 1998, p26-27. This extended version of this report on the Glasgow appeared in basetext, @ www.succession.uk.com/basetext/
Glasgow’s cultural commissars were smarting this March at the loss of the new parliament to Edinburgh. To make matters worse, Timothy Clifford was refused £30 million Heritage Lottery funding to establish a National Gallery of Scottish Art and Design in Glasgow’s George Square. The same month saw the Edinburgh establishment challenged when Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts and Tramway arts centre both received substantial Scottish Arts Council lottery awards. Tramway’s £2.3 m award will be used to expand its arts spaces, which remain largely unchanged since its origins as a tram depot. Architects Page & Park will be responsible for the £7.5 m re-development of the listed Greek Thompson buildings that comprise the CCA. The CCA has long been in preparation to meet the rigorous assessment it needed to undergo before being allocated its record SAC lottery award. Distinctions between programming departments were eradicated last year with a view to supporting five new performance / exhibition areas, while more flexible and accessible cultural agendas have been pursued.
In order to achieve these ends, however, the CCA has had to provide professional proscriptive cultural pre–sentations. In this, it is not alone. Witness such Edinburgh productions as ‘Natural Science’ at the refurbished Stills Gallery (28th January – 21st March),[i] ‘The Science of the Face’ at the National Portrait Gallery (12th March – 31st May), and ‘Inbreeder’ at the Collective Gallery (21st March – 25th April). The capital is yet to produce anything as sickly as ‘Chocolate’, a sugar-coated pill available for consumption at the Collins Gallery in Glasgow (21st March – 2nd May), although it is highly probable that Andrew Nairne will soon provide a strong challenge to the Central Belt with his new theme park in Dundee.[ii] The anthropological reasoning of the theme-machine has restructured the poorest of art myths, while ensuring that surplus cultural capital is extracted by as few administrators as possible.[iii] Presented as information rather than knowledge, ‘education’ risks being re-established on the pedestal of the very authoritarianism it ought to challenge. Any theme is a boon to outreach programming, which attracts more public funding, which leads to bigger administrations, which need better outreach programmes……[iv]
‘With no commercial gallery infrastructure,’ asserts David Burrows, ‘the power brokers of the country’s art scene are the curators of public institutions and the Scottish Arts Council, which perhaps explains in part Scotland’s cultivation of an institution-friendly form of Conceptualism.’[v] Indeed, established Scottish artists such as Douglas Gordon, Roderick Buchanan and Christine Borland have been producing the kinds of engineered work most eminently compatible with the audience-orientated programming commitments needed to keep public institutions afloat. Their art evokes values of honesty and integrity by way of an illusory simplicity and coolness of tone, limiting themselves to a quantifiable assemblage of denotative thematics. Glasgow Visual Art Projects’ commissioning of Gordon’s Empire, a neon cinema sign situated discreetly in Brunswick Lane, testifies to his user-friendliness. As an example of permanent public art, Empire is a vast improvement on the fascistic monuments customarily favoured by Glasgow City Council, although it guilefully harbours the nostalgic qualities needed to sell it to the narcissistic Second City. Glasgow and Edinburgh do possess an established ‘commercial gallery infrastructure’, although none are as yet willing to deal in conceptual-based works.[vi] Hence, the Modern Institute – established with SAC support by Will Bradley, Toby Webster and Charles Esche – has stepped in to manage this generation of artists. Despite accusatory grumblings of opportunism and nepotism, (Esche is said to have used his tenure at the Tramway to promote this gang of artists), the Modern Institute’s main purpose is magnanimous, as it provides a viable commercial alternative to the contaminations of the private distribution network in London.
While welcoming growth and devolution for the arts in Scotland, Transmission Gallery committee member Robert Johnston is ungratified with some of the work being produced for its promotional sectors: ‘People have been looking at work and saying “that’s a nice idea”. I really hate good ideas. Why not just write them down?’ For Johnston, the demotion of the visceral in established Scottish neo-conceptualism has meant that it is not discordant enough. He has ‘had about enough.’[vii] Certainly, the danger with the current managerial situation in Scotland has been that artists might become content with their allotment rather than continue to explore alternatives. It is therefore crucial that new work not be slurped back into the administrative establishment and absorbed by it. In some quarters of Glasgow there is a will to reassert the opacity of art, and to recover anomaly against the virtue of art as ‘concept’. Transmission exhibitions such as ‘Henry VIII’s Wives’ (until 31st January) and ‘I Love This Life’ (10th February – 7th March) have promoted an interest in work which was not just funny, cynical, clever or weird, but passionate. ‘I Love This Life’ included Micheal Fullerton’s tape of Charlton Heston as the Voice of God (paramount), preserved in a glass wall mounted case as if it were a dead sea scroll. In stark contrast to Lisson object traditionalism, the tape contained no such recording. This had something to do with challenging the fascination with blocking ‘facile’ pleasures, such as identification with the fictional world that makes art possible. Johnston enthuses: ‘The best things in life, and love, are never simple or tidy. The best art can’t be described in a few sentences, if at all. Some times all you can really do is grasp your faith in something, faith that although you don’t quite understand it, it’s worth something, it’s good.’ Fullerton’s Porno, including an abrasive drawing of Siouxsie and the Banshees and a sunrise lamp, fused the Apollonian and Dionysian. The World of Vidal Sassoon, included wall text-pieces celebrating the renowned coiffeur’s resolute political beliefs, and commitment to hairstyling as an expression of freedom. Alongside hung Fullerton’s earnest attempts to represent AC Acoustics, in hair.
If there was an overriding sentiment in ‘I Love This Life’, it was determinedly difficult to grasp. Paul Johnston’s The Most Boring Painting I Have Ever Made, which depicts the top of a cardboard box, was devoid of any traces of lyricism. Yet, simultaneously, the passé proceeduralist mannerisms of much current painting appeared to have been contaminated with a wilful negligence intended to incapacitate those with a penchant for the ascetic. In Jonny Redding’s purposely ingenuous video Hump ‘n’ All, a young boy is ‘cured’ when he uses his hunch-back to save a goal. ‘No hump! No hump! No hump!’, chant his new found friends. Polyvalent, riddled with unofficial inflections, ‘I Love this Life’ provided a complex set of innocent pleasures. The exhibition was less a serious and planned descent into the openly disgusting and dirty, than something intended to be resonant with wonderment, to make seeing oracular again. The production of such a negotiable art surely has much to do with making things than making things up.
Engaging, maximal, emphatically unprofessional, non-technological, non-academic… what more is there to say? This is not the first time artists have sought to function in an alogical space that might resist being colonised by critical agendas. Such work risks turning in on itself, as it has before, becoming auto-erotic, rather than rhetorical. Given that the latest generation suggest that audiences aim to please themselves, we are forced to ask ourselves whether their work is just a means to this pleasure, or a means of pleasing the artist by staving off satiation. For the Transmission’s most recent exhibition, ‘Theme Show’ (April), Alex Frost built a geodesic dome, and spent two weeks living inside it. There is, then, a self-critical awareness that the security of artist-run projects’ can offer a deceptive freedom from intimate control operative in any work situation. Frost seems to relish isolation, which may be welcome only in that it provides respite from playing courtesan to the metropolitan (art)world.
The success of galleries such as Tramway, CCA, and Transmission has created space for smaller venues such as Fly, 18 King Street, Independent Studios, and Free Gallery to provide relatively independent platforms for artists in Glasgow. The independent Glasgow-based Variant magazine recently received some SAC support, remarkable given that its mission has been to challenge the current tendency to ‘stifle any deviation from the cultural packaging and re-packaging of a benign culture of entertainment. This imagined utopia, this Disneyland without the rides, is a product of the repressive prioritisation of public funds which has become social Darwinism run wild.’[viii] This may explain why co-editor Leigh French exhibited a large one-eyed Mickey Mouse in ‘Cupboard Love’ (Independent Studios group show, 8th – 28th February), the title of which, (insincere love professed for the sake of gain), jars with the quixotic zeitgeist prevailing elsewhere.[ix] Much could be said of ‘BARMY artist Ross Birrell who claims a lump of coal he found in a pub is a work of ART worth £3,333. Art critics and politicians have slammed the council sponsored show as “madness.”’[x] ‘Rough Diamond’ at the 18 King Street Gallery (29th August – 14th September 1997) was just one example of Birrell’s many endeavours to produce an artistic Catch-22. While deriding the mythologies of the Glasgow art scene, he does so to his advantage by deliberately overstating and capitalising on his ‘working-class roots’. George Square contains many statues of tobacco barons, and a monument to Walter Scott (who was from Edinburgh!), but no memorials for red Clydesiders such as John MacLean. It would seem that the anonymous lower-ranks must die in war to be remembered by city fathers. To rectify this sorry situation Birrell stood stony still for several hours on a small plinth marked Working Class Hero b. 1969 (17th September 1997), much to the bewilderment of the local press. It was not entirely clear if a (currently unfashionable) class war was being borne out, or if dilettantism was part of the pose. As a lecturer, Birrell can hardly claim to be an alienated worker, so he acts out oppression. His performances aren’t simply about debunking and pricking the balloons of hypocrisy, affectation, pretension and stupidity which dominate the art world, nor are they about the avant-garde destruction of art, they are concerned with opportunists forcing art and its destruction onto everyone else. ‘Clean the Clutter and Repeat.’[xi]
[i]Stills re-opened last year following a £865,000 National Lottery funded re-fit. The new guiding philosophy is public access. The gallery has darkrooms, processing rooms and a computer room for digital imaging, all of which are intended to get audiences involved practically. In this, Edinburgh is attempting to catch up with Glasgow’s more generous support of practising artists.
[ii]‘Blood Money’ (25th December 1998 – 1st January 1999) is a simulating programme combining confidential personal account details and vague conceptions of fiscal ‘otherness’, with an uninformative reproach to banking. Artist-curators John Montague Sandwich & Son Ltd. will address the themes of ‘blood’, ‘banking’ and ‘places’ from the standpoint of their respective credit brokers. Crivvens! A’ll Ca’ the Lugs Aff Ye! is a turf accountant’s impressionistic documentary, wantonly utilising blood-stained ‘picters’ of brotherly ‘tanner fichts’ conjectured to have taken place in Dundee during the 30s. Blood bank donors and financiers feature weakly in Giro, a meditative exploitration of physical journeys to a Dundee DSS as seen from the perspective of a Sufi Gold Card holder, blood group A.
[iii]The fear is that major contemporary art spaces might increasingly begin to resemble Glasgow Museums. The city is still looking for £18.5 million lottery cash to remodel the Kelvingrove into a ‘visitor experience’, scrapping the art gallery and museum to produce instead a themed display of 100 ‘object stories’. Scottish gallery-goers may find themselves with no alternative to what the autocratic Julian Spalding has described as ‘space-age people’s universities’, in which interactive CD ROMS, tapes and visual imagery will tell ‘stories’ about such enlightening themes as ‘self-mutilation’ and ‘Roger the Elephant’.
[iv]Like the Tramway, the CCA receives the bulk of its funding mainly from the SAC and the cash strapped Glasgow City Council, which boasts the highest council tax in the UK (rising at 3 times the rate of inflation) owing to the Conservative’s gerrymandered abolition of the Scottish Regional Councils. Of course the Tramway and CCA are receiving their awards from purchasers of lottery tickets, many of who live in the city’s poorest satellite schemes, (conveniently) cut off from the lustrous city centre, where they have suffered acutely from the Council’s savage spending cuts of £150 m over the last two years. On March 5th the council voted to slash spending by £43.6 m for the coming year. Hence, despite all the talk of public access, the CCA and Tramway refurbishments primarily function as spectacles designed to improve the city’s image abroad. Under New Labour tight budgets are being ruthlessly enforced, even in the erstwhile bastion of municipal socialism. Hence, New CCA will boast increased cafe-bar and bookshop facilities, a restaurant, and rentable office space for ten arts organisations as a means of supporting its activities. Promotion and programming remain independent for the moment, although the appointment of journalist Ruth Wishart – a prominent member of the Association for Business Sponsorship of the Arts – as Chair of the Board of Directors is indicative of the direction in which the Scottish art quangos are having to move if they mean to survive. CCA, which is an independent charitable organisation, is in the busy pub and club district of Sauchiehall Street and is sure to attract extra earned revenue. Tramway, which is owned by Glasgow City Council and located south of the Clyde, may find itself in financial difficulties.
[v]DAVID BURROWS, “Correspondences, Olympic Village, Waves in Particles Out, Beagles & Ramsay”, Art Monthly, No.213, February 1998, p24.
[vi]‘Historically, commercial galleries have never existed in the city [of Glasgow] and no market exists for the kind of work being produced.’ REBECCA GORDON-NESBITT, “Urban Myths: A Tale of Two Cities”, Contemporary Visual Arts, Issue 17, Other British Artists: Art Beyond the yBas, February 1998, p39.
[vii] Johnston is also a member of the Filthy Swan collective (Gary Rough, Toby Patterson, Scott Waugh, Douglas Payne, Iain Dickinson). Visit their award winning website @ http://users.colloquium.co.uk/~r_johnston/tracks.htm
[viii]LEIGH FRENCH, “Editorial”, Variant, Volume 2, Number 1, Winter 1996, p2.
[ix]French has been unsupportive of what he identifies as an uncritical shift towards narcissism: ‘…my frustrations have been in encouraging the younger generation of Scottish based artists/writers to write on anything other than themselves. […] anything apart from what may be perceived as directly benefiting their careers in the gaze of a particular market.’ LEIGH FRENCH, “Me, Myself and I”, Variant, Volume 2, Number 4, Autumn 1997, p12.
[x]NICK GATES, “Artist is in from the Coal”, The Star, Saturday August 3rd 1997, p10.
[xi]ALEX FROST, “A Diary of Nothing”, British Mythic: Urban Romantic Revolution, No. 1, February 1998, 28 King Street, Glasgow.