Art review: Phil Collins, The World, Won't Listen


EVEN an unexpected fire alarm couldn't dampen a triumphant Tramway opening last week for Phil Collins' exhibition. (I gather, by the way, that nothing was actually on fire.) If the audience out on the town for the first night of Glasgow's Galleries Weekend found themselves unexpectedly out on the pavement for part of the evening, there was still an overwhelmingly positive reception for the show and a sense that the much-loved Tramway was really back in business.

Since Sarah Munro was appointed general manager last year, amid a general sense that some senior figures in the city's cultural infrastructure who had sat through the gallery's neglect and near closure were now reinvesting in it, all that has been needed was the world class programming to match renewed ambition. In The World Won't Listen, the gallery has found it.

Phil Collins is a globetrotting artist who has studiously avoided the numerous pitfalls of his trade. Born in Runcorn, educated in Manchester and Belfast, he quietly adopted Glasgow as his home a few years ago, although he has been away on a prestigious Berlin residency for the past year. Forty next year, he is internationally renowned, but defiantly unstarry.

Since he accidentally stumbled upon the casual brutality of a film crew staging an interview, in every sense, while in Serbia, and made the short film How To Make A Refugee (1999), he has been drawn to the world's trouble spots to make alternative and complex images of young people. His work explores pleasure, popular culture, sadness and yearning, unpicking the unique and the universal that lie beyond our often simplistic view of the world.

In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Collins made Baghdad Screentests (2002) a Warholesque film, also in this show, that simply observes Iraqis close up and now reads like a moving and ominous testament. In the Palestinian Territories he made They Shoot Horses (2004), a seven-hour recording of a teenage dance marathon (an hour of it mysteriously never emerged from Israeli customs).

He recently staged a laughing contest in Helensburgh (probably doesn't like to think of itself as a global trouble spot, but Trident ensures it has excellent potential). Nominated for the Turner Prize in 2006, he set up a production office and staged a press conference where victims of reality television told their own unedited stories of how it destroyed their lives.

In many ways his work draws upon traditions of theatre, music hall or cabaret as much it does on artists' film and video, but while it back the layers of our constructed realities, it simultaneously is as real as they come.

The World Won't Listen, at its simplest, is a global karaoke fest. There are a handful of other works in the show but the exhibition is dominated by the eponymous installation of three films made in Bogot, Colombia; Istanbul, Turkey and Jakarta and Bandung in Indonesia, featuring the devoted, and occasionally deluded, singing their hearts out to the 1987 Smiths compilation album of the same name.

But in a world now conditioned by Simon Cowell's sneer and Piers Morgan's pin-striped put-downs, there isn't an ounce of exploitation in Collins' logistically enormous project. Instead it's a shockingly human testament to the power of the voice, to the infinite beauty of even the oddest human face, to the sheer wilful energy of adolescence and to the weird persistence of the songwriting partnership of Morrissey and Johnny Marr, whose words and music sound fresh even decades after they were made, sung by people many of whom are word perfect in Mancunian gloom but unable to speak English.

Shown together as a European premiere and for only the second time ever, The World Won't Listen is also a technical triumph: the three films are shown side by side with a state of the art sound system that allows you to move between continents while never missing a beat of the karaoke soundtrack.

And what a simple joy it is. The two hippy chicks waving an endlessly cheerful and stoical bobble-hatted baby around, as they joyfully sing about death in 'There Is A Light That Never Goes Out'. The Turkish boy in the Kafka t-shirt during 'Oscillate Wildly', who does indie dancing to earnest perfection, while an Indonesian counterpart performs a sly and hilarious striptease next door. The winningly cute yet sufficiently mousey Colombian girl, who convinces that, yes, shyness really is nice. There are the Indonesian Sonny and Cher, the gloomy Colombians who never smile while showing us their record collection. The Turkish Piaf who sings herself to the brink of complete emotional collapse while never smudging her pink glittered eye-shadow.

Where in some hands this might be a hand-wringing essay about globalisation, The World Won't Listen allows its subjects to tell us what they might choose or reject of global culture. There's a thrill in hearing an Istanbul hipster sing about "Dublin, Dundee, Humberside" that is patently not about colonial domination. Collins' collaborators demand and deserve attention through their charm, their guts. He found them through trawling bars and clubs, through street poster campaigns and slots on TV and radio. They came to him from city streets and rural areas but above all, one suspects, they came out of their bedrooms.

And it would be hard to see Morrissey, despite his patent megalomania, as a monstrous Coca Cola of the music world. Instead The Smiths are the soundtrack of passionate misery and miserable passion, the condition of adolescent desire and teenage misanthropy forever trapped in an adult body.

In every way, The World Won't Listen, filmed over a number of years, seems perfectly timed to be shown in a Britain once more in the throes of karaoke madness. You'd have to have a heart of stone not to admire Susan Boyle, the Britain's Got Talent contestant who it turns out has got er… talent. But it's accompanied by the nauseating spectacle of the self-appointed beautiful people from Morgan to Demi Moore congratulating themselves on recognising that even apparently unattractive people have good souls and sweet voices.

The World Won't Listen doesn't get tied up in this kind of smugness. It's a sheer unadulterated delight. As Morrissey's lyrics demand, "Don't forget the songs that made you cry and the songs that saved your life". I defy you not to sing your heart out.

Until May 31