Seized by the Left Hand, Dundee Contemporary Arts ****
Hardeep Pandhal: Confessions of a Thug – Pakiveli, Tramway, Glasgow ***
France-Lise McGurn: In Emotia, Tramway, Glasgow ***
Too often, these days, politically and culturally, we find ourselves in situations we feel we can do nothing about. We might do well to heed the words of veteran science-fiction writer Ursula K Le Guin in 2014: “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art.”
Imagining other ways of being is something science-fiction has always been good at, both in conjuring terrifying visions of a future we could end up with if we’re not careful and showing us fresh possibilities. In 1969 – now, incredibly, 50 years ago – Le Guin published a novel called The Left Hand of Darkness, in which a traveller from Earth arrives on the planet Gethen (Winter), whose inhabitants change their gender continuously throughout their lives.
As revolutionary an idea as this was at the time, it’s not difficult to see why it has prescience now, or why curators Eoin Dara and Kim McAleese chose it as the starting point – or “lodestar” – for Seized by the Left Hand, a group exhibition at Dundee Contemporary Arts which draws artists from around the world. They hope, in this season of winter, to celebrate those who are involved in acts of “radical imagining” today, voices from the margins challenging the mainstream.
How often does a major group show addressing a theme come along in Scotland? Actually, not very often, and the curators deserve praise for the ambition and scope of their work, as well as its idealism. Some of the works here are more successful than others, and the show has the feel of a disparate collection of voices shouting from the margins, not an orchestrated harmony, but that’s to be expected in a show which takes on so many issues: gender, sexuality, race, post-colonialism, ecology.
Some of the artists are Le Guin afficianados, like New York-based Tuesday Smillie, who has made a series of meticulous watercolour reproductions of the different edition covers of The Left Hand of Darkness. Others have been introduced to the book by the curators, and find in it a hook to which they can attach their own concerns. It would be great to hear more from Le Guin herself – a print which shows her later reflections on her own book is a fascinating addition to the show.
Sophia Al-Maria and Victoria Sin’s film, BCE, picks up on the notion of imagining better ways to be, though I found Sin’s dreamy, floating narrative almost impossible to hear. Mexican artist Manuel Solano, who began to investigate gender at the same time as they lost their sight, paints raw figurative pictures from memory which feel viscerally alive. Also working from memory is Abel Rodriguez, an elder of the Nonuya people in the Colombian Amazon, now displaced from their lands, but drawing in immense detail the rainforest landscape from which he was exiled.
French artist Flora Moscovici’s wall-painting evokes warmth and joy. Glasgow-based Andrew Black has made a “queer fantasy” about the Isle of Skye, undercutting the island’s tourist-brochure image with something earthier, in which the central motif seems to be the act of defecating in public. Emma Wolf-Haugh makes a soft, moveable room-divider celebrating Irish modernist architect and designer (and bisexual) Eileen Gray. Writer Harry Josephine Giles launches a chapbook arguing that gender transition must be regarded as labour. A collection of specimens from Dundee’s D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum highlight creatures which do gender and procreation in non-heteronormative ways.
Singapore artist Ming Wong uses musical theatre to explore the racist undertones in Rodger and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, while Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa’s thoughtful film Promised Lands addresses the post-colonial history of East Africa, in particular the beautiful area around Lake Victoria and the complex history of its engagement with Europeans.
Another voice engaging with the post-colonial, albeit with a more acerbic, satirical tone, is Glasgow-based Hardeep Pandhal, a graduate of Glasgow School of Art’s MFA course, whose work is gaining increasing attention. Born in Birmingham to first generation British Sikh parents, he explores issues of race, history and identity with his signature streetsy style and hip-hop aesthetic.
His work for Tramway 2 is a response to the history of the word “thug” – created in colonial India to describe a supposedly violent religious cult, though this was likely sensationalised by the British, including writers such as Philip Meadows Taylor in his 1839 potboiler, Confessions of a Thug. Pandhal’s response to it is both thoughtful and subversive; his film Happy Thuggish Paki, with its superbly crafted spoken-word soundtrack, is a piece of playful thuggishness all its own.
The main installation involves a circle of specially-built high-backed vitrines, knitted cricket jumpers embellished by the artist, a series of drawings exploring the history of the word “thug” as a superhero comic strip and a series of handmade glass vessels containing floating votives. One can admire the craft of all this, but how it all fits together and what it is telling us is less clear.
A space as big as Tramway 2 can act like a vacuum, sucking the energy out of a work, even work with attitude and humour such as Pandhal’s. Perhaps this is the reason this show doesn’t have the urgency, the punch, one feels it should have. A space on this scale needs a big idea, and much more experienced artists have stumbled by not having an idea quite big enough.
Another young Glasgow-based artist, France-Lise McGurn, is more fortunate in having Tramway 5, the smaller gallery at the front of the building. That said, she has managed to cover every square foot of the walls, not to mention the pillars and the windows, with her signature line-drawn figures. There are canvases, too, but the figures burst out of them, overlapping with one another, seeming to move and change at the edge of sight.
At the heart of McGurn’s work is a tension between movement and stillness. We seem to glimpse her figures in brief, still moments – contemplating, vulnerable, ecstatic – yet they want to be constantly in motion. New neon works, made for the first time for this show, increase the sense of movement in the room.
McGurn is another artist on the rise, having shown at Tate Britain last year as part of the Art Now series. Her distinctive figures give her a highly recognisable style. Yet they have an inherent provisionality – painted quickly, spontaneously, often on walls, lasting only for the duration of the exhibition. They are ambitious, but also feel unfinished, as if they had jumped off the pages of a sketchbook and are just stopping by on the way to becoming something else.
They are invariably young, a floating population, city-dwellers, faces in a crowd, each locked in their own private experience. Growing maturity, personal and artistic, might demand more, and it will be interesting to see how an artist of McGurn’s talent and ambition rises to meet that challenge.
All three shows run until 22 March