Art reviews: Margaret Salmon at Tramway, Glasgow | To see this story better... at Glasgow School of Art

Margaret Salmon delves into the stuff of everyday life in her intimate films while Glasgow School of Art's show offers a snapshot of South Africa's artistic community

Installation view of Margaret Salmon: Circle, Tramway, Glasgow, 2018 PIC: Keith Hunter, courtesy of Tramway and LUX Scotland.

Margaret Salmon: Circle, Tramway, Glasgow ***

To see this story better, close your eyes, Reid Gallery, Glasgow School of Art ****

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Showing a large number of film-based works in a single gallery always throws up challenges: turn the space into a cinema, show films in succession, and risk the audience losing patience? Or try to create multiple spaces and end up worrying about light levels and noise bleed?

More than 15 different films are included in Circle, the survey of works to date by Glasgow-based artist Margaret Salmon timed to accompany Glasgow Film Festival. But the logistics involved make it difficult for the audience to make the most of what’s here, regardless of the work’s quality.

Salmon was born in Suffern, New York, and completed an MFA at the Royal College of Art in London before settling in Glasgow. She was the first winner of the Max Mara Art Prize for Women in 2006, and has shown at the Whitechapel Art Gallery and the Venice Biennale. Her first feature-length film, Eglantine, was premiered at the London Film Festival in 2016.

But there has not been a major show of her work in Scotland, which would make this an ideal opportunity for us to catch up, were it not for the logistical challenges. The decision to show the films in four separate programmes, changing weekly, means that visitors will need four visits to see them all. Additional works in the main space at Tramway - a new “choreography” of four films shown simultaneously on a bank of nine small screens, and assorted audio tracks which pop up intermittently around the space – are interesting experiments, but not easy to navigate, particularly as the room is too dark for us to read the information sheet.

This is something of a frustration because the films themselves are well worth seeing. Salmon works mainly in 16mm and 35mm, and uses the natural irregularities of the format to create an intimate, homespun feel. It is fitting as her subjects are often family or friends undertaking everyday tasks. Or they were in the films I saw – the other three playlists might demonstrate other directions.

The programme I caught concentrated on work made in her native USA. Peggy is a film portrait of an elderly woman going about her daily routine – washing, cooking, walking the dog – while her reedy voice sings Amazing Grace. It is so intimate we almost feel we are intruding, but there is no doubt about the way in which it slowly illuminates the graces of ordinary life.

Ramapo Central is another portrait. The camera captures its subject at home, baking, watering the garden, taking a bath, and this is juxtaposed with audio recordings of her at work, answering the phone at a school district in New York State. In the dynamic between the two, we are invited to consider the different faces we all use for work, home and for our most private selves, the simple complexities of being human.

Study of a man in truck based on the story John told me (2010) is a recreation, using non-actors, of a story Salmon heard from a police officer about an obese man who became trapped in his truck and survived for a week using drive-through ATMs and fast food joints. In just nine minutes, using changing light levels and an endless landscape of strip malls and drive-throughs, she conveys the sense of being trapped in motion without ever being explicit about his situation.

House (2018), the newest work in the show, is a silent journey through an empty clapperboard house. The rooms, cleared of their furniture, don’t give much away, but the camera lingers lovingly, sadly. These rooms meant something. Was this the house of a much-loved relative, now cleared and made ready for sale? Salmon captures it in the moment where it is poised between one life and another.

As a filmmaker, Salmon is always attentive to light and atmosphere. Her analogue methods at once bring us closer to her subjects and, at the same time, make sure we never forget the camera’s presence. She draws deeply on realist film traditions, and on the history of art (Peggy, standing by a lighted window, is surely straight out of Vermeer), to create poetic celebrations of the commonplace.

To see this story better, close your eyes, a collection of recent film and writing from South Africa, faces some of the same logistical challenges, in that it presents five films, two audio pieces and seven written works in the same space. But artist Chloe Reid, who has organised this exchange between Scotland and her native South Africa (the other half will happen in Cape Town in the autumn), has managed to turn the challenges into virtues.

The show begins with two substantial films. Havemos de Voltar (We Shall Return) by Angola-born Kiluanji Kia Henda, is the story of Amelia Capomba, a stuffed sable antelope, told in her own words (the taxidermist accidentally left her brain in place). Amelia is not content to be a museum piece, tied to a malleable history, she is heading back to the plains, out into the city. What could be a piece of absurdity becomes, largely thanks to excellent writing, a sad, thoughtful discourse on cultural appropriation.

Penny Siopis’s film, The New Parthenon, is a clever, poignant piece of filmmaking based around the narrative – again beautifully written – of a Greek man who lived through the Second World War and the bloody Greek Civil War which followed. The story is told in subtitles against a backdrop of found footage, while the music – a setting of The Ballad of Maltausen, a poem by Greek poet and concentration camp survivor Iakovos Kambanellis, set to music by Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis – floats hauntingly around the rest of the space.

It would be facile to say that the work on show makes any kind of statement about contemporary art in South Africa, but it is rich and varied in tone and texture, from Mitchell Gilbert Messina’s darkly comic film, Detective Tales, to Sean O’Toole’s short story, The Object, about a missing president and a stone colossus, written just before the show opened, a week beforethe resignation of Jacob Zuma.

While writing can be difficult to display in a gallery context, these poems and stories by a range of writers have been selected by Reid and Helen Sullivan, one of the editors of Prufrock, a magazine which showcases new African writing, and stand out for their quality.

It would take a considerable time to watch, listen to and read all the work in this show, and Reid accepts that most visitors will take away a different experience. But the quality of the works in the show, and the thoughtful way in which they are presented, makes you wish you could stay longer.

Margaret Salmon until 18 March; To see this story better, close your eyes until 7 March