Jack Mottram, 'An encoded vision of a sinister age' (The Herald, 29/02/2008)
I spy: Craig Mulholland’s latest work reveals the shadowy side of data storage and surveillance, while concrete blocks give Camilla Low’s show its strength, finds Jack Mottram
For her first solo show in Scotland, the Norwegian, Glasgow-educated sculptor Camilla Low has brought together existing works with a series of new pieces to craft a distinctly calm and collected display, one that matches a studied examination of formal possibilities with a strong sense of place.
The new works are fashioned from concrete cubes, crafted on site from local materials, and a match for the industrial architecture of the Dundee Contemporary Arts’ exhibition spaces. These cubes are piled and stacked, with the occasional surface painted smooth, in hues chosen from a limited palette of mostly primary colours. Resting on the arrangements of blocks are similarly precise rectilinear wooden forms: squares and oblongs defined in space and, again, treated with a high-gloss, brightly-coloured coating that denies their rough, organic origins.
Low is working in a tradition here – the modular minimalism of Sol LeWitt springs to mind, and there are echoes of Malevich’s pared-down suprematism – but she is no copyist, conveying, instead, a deep understanding of the potential of simple forms to interact with each other and the space around them. In a rather neat curatorial trick, Low’s new works stand free on the gallery floor, while earlier works, many of which lean on walls for support or are suspended from the ceiling, gather around, as if looking fondly on their progeny. And those earlier pieces are less polished, less repetitive. Diva is a collection of unpainted wooden blocks, pulled up off the floor by a cord, which Sister sees a busy cluster of orange Perspex triangles pierced by a metal rod. Best of them all is White Steel, a bent and bashed sheet of metal that has been treated to a glamorous sheen.
If the retrospective element of the show provides variety, it is the formal exploration through repetition and rearrangement of the new elements that gives the show its strength. At first sight, so many similar works might appear dull, but walk among them and the restraint that characterises Low’s recent practice offers an almost meditative experience, a set of forms pushed to their limits.
Back in Glasgow, Craig Mulholland is showing no signs of restraint, but proving once again that he is the most prolific polymath working in the city today. His new show is spread across two venues – the Glasgow School of Art and Sorcha Dallas – filling both to the gunnels, and is further fleshed out with a short digital film. Mulholland’s concerns are similarly broad, resting on the idea information in its many forms, from data storage to surveillance, encryption to virtual realities and the social and political impact of information technologies.
The Art School’s Mackintosh Gallery has been infested with an army of decidedly sinister tripods. Some bear the weight of rough-hewn pewter globes, others carry gobbets of dense, rubbery material, their rounded surfaces bearing traces of tightly-wound string, others still serve as easels, displaying framed works, “paintings” made of etched metal and polycarbonate.
More of these metal paintings – nigh on 20 of them – adorn the walls, ranging from finicky, precise geometrics, to wild splatters. There is something in the arrangement of the tripods that suggests a transmission and reception of data, as if, when unobserved, they might twitch into life, their loads to be collected, examined and interpreted, like physical manifestations of the coded robots that crawl the web, reporting their findings back to search engines.
On the other side of the room, the silver and black of the tripods and etched works give way to white, with a group of 16 framed works made of pegboard. Arranged in a towering pyramid foundation, the first of them is dense, with layers of board piled up and torn away, and the last is barely there, with traces of board at its edges, and holes drilled directly into the gallery wall. If the grouping of the tripods and metal works hints at data in transit, the pegboard pieces suggest data loss, forming a eulogy to a failing hard drive, its stored information edging away bit by bit, byte by byte.
Across town at Sorcha Dallas, there are more metal works, this time edging away from the mathematical abstractions of their peers at the School of Art to hint at the representation of library shelves or half-broken satellites in orbit. In the centre of the first exhibition space, a found metal globe has been etched with lines of latitude and longitude, and an impossible geography of intersecting curves. Next door, there is an immersive five-screen video installation, Rising Resistance, in which images from the two exhibitions flow around the room.
In the past, when Mulholland has mounted sprawling shows like this – most notable Plastic Casino in 2004 – there was a sense that he was an artist in need of an editor: someone who would lock the doors of his studio and say, “Enough!” This time, though, the bewildering array of objects offered up for examination, and the almost impenetrable layering of imagery are lent coherence by, of all things, a 12-minute digitally animated rock opera, Peer To Peer. It is a stunning, albeit brief, piece of cinema.
Mulholland and his colibrettist, Laurence Figgis, tell the story of a Camera and its Operator, both exhausted by the weight of the information they must amass, sort and route around a system – what this information is, why it is being gathered and for whom is never made clear – expressed in language that hovers beautifully between code and poetry. On screen, a hard-disk platter is suspended in space, its surface attacked by a whirling galaxy of digital detritus, tripods scuttle about, up to God knows what, and the Camera, a floating metal globe with a blinking aperture, moves to and fro through a Borgesian library of data.
There is a distinct air of hysteria about all this, and the film oozes a sort of totalitarian camp: in lesser hands, the piece might err on the sillier side of sci-fi, but Mulholland who, for all the high seriousness of his projects, is not afraid to introduce a note of winking humour – makes it work. With his twin exhibitions and superb film work, Mulholland has, then fashioned a fully-formed world, an encoded vision that reformats a real world in which the gathering and retention of information is spiralling out of control, where the prospect of biometric identity cards and DNA databases looms, our every move is followed by surveillance cameras and undesirables are moved on by speakers emitting a high-pitched digital wine.
You will not find a better evocation of the dystopian present than this.