Glasgow International plays to the gallery

Karla Black installation at GoMA as part of Glasgow International
Karla Black installation at GoMA as part of Glasgow International
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Glasgow International is keeping it real in 2012 with a festival that embraces every corner of the city and welcomes the world

OPENING on the news that Glasgow International director Katrina Brown’s last edition in 2010 has been nominated for a prestigious inaugural ALICE award, her second and final GI has formidable momentum.

The core, commissioned shows are muscular and intriguing. The loose thematic, “Real Time”, suggests a festival that is unworried by digital angst and interested in direct and robust encounters with art, ideas and objects. And the energy and humour of the dozens of artist-generated projects that GI supports is palpable, with the construction of everything from a mobile art library at the Mitchell to a medieval siege engine, or trebuchet, on the banks of the Clyde at Govan.

Indeed if there is one thing that defines Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, it’s the very lack of a definition. This is a festival that seeps into every known crack in the city’s pavements and covers every category from emerging artists to international stars.

Nowhere is the festival’s international clout and commitment to pleasure more obvious than on Glasgow Green, where Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller’s Sacrilege has been an instant hit with Glasgow schoolchildren, and thrilled passers-by and the art crowd alike. One of the biggest bouncy castles ever constructed, by the Nottingham team who invented the technology in the first place, this full-scale model of Stonehenge cannot fail but delight. In the shadow of the People’s Palace, itself constructed both to educate and entertain the public in a working city, Sacrilege is an open invitation to have fun, but it is also a brilliant comment on our relationship with the past.

Stonehenge, Deller explained at its launch, had begun life as a social space before it was transformed into a spectacle and a cultural landmark. These days it is a fenced-off heritage site. Sacrilege, which unusually for a bouncy castle is open plan and accessible from all sides, seems a uniquely British solution to the conundrum: a humorous chance to encounter history directly. Being British there are a few rules for participants chalked up on an adjacent blackboard: No food, no drink and “no human sacrifice”.

Elsewhere, one of the loveliest little shows I’ve seen, Petrosphere, with fantastic new sculptures by James McLardy and Ruth Barker’s first ever video work, found me lost in the post-industrial hell of Skypark, a vast office complex that edges the Broomielaw at Finnieston.

In the next few days I’ll be an extra in a performance/play/film hybrid at Tramway, involving artist Graham Fagen, theatre director Graham Eatough and Hollywood cinematographer Michael McDonough. And I’ll be having lunch with Andrew Miller and John Shankie in Hill Street, in a Garnethill close that has housed a generation of Turner prize-winning artists. Yes, this is an artwork. And I can guarantee it will be delicious.

If there’s a place to begin it might be bang in the city centre with Karla Black’s show at the Gallery of Modern Art. The Turner Prize nominee’s premise turns sculptural methodology on its head. Almost 20 tonnes of wood shavings, stuff that you might think of as the waste material from woodcarving rather than a medium in itself, have been laid down in the ground floor gallery of GoMA.

It is a spectacular hall, but Black’s Empty Now – more than 30 feet long, a dozen feet wide and stacked up to head height – more than matches the ranks of Corinthian pillars and the ornate gilded ceiling that dominates the space. It’s a fine contrast to the powder puff textures and candy colours of Black’s recent works at the Venice Biennale and the Turner Prize exhibition.

Alternating layers of pine, spruce, teak, maple, yew and oak are laid down like so much geological sediment. From the top it’s like a vast desert. From the sides, alternately smoothly shuttered, or eroded and worked at by the artist’s hands, it’s a museum model of the earth’s layers.

There is nothing cosy about this indoor landscape however. You are struck by the astringency of the pine in particular, the unambiguous bulk of the piece as a whole and a very real sense of its volatility; a room full of sawdust in a major museum feels like a powder keg.

Above, strung like clouds or a particularly homespun spider web, is a vast network of cellophane garlands, each lightly gilded with Black’s signature make-up materials, smears of fake tan, brushes of bronzing powders, globs of nail varnish all in bronzes and golds. They extend across the whole room, dipping down to meet the visitor, with visible handprints and marks. But the contrast between earthy and robust and airy and immaterial is not all as it seems: see-through cellophane is actually a wood-derived product.

If Black’s megalomaniac but immensely satisfying monster is one response to Glasgow’s Victorian architecture then Berlin artist Nairy Baghramian at the Mitchell Library takes another approach. The Library’s Reading Room, another example of Glasgow’s mercantile exuberance, is these days an empty shell, its stunning architecture stunted by false walls and ad hoc solutions. Instead of stripping back or building on to this complex dynamic, Baghramian has inserted a single work: a cord of high tensile steel, clad in pipes of ridged and chromed brass and strung with blue discs.

The whole effect is slight at first; the artist has in effect roped off a corner of the room with a rather lovely barrier, like a giant bracelet. But as it dawns on you that to keep the whole structure still the cable tension is wound preposterously high, its whole relationship with the building becomes equally tense. Is this pretty slip of a thing holding the building up or preventing its imminent collapse?

Round the corner, the old Glasgow Room has become one of the quirky highlights of the festival: commissioned by Market Gallery with the artists Neil Bromwich and Zoe Walker, The Art Lending Library rolls out the traditional municipal model to allow anyone with sufficient ID to join and borrow. Request an artwork and it’s yours for three days, installed (and carefully removed) by a costumed team of art handlers. You could have a robot by John Beagles, a pair of painted shoes by Tatham and O’Sullivan, a wood and wax encaustic sculpture by James McLardy. Race you to the queue.

Wolfgang Tillmans at the Common Guild should not be missed, for he is a photographer with an unerring sensitivity to the shape of the real world, who seems confident enough never to need to shape it himself. Featuring some major works from the Arts Council Collection as well as a new body of photographs from destinations as far flung as Tasmania and Ethiopia, Tillmans’ art teems with particularities. There’s the anonymity of a Nottingham hotel room, personalised by its crumpled bed. In another image a young man cradles his mobile phone, in a moment of absorption on a busy London street. Elsewhere a black sky is punctured by 1,000 stars. Nothing ever seems laboured in Tillmans’ work, his new series of car headlights turns the tics of industrial designers into a mediation on seeing and being seen: it’s all just the light that reaches the lens.

There’s a similar quotidian feel to Rosalind Nashashibi’s first film made in Glasgow for years, Lovely Young People (Beautiful Supple Bodies) takes her camera, and the public, into Scottish Ballet’s rehearsal rooms. The dancers at work are glimpsed in mirrors and through glass and in the perceptions of a public gaining rare access to a place “shut off from the outside world”, as one visitor puts it.

Real, and unreal, the performers’ tight little world is somehow fractured and opened up by the public’s presence. It’s an ethos, I think, in which this whole festival excels.

• Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art continues at venues across the city until 7 May.