Art reviews: Nick Cave and Jonathan Baldock at Tramway | Simon Starling at the Modern Institute

American artist Nick Cave has created a carnivalesque explosion of kitsch at Tramway, but there are serious themes hiding in between the plastic beads

Detail from Nick Cave's installation at Tramway
Detail from Nick Cave's installation at Tramway

Nick Cave: Until, Tramway, Glasgow ****

Jonathan Baldock: Facecrime, Tramway, Glasgow ***

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Simon Starling: ‘A-A’, B-B’’, Modern Institute, Glasgow ****

A work from Jonathan Baldock's show, Facecrime

The main exhibition space at Tramway presents both a challenge and an opportunity. Even quite big works can look lost in it, and the most successful shows are often those which take on the space as a whole and do something transformational. But one thing’s for sure, you need a lot of stuff.

And this is what American artist Nick Cave has. He has been collecting it for years: 1,800 wind spinners, millions of coloured plastic beads, hundreds of pieces of household kitsch, 24 chandeliers, two lifesize model pigs and one crocodile. The viewer enters through an enchanted forest of spinners, (“Please stay on the path,” signs warn, in proper fairytale fashion). Through this whirring, sparkling miasma, one can make out richly coloured curtains of plastic beads lining the walls.

The path brings you out into a clearing where Cave’s Crystal Cloudscape apparently floats, its underside festooned with crystals and lit by chandeliers. If you climb one of the yellow ladders to the top, you’re greeted by a cornucopia of kitsch: china ornaments, gramophones, Christmas decorations, plastic flowers and fruit, the pigs, the crocodile and 16 cast-iron lawn jockeys – caricatures of African American servants with crudely exaggerated features, the kind of thing that populated gardens when no one gave casual racism a second thought.

There is, of course, juxtaposition here, casual prejudices lurking amongst surburban kitsch. One begins to notice some of the spinners have revolvers at their centres, or look like targets. Some of the beaded walls have slogans and symbols: Black Power, CND, gay rights. Cave is an African American artist and activist with things to say about all of this.

Pedigree English Greyhound by Simon Starling

But this isn’t as simple as razorblades in candyfloss, it’s also full of joy, and it was clear during my visit that people of all ages are enjoying exploring it. Perhaps there is a clue in Unarmed, a little sculpture tucked away against the wall, a bronze cast of the artist’s hand, positioned as if on the trigger of a gun, but the gun has been removed. The crooked index finger pointing upwards might be a priest’s hand raised in blessing, or a student tentatively asking a question in class. Flanked by a horseshoe of bright beaded flowers, it is a gesture of violence which is neutralised, stripped of its purpose and power.

There’s no doubt that Cave’s show responds to a host of serious issues, particularly gun crime and racism, but it makes that response with a joyful, carnivalesque explosion, a multi-coloured, multi-faceted embrace, the aesthetic equivalent of being hugged to death. Moreover, he takes a space the size of Tramway and creates a bit of magic, reminding us that art can still do that, once in a while.

Jonathan Baldock’s installation in Tramway 5 also aims to be immersive and, perhaps, suffers in comparison with Cave’s (as surely most things would). Baldock’s work is based around a series of ceramic pillars, some standing, some toppled to the floor, lying on a soft, thick carpet of wool. Many of the pillar sections have human features attached, lifelike lips and ears, for example, and a preponderence of hands, sticking out in a variety of directions and gestures.

The longer you look at these pillars, the stranger they get. Some of the capsized ones seem to be growing forests of fingers inside. Some have tongues sticking out, fleshy protrusions, woolly entrails. The room starts to look like the junkyard for the factory where human beings are made, full of fragments which are, in some sense, alive – they whistle, groan, laugh and (on at least one memorable occasion) sneeze.

We’re told Baldock was inspired by the discovery in 1974 in Syria of more than 1,000 ancient ceramic tablets carved with cuneiform script. He takes the idea of ceramic communication right up to date, inscribing his with contemporary emojis. But, for a show which is, in some way, about communication, it seems unsure of what it wants to communicate. Poised uneasily between cheekiness and something much more serious, it’s intriguing, even disturbing, without leaving any lasting impression.

A new show by Simon Starling in Scotland is a rare thing and always worth seeing. The GSA-trained artist, who won the Turner Prize in 2005, pursues connections (often across international boundaries), makes journeys and enters into dialogue with the history of art, all in his own idiosyncratic way.

So it was something of a gift to him to discover that Tiepolo’s The Finding of Moses in the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh had been, at one stage in its history for unknown reasons, cut in two. The other portion (called A Halberdier in a Landscape) is in Turin, in the collection of Giovanni Agnelli, the billionaire head of car company Fiat from 1966 to 1996.

Starling dives into this strange coincidence and sends lightning rods of connection zinging out in all directions. There is a reproduction of the Italian section of the painting (one of the Scottish section will be displayed in a partner exhibition in Turin opening later this month). There is a Fiat 125 Special, the same model and colour as the car driven by Agnelli in the 1970s, divided to the same proportion as the painting, one part in each show. There are photographs of the greyhounds in the painting, taken in the photographic studio in the Turin Fiat plant, and wicker baskets inspired by Agnelli’s roofrack. There is a stick figure, based on the artist himself, but with a mask of Agnelli made by a master mask-maker from Japan, reading a copy of Dario Fo’s Trumpets and Raspberries, a satire about the Fiat boss. And that’s barely the half of it. Then there’s the collaboration with Zurich-based graphic designers Norm, who found a set of designs from the 1970s in an envelope for what appears to be the launch of major Italian corporation, although no record of it can now be found, and their recreation of the nearly lost typeface.

To make the most of Starling’s work, one has to accept that the story behind the object in front of you is at least as interesting as the object itself. What the object does, if it’s working, is give enough clues to get you down the rabbit hole into Starling’s labyrinthine investigations where (with any luck) you will be fascinated, just as he has been. Susan Mansfield

Nick Cave until 25 November; Jonathan Baldock until 6 October; Simon Starling until 28 October