Art review: Govan/Gdańsk | Cathy Wilkes

Cathy Wilkes
Cathy Wilkes
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Images of post industrial decline in and around the shipyards of Govan and Gdansk make for a sobering portrait of a disappearing world

In recent weeks the turbulent politics of the EU referendum, and the shock of its result, have meant it has been necessary to think, and to think hard, about the uneven impact of globalisation and of the consequences of de-industrialisation. As we struggle to come to terms with a political landscape that is fragmented, and Westminster struggles to admit that it’s the result of conditions that are deeply unequal, it’s hard not to think that this has been a slow motion car crash, and that decades ago this deep structural change might have been anticipated and mitigated.

Cathy Wilkes

Cathy Wilkes

Govan/ Gdańsk | Raitng: *** | Street Level Photoworks, Glasgow

Cathy Wilkes | Rating: **** | The Modern Institute, Aird’s Lane, Glasgow

Just how long that journey has been is laid out in Govan/ Gdańsk, a succinct and eloquent show of documentary photography at Glasgow’s Street Level Photoworks, which brings shipbuilding, that most symbolic of heavy industries, to the fore by looking at Govan’s yards and the Gdańsk shipyards in Poland. It is a story of triumph, disaster and a certain resilience.

In Gdańsk, the irony is that the very workforce that helped bring about the downfall of communism, the transformation from a Soviet-dominated client economy and heralded the country’s emergence as modern European democracy should be nearly obliterated in the aftermath. The artist Michal Szlaga has been documenting the dismantling of the shipyards, where the Solidarity union movement was founded in 1980, for a decade and a half now, although he also records the area’s rebuilding and redevelopment with EU money. For the most part it is a melancholy tale of snow on tangled steel. The most eloquent image, though, is that of a shattered library. The industry was more than just the cliché of brute labour, but represented generations of innovation and knowledge.

Govn/Gdansk

Govn/Gdansk

It’s hard to measure the moment in which images that might seem prurient or intrusive gather a historical force that changes their perception. This has certainly happened to the work of French photographer Raymond Depardon. Commissioned to record Glasgow in 1980 for a Sunday Times article on tourism, Depardon went off script and saw what many outside Glasgow refused to ameliorate and what even those inside the city found hard to articulate: the desperate struggle of the poor, the cold winds of encroaching globalisation and the rising chill of Thatcherism. Once Depardon may have seemed like a patronising outsider – the Scots journalist Ian Jack recalled how the photographer was desperate to avoid his assignment and to embrace the post-industrial malaise. Now Depardon’s images are hailed as some of the most unflinching accounts of urban despair of their era: perhaps he best serves an emissary of our past, to tell us where we have been and, to some extent, how far we might come.

The same might be said for Nick Hedges, whose campaigning work for Shelter in 1968 exposed the slum conditions of the poor in Glasgow and elsewhere in the UK. Hedges, though, never objectified his subjects: his Glasgow is the sight of children playing cheerfully within sight of the Govan cranes, of a lived life within the systems he sought to describe. Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert’s images of the Kvaerner shipyard in the 1990s, may now seem uncomplicatedly celebratory, but in their images of giant ships and the tiny people who built them what they restore is a sense of the scale and the extraordinariness of what we have lost.

It is hard to think of an artist less inclined to a documentary approach than Cathy Wilkes, but that shouldn’t deceive us; Wilkes is above all a social realist, whose work in painting, sculpture and found materials finds oblique and elegiac ways to tell it like it is. Years ago at Edinburgh’s Inverleith House she expounded upon Marx’s labour theory of value, and since then subjects like women’s work, the labour of child care, the grind of capital and the terror of homelessness have been at the centre of her uncompromising art.

Wilkes’s work isn’t just in metaphor and allusion but equally in hard fact: hers is an art in which a stained cereal bowl might sit with a watercolour. For some years now she has been showing worn Possil Pottery or tattered 19th century textiles as means of discussing the attrition of history and the story of suffering. In her new show at The Modern Institute there is little explicit presence of the human figure, neither the shop mannequins or handmade cloth figures which have been so characteristic of her recent work. Instead, there are tattered objects: among them some 18th century ceramics, a stained shirt that has been punctured as though in a terrible martyrdom and a worn copy of a book about Hiroshima perched on a fine inlaid table.

Govan/Gdansk

Govan/Gdansk

This is realism of sorts. And yet there has often been just out of visible sight, but just within range of hearing, a mystical hum to Wilkes’s work. It occasionally evokes religious images, particularly those that speak to us about the work of women or the travails of sickness. Not the religion of spiritual authority or glorious miracles, but of hard work and mourning.

This is very much the case here, in an exhibition in which Wilkes has placed four mysterious paintings amongst the found objects. The images coalesce on canvases that look more like stained shrouds than painted surfaces, showing mysterious figures which seem to hover and float. You get the sense that these are final journeys, unspeakable losses. This is not nostalgia, but a world in which change and transformation truly hurts. n

• Govan/ Gdańsk until 31 July; Cathy Wilkes until 27 August

Govan/Gdansk

Govan/Gdansk