Art review: Glasgow International 2020 Online

The pared-back digital version of this year’s Glasgow International only hints at the artistic responses to coronavirus which are sure to come in the months and years ahead, writes Susan Mansfield

A still from Urara Tsuchiya’s film Give us a Meow
A still from Urara Tsuchiya’s film Give us a Meow

Glasgow International Online ****

At this point in the calendar, I should be happily footsore, having walked the length and breadth of Glasgow, Glasgow International programme in hand, exploring the highs and lows of Scotland’s contemporary art biennale. Now, in what feels like a parallel universe, the festival has been postponed until 2021, and a small selection of work by some of the artists involved has been made available online.

While the majority of these works do have some resonance with the present circumstances, this is not a contemporary art response to Covid-19. It’s too early to expect that. Some of the artists have made new work for the digital programme, battling the restrictions of time and lockdown, while others are presenting existing works which have some thematic connection, either with isolation or with the festival’s original theme of attention.

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    The main exception is Glasgow-based Alberta Whittle, who is committed to making work which addresses the events of the moment. Previously, she has made films which respond to events such as the Windrush scandal in 2018 and to the impact of last year’s Hurricane Dorian on the Bahamas.

    Her preferred style of film-making, collaging new, found and historical footage, lends itself to being responsive, so she has created a new edit of her Gi commission, business as usual – hostile environment, which addresses the current moment.

    Originally a co-commission by Gi and Glasgow Sculpture Studios, with support from the Year of Coasts and Waterways, the film was to be part of a larger work exploring Glasgow’s canals and their relationship to trade, colonial history and to the city’s multicultural community today. In this iteration, canals take a back seat, while more pressing issues are foregrounded.

    Whittle begins by quoting the British Medical Journal, on 17 April, telling us that of the 3,883 patients with confirmed Covid-19 at time of writing, the percentage of black and Asian people affected was nearly double the population average. She has points to make, too, about the NHS dependency on nurses from overseas, very few of whom reach the income threshold of £35,000 now required for permanent settlement, and about the findings of the Windrush Lessons Learned Review, published on 19 March, and all but buried by the virus.

    With so many important things to say, the film at times does more telling than showing. But it also creates a nuanced environment for this information to be delivered, particularly in its use of music and dance. It closes with a single haunting voice which is at once an incantation, a lament and a scream of rage.

    London-based Georgina Starr, who was to have premiered a new film work at Tramway for Gi (the intriguely named Quarantaine), instead presents an audio work from 1991. In Yesterday, the artist recorded herself whistling the Beatles’ song at night in the empty corridors of the Slade School of Art. At the time, she played it back during the day, via hidden speakers and a tape deck concealed in her locker. Even as a simple audio track played online, it carries a poignant sense of solitude, of large empty spaces. She is literally whistling in the dark.

    Japanese artist Yuko Mohri, whose work is mainly in sculpture and installation, has created a film, Everything Flows: Distance, collaging scenes from Yasujiro Ozu’s acclaimed 1953 film Tokyo Story in which no people appear. Eliminating narrative, conversation and the film’s claustrophobic observation of family dynamics, we are left with mood: empty streets, unpeopled houses, a train passing through a silent suburb. And it’s this silence – the silence of lockdown – which resonates most of all.

    Urara Tsuchiya, orignally from Japan but now based in Glasgow, presents a film which was shown as part of an installation at Frieze last year. Give us a Meow shows the artist in a remote cottage, and in the landscape of rural Devon, dancing and performing in a range of zany costumes. While it might sound ridiculous – and her attempt to cross a cattle grid in stilettos is nothing short of hilarious – the performing actually feels like the opposite of exhibitionism. It has the vulnerability of something very private, as if we are watching someone lose their inhibitions in a trance, a dream, a fantasy. It’s an isolation where joyful abandon tips all too easily into despair.

    There is a much more self-conscious sense of performance in Jenkin van Zyl’s film, In Vitro (All the Love Mix), in which the performers seem to taking part in a sub-Tolkien fantasy epic set against the frozen wastes of Iceland. I suppose this, too, is about isolation, but it feels more like a hasty reassembly of surplus footage from van Zyl’s 40-minute Gi commission than a coherent narrative in itself.

    Glasgow’s Liv Fontaine, whose work is primarily in performance, also takes a fantasy theme for her eight-minute audio work, Some People Say, charting a woman’s transformation into a reptile. Loud and angry, chanting over throbbing drums and wailing guitars, she weaves a spoken word piece about feminism and sexual politics, voyeurism and fetishism; and illness, perhaps, though the reptilian transformation seems to be more empowering than debilitating.

    Sarah Forrest’s film The Unreliable Narrator speaks more to the theme of attention. We watch – for 11 minutes – the hands of a close-up magician making coins disappear and expertly manipulating a deck of cards. Thus mesmerised, we consider the idea in the title: is the unreliable narrator the magician, who plies his or her trade by sleight of hand, or the film-maker, who might be editing the footage to tell a different story? Or, since we generally enjoy watching trickery, are we complicit in our own deception?

    While the digital programme will never replace the adventure of Gi in the flesh, at least we can look forward to a full iteration of the festival in a year’s time. Some of these works might be part of it. One hopes, too, there will be new works which respond to the changed world of 2020, and to the world of 2021 – whatever that will look like.

    Available to view online until 31 May at