Interstellar sexual adventures and underground erotica – Glasgow International review

This year’s citywide showcase is a sprawling, ambitious mixture of the marvellous and the mundane, with Tai Shani’s S&M-tinged installation the edgy standout

One of my favourite things in this year’s Glasgow International festival is an empty gallery at the Modern Institute, where two fist-sized mechanical snails crawl slowly across the floor. I could watch Urs Fischer’s snails all day, not least because they’re not trying to tell me anything.

Lubaina Himid’s deeply underwhelming painted cut-out dragons cross the vast atrium far above our heads at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. They look like leftovers from Chinese New Year. The installation is cumbersome and forced. Why am I here? The eighth edition of GI is full of false steps and wasted journeys.

Urs Fischer’s Maybe (2018).
Urs Fischer’s Maybe (2018). Photograph: Patrick Jameson/Courtesy of the artist/The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd, Glasgow

Sam Keogh has just emerged from some sort of cryogenic pod, marooned on the floor of Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA). Keogh, artist-cum-astronaut, has seen better days, and so have I. He tells a very long tale of space exploration, gallons of human sperm and frozen eggs, as his craft malfunctioned somewhere on its mission to seed distant planets with the human race. Part sculpture, part-performance, with yards of plastic, tons of goo and electrical dreck, Keogh’s Kapton Cadaverine has some good gags, but its vision of the grubbiness of interstellar space travel is a familiar trope, especially to anyone who knows how trashed an airplane cabin looks after a long-haul flight.

Richard Parry, formerly director of the Grundy Art Gallery in Blackpool, had less than a year to devise the programme. Cellular World: Cyborg-Human-Avatar-Horror, the group show he has devised in the difficult, overdecorated and pillared ground floor gallery at GoMA, plays on familiar tropes of failed dreams and dystopian futures. Jesse Darling’s washing line festoons the indoor sky with snarls of razor-wire, bunting, dishcloths, toys and babywear.

John Russell’s billboard-scaled digital image is a kind of modern baroque version of architectural trompe l’oeil painting, continuing the galleries’ succession of pillars within the image itself, and filling the illusory space with a huge elephant’s head. The eyeless tusker looks back at us bleakly, as well it might.

The grubbiness of space travel … Sam Keogh’s Kapton Cadaverine.
The grubbiness of space travel … Sam Keogh’s Kapton Cadaverine. Photograph: Alan Dimmick

Small paintings are perched on the sofas in the British Heart Foundation charity shop. The faces of two young women smile and pout from under a pile of herbs and flowers and cut-out smiles in Linder’s little movie at the Glasgow Women’s Library. They stick out their tongues. Someone chases a herd of deer. Linder’s Bower of Bliss is an imaginary scene from the life of Mary Queen of Scots as if redone by Pipilotti Rist in the Scottish highlands.

Graham Eatough and Stephen Sutcliffe’s reworking of Anthony Burgess’s Enderby novels, at Film City, are accompanied by fragments of the sets for their two films. The sets don’t add much and the films themselves are full of hammy, unfunny acting. Commissioned for last year’s Manchester International festival, the films apparently “cajole our notions of what comprises authenticity, posterity and the character of the artist”. They bring nothing new into the world, and my notions remain uncajoled.

Full of wounds, holes and knobbly excrescences … Mark Leckey’s Nobodaddy.
Full of wounds, holes and knobbly excrescences … Mark Leckey’s Nobodaddy. Photograph: Keith Hunter

Over at Tramway, a deeply troubled figure is spotlit in a huge space. Enlarged from a small figurine in the Wellcome Collection, Mark Leckey’s Nobodaddy (titled after a poem by William Blake) is a seated god, full of wounds, holes and knobbly excrescences. His body hides speakers, and a voice fills the surrounding darkened space. A CGI apparition of the same figure hovers on a large screen across the gallery. We delve into his hollowed out innards. Leckey provides the voice of this abject figure, accompanied by horrible gurglings and rumblings and complaints. What a plight. Talk about the crisis of masculinity.

The real strength of the citywide, sprawling festival rests on a few works. A live voice accompanies Tai Shani’s Tramway installation Dark Continent: Semiramis. Topless women wearing Spanx figure-shaping pantyhose walk on stage and pose themselves in a tableaux vivant. It is difficult to keep up with the labyrinthine text, apparently an extrapolation from a 1405 proto-feminist text, Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies. The staging is weird, the set a sort of mix of Joan Miró and new age nonsense, including a giant outstretched hand, hanging things that glow like ceramic jewellery, coloured balls and small platonic solids littering the floor, an orange puddle. A pink worm-like gut writhes across the stage. A female voice declaims, alternately soothing and erupting with sex and violence, pleasure and pain. I thought of Angela Carter’s Sadeian Woman and Pasolini’s Salò. To see one performance in Shani’s 12-part cycle is not enough. I need the text. I feel the whole thing is being snatched away even as I look.

Weird and compelling … Tai Shani’s Dark Continent: Semiramis.
Weird and compelling … Tai Shani’s Dark Continent: Semiramis. Photograph: Keith Hunter

One of the bravest, edgiest works in this year’s GI, it repels as much as it compels. Shani’s cumbersome, ambitious and flawed performances led me circuitously to a bedroom in a Pollokshields flat, and an astonishing archival display of 1980s underground lesbian erotica, and then to a show of photographs and short films by the 75-year-old German film-maker Ulrike Ottinger at the Hunterian museum.

Transgressive, erotic, alarming, unconscionable and marvellous, Ottinger’s work is a call to artistic freedom and formal rigour. Life-affirming and dangerous, she is an accidental mentor to the best younger artists here, and a rejoinder to mediocrity, to things I prefer not to recall. But as much as it is a showcase, or a baggy curatorial conceit, GI still has vitality, even if it feels spread too thin.

  • Glasgow International is on citywide until 7 May. Details here.


Adrian Searle

The GuardianTramp

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