Contemporary art is, largely, an urban phenomenon, but it is comparatively rare to see an exhibition which scrutinises the city – our experience of living in it, how we navigate it, the politics implicit in it – as thoughtfully and thoroughly as The Sky is Falling. There is no shortage of material curator Ainslie Roddick could have chosen to throw at her subject but she has narrowed the selection, wisely, to five artists with a diverse range of perspectives, and certain harmonies of tone.
The Sky is Falling ****
William E Jones ****
Scott Myles: This Way Out ****
Both Modern Institute, Glasgow
It’s a tone which is established by Glasgow-based painter Carol Rhodes whose works look like aerial views of urban spaces, the fringes of imaginary cities, criss-crossed by rivers and motorway flyovers, edged by parking lots and industrial units. They are quiet, unpeopled spaces, a reminder that people build cities, dream them into being, keep them going, but in doing so, we create something bigger than ourselves which can alienate us. This, rather that the more apocalytic implications suggested by the show’s title, would seem to be the core of Roddick’s argument.
If Carol Rhodes lays that out aesthetically, Brazilian artist Clara Ianni does so politically. Her Class project traces the routes to work taken by housekeepers in Rio de Janeiro and their employers. The routes are then mapped on canvas, along with some basic information: length of daily journey, monthly income. They speak for themselves about the disparity of urban population, but also the way in which lines of mutual dependency can develop between the two parts.
Her film, Free Form, looks at the building of Brasilia, the country’s new capital, in the 1950s, a gleaming modernist vision emerging from the plain. As the camera pans across the futuristic forms of the city’s buildings, we listen to interviews in which Brasilia’s designers, architect Oscar Neimeyer and town planner Lucio Costa, fervently deny all knowledge of industrial unrest which happened during the construction, culminating in several deaths. It reminds us of the political currents which underlie modernist dreams, asking with heavy irony whether “form” can ever be “free”.
Dora Mejia, based in Medellin in Colombia, has a different take on paradise. Her sculpture The Garden of Eden, cushions printed with satellite views of the world’s cities, extends through the two main spaces of the show and out into the cafe area. The images themselves – attractive greens and purples with dark rivers snaking through them – suggest gardens rather than cities, while in fact they are the antithesis of Eden.
Artist, writer and psychogeographer Laura Oldfield Ford navigates cities at street level, from the perspective of the modern day flaneur. Her new work here is based on a series of “derives” – psychogeographical journeys – in and around Glasgow, which are then expressed in photographs, text and an appropriately rambling narrative of descriptions, memories, what it means to find one’s place in a city, and to feel excluded from it.
Whether or not one feels part of a city can depend on many things, one of which is race. The way black people regard London, and how that has changed, is the subject of Black Audio Film Collective’s 52-minute film, Twilight City, directed by Reece Auguiste in 1989. Combining interviews with a poetic narrative about leaving and returning, it captures something of the ambiguity we began with: the city can be a hard place to be, but it is also difficult to resist its magnetism.
The notion of failed utopias resonates through Fall Into Ruin, a new film by American artist William E Jones currently showing at Modern Institute. It is framed around a visit he made as a 19-year-old undergraduate to the art dealer and collector, Alexander Iolas, who, in the middle of the 20th century, had galleries all over Europe, and a recent return to the same villa, now a graffitied ruin.
The juxtaposition of two sets of images is poignant and direct. While we look on the ruined home, we hear Jones reflect on Iolas’ flamboyant life, the way in which he championed artists such as Andy Warhol and Man Ray when few others did, and how, after his death from Aids in 1987, his collection was looted and his personal archive destroyed. His hope to have the villa turned into a museum became mired in red tape, and his legacy has all but vanished. Yet, Iolas played a part in shaping modern art, and made no small impact on Jones himself as a living link to artists he revered.
Glasgow-based painter and print-maker Scott Myles has also been on the trail of ruined legacies: the Forest Showroom in Richmond, Virginia, designed by architect James Wines for the Best retail chain, and the only one of his works in that series still standing; and the now-shuttered house once home to Guy Debord, the founder of the Situationist movement, in Champot, France. Myles is now re-examining both bodies of work, made respectively for projects in Berlin and Paris, in his show at Modern Institute’s Aird’s Lane space.
In fact, what he has done is move his studio into the gallery. Visitors can watch him work, look, think and make prints on the bespoke exposure unit he has made for screen-printing. The aim is to have a selection of new works ready for the Closing Party on 28 April. Exposing one’s ongoing artistic process to the public could be seen as a brave step, or a cop out. Certainly, there is a through-the-keyhole fascination at seeing an artist’s working space – the slippers beside the desk, the bottle of Coke. Myles is interested in the economics of the art world, and is daring to ask questions about them from within the walls of one of Scotland’s most successful commercial galleries, which is surely worth a commendation in itself.
Should it be reviewed? We discuss this, standing by his work table. He thinks it should, I have my doubts. That discussion goes on, and this is part of it. A more complete evaluation of the success of the project will only be possible once more work has been made. ■
The Sky is Falling until 14 May; William E Jones until 20 May; Scott Myles: This Way Out until 29 April