At various venues on Friday, September 8
Arriving late, but not too late, at the Or Gallery, I found myself almost alone in the room where Phil Collins's (not of “In the Air Tonight” fame) el mundo no escucharíƒ ¡ was being shown. And so I eased myself onto the fresh black carpet and focused my gaze on the screen in front of me, where a skinny hipster was singing along to a tune I dimly recognized from the time, long ago, when I was briefly infatuated with the man known as Morrissey.
Over the course of the next hour, a dozen other would-be vocalists were shown, most in front of the same kitschy mural of what might be a Tuscan park, all lake and pedalboats and Lombardy poplars. There was a chubby boy in blue denim, pogoing like it was the 100 Club in the heyday of the Clash. There were two female friends, one with a cherubic baby in her arms, who revelled in their raw harmonies. There was a Shakira fan in elaborate eye shadow and a clinging white dress, and a sad, balding German, who mournfully enunciated a wistful piano ballad.
They all sang along to the Smiths.
The Glasgow-based Collins, who was a teen during the peak of that band's mid-'80s popularity, recorded his video in Bogotíƒ ¡, Colombia, in 2004. He had local musicians cut instrumental versions of his favourite Smiths songs, then invited what he describes as “the shy, the dissatisfied, narcissists, and anyone who's ever wished they could be someone else for a night” to take a turn as an art-karaoke star.
The result is both flat and fascinating. As a film, it is banality personified: a single camera points directly at a bunch of nonperformers caught in the act of performing. However crude the presentation might be, though, the ideas invoked by this piece of conceptual art are complex. I found myself thinking about how karaoke is a rare instance of socially sanctioned public vulnerability””and when people sing Smiths songs, they're especially likely to reveal their hopes, fears, and fantasies. It's not for nothing that Morrissey is the poet laureate of loneliness, a condition that is apparently epidemic worldwide.
There's an ironic counterpart to this, however. The Smiths might offer emotional consolation to oddballs around the globe””el mundo is part of a trilogy, with Part 2 having been filmed in Istanbul last year””but their music is at the same time a supremely individualistic undertaking. None of these singers can match Morrissey's stylish combination of self-loathing and self-indulgence, and without the snap of Johnny Marr's ringing guitars, the music often plods.
Ultimately, the premise of Collins's work, which runs at the Or until October 6, is opaque. Are the Smiths””English regionalists exported to the world by an American multinational””part of the global homogenization of culture, or do they offer a rallying point for the disenfranchised? Are the fey indie kids of Bogotíƒ ¡ helping to demolish macho stereotypes or latecomers to a future that has already passed?
On first viewing, at least, el mundo no escucharíƒ ¡ offers no answers, but it asks many provocative questions.
Mark Soo's Is It Any Wonder (1600 Kelvin), at Artspeak until October 14, is similarly enigmatic. An enormous black-and-white photo-transparency backlit by a pair of sodium lamps, it depicts a seascape at sunset””and apart from its size, it's entirely unremarkable. But the bilious lighting does suggest some kind of postapocalyptic scenario: if red skies at night are a sailor's delight, then there must be a storm brewing here.
The question asked by Collin Johanson's Cathedral, at the Access gallery until October 14, is why? Why portray passing tourists, posed in front of an enormous old-growth conifer, in a style reminiscent of a 1940s Sunday painter? And what does this have to do with that giant wooden skull?
Fortunately, relief was offered by Elizabeth Milton's Character Sketches, at the tiny Parking Spot gallery until September 22. Mixing the artist's childhood drawings with photographic re-enactments of the same, these witty images offer an alternately barbed and poignant look at how kids construct the future.
The most disturbing sights on view during this year's gallery crawl, however, came when I followed a hand-drawn sign promising “More SWARM” down Blood Alley. In quick succession, I saw a man pissing in a doorway, another shooting up beside a Dumpster, and a group of street kids operating a clandestine bicycle chop-shop in an alcove””images that paint a clearer picture of urban life than any film, painting, or photograph.