Art erupts out of a fine mess
Kitty Finer with her installation of cabinets.
Pictures: Martin Shields.
What a mess.
One of the things often forgotten when artists rescue former industrial spaces to use as galleries is the sheer hard work involved in clearing these before a single picture is hung. The Glue Factory in Glasgow, the new venue for the Glasgow School of Arts MFA show (along with the more fragrant CCA) is a prime example.
The Glue Factory is in the Spiers Locks area of north Glasgow. In the same industrial estate, large buildings hold technical, office and practice space for Scottish Opera and the National Theatre of Scotland. The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama is redeveloping another set of sheds for their new state-of-the-art dance facility.
The Glue Factory was less salubrious when we visited two weeks ago. Downstairs, it looked like what it was: an abandoned factory. Dust gathered on the bare brick walls, windowless coldrooms were dark with mould, huge boilers lay silent and the floor was a mess of debris and dirt.
Upstairs, conditions were better: the walls were painted white, the floor was clear and it resembled a gallery. What attracted the staff of the Master of Fine Art course (MFA) at the GSA was its sheer size and mixture of atmospheres: the rough-and-ready ground floor, the loft-like space of the upper floors. It will be the home to the MFA show for at least two years, after 10 years of being staged at the Tramway, and all 25 young artists completing the course will show work there from June 11.
The eyes of curators, gallery owners, collectors and journalists will be on them. Not only is the course, established in 1988, lauded in itself, it has a habit of producing award-winning artists: Richard Wright of Glasgow, this year’s Turner Prize winner, is a graduate, as were Douglas Gordon, Louise Hopkins and Simon Starling. The Glue Factory could be the start of some very special careers.
One of the graduates this year is Ellie Harrison. Much of her work entails appearing in the media – primarily newspapers – although she is also into arranging parties.
One of her ideas, a syndicate of artists who will collaborate to try to win various National Lottery draws, has already received media coverage, not only because it seems a good way for artists, in these hard-pressed times, to get money, but also because she has organised the whole plan, enlisting the help of 40 artists across the UK and figured out the best way of maximising their chances.
Looking around the Glue Factory, hints of other work are already in place. Tom Harrup has left orders on a sign that his patch of mouldy, depressing brick wall is to be left as is and not repainted.
Deniz Uster is doing something with potatoes in a dark room which is being filled with soil and compost. The use of the brickwork, and some of the exposed beams, is also a deliberate, silent nod to another vast industrial space: the Arsenale in Venice, a venerable shipbuilding dock which is now the centre for the art and architectural Biennales.
John Calcutt, the director of the course, is excited by the new space. He thinks it will teach the students, as well as showcasing their work. He says: “I think the Glue Factory offers something in relation to their future professional practice, particularly in the challenges that the space offers.
“We want to produce students who are capable of being individual, independent artists. There’s been a history of finding spaces to work in in contemporary art, certainly in Glasgow where there hasn’t been much of a commercial gallery sector.
“So, practically, what they are learning will be very important. It’s a very raw space. And where Tramway was one big space, this is four.”
Graham Ramsay, artist and lecturer on the course, adds: “It is obvious what it is: it’s an early 20th-century industrial facility. But it offers a lot of flexibility. It offers very contrasting conditions. Downstairs is very rough, upstairs is light and cleaner. Because of its flexibility, there have been no problems adjusting to it. And there’s plenty of space: 20,000 sq ft of it.”
By the time you read this, of course, the Glue Factory’s interior will have changed almost beyond recognition. And the MFA itself has changed in recent years. Students used to be judged as “pass” or “fail”, albeit with merits and distinctions. Now, to fit in with the higher education standards of the University of Glasgow, the first year leads to postgraduate certificates and a postgraduate diploma, followed by the full MFA in the second year.
Each stage of this has a credit rating, which technically means students could transfer to other institutes of higher learning in Europe, although 99% of them do not.
Also, as the postgraduate population grows at the GSA, the more room for shared courses there are. So there is the chance to meet students from different courses in the shared ones such as core research skills, as well as on elective courses taken from different degrees. Calcutt says: “It has become standard now that the student experience is far more fluid than perhaps it used to be.”
Ramsay adds: “We are still committed to the process of developing the artists’ practice. That is an organic process, and we try to allow as much freedom as possible.
“ This year has been an incredibly hard working year. What is really important to the culture of the course is how the internal dynamic of the year works. What they have learned from each other is amazing. You want to leave the course with genuine friends, and I think that is what has happened here.”
More meaningful change is also built into the course. In two years, the change in the students’ lives and work can be dramatic. An interim show, recently staged by the course’s first year, can be very different from the final one. “Sometimes there are radical changes, and that is often the reason why people come here, to have the space to do that,” Ramsay says.
“You might come here with a particular thing in mind, or have a problem that you want to work on, and sometimes the course is for clarifying and developing those issues.”
As we leave the Glue Factory, I ask a question which makes both teachers slightly uncomfortable: Which of these artists is really going to make it commercially?
Calcutt says: “I can only say for myself. It is very hard to say. To predict commercial success is very hard: will a curator pick you up? There’s absolutely no way of predicting that.”
Ramsay adds: “The fact is that most artists have to have some other form of income. The art is not their entire livelihood. And the idea of some kind of instant commercial success: well, in this day and age – it is quite an old-fashioned one now.”
Exhibitions run from June 12-26 at the Glue Factory and the CCA