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by Jack Mottram, a freelance writer based in Glasgow · About · Contact · Feed

Unreliable Witness

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Un­re­li­able Witness gathers together art that explores truth and fiction, the telling of stories and the creation of myths.

Michael Fullerton opens the show with five huge posters that glitter under spot­lights. They bear a press shot of a.c. acoustics, a now-defunct Glasgow group whose biography reads like the template for a cult indie outfit, complete with critical acclaim, modest sales, devoted fans in more famous bands, a handful of Peel sessions and high profile support slots that hinted at the pos­s­ib­il­ity of main­stream success. Fullerton’s memorial offers a glimpse of an alternate history, where ac acoustics, despite their defiantly un­am­bi­tious lower case name, were pop idols, gracing the cover of Smash Hits instead of lan­guish­ing on the middle pages of the Melody Maker, head­lin­ing all the big festivals and mounting bloated in­ter­n­a­tion­al stadium tours. It’s a good joke, if you’ve heard of ac acoustics, which, as Fullerton is well aware, most people haven’t.

Fullerton’s Colour Study of the Painting ‘Elizabeth Foster’ by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1787 (Leon Trotsky) is a more complex in­vest­ig­a­tion into pro­pa­ganda, possible histories and the politics of aes­thet­ics. Lady Elizabeth Foster led an in­ter­est­ing life, living in a menage a trois with the Duke and Duchess of De­von­shire for a quarter century, while, rumour has it, merrily con­duct­ing affairs with a string of Earls, Counts and, for variety, a cardinal. There’s no hint of this in Reynolds’ portrait, of course, which casts the Lady as a rosy-cheeked innocent in virginal white lace. Fullerton takes this act of re­vi­sion­ism and applies it to another, borrowing the colour scheme used by Reynolds to paint a version of an anti-Bolshevik poster which showed Trotsky as a slavering maniac, his features twisted into an anti-Semitic ste­r­eo­type. It’s an in­triguing synthesis, matching Reynolds’ subtle pro­pa­ganda, which promotes an image of a powerful elite as morally upright, to the decidedly unsubtle casting of Trotsky as an unhinged monster, in a bid to secure the position of another powerful elite.

For Knowledge Will Break The Chains of Slavery (Alexei Radakov) turns again to Russian history, borrowing its title from an early Soviet poster extolling the virtues of education, but this time instead of rewriting history or merging two nar­rat­ives together, Fullerton obscures it, present­ing a thick strip of audio broadcast tape, un­l­isten­able behind glass.

Gabriela Vanga takes a more whimsical approach to possible histories with George. Installed on a low table are fragments of a portrait of the titular George, and a text which tells of its making. At thirteen, Vanga didn’t have a boyfriend, so she invented one, telling her school pals new tales about him every day. Years later, after con­fess­ing to the deception, Vanga described George to a police artist without revealing that his subject was a figment of her ima­gin­a­tion. The text then instructs the viewer to mentally re­con­struct George’s face from the fragments, following Vanga’s own process in re­mem­ber­ing the details of her teenage fiction. It’s a rather twee piece, unless you entertain the notion that Vanga has made the whole thing up, from the fibs at school to the police artist to her wish to share the ex­per­i­ence.

There’s no sign of whimsy in Peter Friedl’s harrowing video loop, Liberty City, which shows a gang brutally beating a de­fence­less man. The shaky, grainy am­a­teur­ish footage looks ab­so­lutely genuine, but it is in fact a short drama, based on a 1979 riot in Miami, sparked by the fatal beating of a black insurance salesman, Arthur McDuffie, at the hands of white policemen. Friedl’s fiction is, in effect, a reversal of these events - in his film, the gang is black, and their victim is a white police officer - but, thanks to its chilling realism, does more than make a sim­pl­ist­ic point about race relations in the US, ques­tion­ing the illusion of objective truth created by the shaky cam­er­a­work and grainy quality of doc­u­ment­ary footage.

Similar questions are posed by Nedko Solakov’s in­stal­l­a­tion The Truth (The Earth is Plane, The World is Flat). This col­lec­tion of paintings, drawings, newspaper cuttings, wall texts, hand­writ­ten notes, snapshots and a con­v­in­cingly realised doc­u­ment­ary film presents ‘evidence’ that the world is not a globe, but a thin disk. Centred on physicist Dr. Haraldar Gustalsan and the cosmonaut Vitaly R., the over­whelm­ing barrage of made up facts, crank theories and con­spir­a­cies are arranged like an eccentric child’s science project, building to a won­der­fully silly con­clu­sion. Solakov’s point is, though, deadly serious, his sharp sense of humour masking an angry in­dict­ment of the former gov­er­n­ment and media of his native Bulgaria. The work was made in the early 1990s, in the wake of Bulgaria’s first free elections after decades of Communist rule, and the im­plic­a­tion is clear: if a to­tal­it­ar­i­an gov­er­n­ment tells its citizens that the earth is flat, it might as well be.

After this, Andrea Fraser’s satire of art world foibles might seem to be aiming at an easy target, but her filmed per­for­m­ance Official Welcome is a soph­ist­ic­ated critique of, well, soph­ist­ic­ated critiques. The piece opens with Fraser, as herself, welcoming visitors to a mid-career ret­ro­spect­ive of her work, before adopting a series of personae, acting out in­tro­ductary speeches by jaded artists, ob­sequious curators and bleth­er­ing critics. It’s a bl­is­ter­ing attack on the in­dul­gences of the art system, but one that is itself indulgent, allowing the subjects of Fraser’s satire to laugh at them­selves.

Susan Hiller is in­ter­es­ted in the un­der­ly­ing systems of the art world and the making of art, too, but her in­stal­l­a­tion feels more like a cel­e­b­ra­tion of curation and present­a­tion. From the Freud Museum (Unique Prototype) is a vitrine housing custom-made boxes which in turn house small col­lec­tions of objects, inspired by Freud’s own col­lec­tion of artifacts, including soil samples from Ireland, various re­p­res­ent­a­tions of hands, a ouija board with in­struc­tions and small vials of holy water. The result is a sort of com­ment­ary on cultural history, ar­che­o­lo­gy and archiving, expressed as an archive.

Hiller’s work is concise, coherent and carefully put together, but the same can’t be said of Un­re­li­able Witness. It’s a fine col­lec­tion of works, but, while each of the artists here is, at root, making work about crafting nar­rat­ives, whether they contain profound truths or out­rageous fibs, the show itself fails to match up to the work it contains, present­ing artists and their practices in­di­vi­du­ally, without telling a con­v­in­cing story about them.

This review was first published in The Herald on Friday 28th November, 2008.