An exhibition of international art works reminds us that sometimes you have to get up close to see the big picture
In 2006, when I was working on a British Council Project with young writers in East Jerusalem and Ramallah, my driver took a detour. Near the main checkpoint, crossed daily by workers from the Palestinian territories, we took an abrupt turn and perched high on a hill. We sat silently for a quarter of an hour. Beneath us were queues of people and taxis, dust and noise. Nearby some of the other more scary stuff: armed soldiers, barbed wire. Beyond that, Ramallah itself: if you screwed up your eyes for a moment in the sunshine you could imagine the town as a Renaissance walled city, fortified yet beautiful. Open them and the real perspective revealed the opposite, a horrifying view of containment. After 15 minutes we descended and crossed through the checkpoint into the Palestinian territories. Nobody said a word.
Seeing things is important. But seeing through other people’s eyes, equally so. My birds-eye view of a checkpoint from behind what was probably reinforced glass was radically different from artist Emily Jacir’s own oblique and improvised portrait of the crossing point at Surda on the road from Ramallah to the university at Birzeit where she taught. One day, filming on the border, she was held by Israeli soldiers at gunpoint for three hours, her camera and footage destroyed. Crossing Surda (2002), her film currently on show at the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) in Glasgow, was made by cutting a hole in her handbag and secretly filming the arduous, and at times frankly terrifying, commute to work.
Jacir’s film is only one of a series of reminders of why it is important we should look to culture beyond our own borders, in an exhibition called Art From Elsewhere. Selected by international curator David Elliott, and organised by Hayward Touring, the show shares the remarkable achievements of the Art Fund charity’s Art Fund International purchasing scheme.
The vagaries of the international art market and the limited budgets of our museums outside London mean it is hard for our major venues and cities to collect contemporary art, and international art in particular. The Art Fund International scheme supported museums and galleries in five UK regions to purchase major works by international artists over a five-year period. They include work by such eminent figures as Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Ai Weiwei, Kara Walker and Yael Bartana. In Glasgow, GoMA worked with the Common Guild to buy a raft of works including photographs by Wolfgang Tillmans, a film by Fiona Tan and historical works by the late New York photographer Peter Hujar.
Art From Elsewhere is a selection of the riches now available in Glasgow, Birmingham, Walsall, Bristol, Middlesbrough and Eastbourne. It doesn’t, and can’t, present a coherent argument about collecting from what are each in themselves highly focused but highly diverse acquisition programmes. But it provides a rich and rewarding opportunity to see some major work from around the world.
The ground floor at GoMA is dedicated to larger-scale works, films and photography. Finnish photographer Ola Kolehmainen’s mysterious Shadow of a Church is a huge photograph of a series of tight monochrome spheres that might be ball bearings. It turns out we are looking at the hi-tech facade of the Selfridges store in Birmingham, designed by Future Systems, the shadow of a local church spire bringing with it the implication that here is a modern temple to mammon. It’s a financial theme reinforced by the Benin artist Meshac Gaba’s Brasilian Bank, a street trader’s stall hung not with clothes, tourist trinkets or colourful textiles, but banknotes.
Upstairs, a less sensational but actually sensationally interesting display emphasises lower key works on paper, and smaller photographs. Among them are drawings by some of the most important postwar artists from the United States. The sculptor Robert Smithson was best known for his large-scale projects such as the legendary earthwork Spiral Jetty that curled inside a vast salt lake in Utah. His small ink drawings have a lovely improvisational beauty, but they also act as personal exorcisms. Smithson was trying to shake off some of the pagan and classical themes, the mythology and anthropomorphism, that he thought was restraining his work. His drawings are minor works but they are more than doodles, they are a great mind thinking aloud.
Nearby are dense typewriter drawings and poetry books that reveal a more nuanced and complex mind than the hard-headed, hard edged minimalism with which we associate Carl Andre, and a beautiful and important “gunpowder drawing” by the Cuban artist Ana Mendieta. Mendieta made impressions of her own body in soil and flooded or burned the imprints, evoking burial rites and complex memorials. It is hard to see these works now without thinking about the premature and tragic death of this notable artist in 1985.
The Art Fund International scheme has enriched our civic collections by providing us with both history and insight. We need these artist to speak to us because they tell us things we need to know, but might not want to. Their point of view is closer up and more complex than our own. Like my bulletproofed view of Ramallah, much of the work in Art from Elsewhere reveals how constructed, and therefore, limited, a distant point of view can be. The German artist Thomas Demand’s innocent-looking image Photo Booth, like much of his work, turns out not to be what it appears at all. Demand’s picture of an anonymous room containing a large camera and tripod is in fact a photograph of an elaborately constructed paper sculpture.
The room he evokes was the “photo corner” found in the main political prison in East Berlin. It may not have been used just for photography. It is now widely believed that it contained concealed X-ray equipment and was used to intentionally expose prisoners to dangerous radiation. Some of those photographed were to later die of leukaemia.
Art from Elsewhere runs until 1 February 2015