Glasgow International: Lovely Young People and the free will of artworks…

Lovely Young People (Beautiful Supple Bodies) (2012) Rosalind Nashashibi (video still)

I recently made the most minimal of efforts to see two of the works at the Glasgow International [GI] art festival. Mostly because I just wasn’t in town until the last day, and then on that day, well…I was tired!

(I still have plans to see the Wolfgang Tillmans exhibition at the Common Guild and noting that it’s on for a wee while longer, I decided not to overdo things on my day in the big city.)

To be honest I only really wanted to see the Rosalind Nashashibi co-commissioned artwork: A short, 16mm film of the Scottish Ballet at rehearsals in their Glasgow studio. On first view it is unclear why we (or the artist) are watching the dancers…is it about the dance? their skills? (their beautiful supple bodies, indeed?) behind-the-scenes secrets? It is initially unclear. But as one looks…and by this I mean, slow-down, really look, take time, allow the film to wash over you…it becomes clearer. It is a beautiful film.

The dancers are shot entirely as their mirrored, reflected selves, literally in the mirrors surrounding the dance studio; or we only ‘see’ them in the reflected gaze of the various onlookers; the invited public guests who have popped in to watch the rehearsals for free. Indeed the watchers are on-film as much as the dancers, and it is Nashashibi’s eye-as-camera-lens which is as inquisitive as our own might be, had we the bravado to stare as intently, that makes the film so absorbing. And staring is what Nashashibi allows us to do. The camera-eye roves around the scene, lingering over detail, focussing in and out; at the people watching; at the dancers.

It is also the exchange between these other-worldly bodies and the Scottish public that is inspired in the work. I find layers here; we would normally watch the dancing live on stage, in a theatre – where to all extents and purposes the audience are darkened, secreted – they don’t exist once the lights fall and the curtain rises, yet the proximity of the dancers, and the exchange of applause at the end is what engages live performance. Conversely, we are also used to watching ballet through our media devices and the screen. From ballet film The Red Shoes in 1948, where the non-linear editing allows us to see a fantasy in the ballet we would never be able to onstage, to the now commonplace TV and cinematic presentations of the live stage performances themselves. Here, the audience is so removed from the performance we can only imagine the experience of being there. Finally, and perhaps most relevant is exemplified by recent New Zealand TV series The Secret Lives of Dancers which follow the Royal New Zealand Ballet company on tour, mostly through their grueling rehearsals and their on-camera, personal and emotive, trials and tribulations. There is an uncannily similar feel to the Nashashibi film when one first sits down with Lovely Young People (Beautiful Supple Bodies). Visually we erupt into a view of a behind the scenes rehearsal, in the familiar dance studio, surrounded by the barre and the floor to ceiling mirrors. But the lack of audience in The Secret Lives of Dancers; the lack of exchange; that which is missing is the TV series, is what is so  abundantly important to Lovely Young People (…) and what sets it apart. The resulting work is poetic, and thoughtful. The camera takes on the role of one of the dancers.

The image above is linked to a review of the GI in the scotsman online. It is not a flattering review of the festival, and unfortunately it doesn’t hold the same regard for the film as I do. It oddly suggests that the film would have been “unremarkable on YouTube”. What a bizarre thing to say! One wouldn’t watch it on youTube? Or at least, if one did, surely it would be within an understanding of the lack of, or shift in context from the intention of the artist, or any exhibitor? The writer appears to have missed the intention of the film completely…perhaps he didn’t take time to ‘look’.

He does however paint a fairly reasonable picture of some of the other works, in my opinion.

For example, I personally chose not to go and see the Jeremy Deller work Sacrilege. There was great secret surrounding the work, and the public were not allowed to know anything about it until it went ‘live’ for the festival. It is a bouncy castle replica of Stonehenge. Gettit? Yup…and now move on… I imagine that’s as much thought as went into the work before it was passed over to some designers to get the dimensions correct and then the factory where it was made, by some specialist team of bouncy castlers.

I’m not against the object itself and I really like the fact that it has brought a diverse audience to interact with it and have fun. I’m all for fun! In fact, my friend got a bouncy castle for her four-year-old’s birthday party this year! But as a co-commission between the GI and the Mayor of London, it feels a lot more to do with London hosting the Olympics (it will now travel to London for exhibition during the Olympics) than it does, anything to do with Scotland…

Shall I mention New Zealand artist Inez Crawford’s Bouncy Marae (2007) or Brooke Andrew’s Bouncy Castle War Memorial (2010) (shown at the 17th Biennale of Sydney) or Tom Dale’s leather, bouncy castle Department of the Interior (2012) ?

Finally I do want to mention the other work I did go and see at the GI; Karla Black’s Empty Now (2012) which took over the lower floor of the Gallery of Modern Art [GOMA]. To be honest I wasn’t going to go and see this either. I saw her work at the 54th Venice Biennale last year and it’s not really my thing…BUT, a friend said they’d enjoyed so I thought a would go and make up my mind after having seen the work. So again...it’s not really my thing…but it was a good thing to go and see, for nothing if not its impressive scale (17 tonnes of sawdust…) and few offshoot fun things that happened around it.

1) Apparently (or so I read) the “Glasgow people” (who are they?) have affectionately named it the Tiramisu. (I’m not going to mention any other words scottish people use that they themselves deem ‘affectionate’ where others in the world might not…)

But when you see the picture – you can see why:

In fact, this one review relates the artwork only to confectionery and Glasgow’s Italian heritage which I think may have missed the point somewhat…?

I much prefer my grumpy friend from the Scotsman’s review: “One work, Empty Now, an enormous, rectangular layer cake of sawdust, fills the entire space between the columns. The top layer is below eye level and is ordinary yellow sawdust. Beneath this, the dust of darker woods creates the layer cake effect. Here and there around the pile the artist has kicked a hole and put little bits of worked wood nearby as though the sawdust had playfully reconstituted itself, or this whole huge pile was a by-product of making these tiny objects. At various points, too, handfuls of brush-on makeup beads are scattered on top of the pile. They contribute very little, however, except as the artist’s signature use of makeup and bathroom products. Although visually inseparable, Will Attach, hanging above, consists of draped wreaths of polythene, stained with various unguents from the dressing table, is nominally a separate work.

Nearby in a cupboard hidden in an alcove, with a distinct echo of Damien Hirst’s medical cabinets, lines of make-up bottles are ranged above a drawerful of sawdust. I suppose it is an epitome of the whole thing, but it doesn’t add much. Without any of the cutesy bits, the sawdust layer cake could be quite a grand piece of minimalism, but even that is really just because of its scale. Like Dr Johnson’s talking dog, what is actually done is less remarkable than the fact of it being done at all.”

2) Secondly I really, really like my own experience of visiting the work;

Upon arrival at GOMA, I carefully read the health and safety signs before entering the gallery where the work was presented. The signs, and their warnings were large, and in front of the entryway to the exhibition, so much so that you had to walk around them to pass through the doorway. As i entered the room, I was therefore mindful not to touch (I mean, you don’t want to get your artwork etiquette the wrong way round between a pile of sawdust and a bouncy castle, right?) and made aware that I might sneeze (Ironically, two things that perhaps cancel each other out, through no fault of your own?)

I was then a little bit annoyed that I was also thrust a sheet of paper (in a way I couldn’t refuse) that reiterated this ‘safety’ information should I forget the ‘rules’ as I walked (anti-clockwise) around the work. I have to say that initially this kind of took away from the experience somewhat, at the end of the exhibition were they going to keep the work whole and ship it somewhere else? (I don’t know about you but the other night, I couldn’t get my Tesco Tiramisu safely home without it all flopping into one end of the container.) Perhaps for me, one of the more interesting questions might be, how does sawdust react/change/shift under the pressure of gravity over time, having been made into a shape…a wood-like shape, indeed; a shape that could have made out of wood, had you not wanted the shape to shift…?

Then this happened:

SECURITY GUARD: (into walkie-talkie) “Hello? Another piece has just broken off and fallen onto the floor. Over”

DISEMBODIED VOICE ON OTHER END OF THE WALKIE-TALKIE: “What? Of it’s own free will?”

EMBARRASSED SECURITY GUARD WHO SUDDENLY REALISES A) WE ARE ALL LISTENING, B) THE ABSURDITY OF HIS JOB IN LIGHT OF THE ARTWORKS ‘FREE WILL’: “Roger that.”

I smiled a lot. I looked around for the bit that had fallen, and couldn’t work out where it was compared to other bits that may have fallen, or been placed there by the artist at the start of the show. I quickly scanned the rest of the artworks in the room and thought about the free will of artworks and trying hard to enjoy an artwork that i wasn’t really enjoying. I handed my sheet of rules back to the guard and figured I’d actually had quite a full day.

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