Art review: Polygraphs at GoMA

In a world where unwelcome stories are dismissed as fake news, Polygraphs at GoMA adds some powerful voices to the war on error

Bell, 2006 by Graham Fagen, part of the Polygraphs exhibition at GOMA

Polygraphs ****

GoMA, Glasgow

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It was probably Picasso who said: “Art is a lie that makes us realise truth,” or words to that effect. Quoted, requoted and misquoted down the years, it can be hard to be sure, but there is a widespread recognition that there something in the idea.

Only much more recently has the word “truth” itself been problematised. We are living, we are told, in a “post-truth” era. Unpopular news is branded “fake news” as if being untrue is the same thing as being unwelcome. This new exhibition at GoMA, which probes the nature of truth (a polygraph, of course, is a lie-detector), could hardly be more timely.

In 2015, Glasgow Museums, with the support of the Contemporary Art Society, bought Abstract, a dual-screen film work by the important German contemporary artist Hito Steyerl. The first of her works to enter a UK public collection, it is one of several she has made exploring the story of a childhood friend, Andrea Wolf, an activist who was killed in Kurdistan in 1998 fighting with the PKK.

Abstract is pithy, punchy. It delivers its nuggets of information like bursts of artillery, as if the “shot” of the camera were a retaliation to lethal gunfire. Steyerl has filmed the mountain where Wolf – and some 38 other people – died at the hands of Turkish security forces, and juxtaposes that with footage of the faceless office block in Berlin which is home to Lockheed Martin, the company that produced the missiles used.

It has the force of a kind of truth but, at the same time, the format of the work lets us know it is not a piece of journalism. The story is fragmented, the two screens acting in counterpoint to one another. A voice-over testimony tell us about the death of “the German”, but the speaker never identifies himself. Clothing and bullet casings are unearthed on the hillside as if they were evidence, but there is no conclusion, no sense of justice having been done. Perhaps, in that sense, it is more “real” than a news report.

It’s a powerful work, and GoMA curator Katie Bruce brings together a wide-ranging selection of other works from Glasgow’s contemporary and 20th century collection to sit around it, making a larger conversation about the nature of art and truth. Irish artist Gerard Byrne is concerned with the status of photography, its capacity or otherwise for truth-telling, but his “decoy subject” is the Loch Ness Monster, a minefield of speculation and fakery. A series of twigs found at Loch Ness are displayed next to their photograms (one of the simplest and, perhaps, most honest forms of photography), yet still there are differences. The image of the thing is never the same as the thing itself.

A slice of Glasgow pavement by the Boyle Family (Kerb Study with Metal Edge 1985) looks like a kind of truth, a meticulous rendering of concrete and dirt. And in one sense it is, nothing is added or taken away. But it’s also a kind of extreme photorealism in which sections of ground are reproduced in resin in the studio. In its way, it is entirely fake. Meanwhile, there is almost no literal “truth” in kennardphillips’ photomontage of the figures of Tony Blair and George Bush turning their backs on a prisoner who is being bound and tortured, but it has a kind of poetic truth which no “real” photograph from the time was able to capture.

How much truth is there in a portrait? Graham Fagen’s photograph of Alvera Coke, the mother of murdered reggae musician and activist Pete Tosh, feels “real”, cutting through the mythology around Tosh himself to a woman who has lost a son. Hans-Peter Feldman’s enlarged handprints of key figures in the surrealist movement – Andre Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Paul Eluard – taken from the notebooks of psychologist Charlotte Wolff, who studied hands, has a punch of authenticity. Yet for all that we are looking at a print of Duchamp’s real hand, it doesn’t bring us any closer to the “real” individual.

Another aspect of the show unearths uncomfortable truths from the past. Scotland has been reluctant to own its role in the slave trade, though it is now being brought into the light by projects such as 2014’s Empire Cafe, and Stephen Mullan’s book, It Wisnae Us. Graham Fagen touches on this in his print, Plans and Records, and it is with a jolt that one realises that the plans of ships from the 1700s are illustrating their capacity for packing in human cargo.

Other Fagen prints remind us that Robert Burns planned to travel to Jamaica in 1786 to work on a sugar plantation, until the success of his first book of poems persuaded him to change his mind. Beth Forde probes a similar history, examining, in photography and sculpture, a mask from the David Livingstone Collection in Blantyre which was used to punish slaves by preventing them from speaking, a potent image of what it means to be forcibly silenced.

Not all of the works in the show contribute equally to the meat of the discussion. It’s good to see Wyndham Lewis, David Hockney and Alasdair Gray represented, but they do more to illustrate the breadth and depth of the collection than to advance the argument. A First World War drawing by Muirhead Bone makes an interesting addition – working for the War Propaganda Bureau, he would have been deeply aware of issues of truth and concealment – but a single drawing of a line of tanks is not enough to open up that argument visually. Jane Evelyn Atwood’s documentary photographs of the homeless residents of the Great Eastern Hotel feel slightly out of place here, having a delicate sincerity which outshines any argument about representation.

And of course, there is a flipside to all of this: the artists who are tricksters, who deliberately subvert the truth and complicate it, but that would need much time and space to explore. Wisely, GoMa sticks firmly to its thread, creating a show which is never less than interesting and, at best, poses some pertinent questions about truth in an era of “fake news”. ■

*Until 17 September