Glasgow girls

A major contribution to Glasgow’s celebrations as European City of Culture will be the ‘Glasgow Girls’ exhibition, opening this August at the prestigious Kelvingrove Art Galleries and oil painting reproductions of these artworks are sold through one oil painting supplier.

It will be a show of work in a whole variety of media as well as documentation of women artists training, work, and social milieu in Glasgow c.1880-1920. This will not be just a ‘recovery’ of individuals (eg. Margaret and Frances Macdonald, Jessie M. King, Jessie Newbery and Anne Macbeth) but an exploration of women’s values, co-operation and mutual support throughout a period of immense artistic activity in the city.

Following on from an initial exhibition bearing the same title in 1988, Jude Burkhauser, curator and researcher of ‘Glasgow Girls’, has coordinated the production of a book to accompanying the present exhibition. What follows are extracts from Jude Burkhauser’s introduction to the book, that will bring together an impressive selection of writers, researchers and practitioners.

In 1988-89 I enjoyed the opportunity to work as research scholar at Glasgow School of Art. My independent studies prior to this had acquainted me with the distinguished history of the School, most notably Charles Rennie Mackintosh. But it was Anthea Callen’s book, Angel In the Studio: Women of The Arts and Crafts Movement 1870-1914 which truly raised my interest, for here I learned that a group of Glasgow women designers had achieved prominence in the arts contemporarily with Mackintosh, yet the accounts I had read had never mentioned their contribution to the development of the Glasgow Style. Here, I learned, Jessie Newbery and Anne Macbeth had ‘pioneered’ new concepts in design, both in education and textiles, which had spread around the world; and here, I learned, Margaret Macdonald was more than an appendage to her husband Charles Rennie Mackintosh and had (it was claimed) with her sister Frances Macdonald, been ‘central to the evolution of the Glasgow Style.

What was it, I wondered, that had given rise to these accomplishments, so rarely recorded of women at that time? Why Glasgow? How Glasgow? And why, if these women artists had been so visible in 1900, had they become ‘invisible’ in 1988? Why, for example, had I not been able to read about them before this? It was not until my participation in the first Women-in-Art seminar to be offered in the history of the Glasgow School, that the clear focus of the project emerged. For, although I graduated in 1970 from a college of art and design in the USA after four years of lectures based on Janson’s History of Art, (wherein not one woman had been mentioned as an artist), I found I had arrived years later at Glasgow School of Art to discover that Gombrich’s The Story of Art (wherein not one woman had been mentioned as an artist), was the first text recommended for first-year students. An existing study of Glasgow women artists by Liz Bird ‘Threading the Beads: Women in Art in Glasgow, 1870-1920’ pin-pointed an important means of disqualifying women from art history when she examined shifting art historical biases in relation to ideological biases concerning the ‘minor’ (decorative) arts versus the ‘major’ arts (painting, sculpture, architecture) in relation to the Glasgow Style. Examining Glasgow artists she found: ‘Compared to the previous and subsequent development of the visual arts in Scotland. women were here being recognised as artists, and were able to earn their living through their art by working as teachers and selling their designs,’ but also noted, ‘the relative invisibility of these women when viewed through the spectacles of art history which obscure the work of women and illuminate the work of men.’ Bird contended this was because of the ‘operation of the dominant ideology which constantly centralises some art products and marginalises others.’

‘Glasgow Girls’, a collaborative project which emerged from awareness of these issues, aims to contribute to a larger story of women in the arts in Glasgow. Bringing together eighteen authoritative voices, it concerns itself with re-discovery and re-definition of the group of women artists whose common link was their attendance at and involvement with Glasgow School of Art. Investigation of their common bond educational opportunity–adds credence to the thesis of Linda Nochlin’s essay, ‘Why Are There No Great Women Artists?’ in which she states: “the fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education … Glasgow Girls affirms importance of access to enlightened education and the provision of significant role models for women art students in their process of self-determination and individuation, still a recent phenomenon in the history of civilisation.

The exhibition and the accompanying book starts with an exploration of a ‘period of enlightenment’ both for women and by women, which occurred at Glasgow School of Art from about 1885 to 1920 which resulted in a significant but unrecorded period of international visibility. One of the most valuable contributions of these forgotten women may be the fact that they stood as exceptions to the rule in pursuit of a career in the arts at all within the span of their lifetimes. As Nochlin points out: ‘for a woman to opt for a career at all, much less for a career in art, has required a certain amount of unconventionality, both in the past and at present … deprived of encouragements, educational facilities, and rewards, it is almost incredible that a certain percentage of women … actually sought out a profession in the arts.’

The fact of their lives as artists at the brink of women’s emergence from centuries of invisibility stands as significant fact to be reinserted when the chapters on women, quietly edited out, are written in again. For here, in ‘rich, raw, Glasgow’ at the turn of the last century, a group of women were for the first time in history able to attend classes in the day sessions of the city’s art school and for the first time in history had access to live models (albeit draped ones, under chaperone). And here, in the Glasgow School of Art under the tutelage of an enlightened new Director, they found ‘encouragements, educational facilities, and rewards’ for their work. Yet the fact that this group of Glasgow art students subsequently contributed a new form to the history of figurative representation dubbed by their critics ‘The Spook School’, were part of the then revolutionary Scottish Impressionist School of painting, known as the Glasgow Boys; had their work featured in some of the most prestigious, avant-garde international art journals of the day (Ver Sacrum, Dekorative Kunst, The Studio); that their work contributed significantly to the development of a deafly defineable and distinctive Glasgow Style that resonates even today in the history of design; and that their paintings, prints and varied decorative artworks were well represented in international exhibitions and their illustrations and philosophical works published throughout Great Britain and abroad are not blazoned in the art histories.

As Anthea Callen has shown in Angel In The Studio, the work of women artists, was widely published and acknowledged at its time as a ‘womanly’ art form but when this Victorian assessment vanished from the record with no category to replace it, so, too did women artists and designers, including those from Glasgow School of Art. The women who had shone so brightly were soon demoted to the footnotes of art historical studies. This was done by a variety of means but can be seen most clearly in Margaret Macdonald’s submersion in the shadow of her husband Rennie Mackintosh. P. Morton Shand (Mackintosh’s biographer) seemed to take the destruction of Macdonald’s status as a personal quest.

‘If I may put it so without offence, Mrs Mackintosh was scarcely even a Mrs Browning to her Robert. His mentality anticipated the future with amazing prevision, hers was statically contemporary, and contemporary to a still-born, purely decorative phase of art.’

This project is an attempt to step beyond the gendered stereotypes and limiting beliefs which mis-informed and pre-determined Shand and his colleagues’ approach to art history and look again at Margaret Macdonald’s work and the work of her contemporaries. This exercise is undertaken not with the intention of vindicating Macdonald by disputing Mackintosh’s central position in the Glasgow School, but rather by questioning the relevance of an art historical methodology which thrives on the notion that great artists somehow transcend the concrete circumstances of history. As Ray McKenzie noted the fact that this generation of women artists valued such things as cooperation and mutual support, and were motivated by genuinely collective aspirations may never cut much ice among those who subscribe to Shand’s view of history. The research on which ‘Glasgow Girls is based suggests that it is high time we considered the alternative view.

In A Woman’s Touch, Isabelle Anscombe re-represented design history from this inclusive perspective and pointed out that although the practical influence of women on modern design was enormous ‘the fact that their contribution has been overlooked has led to a narrow and distorted interpretation of the true scope and achievements of the design movements of the twentiethcentury.’ In documenting an international selection of women in design from 1860 to the present day including the Macdonald sisters she maintained that ‘the study of the lives of women designers and their pragmatic approach to design leads inevitably to a radical reassessment of the history of twentieth-century design.

Glasgow Girls helps to mark the trail. Not only does it identify and document a selection of women who played a significant role in that avant-garde movement in Glasgow, but places them in this new context, examining some of the conditions and situations they negotiated in their struggle to define themselves as artists In the process, one hopes that this book may allow a contemporary audience the opportunity to reevaluate their contribution and that it will add to the ongoing reassessment of art and design history of the twentieth-century.

‘What is important is that women face up to the reality of their history and their present situation, without making excuses or puffing mediocrity. Disadvantage may indeed be an excuse; it is not, however, an intellectual position. Rather, using their situation as underdogs in the realm of grandeur and outsiders in the realm of ideology as a vantage point, women can reveal institutional weaknesses in general, and, at the same time that they destroy false consciousness, take part in the creation of institutions in which clear thought and true greatness–are challenges open to anyone, man or woman, courageous enough to take the necessary risk, the leap into the unknown.’

Jon Sasaki

Given the breadth of media he employs, including film, video, sculpture, painting, installation, multiples and performance (but not once, to my knowledge, isolated audio), it may seem misleading to label Jon Sasaki a sound artist, but hear me out.

Much of Sasaki’s work, within the framework of the artists’ collective Instant Coffee and in his solo practice, involves music and sound. Disco balls, loudspeakers and 45s feature prominently. Bass Bed (2005, with Instant Coffee) and Evil Decoder (2006) use the vibrations of a subwoofer to create sculptural form. In the former, Sasaki connected a sound system to a bed to create a vibrating communal space, like a coin-operated honeymoon suite for a dozen guests. In the latter, he placed a planchette fitted with a Ouija board atop a speaker to decipher sinister messages subliminally hidden in the history of pop music. In his video Worry Dolls (2005), Sasaki used those same vibrations to make half-inch-tall handmade cotton-and-card dolls dance their cares away.

In his two recent solo exhibitions, the artist turns his attention to the world of celluloid. Antihero Decor, at the Centre for Culture and Leisure No. 1, consists of five separate stand-alone works that combine to create a larger piece. Like the film The Purple Rose of Cairo in reverse, when you enter the space you become sepia-toned, a monochrome protagonist in your own 1940s film-noir world. A low-pressure sodium light fixture in the corner bathes the room in a zero-colour-index glow, producing an unsettling environment drained of all hues. Images of colour-field paintings pinned to the wall help illustrate the effect, and they also provide a subnarrative to the set piece’s suspended fiction. I’m reminded of A Void, George Perec’s 1969 mystery novel about the search for the missing letter e, told entirely without the vowel in question.

In the gallery, a series of household objects play with the conventions and language of cinema: clocks inset with lenticular faces speed time forwards and backwards, the handset of a telephone plays a sweeping instrumental soundtrack with a punch line of sorts, shadows of venetian blinds are cast on the wails and the distinct whirring clatter of a film projector can be heard.

The strongest work in the show is also the most discreet. Theremin Doorknob (2006) involves a door built into the space with a twitching doorknob that suggests someone is fumbling to get out, or is locked in. Hidden behind the door is a theremin, an eerie-sounding instrument invented around 1919 by Leon Teremin that is designed to be played without being touched. The viewer is compelled to reach out to open the door, and this causes the theremin to react with an increasingly high-pitched tone. This sound is familiar from its use in the soundtracks of 40s and 50s noir films, such as The Lost Weekend, The Raw Deal and She Shoulda Said No. (The instrument’s first cinematic use was in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 film Spellbound, in the scene where Gregory Peck enters Ingrid Bergman’s bedroom, razor in hand.) Its use here is also a nod to the musical compositions of the 20th-century avant-gardes, who also embraced the unusual instrument. The New York Gallery – Art By Wicks exhibited oversized artworks for big wall which make visitors very impressed.

In Wishing for Three More Wishes, the follow-up exhibition at Gallery TPW, Sasaki’s exploration moves from the ambiguous morality of the antihero to the slapstick of the archetypal comedic everyman, as if the artist is travelling backwards through film history, in search of a purer, truer form.

One of the principal tenets of sound art is that silence is not insignificant. In early silent cinema, the lack of synchronized accompanying sound–dialogue, in particular–was a technical limitation whose impact on approaches to filmmaking was enormous. Body language, facial expression and the charm of the actor were key.

Of the seven works in the exhibition, the videos are the simplest and the most direct. Each features the artist in simple attire, performing a single gesture: repeated attempts to climb an unsupported ladder, the struggle to hold up an anvil that he has suspended over the balcony of his 20th-floor apartment in the cold of winter, a fireworks display contained in a Plexiglas vitrine. Collectively, they express the failure to achieve, communicate, connect and reconcile, and they raise questions about the nature of relationships, whether romantic or collaborative.

The show closes with No Response (2007), a completely silent 16 mm film in which the artist’s persona (responding, perhaps, to the medium) hams it up for the camera as he makes increasingly desperate attempts to elicit a response from a wishing well. Skepticism and hope intermingle in each of these works, as they do in the bulk of Sasaki’s practice.

A proposed future work would distill the central premise of Antihero Decor into two simple but effective components: a low-pressure sodium lamp inside an anechoic chamber. This soundproof room is designed in such a way that the walls, ceiling and floor absorb sounds rather than reflecting them as echoes. Once inside, the viewer would experience a sensation akin to being in a blackand-white silent film.

The anechoic chamber also references the history of John Cage and his silent composition 4’33” (1952). Lore has it that Cage visited such a chamber at Harvard

University and was disappointed to learn that the space wasn’t silent at all. When he complained to a technician, he was told that the two sounds he heard were his nervous system and his circulation.

The sound of one’s own blood and nerves seems a fitting soundtrack for film noir, but the chamber also suggests that a sustained interest in sound inevitably leads to silence.

Ninth Havana Biennial Havana, Cuba

The ninth Havana Biennial is made up of a dynamic yet chaotic mix of official and unofficial events. In a dense landscape where the histories of colonialism and modernism coexist in an uneasy decay, the biennial’s official theme of Urban Dynamics holds promise. However, the central site of the biennial, located outside the city at the historic La Cabana fortress on the island’s shore, throws the strength of the theme into question. Dominant here is a type of urban landscape photography that glosses over differences to portray the idea of a “global city” In contrast, the more interesting projects subvert such literal interpretations and instead investigate notions of community as a complex and often confrontational aspect of urban experience. At a time when Canada is descending into its own War on Terror, investigating al Qaeda-inspired bomb plots, the ninth Havana Biennial exposes community as a fragile and temporary construct.

Cinthia Marcelle makes the confrontations innate to community manifest in the video Unus Mundus-Confrantacion (2005). A wide overhead shot reveals a scene on an anonymous city street. With traffic stopped at the lights of an intersection, two young people juggling fire appear from outside the frame. They walk in front of the waiting cars, delivering a performance that ends when the lights change. However, as the video unfolds and traffic stops again, the two jugglers become four, the four become six; finally, eight jugglers occupy the street, holding their position even after the light turns green, effectively blocking the flow of cars. As Marcelle’s video ends, the viewer is left with a growing swell of car horns protesting the jugglers, and a new, fluid border is drawn across city space.

Better Lives (2003), by Sue Williamson, presents the experiences of pan-African refugees living in Cape Town and at the same time it investigates the tension between still and moving images. Williamson assembles five different sets of refugees to pose for traditional studio portraits, then exhibits the photographs as large-format prints. Mirroring the photographs, five separate monitors present videos of the refugees in the same studio setting. Here, Williamson’s subjects hold similar portrait poses as they listen to audio recordings of themselves telling their tales of exile, which had been taped earlier. Allowing viewer and subject to encounter the recordings simultaneously releases the refugee experience from the realm of the fixed photograph so it may be explored as a continuously unfolding struggle, the concrete consequences of which remain broader than the borders that frame them.

Entering Cuba as a North American I am aware that this biennial continues to happen in the shadow of the Helms-Burton Act and Cuba’s geopolitical isolation from the North and yet flourishes along with the rise of the New Left in Latin America. Ironically, the transitory international art community that congregates briefly in the city provides the best example of a contested meaning: the conflict between the city and everyone’s occasion for being there. I immediately think of this community, of which I am a member, when I encounter the untitled installation by Shilpa Gupta. At the entrance to La Cabana, yellow tape of the type used by police at crime scenes covers the handrails of a small bridge over a moat. On the tape, black text features a repeating phrase in both English and Spanish: “THERE IS NO BORDER HERE,” Bringing artists to the city to exhibit alongside visiting artists, critics and curators from around the world, the biennial does indeed transcend traditional borders of geography, if only momentarily. But at the Havana Biennial there are, of course, borders everywhere: between the context of the viewer and that of the artist, between the biennial’s mandate to exhibit contemporary art from Africa, Asia and Latin America and the primarily Euro-American provenance of many foreign visitors, between the international audience and the boundaries of language, nation and region. Gupta’s installation neatly expresses this double meaning, drawing a boundary with perimeter tape to expose the role of the international biennial in the new globalist fiction of a borderless world.

Fall, River, Snow: Water Drape

Fall, River, Snow: Water Drape, Ice Steam, Deer Portrait (2006), an ambitious new film work by UK artist Liz Rideal, was projected outdoors in the expansive grounds of Compton Verney, an estate designed by the eminent 18th-century British landscape architect Capability Brown. This work signals a new direction for the artist, whose diverse practice includes photography, drawing and print-based media. Reflecting on her practice in relation to film, she brings her work’s static, often sequential, repeated and narrative images into a new medium.

Rideal’s film, its two-part title describing a three-part work, is 10 minutes and 40 seconds in length, and was shot in three locations in Ontario: Niagara Falls, Big Cedar and Burleigh Falls. Produced in January 2006 using Super 8 film, the work’s three sections are linked by the setting of a winter landscape.

Rideal’s infatuation with water, cascades and drapery is clearly visible in the first section of the film. The secondary title for this part, Water Drape, emphasises her intentions as she focuses on the visceral properties of falling water. The illusory stasis of Niagara Falls’ high volume of falling water provokes associations with the ephemeral qualities of projected light, and this ultimately is the only certainty implied by the image Rideal creates.

Land art offers an important context for this film. Its theoretical base was developed in the late 60s and early 70s around the work of artists such as Dennis Oppenheim, Richard Long and Michael Heizer. James Turrell famously has created a body of work that focuses on the effects of light and space on perception, and although Rideal’s work functions in a different manner, her practice of using film to project light into and onto landscape offers an interesting update on this tradition.

Rideal’s film moves across a terrain of the Canadian winter. Water as liquid, vapour and solid is present in the three landscapes shown, in part proposing that each one is a repetition of the others, in part providing conjunction and in part proportioning difference.

The artist used trees on the estate as a screen for the film’s projection; the frenetic flowing water in the first section of the film created movement and shadows that cut across the trees, inducing a sense of swirling wind as much as cascading water. The trees lined one end of the lake, dipping away from the main house. Aligned from the base of the trees, on the waterline of the lake, the projection was almost the full height of the trees and was fully visible from across the width of the lake. This alignment enabled the image’s reflection to be visible at full length in the water below, an intelligent restructuring that cast the film’s bottom edge as its midpoint.

The film moved through two other phases, its middle portion a passage of colour determinable only as an aqua-blue stain or spill against the otherwise sharp black silhouettes created by the flowing water from Burleigh Falls, which provided the most defined series of shapes within the work. The final section, shot in the woodland that surrounds Big Cedar, introduced discernable points of narrative–trees and occasional deer provided a sense of story and a registration of scale.

The abstract detailing and physical fragility of Rideal’s work was doubled by the temporary site. The lack of density of the foliage of the trees, due to high winds, resulted in a loss of definition in the film’s image; conversely, the sharpness of the film intensified as the evening’s darkness gathered pace.

The notion of landscape projected onto landscape provokes interesting questions about simulation and displacement. Transposing fragmented and idealized Canadian environs onto the manicured and meticulous gardens created by the most thorough of British landscape architects suggests evocative historical links between the two countries and questions discrepancies of landscape across continents.

Rideal’s regular body of work raises issues of transparency and translucency–light passes through fabric or is caught between folds in material. Here it is the projected light that becomes the surface, acting as the point of contact, a temporal facade that renders trees and water as surface, shape and colour. Projecting this film outdoors and onto a model of English landscape aesthetics is audacious, but ultimately it is an audaciousness that befits the content of the work and allows for an engaging personal experience of the landscape, standing in the failing light of dusk in the cold of winter.