Catching angels in the Gorbals
I’m in Glasgow to watch the unveiling of Britain’s only suspended sculpture. Called the Gatekeeper, a grim, lead-cast angel weighing a ton and a half sways gently under a big archway leading into the latest development in the legendary story of the Gorbals.
Once home to nearly 100,000 migrants from Ireland and the Scottish highlands, the Gorbals had by the 1930s become the most famous slum in Europe. This was the district that made the architectural term “tenement” notorious and gave Britain its first razor-gang novel, No Mean City. In the 1960s, just as the Victorians had once built doomed tenements for the workers, modernist architects came in and built them doomed tower blocks instead. Now that tenements and towers alike have been demolished, a public-private partnership has moved in. And it’s looking quite good. The newly developed Crown Street area of the Gorbals appears durable, and is the first stage in a masterplan conceived by architect Piers Gough.
It’s a different world, of course. Most of the Gorbals population has long since vanished. Nearby, the gothically derelict Caledonia Road church, designed by the most original of Victorian architects-Alexander “Greek” Thomson-has been preserved in its ruin like the ghost of the Gorbals when the place, and the industrial revolution that created it, were young.
The artists behind the Gorbals’ Gatekeeper sculpture have worked with architects and developers in a remarkable way. They have exploited an EU planning clause that sets aside a “per cent for art,” siphoning off wads of cash from construction costs to integrate artworks with the new housing. Calling themselves Heisenberg (because, as the uncertainty principle implies, every act of observation changes the object observed) they have set about reclaiming the Gorbals history for the new inhabitants.
Below the angelic gatekeeper is a massive photograph, set in steel and reinforced glass, which shows a woman striding out of architectural desolation. Underneath this, keepsakes of objects dear to local inhabitants have been burned and buried. Other sculptures and photographs can be found set into buildings throughout the new development.
Is this pretentious public art making a nuisance of itself? Not quite. The two English artists behind Heisenberg, Dan Dubowitz and Matt Baker, are architects by training and have spent the last three years investigating wasteland sites in Glasgow (10 per cent of which still lies derelict). By mapping out recently demolished areas, and recording personal histories of the displaced, they have built up a reverse image of the city’s grid-structure. They have lit up a disused town hall with candles, staged events under long-unfinished sections of motorway, and excavated extraordinary life stories of Clyde shipworkers who ended life in the macabre, Kirkhaven doss-house.
Bringing together a team of artists to work on a major housing development in the Gorbals, the Heisenberg duo have made themselves popular, both by involving local people in the otherwise anonymous development process and retelling local stories in a style of unsentimental brazenness which Glaswegians love. Back in 1999, Dubowitz and Baker got themselves into trouble by planting huge, orange statues in every wasteland area they worked in. They were aggressively interrogated by local councillors and the press. Didn’t they know what “orange men” could mean in a sectarian city like Glasgow? “Why should I worry?” countered Dubowitz. “I’m Jewish.”
Politics, prudery and council perplexity
Glasgow culture, however, tends to plummet from the resilient-sublime to the comic-ridiculous. The Royal Academy recently arrived in town with its travelling workshop for young artists. The city council immediately slapped a ban on life models posing nude for teenagers, ordering models to cover their modesty with leotards. Glasgow council has since had its prudishness mercilessly rubbed in its face by the Scottish press, and was mocked all over again for the way it had once banned films like The Life of Brian and The Last Temptation of Christ. The RA’s project director, Tim Nunn, who hadn’t encountered problems in the 1,500 other British schools his roadshow had visited, expressed astonishment. “This is the first time we have come across a blanket ban,” he said, an odd turn of phrase which sowed confusion among the city’s councillors. They had nothing against blankets, if leotards were unavailable.
Nick Broomfield’s got a big microphone
The British notion of “doing a Broomfield” descends from the New Journalism, which itself descends from the day in the 1960s when James Baldwin failed to meet Ingmar Bergman and wrote an article about not interviewing Bergman. Thus, when Nick Broomfield chases after Margaret Thatcher or Eugene Terre’Blanche, he makes documentaries about himself. Known in his youth as Pretty Boy Broomfield, he has often been accused of vanity. In the 1990s, as his documentaries got worse, he seemed increasingly alone with his ego. But his new film, Biggie & Tupac, about the murders of two US rap stars, is a magnificent return to form (released, 24th May). His daft big microphone even looks like self-mockery, and disguises genuine bravery. Could it have something to do with the fact that his ex-wife, Joan Churchill, is back behind the camera?