Scotland on Sunday

Sun 12 Mar 2006

Do you wanna piece of me?


BEFORE we go any further, let's get this straight. This is not an exhibition of self-portraits. True, it is devoted to works in which the artists present their own images. But they have nothing at all to do with portraiture - the investigation of the individual psyche through the direct portrayal of a human being.

This is a show rather about how artists use their own bodies to create art that has a personal relevance to the viewer. This is nothing new. The Old Masters were adept at using themselves in their paintings. But more particularly, the work on show here has its roots in the performance art of the 1960s and 1970s when Piero Manzoni canned his own excrement, Chris Burden had himself shot, and Beuys shut himself in a box for 24 hours.

This is a fascinating theme, with a vast influence on much of today's art, and given a larger budget it would have been good to have seen some classic examples. Tramway certainly has the space if not the funds for such a show. What we end up with, though, is a mixed bag of the good, the bad and the ugly which leaves you intrigued but still hungry and not a little bemused.

Matthew Barney's Cremaster video was one of the epoch-making works of the 1990s: disturbing, grotesque and strangely beautiful. It seems wholly appropriate that this talented, eccentric artist has found his soulmate in Icelandic chanteuse Björk. Their joint work borrowed for this show, though - a curious photographic triptych of the happy couple dressed up as participants in a Shinto marriage ceremony - is about as uplifting and stimulating as staring at Posh and Becks in a glossy magazine.

Certainly they're using their bodies, but that's about it. There's no mystery, no dynamism, merely a vague sense of menace. There's a fine line in performance art between that which is valid in triggering emotions and provoking questions and that which is merely self-indulgent - and, clearly with no expense spared, Björk and Barney have crossed it.

Happily, quite the opposite is true of Matt Collishaw's adjacent piece, Spitting Machine, in which, evincing his obsession with mutability, he draws us to a mirror which gradually transforms into a window onto another world. Through this we 'see' Collishaw on film as he walks across a room swilling phlegm around his gums. Then, the optimum consistency achieved, he turns to camera and gobs straight at us. We watch his spit dribble down the glass. Simple, direct and wholly unpleasant, his action momentarily dislocates us from our surroundings and coerces us into the position of the abused, raising questions about hatred, brutality and human will.

Peter Land's Staircase is one of the show's undoubted highlights, and alone worth the trip.

On a huge screen, Land, a Dane, shows footage of himself falling downstairs, while on the opposite wall he runs a computer-generated image of a journey into the infinite blackness of the universe.

Stand watching him for the film's full five minutes and you begin to notice nuances - in the way he falls and of course the fact that what initially you might take for a 10-storey staircase is in fact no more than a couple of flights filmed over and over again. With its mix of voyeurism, suffering and pointlessness, this is a lovely, mute excursion into the theatre of the absurd.

It epitomises the sense of theatre which underpins this show, not least in the centrepiece by flavour of the month Beagles and Ramsay - a glittering golden 'island' complete with fake palm tree, on which the artists speak to us from within two TV monitors.

I say "speak", but any dialogue is so faint as to be incomprehensible. Their island, it seems, like Prospero's, is "filled with noises", and I wonder if I'm the first person to see in their powdered wigs and white make-up a resemblance between the artists and two memorable Shakespearean actor-managers featured in an episode of Blackadder The Third?

Such an ancestry certainly fits with their avowed love for British comedy. It also suggests that the piece is intended principally as a self-parodying comment on celebrity, and if so then it succeeds.

But that's it. Once again Beagles and Ramsay prove that while they're good at telling a joke they tend to neglect the punchline.

There could hardly be a greater contrast with this skittishness than the two photographs by Cindy Sherman which hang on a nearby wall. Sherman is the doyenne of body art, having spent 30 years using her own in various series of progressively bizarre works. Sherman's works certainly lift this curate's egg of a show, but in revealing the shortcomings of the lesser artists they also cloud the experience.

In particular, the photographs of Mexican Monica Castillo on the opposite wall are upstaged by Sherman's presence, although they also seem fundamentally out of place, being the least distanced of any work here from the notion of self-portraiture.

The final three exhibits in Tramway's main space are all film pieces which, although by two different artists, have been placed facing each other in as fine an example of a poor hang as I have ever encountered. When will curators learn that to show video art effectively requires seclusion? And when too, I wonder, while on the subject of intrusiveness, will Tramway finally do something about the overwhelming din of its air conditioning?

The films themselves are worth persevering with. Mark Neville offers us two works back to back, the first of which, shot from above, shows the artist in a cloth cap wandering through the Glasgow shipyard where Stanley Spencer worked in the Second World War.

Poignant, moving and highly original, it taps into the heroic essence of Spencer's paintings while at the same time acknowledging a collective history which overrides imported values.

So what does make you and "I" different? I'm not sure that this show can tell you. It might, though, offer a few clues as to what makes the difference between art that can truly free your mind and that which has nothing more to offer than the cheap thrill of a fancy-dress party.