Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art: Encountering the sublime and the ridiculous

STANDING in King Street looking into the Street Level Gallery, I am bombarded with stuff. Artist Pete Horobin kept and recorded everything he did, made and consumed for a decade, the 1980s, and stored it into his attic flat in Dundee.

Laid out reverentially as the DATA project, it includes bus tickets, old newspapers and empty food packets: an artwork given the same weight as an empty milk carton.

On the street I’m talking to Malcolm Dickson, the director of the gallery, but he’s also inside, a younger version pasted to the wall in one of Horobin’s works. It’s all grandiose and trivial, impressive and sad. Horobin’s history, and your history too. And as a contemporary viewer you find it hard to distinguish between the cold light of knowledge and the fog of nostalgia.

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There are many moments like this at Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art – a week in, the cumulative effects are getting to me. What is real and what is made up? At Tramway the edit is beginning on The Making Of Us, the film of the performance project in which artists Graham Fagen and Graham Eatough messed with our heads in a full-scale reconstruction of a fully crewed film set. The audience went to watch a play being filmed, but the artists were watching and filming them. The whole thing was a hall of mirrors. Now, a few days later, moving around the empty set, I like to think of it as an enormous fragmented sculpture, a memorial to a room full of men and their machines.

In an utterly charming show at the artist-led David Dale Gallery, in a workshop in Bridgeton, artist Kate V Robertson projects an image of the sun on to a block of ice. Gradually it melts, a wax plinth burns like a giant candle, a pane of glass bears the imprint of a brick, but it hasn’t broken. History seems to have stopped, time is rapidly melting. Or maybe I’m just exhausted.

At The Modern Institute, in an exhibition that will reward hours of close attention, the notebooks of the late American artist Paul Thek are laid out in vitrines in a hushed religious atmosphere. Thek, who died in 1988, seemed quixotic, isolated, an artist out of time: interested in the body, spirituality, the failings of the flesh in the eras of minimalism and conceptualism.

Things look different now when his eerie facsimiles of body parts and personal drawings seem to herald an age of self-reflection. Thek was profoundly influenced by religious artefacts and religious strivings.

This is a stunning, heart-breaking show. There are abrupt shifts of register: a painted sketch of the world you glimpse on the page becomes a picture on newspaper hung on the wall, and a painted globe shaped light above your head.

Hung at the end of the room, in natural light, is the view from Thek’s studio window, the twin towers looming in the background. It’s as though you are in his studio looking out on to the lost streetscape. Or perhaps you are inside his head. His most famous work went missing on the way back from Cologne, a life-size replica of the artist’s own body. Some suspect he had had enough of it and refused to pick it up from the shippers. It has become immortalised in photographs by his friend and ex-lover Peter Hujar. You can see them in the upstairs gallery. You are looking at the last surviving records of a missing relic, and Thek these days is a saint for these secular times.

Up at the Whisky Bond, in the new gallery of Glasgow Sculpture Studios, the question of time and memorial is urgent. Mexican artist Teresa Margolles sites two works that rub shoulders uncomfortably. Gathering burned wood and charcoal from the riots in Croydon, she sent them to a company that turn ashes into jewels and a single diamond nestles in a spotlit case.

It is a cold, brittle work that presents you with your own distance. How do we talk about violence? Is it near to us or far? It would be interesting to see how it looks or feels in London, where it might sit as a glittering riposte to Damien Hirst’s diamond-studded skull.

In the next room, Margolles’ collection of Luis Alvarado’s photographs of the Mexican city of Juarez are heart-rending. Families pose for special occasions, mariachi bands play, Mexican wrestlers leap and feign. One of them, a woman, bleeds profusely from the head. Amongst them strippers and bar girls gurn and grind, their tired bodies displayed in a miserable parody of sexiness. You can barely look at their painted faces, each one a mask.

There are masks too in Henry Coombes’ fabulous new film, I Am The Architect, This Is Not Happening, This Is Unacceptable. Shown in the stables at House for An Art Lover, with a throbbingly brilliant soundtrack from Tut Vu Vu, it tells of a bow-tied architect unspooling into violent collapse as order crumbles and certainties fade. He falls into a kind of time warp, is gnawed by rats and self-doubt. There is blood on the floor, or it might just be chocolate sauce.

In a flat at 24 St Vincent Street, Lucy Stein has assembled friends and colleagues, including the under-rated Glasgow painter Carole Gibbons. A contemporary of Alasdair Gray, Gibbon’s mythic dreamscapes, symbolist horses and proud goddesses have found their place again, some of them 40 years after they were made. The opening was followed by a visit to a local pub where, in an unannounced gig, the Glasgow band Trembling Bells played an electrifying free set with American legend Will Oldham.

The next morning it seems like I might have imagined it. Likewise the astonishing moment, in Alexandra Bachzetsis’s spellbinding performance A Piece Danced Alone, when her collaborator, Anne Pajunen, imitates Joy Division’s Ian Curtis dancing to the song Control. For a moment there was a ghost in the room and then he was gone.

In fact there are many ghosts in GI. Rob Kennedy takes Walter Sickert’s famous painting, Jack The Ripper’s Bedroom, as the dark heart of his CCA exhibition, a show built out of the debris of old gallery installations, peppered with his own films and works of art by others. This is the artist as skulking criminal, art as evidence and crime scene. You can sit in the cinema; play table tennis in the gallery. It’s like being in the messy lumber-room of art history: it’s murky and confusing, funny at times and not always very nice.

Sickert also appears in one of the absolute treasures of this year’s festival, Merlin James and Carol Rhodes’ painting show Ever Since I Put Your Picture In A Frame. Showing artists from Alex Katz to Julie Roberts, James Pryde, Louise Hopkins and Tony Swain, these domestic-scale works, in a domestic setting, make historical works seem freshly-minted and recent paintings as old as time.

As history spins, and time warps without warning at GI, it’s probably time to sit down if you can. For the project No Meal Is Complete Without Conversation, Andrew Miller cooks and John Shankie does front of house. When I visited we all sat down to a delicious hunk of tuna with lentils, in a room hung with artworks by former residents of the Garnethill flat.

Visitors are meant to talk. We did. A vegetarian broke their vows and ate some smoked duck. We talked about cities and cultures, how important it is to stop for lunch. What it means to cook for other people. Wolfgang Tillmans told us why he had finally turned digital, how much a camera lens could capture, how much the eye could see. We all agreed that we couldn’t keep up, that we were suffering from information overload. And then we went back out to see some more.

• Glasgow International continues until 7 May.