Visual art review: Economy

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This two-part show is a welcome engagement with economics and politics, though is sometimes a little woolly in defining its terms


CCA, Glasgow and Stills, Edinburgh

Star rating: * * * *

AT LAST: a major exhibition, curated in Scotland but drawing artists internationally, which addresses some central issues of contemporary life. I have bellyached enough in this column about art that only seems to be interested in conversing with other art, so I must give Economy its due: it takes the issues by the jugular.

Art historian Angela Dimitrakaki and curator Kirsten Lloyd have created a show which is big, bold and ambitious. They lay down their arguments in their opening essay: issues relating to the economy increasingly dominate our lives, consciously and subconsciously. As capitalism becomes increasingly global, economic issues and forces shape our sense of who we are and how we relate to one another. Art needs to hold up a mirror so that we can notice what has changed, and begin to execute a critique of the ideas we take for granted.

In the face of these powerful forces, art is also changing. Contemporary art has come of age, the era of postmodernism is passing, and being replaced by new movements in art which are concerned with addressing the material conditions of life.

We could take issue with some of these ideas. By laying out their store in broad terms, Dimitrakaki and Lloyd have made some sweeping assumptions, of social and political theory, and art theory too.

One of the most sweeping assumptions is that, in exploring these issues, “traditional modes of representation are often no longer sufficient”. The show is made up exclusively of photography, film and documentary material. Perhaps the implication is that traditional modes of making art are tainted by economic considerations: paintings and sculptures are commodities within one of the most unregulated markets. If this is their position, it needs to be more thoroughly argued.

The nature of the media presents its ownproblems. Economy is a marathon – two galleries, a website, a programme of events and film screenings, and a watch-on-demand screening lounge in the basement of Stills. But showing large numbers of longish film works in a gallery is always tricky. Most viewers don’t have the time to do anything more than dip in and out, and longer works such as Angela Melitopoulos’s two-hour film CORRIDOR X, about the immigration corridor from Turkey to Germany, and Melanie Gilligan’s five-part sci-fi drama (both at Stills) are the kind of works which lose out.

Whether or not one is convinced at every step by the logic of Economy’s arguments, the idea that the assumptions of capitalism are bred into us from an early age, is well worth noting. And there is nowhere better to observe this than Jenny Marketou’s film We Love Candy but Our Passion is Collecting Art (CCA), based on interviews with children of the New York ultra-rich who see themselves as art collectors. Seeing them relaxing in sumptuous apartments, talking unselfconsciously about the purchases in which they’ve been involved, paints a striking picture of attitudes and assumptions absorbed from birth.

There are several artists in this show from Eastern Europe, where the transition to capitalism has been sudden, at times catastrophic. In the years after the collapse of Yugoslavia, Serbian artist Tanja Ostojic placed a personal ad online, looking for a husband in the European Union, accompanied by stark photograph of her naked body. The work Looking for a Husband with an EU Passport (CCA), first shown at the Venice Biennale, includes some of the 500 letters she received, and tells the story of her meeting and eventual marriage to a German artist, followed three years later by the refusal of her application for permanent residency, and a divorce. The boundaries between art and life are blurred, and the message is clear: for Ostojic this was part-life, part-art, cloaked in a certain amount of irony, but for plenty of women, this is simply life.

Estonian Marge Monko’s film Shaken Not Stirred (CCA) is a little predictable in its contrasting of the lives of a smart businesswoman and a cleaner, finding that both feel trapped by their circumstances.

Several artists touch on the idea of work, which remains a notoriously difficult subject for art to address. In Normal Work, (Stills) Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz look at it through the lens of history, drawing on the intriguing documentation left behind by Hannah Cullwick, a domestic servant in London in the Victoria era.

Good Dog (CCA), a film by Dani Marti, one of the few artists in the show based in Scotland, claims to be about work. It follows a young man called Graeme, who works as a staff manager at a bowling alley, and in his spare time enacts role-play as a dog, naked, lying in a cage, licking a bone. Marti’s sensitive filming manages to suggest both his need for this behaviour and his loathing of it. But is Graeme really driven to this by the soul-destroying nature of his job? Surely, other psychological factors are also at play.

Economy is weighted towards documentary, and it reveals its strengths and its weaknesses. Owen Logan’s photographic essay (Stills) about the “resource curse” – how a country’s oil wealth, for example, can be a curse to its citizens – contains much interesting material, but is too dense to read comfortably. Rick Lowe’s documentation of aproject by artists to transform a blighted district of Houston, Texas, into social housing (CCA) doesn’t do justice to the ambition or vitality of the project itself.

By contrast, a single photograph can still stand up amongst so much moving image work. Mitra Tabrizian’s portrait of a group of London bankers (Stills), taken on the eve of the financial crisis, is appropriately unsettling. The group – all male, all dark-suited – look as though they might morph at any moment into aliens, and try to take over the world. Equally, we look at Andrea Gursky’s huge image from 1999 of the trading pit at the Chicago Board of Trade (Stills) with new eyes.

India-based Rags Media Collective (CCA) bring in a key argument about happiness and consumerism, but it needs to be better realised. Ursula Biemann’s Deep Weather (CCA) investigates the parallel environmental impacts of mining tar deposits in the boreal forests of Northern Canada, and of flooding in Bangladesh.

Finnish artist Anu Pennanen creates one of the most contemplative works, a five-channel video installation, La Ruine du regard (CCA), filmed in the transport and shopping interchange at Les Halles, Paris. It captures both the frenetic consumerism and the alienation of this cathedral of capitalism, capturing details, focusing on faces: a fine mirror held up to modern life.

No exhibition on the subject of Economy could be complete without engaging with the economy of the art world itself. Estonian artist Kai Kaljo does it in an understated way in Loser (Stills), reading out the facts of her life – age, weight, earnings, to a background of canned laughter.

But the finest example is Tracey Emin’s self-portrait from 2000, I’ve Got It All (Stills), where a young-looking, vulnerable Emin stares down at the money which appears to be cascading from her crotch. Here is all the eloquence we need about what it means to be a colourful female artist with a “past” she exploits in her work, and what happened in London in the money-flooded Brit Art years, and tells us again why Emin can often be (as it were) right on the money.

Economy is disturbing, enlightening, patchy and occasionally frustrating, but the ambition of it and the determination to engage art with the concerns of ordinary people’s lives has to be applauded.

• CCA until 23 March, Stills until 21 April