Shots and Countershots: GoMA’s Polygraphs exhibition

Credit: Alasdair Gray

Audrey Summers
Writer

Polygraphs: Truths, Evidence and the Authentic Voice is an enigma. From the title one could assume that an explanation of the art in this recently unveiled exhibit will not be handed over gently to the viewer. When the visitor arrives at the fourth floor of GoMA, the text introducing the display is just as elusive: “Polygraphs is a group exhibition…..which explores truth, fiction and evidence in a complicated world”.

As the viewer continues past this introduction, they’re met with the photography of Anthony Schrag and Jane Evelyn Atwood. The lighting is simple, the walls are white, and the only thing someone could possibly consider a disturbance is the booming sounds coming from a small viewing room in the centre of the exhibit. I was immediately taken aback by how far away the informational placards are placed from their corresponding sets of images. The viewer is forced to draw their own conclusions since all text providing any sort of explanation has to be searched for carefully on the walls. Atwood’s work centered around a hostel for homeless men in the 90’s; Schrag focuses on anti-sectarian projects in the early 2000’s.

Moving past these photographs, the viewer might start to think that an underlying theme in Polygraphs is a stretched and fragmented history of supposed conversational pieces in Scottish art. You can find references to Robert Burns and the Loch Ness Monster. Continuing on, the viewer finds a literal piece of Glasgow suspended on the wall in front of them.

Kerb Study with Metal Edge (Glasgow) by the Boyle Family is made from a huge chunk of pavement – presumably ripped from the streets of Glasgow. It’s the grittiest and starkest artwork in the room. The piece of kerb is lined by what appears to be a heavy metal edge, shining against the dull paint and splatters of dirt. It is an installation which literally enacts its genre – a piece of environmental art. Polygraphs comments on the nature in which artists may choose to document human experience. In Kerb Study, the relationship between object and artwork is something circular. The Kerb is an object, a tangible and obvious reference of the urban environment. Out of context and dropped into the gallery space, the kerb feeds into the viewer’s own associations with the gritty Glasgow streets, opening an obvious and mundane object up to interpretation.

At the centre of the exhibit is the impetus behind the whole idea – Abstract by Hito Steyerl, the sole video-only artwork in the whole exhibition. Not only is this piece in the middle of the gallery, you can also hear the 7 minute and 30 second film echoing in the rest of the room.

The video is an act of protest. Steyerl combines shots of a site in Kurdistan, where her childhood friend Andrea Wolf was killed, with shots of herself standing in front of the headquarters of Lockheed Martin in Berlin – the company that built missiles involved in the conflict referenced in Abstract.

It’s no wonder that Steyerl’s piece is the center of the exhibition. As obscure as the explanations of Polygraphs may be, Abstract ties into multiple themes: colonialism, the arms trade, the ever-circling dialogue of what it means to be making art in the 21st century. As the scenes from Kurdistan play out on one screen, they are mirrored onto Steyerl’s iPhone that she’s holding up in Berlin. Occasionally, the videos will stop and one screen reads: “This is a shot.” The other then reads: “This is a counter shot.”

But maybe it’s the final frame that sums up the whole experience. The dual screens go black again. “Shot.” the left reads. “Countershot.” the right reads. “One opens a door to the other.” An enigma – that’s what these words may be. But there’s really no other way to start a discussion about GoMA’s newest and maybe most elusive exhibit.

Polygraphs: Truths, Evidence, and the Authentic Voice runs until September 2017 at Glasgow Museum’s Gallery of Modern Art.