Glasgow International review – so how many art critics can you fit in an Opel?

It’s a dreich – as they like to say in these parts – afternoon in June. Four strangers are crammed into an Opel in a city centre car park, listening to the radio. A broadcast of field recordings and vocal fragments is punctuated with bleeps and static. It is a very Glasgow International (GI) experience. In this biennial, art leads you up tenement staircases, across industrial estates, through community gardens and into car parks.

The broadcast is an homage to Jean Cocteau’s film Orpheus, and composed by students in Dresden and Glasgow under the tutelage of Susan Philipsz. This most private of public listening experiences recasts you as Orpheus himself, scrutinising transmissions for hidden meaning. But as Eurydice tells him: “You can’t spend your life in a talking car.” Other delights await.

This GI transgresses some unspoken biennial code by carrying neither an overwrought theme nor a laborious title. Blasphemy! Yet lo, crows did not fly backwards, nor did herring fall from the sky. It turns out that programming interesting artists and supporting good local organisations work just fine as guiding principles. Indeed, it feels less overstretched than recent editions which were hampered by projects that performed better on paper than they did in real life.

Revelation … Self Portrait by Sandra George. Photograph: Courtesy Craigmillar

A revelation here is Sandra George, a photographer and community worker based in Edinburgh from the early 1980s. Shooting in black and white, George documented communities she worked with – among them Shakti Women’s Aid and the Royal Blind School – with stirring empathy. The results are beautifully composed and tender with fellow feeling. In 1982, George’s son Tyler arrived. We meet him as a slumping, somnolent newborn in knitted mittens, propped between her legs as she directs her Nikon towards the mirror. George died in 2013, much of her work unseen.

Tramway houses a fierce roar of an exhibition by Delaine Le Bas, a nominee for this year’s Turner prize. Within nomadic structures pieced together from cloth, rope, banners and costumes, Le Bas shares her grief and political outrage: “Beware of Linguistic Engineering” her banners tell us, “Love is Anarchy”, “Protest is in Peril”.

Towering over everything is an effigy of a Minoan snake goddess, an emblem of feminine power whose nemesis – Mickey Mouse – represents patriarchal corruption. The symbolism is piled on. Beside one tented pavilion, a wedding dress hangs from a noose, but trails, in turn, a “witch’s ladder” set with feathers offering the condemned bride a supernatural means of escape. A throbbing soundtrack swoops between rave and spoken-word. Le Bas is British Romany, and much here addresses land rights, while also making space for women’s anger.

Thoughts of Gaza … Lawrence Abu Hamdan: Air Pressure. Photograph: Maria Baranova

Parallel concerns emerge between artists, not least the ongoing horror devastating Gaza. It is there in Le Bas’ discussion of displacement and extractive capitalism. It infuses a moody and uncharacteristically direct installation by Cathy Wilkes at the Hunterian. Wilkes asks what it is to be among the injured rather than the dead through the case of Emma Groves, a Belfast woman blinded after being shot in the face with a rubber bullet in her home. Wilkes propels a rubber bullet – stout and thuggish – through the gallery wall, caught in mid-air before a recoiling female form lit by a frilly domestic lamp.

Thoughts of Gaza likewise haunt Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s impeccably crafted performance lecture Air Pressure (2021). The artist acts as “earwitness” to the sky-ripping din of Israeli jets and drones violating Lebanese airspace in vast number (he documented 22,355 flights between 2007-22). In addition to the psychological impact of noisy threat, Abu Hamdan suggests measurable physical impact, including damage to the heart.

skip past newsletter promotion

Witnessing history … a still from Langit Lupa by Enzo Camacho and Ami Lien. Photograph: Courtesy of the artists

The “I” in this GI comes more from exploration of Glasgow’s global connections – colonial and cultural – than starry international commissions. One of the few is Enzo Camacho and Ami Lien’s Offerings for Escalante at GoMA. Projected between paper sculptures and lightworks is an experimental documentary made with survivors of a massacre on the sugar-producing island of Negros in the Philippines in the final years of the Marcos regime. Audio of nightmarish testimonies plays across abstracted footage and segments of film processed with plant materials. Like Abu Hamdan, Lien and Camacho position themselves as witnesses to histories in danger of erasure.

Magnificent … The Treasury of Human Inheritance by Alexis Kyle Mitchell. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist.

A more personal history structures Alexis Kyle Mitchell’s magnificent film The Treasury of Human Inheritance. Three generations of the artist’s family were devastated by myotonic dystrophy – a genetic disorder that accelerates as it passes from one generation to the next. Through home videos and 16mm footage of derelict buildings, Kyle Mitchell asks what it is to inhabit a sick body, to be closer to death than life. Accompanied by work on alternative care structures by Ima-Abasi Okon, enriched by an electronic soundtrack by artists Luke Fowler and Richy Carey, and a surprise cameo by Turner prize winner Charlotte Prodger, The Treasury of Human Inheritance is also a touching testament to the collaborative spirit of Glasgow’s art scene.

The Guardian