Thought is not the domain of the calculating machine between our ears – it comes from the body. The practical lessons of minimalism have demonstrated the fact. Hal Foster begins his textbook Return of the Real with an anecdote about a little girl who outsmarts the famous theorist and his conceptual artist friend by skipping around a sculpture of beams and mirrors, while the adults engage in some heavy discourse. They look up to see her disappear beyond a mirror only to find her suddenly right behind them: ‘And there we were, a critic and an artist…taken to school by a six-year old, our theory no match for her practice.’ Silly old Hal Foster! If that girl had found herself transported into the future and across the ocean to the Glasgow Sculpture Studios, she would have been attracted by the sparkly gold glitter encrusting the mighty form that currently dominates the space; and she would probably have found it a bit rude. Because between the legs of this geometrical humanoid, a conspicuous primary structure unmistakably inclines towards the vertical axis of its L-beam body.
There’s been much written about minimalism’s anthropomorphic character, the way it plants itself in the gallery awaiting our arrival. At the same time its machine-made rationalistic geometries suggest an anti-human indifference to our presence. Upon entering the GSS gallery one is confronted with a faceless monolith dramatically backlit with a harsh, white fluorescent glow. This is the Zarathustra moment, rapidly deflated as we move around the structure and recognise the familiar form of a generic toy robot – legs outstretched like an overgrown baby, android claws resting on the ground, and, as we turn to face this modern-day Frankenstein (or is it Pinocchio?) two blank eyes above a toothless letterbox grin, approximating what appears to be an expression of pleasure. And, of course, we cannot help being aware of the proud appendage rising dead centre from its symmetrical frontage like the shaft of a colossal, gaudy one-armed bandit. It appears that this particular sculptural form has not only been expecting our arrival, but is genuinely pleased to see us. Or is it? The golden effigy avoids our gaze, as it sits in ponderous immobility transfixed by the source of its illumination – a large neon sign spelling out a compelling incantation in a distinctly goofy font: GOOD TEETH. The light it is passively stationed to receive, like willing flesh before the sun lamp, makes its glitter-clad body gleam; it in turn is wholly absorbed by the stark, neon tubing, or the promise it portends. This robot, it seems, is not merely confined by the ceiling inches above its towering bulk, not only stuck in the embarrassing predicament its creators have so cruelly engineered, but locked in an interminable narcissistic loop with a seductively luminescent signifier of human health, wealth and beauty: of those who have it, and those who don’t – in this case in the dental department.
If robots traditionally mimic their human masters isn’t this an indictment of our shallow, self-centred, consumerist age? Once upon a time intelligent machines could be relied upon to plot devious devices aimed at asserting their dominance in a will-to-power that proved how they’d gotten too clever by half. In the film Demon Seed , sex is a mere expedient for ruthless procreation, requiring the evil brain-box Proteus IV to materialise itself as a big Rubik’s snake. By contrast, the inescapably manifest human stirrings witnessed in Beagles and Ramsay’s robotic progeny point not towards world domination but submission before the celebrity-led consumer culture where if you ain’t got it you can get it – usually on credit. The ever-prescient artists, tapped into the global economic as well as the cultural zeitgeist, know that all that glitters is not gold, and the desire for physical perfection is not all its cracked up to be. Their cheap gilded robot appears less like a stack of bullion and more like the cubic volume of debt on your spangly, gold credit card. And those teeth don’t look at all ‘good’. Perhaps, however, the robot is simply happy because something’s been lost in translation. He is, after all, not staring at a particularly sexy image. Nice try Beagles and Ramsay – you may have thought that making your first neon work would transform you into ‘serious’ artists at last, but you really should have gone for something poetic in a handwritten scrawl.
Given the city’s reputation for mannered formalism (of the scruffy, crafty or decorative variety) it is particularly gratifying that GSS should celebrate its twentieth anniversary, and launch its move to new premises in Kelvinhaugh Street, with a residency and exhibition by artists who, with some MDF, neon tubing, and glitter, can make us laugh, that is think through our bodies.