In Glasgow, in the marble grandeur of the Mitchell Library, you can borrow a work of art with your books. The librarians will help you choose between a Korean watercolor and a Russian abstract. They don’t just stamp your card, or fine you when the art is overdue, they will come to your home and mount Alec Finlay’s beautiful word work on the wall or install Henna-Riikka Halonen’s marvelous underwater film on your DVD so that you can watch the swimmers perform what amounts to a satirical ballet-cum-circus at any hour of the day or night. The librarians are, of course, artists in disguise.
At Transmission Gallery, artist-run since 1983, they are reading Finnegans Wake every lunchtime in solidarity with reading groups from Antwerp to New Mexico who have been reciting that stupendous novel (sometimes from memory) for decades. On the walls are works that have no market price, since they are simply gifts exchanged between the artists themselves; nor are the names of these artists declared. Anyone can spot Alasdair Gray’s mordant two-part graphic sequence, but who made this alarming moss-covered mask or that fantastical curved landscape?
Interpretation, context, value: all are undisclosed. Visitors will have to make up their own minds purely by taking a good old-fashioned look at the actual art.
Leaving with your free CD of Gogol’s The Overcoat, you might cross the River Clyde to the Tramway, where dancers in Russian costumes shaped like letters of the alphabet are cutting and sculpting that cavernous white space with their disciplined sweeps and arabesques. You can join in, if sufficiently high on the hypnotic black-and-white patterns that progress in geometric series across the wall, and not too afraid of your own nervous laughter.
This multimedia environment, by the Los Angeles artist Kelly Nipper, looks like a cross between Merce Cunningham, Peter Greenaway and the dynamic art of the Russian constructivist Alexander Rodchenko. It is meant to draw you into its all-embracing structure, make you a component of its grand design. And it works. Some of us hung back among the alphabet cushions, but others were soon losing themselves on the dance floor.
Openness — that’s the spirit of this year’s Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art; openness, involvement and an honest directness. It’s what you might expect of the city itself, with its famous warmth, but it is characteristic of the art scene too. Transmission may be the oldest, but it is by no means the only artists’ co-operative. Of the 50 or so venues in this year’s festival, almost half are run by artists, or writers, or writers who are also artists.
Go to their flat at 83 Hill Street and John Shankie and Andrew Miller will give you lunch in exchange for your conversation; food for thought. Go to the house of the painters Merlin James and Carol Rhodes, at 42 Carlton Place, and you will see an extraordinary miscellany, including paintings by Sickert and Derain, to make one ponder how (and when) contemporary art becomes the art of the past. The Turner prize-winning photographer Wolfgang Tillmans is showing new work in the house of the Turner prize-winning film artist Douglas Gordon.
And the oldest of all the city parks, Glasgow Green, has been handed to Jeremy Deller for the installation of an exact facsimile of Stonehenge in inflatable form. Everyone is welcome to leap to their heart’s content among these precious stones, this sacred site, no need to be confined (or charged) by English Heritage. The tinge of sacrilege enhances the free-for-all.