My first encounter with this year’s Glasgow International Festival, held under the new directorship of Richard Parry, feels like a suitably bodily and corporeal one. Ushered into one of Tramway’s dark, cavernous theater spaces, I’m met with a tableau vivant devised by Tai Shani. For the next half hour, it becomes steadily populated by a diverse cast of bare-breasted female bodies, while a lone figure standing to the side, recites an experimental monologue that conjures fantastical, visceral images, at once violent and erotic. Based on a 1405 proto-feminist text “The Book of the City of Ladies” by Christine de Pizan, it re-imagines female otherness through a rich panoply of language that’s difficult to follow but encourages you to persevere. An episodic performance that consists of 12 distinct chapters, “Dark Continent: SEMIRAMIS” is one of the strongest works on offer in a festival that generally feels lacklustre and flat.
Spread across the entirety of the city, the festival is composed of the Director’s Program across multiple sites as well as collateral exhibitions, projects and events organized by local institutions. Despite the overwhelming number of venues, certain conceptual strands filter through: technology and the body, text and language, often set against a background of socio-political instability and a keen sense of the ever-increasing chasm between utopia and dystopia. Over at the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA), the group exhibition “Cellular World: Cyborg-Human-Avatar-Horror” purports to tackle these themes head on, but it lacks the required urgency. It brings together some well-known pieces including Lynn Hershman-Leeson’s “Seduction of a Cyborg,” 1994; Mai-Thu Perret’s “Les Guerielleres,” 2018, from her “The Crystal Frontier” project; and Cecile B. Evans’ “Something tactical is coming,” 2017, but the effect is that of a deja vu. It doesn’t help that none of the works in this show can compete for attention with the lavishly decorated interior of the gallery; my eyes can’t help but constantly wander up to gawk at the splendor of the ceiling. Similarly, Lubaina Himid’s giant train carriage with dragon-like motifs suspended in mid-air in Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum’s main atrium (“Breaking in, Breaking out, Breaking up, Breaking down,” 2018) feels underwhelming and is a disappointment after a fair trek out of the city center.
A scattering of individual works do stand out and make it worth the trip though. Aside from the aforementioned Shani performance, Mark Leckey — also at Tramway — does not disappoint. A giant, wooden figure of the Biblican Job — initially thought to be a syphilitic man, but which also reminds me of the archetypal figure of the “Thinker” — sits in a darkened space, its body covered in open wounds and sores (“Nobodaddy,” 2018). Out of these floods a torrent of existential thought, mirrored in a large video projection opposite the sculpture. IBS, bogs, swamps, fat, dead rats, shit: it’s not clear whether this is an allegory for where we are headed, or if it’s simply an endless return to a primordial state, but this has me hooked.
Over at Kelvin Hall, Hardeep Pandhal’s solo presentation “Self-Loathing Flashmob” is a fantastic questioning of assimilation and belonging (Pandhal often riffs on his own background as a second generation British Sikh raised in Birmingham), populated by schizoid 2D cut-out figures, pulsating beats and, on the floor above, video footage of disenfranchised student protestors occupying a university lecture theater during the 2010 UK government education cuts. The Mitchell Library not only is worth the trip for its astounding architecture, but for the informal listening space secreted inside it. Set up by Anneke Kampman and Katherine MacBride (“A public library of and for listening”, 2018), it brings together contributions from fellow artists to consider the politics inherent in the relationship between listening, sound and power. Outside of the Director’s Program, Duggie Fields’ all-over show at The Modern Institute is so over-the-top with its macho-kitsch imagery that I can’t help but love it; it also acts as a fine substitute for the caffeine kick that I’m desperately in need of. While some of the headline acts of this year’s Glasgow International don’t live up to their promise, there are enough individual gems that are worth the discovery.
Glasgow International is on through May 7 at various venues in and near Glasgow. More information: http://glasgowinternational.org/
Click on the slideshow for a sneak peek at the show
Founder: Louise Blouin