Glasgow International: Safe but Studded with Gems

Glasgow International: Safe but Studded with Gems
Rosalind Nashashibi, Lovely Young People (Beautiful Supple Bodies), 2012
(Commissioned by Scottish Ballet and GI Festival. Courtesy of the artist)

Glasgow is the UK's other art capital. Even if the last three Turner Prize winners were not all born or based in town, Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art would single-handedly justify this claim. Now in its 5th edition, GI (as it's known to the locals) has consistently managed to attract some of the biggest names while keeping an eye on the emerging. Every other April, the museums and commercial galleries of Scotland's largest city put on their most ambitious projects, and artist-led initiatives crop up in every nook and cranny. Although this year's line-up feels somewhat safe — Wolfgang Tillmans, Teresa Margolles, Rosalind Nashashibi, Jeremy Deller, Richard Wright — GI offers a satisfyingly meaty experience, one that could easily hold its own against better-known biennial events.

Co-commissioned with the Scottish Ballet, Nashashibi's film "Lovely Young People (Beautiful Supple Bodies)," is a moving take on the distance that can separate artists and athletes from the "real" world. Here, Scottish Ballet dancers are recorded during rehearsals. Members of the local community, old ladies, a mother and her daughter, and policemen are invited to come in and watch. The friction is palpable: dancers try to be welcoming while feeling intruded upon; visitors are thrilled by the performers' grace but all-to-aware of their own incongruity. The forced meeting turns missed encounter as participants fail to engage with each other, each stuck in their cocoon of unease.

Teresa Margolles, best known for her work on violence in her home country of Mexico, is presenting one of the first pieces addressing the recent UK riots. During her 3-month residency at Glasgow Sculpture Studios last summer, the artist went to Croydon, South London, immediately after the events. She collected debris from the streets and transformed them into a puny little diamond: the gem of a youth wasted and ignored by politicians until it set the streets on fire. A text piece carved in the wall reads: "A Diamond for the Crown." It sounds like a dark omen for the Queen's jubilee celebrations, a facetted thorn in the side of the forthcoming nationalistic extravaganza.

Despite her over-exposure in the last 18-months, Karla Black has pulled off a monumental installation that feels fresh, and different. The 17 tons of sawdust she arranged in layers of different colours in the baroque hall of Glasgow's Gallery of Modern Art are delicately ephemeral, as if capturing of a moment about to dissolve. There's a similar sense of latent performativity in Folkert de Jong's intimate exhibition "The Immortals" at Glasgow School of Art. His carnivalesque mannequins mingle with classical plaster casts in the drawing studio, sketching theatrical plots never fully enacted.

Like most festivals, GI occasionally yields to crowd-pleasing temptation. Jeremy Deller's giant Stonehenge-shaped bouncy castle is a child-friendly comment on the blurred boundaries between heritage, tourism, and mass-entertainment, and it will no doubt be a family favourite. But overall GI's atmosphere is one of focused concentration. Charlotte Prodger's exhibition ":-*"   at CCA compellingly unwraps the making of selected sub-cultures. In one of the YouTube videos she displays on monitors, a hand furiously saws at a brand new sneaker. Another clip shows two pairs of feet wearing the same Nike Air model and rubbing each other in a languorous move that climaxes with a shoe swap. Coming from a boombox, voices read out the comments: "WTF is this?" – "ehrm… two guys swapping trainers? ;)". A homoerotic fetishism saturates the minimal installation, peering, dizzyingly, into the cracks of the mainstream.

In all these presentations the body is present, sometimes frontally, as in Nashashibi's film, sometimes just allusively, as in Black's layered cake of sawdust. In The Modern Institute's Paul Thek exhibition, the body is rendered all the more striking by its absence. Thek's work hasn't been shown in the UK for decades, but instead of trying to emulate the Whitney's 2010 landmark exhibition on a smaller scale, the gallery has cannily found another way into the artist's conflicted psyche, focusing on a selection of his notebooks. Thek's questions and doubts, ideas for sculptures, news cuttings, and drawings unravel in pristine glass cases. "As private as the notebooks are, Thek anticipated an audience," wrote Tina Kukielski in the Whitney catalogue. And here he is, inescapable as he performs page after page for his invisible public. On one of them, Thek wrote what became the exhibition title: "if you don't like this book, you don't like me."

Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, April 20 – May 07, throughout the city.