Kelvin Hall, 1445 Argyle Street, Glasgow G3 8AW

Claire Barclay: Bright Bodies

Kelvin Hall, Glasgow (Glasgow International 2016)

8 April – 25 April 2016

Review by Alexander Hetherington

Glasgow-based artist Claire Barclay’s installations draw on a performative vocabulary that sees objects, materials and spaces become folded, flattened, extracted, embossed, cut, tooled, lengthened, stained and polished. Her large-scale pieces occupy their space with concerns for the horizontal and vertical, with volume and scale. Carefully arranged materials are presented as flowing actions and verbalise the conditions of their surroundings and physical and human social histories. Barclay’s activities and substances are interchangeable sculptural processes, employed to summarise their sites: their functions, habitations, ecologies and genealogies.

In ‘Bright Bodies’, a new installation for Glasgow International, Barclay’s sensitive and highly physical choreography is engaged in a course of action through the history, archives and social spaces of Kelvin Hall – a multi-purposed venue once used for carnivals and circuses, exhibitions and competitive sports and a recent temporary host for the transport museum (now housed at the close-by Riverside Museum, designed by the late architect Zaha Hadid). Barclay’s prime focus, though, is the Hall’s 1951 ‘Exhibition of Industrial Power’, showcasing Scotland’s heavy industries and its scientific and engineering achievements. These now globalised industries, and the Hall itself, are in a state of demise; but currently the site of transformation, rejuvenation and rebuilding, the Hall will re-open in the near-future as a reinterpreted version of itself. It is these conditions of passing forms, disorder and collapse, modification and restoration that find dimension among Barclay’s flowing, living, poetic sculptural field.

In Barclay’s interventions lengths of red rubber sheeting lay the foundation for industrial-scale spikes, fabric sheathes and cage-like forms that imitate, with their inserted sacks of red cloth, throats and lungs. The stinging, caustic smell of coal-tar emanates from a pool of the substance as it spills onto polished metal sheets and its meniscus gathers dust and feathers. The installation is housed in a derelict space with ‘do not enter’ spray-painted signs, an industrial hum, the fumes of rebuilding, and leafs of peeling paint animating the walls. Ceiling and stained-glass windows are highly decorated, but are abandoned to neglect and a piercing cold. There is a visible clean line in the centre of the space and an accumulation of dust above, while windows open out onto views of Kelvingrove park and beyond. A war memorial mimics Barclay’s use of dark heavy metals and sprays of poppy-red. A ceiling rose, and three chandeliers, with modern energy-saving bulbs, look down on her project and give the room a fake, eerie fluorescence. The properties of light - artificial and natural - and how it changes materials, is evident throughout.

A sack-like a lung is clipped to a raw steel cage skeleton, blackened inside. It serves to articulate the physical exertion of bodies working at large-scale dirty industries. A series of cleansed, hygienic, medical-style instruments are stacked at one side of the installation and are suggestive of surgery, anatomy and health-care. Barclay draws a line here to injury, pain and disease and the very vulnerable states of the body. The dominant red of her installation speaks about the body, its temporality, its skin and contradictory weakness and strength. While the colour, in this environment, also has overtures to socialist politics, labour and class.

Barclay’s surfaces - matt, mirrored, iridescent and deep black - in their arrangements, movements and proximities, are alluring and insightful. While her industrial processes: hooked, balanced, weighed-down, scored and tooled is drawing in dimensional form. She alerts the space to itself, heightening its details and properties. By combining these existing and constructed material states she asks us to become alert to ourselves. The work is a simulation of her reading and responsiveness to the built environment, and to our scale and presence within it.

Barclay’s attuned sensitivity can be best expressed by a beautiful moment in which Glasgow’s coat-of-arms, a surreal collage of contradictions - “The tree that never grew, the bird that never flew, the fish that never swam, the bell that never rang” – rendered in stained glass as part of the building’s fabric, forms an illusory symmetry, a reflection of itself in a carefully stationed mirror pool of black oil. Here Barclay converts a familiar symbolic emblem of the city and makes it seem unfamiliar, renewed by the simple gesture of a chimeric coupling.

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