Trongate 103 brings Glasgow’s artists under one roof
Trongate 103 brings Glasgow’s artists under one roof
Published on 7 Sep 2009
‘Is it art?” asks Tatyana Jakovskaya, pointing to an imposing metal sculpture with wings, wheels and propellers that looks as if it could take off at any minute.
To the uninitiated it might be an eccentric invention straight from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang but Jakovskaya explains that this piece of art, entitled Titanic, is mechanical ballet dedicated to the memory of a victim of Russian political oppression.
The larger-than-life Russian émigré is on the third floor of an Edwardian warehouse in Glasgow’s Merchant City, waxing lyrical about the spacious white room we are standing in. The King Street centre cost £8.5m and is designed to cement the city and Scotland’s reputation as a cultural centre and to enable the groups to work closer together in purpose-built surroundings.
It is quiet, save for the distant hum of sawing and hammering, and we stand in half-light surrounded by more bizarre entities that line the walls like museum pieces. They are the oddest of constructions, resplendent with strings and chains and baubles and tiny figures that peek out from holes, waiting to spring to life and transform the solitary space into a magical toy shop of sorts. Jakovskaya walks over to another sculpture that resembles a giant birdcage. “This one is called The Dreamer in the Kremlin,” she says in English laced with a hint of her native Russian accent.
Jakovskaya, a theatre director who originally hails from St Petersburg, is one of an acclaimed artistic trio called Sharmanka Kinetic who formed in St Petersburg in 1989 but have been based in Glasgow for the past 12 years. They produce musical theatre combining movements of kinetic sculptures with light and sound. Sharmanka is a collaboration between Jakovskaya, sculptor-mechanic Eduard Bersudsky and light and sound designer Sergey Jakovsky. They are viewed as one of Scotland’s most vibrant arts groups. Collectively they are one of eight tenants who from next week will take up residence at the nation’s newest arts centre.
The arts have catalysed regeneration in this area. We weren’t just clad on for added value: we were there from the beginning
Malcolm Dickson, chairman, Trongate 103 Tenants’ Forum
Trongate 103 is being touted as a landmark in Glasgow’s cultural development and will house some of the country’s most diverse arts organisations. Once a mere pipe dream for Glasgow-based artists, Trongate 103 will offer visitors from around the world new opportunities to view and participate in a wide variety of modern art. The centre will house galleries, workshops, artists’ studios and production spaces to support the creation of art in a range of media including printmaking, photography, digital media, film, video, painting and ceramics. And, of course, kinetic sculpture. Those in the know claim Glasgow’s latest artistic jewel will be unmatched in Britain and will have few rivals anywhere else in the world.
Jakovskaya is ebullient about Trongate 103 and the platform it will provide Sharmanka. She is a gregarious character and, as we tour Sharmanka’s space, she elaborates on Titanic, the winged sculpture produced by her taciturn colleague Bersudsky, who prefers not to talk to journalists.
“It [Titanic] is dedicated to the memory of Margarita Klimova,” says Jakovskaya. “She was a friend of Eduard’s who spent four years in prison and exile for disseminating forbidden books in Russia. We invited her to Scotland when she was very ill. She came and recovered, but when she returned to Russia she died in hospital simply because there was no blood available for a transfusion.”
Sharmanka was founded after Jakovskaya met Bersudsky in St Petersburg, then called Leningrad, in the late 1980s. An enigmatic character, Bersudsky is a self-taught artist who in previous roles earned a wage as a skipper on a barge, a metalworker, a boilerman and an electrician.
He had always enjoyed drawing and sculpting and by the 1970s he had become part of a non-conformist art movement which wanted to avoid ideological control by the Soviet authorities. When Jakovskaya, at that time the artistic director of an amateur theatre, first met him she was astonished at the type of work he produced.
“I was scared,” she says. “Behind the door of his flat in Leningrad there were strange creatures everywhere: along the walls, on the shelves, in the corner behind the door. Eduard pushed a button and then they started to move – bell ringers, towers with clanging wheels and gears, the figures, all depicting the life of a man from birth to death. It was magical theatre and it became clear to me that I had to do something to let others to see it. Luckily perestroika was in full swing and it was possible to launch a new theatre and rent premises.”
The professional marriage of Bersudsky and Jakovskaya was the start of an extraordinary artistic collaboration but by 1993 Sharmanka had been driven out of its homeland by economic depression and a lack of support for the arts. Around that time, Julian Spalding, then director of Glasgow Museums, bought some of Sharmanka’s exhibits for the city’s Gallery of Modern Art and invited Bersudsky and Jakovskaya to create an exhibition for the McLellan Galleries.
Sharmanka Kinetic Gallery and Workshop opened in the city three years later and since then thousands of people have seen performances of these kinetic sculptures. It is a form of art that has been widely acclaimed and in 1999 the group was awarded a grant to build The Millennium Clock at the Royal Museum in Edinburgh.
As with Trongate 103’s other seven tenants, Sharmanka has been based in Glasgow’s Merchant City for many years now. There has long been talk of an arts project for this eastern part of the city centre and it has finally transpired through the collaborative efforts of Culture and Sport Glasgow and the eight groups taking up residence at the centre: Glasgow Print Studio, Street Level Photo-works, Transmission, Glasgow Media Access Centre (GMAC), the Russian Cultural Centre, Glasgow Independent Studio and Project Room, Sharmanka and Project Ability.
All the artists have a history in the area or have emerged from the grassroots at various times over the decades, and, according to the chair of the Trongate 103 Tenants’ Forum, Malcolm Dickson, they reflect the vitality of visual arts in Glasgow. “They (the groups) cater to an incredible amount of artists and audiences,” he says. “They are about showing and making art, as well as bringing out the creativity in others.
Dickson has been involved with Glasgow’s art scene for more than 20 years and has been working with Street Level Photoworks, where he is now director, since 1995. He recalls that when he graduated from Glasgow School of Art in 1984 the city’s art scene was much smaller than it is today – although it embodied a rich mix that remains.
“At that time there was the Third Eye Centre, then the Print Studio, which was a workshop space. There was Collins Gallery, which had exhibitions, and there was the artist-run space with Transmission. Apart from a few smaller, private galleries, that was it. But because it was smaller it was much more of a scene and people knew one another.”
Over time, Glasgow City Council’s arts strategy began to chime with the aspirations of some of the groups involved in the scene, leading to a number of progressive changes. One of these was the establishment of an “art zone” in the Merchant City and Trongate with low rents attracting organisations such as Street Level and GMAC. “There was a lot of energy and discussion that began in the 1990s to get a bit more cohesive with the notion of a downtown arts centre,” Dickson explains.
His cohort, artist John McKechnie, director of Glasgow Print Studio, was also pivotal in pushing for Trongate 103. A Glaswegian, McKechnie has been linked to the Merchant City since the early 1960s, when his father worked at the Scottish Daily Express building in Albion Street. “The main thing back then was the Fruitmarket, which was the hub of the area,” he says. “It was absolute hustle and bustle with lorries and barra boys and fruit being moved about. There were little greasy spoon cafes and the cheese market as well.”
McKechnie started working with Glasgow Print Studio (GPS) in 1978 when it was based in Ingram Street, beginning his career as a part-time worker before becoming workshop manager and then finally graduating to his current post of director.
GPS, he recalls, moved to King Street in 1987, to the building that now houses Trongate 103. The building was, at that time, derelict and was eventually condemned, infested with rats and pigeons. “By 1996 there was already Wasps, Street Level, Transmission and the Print Studio in that building so you already had an arts centre of a sort but, you know, a badly leaking one. It’s kind of a landmark, if you like, within the city. We worked quite hard at it. We kept pushing at the door, and there have been a lot of supporters and individuals who’ve been on board and helped push it along,” he says. Funding for Trongate 103 has come from Glasgow City Council, Scottish Enterprise, the Merchant City Townscape Heritage Initiative and the National Lottery through the Scottish Arts Council.
Both Dickson and McKechnie acknowledge the role of Glasgow’s city fathers over the years and their support for the arts. They point to a major exhibition by the River Clyde called New Image Glasgow during the 1990s which, they say, enhanced the city’s reputation for the arts at an international level. McKechnie says such events raised the profile of the Glasgow School of Art, which became a magnet for the best students and led to success breeding success.
Dickson agrees. “It’s been a very long process,” he says. “There have been a lot of traders and small shops closed because of lack of business. I wouldn’t say we were conscious of being involved in the wider regeneration because we were so involved in what we were doing. And when a lot of things come together they sometimes make more sense in retrospect. Obviously the arts have catalysed regeneration in this area. We weren’t just clad on for added value: we were there from the beginning.
“Because this is a very traditional working-class area and hasn’t really changed, the community has to be taken along with us. That’s the real challenge. How does Trongate 103 relate to them? How do they connect with it? How do they become participants? There is a deeper question about the role of the arts in public life.”
Certainly Street Level Photoworks, which supports emerging and established artists in photography and media art, is recognised for its work within the community and the wide programme of services it offers the public. “We have lots of things happening at the moment reflecting cultural regeneration,” says Dickson. “We work with refugees and asylum seekers, for example. There’s an ongoing project to document the demolition of the Red Road flats, which is the end of an era in Glasgow, and there’s a youth project in Dalmarnock, a place undergoing dramatic change. Trongate 103 represents the evolution of our organisation. It’s what we were thinking about in 1996. It’s what we wanted then but couldn’t quite get it together.”
Dickson points to the successes of the other Trongate 103 tenants, some of whom Street Level have collaborated with in the past. Transmission, for example, has evolved into a network of artists exchanging ideas, while Glasgow Independent Studio and Project Room is an organisation providing studio space for visual artists.
Project Ability, set up in 1984, supports children and adults with disabilities and mental health issues. Each week in Glasgow some 300 people take part in its programmes, which include workshops and training courses. Recent initiatives have also been held in Edinburgh, Dumfries, Fife, Inverness, Skye and North Uist. Project Ability has been based in Glasgow’s Albion Street since 1990 and its artistic director, Elisabeth Gibson, says the move to Trongate 103 will enhance the charity’s work and offer more resources to the public.
“We’re in quite a squalid building at present, so moving to such a bright, beautiful public space will give us new energy,” she says. “It’s beautifully designed and will offer us access to a new audience while offering the public access to excellent production resources.”
She adds that there is an international audience for their participants’ work and they are frequently invited to exhibit in North America, Japan and Europe. Many of the films produced by clients are screened in festivals in the UK and overseas, with pop videos and animation particularly popular. “I have been speaking to people at other organisations like ours in the UK and they are desperate to come and see Trongate 103.”
To celebrate the opening of the arts centre, Street Level will host a photography exhibition called Taking Liberties, showcasing the work of London-based John “Hoppy” Hopkins who, during the 1960s, documented the radical changes which began to sweep through British society. It was a counter-culture that manifested itself through protest, art and pop. Hopkins’s iconic images include The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Marianne Faithfull, Thelonious Monk and jazz legend Roland Kirk. Hopkins also documented the massive CND and anti-racism marches of the period, the seediness of London’s Notting Hill and bikers at London’s legendary Ace Café.
To complement the exhibition, Glasgow Print Studio, one of the largest UK publishers of original prints, which has had a gallery in the area since 1976, will exhibit the best of the last 30 years of work by internationally renowned artists such as Elizabeth Blackadder, Christine Borland, John Byrne, Ashley Cook, Ken Currie and Peter Howson. “It will be a who’s who of Scotland’s artists,” McKechnie says.
Another of Scotland’s hidden gems will also be taking up residence at Trongate 103. Glasgow Media Access Centre has been based in Albion Street for 26 years, supporting and developing independent filmmakers. GMAC has won a string of Baftas and earned critical acclaim, but it remains unknown to many outside the industry. To mark Trongate’s opening, GMAC will host two evenings, the first showing some of its Bafta-winning short films and the second examining new technologies and exploring the digital explosion in filmmaking. Its chief executive and director, Dale Corlett, believes there will be enormous benefits from the move. “The arts centre will help greatly because we have been very good at what we do for a very long time, but not very good at telling people about it,” he says.
One of the big benefits of the new arts centre, says Corlett, is that relationships between the tenants will grow. “We’ve spent a lot of time working with young people and helping them to make films and that will continue,” he says. “We’ve had industry experts working in Glasgow’s Easterhouse with 20 to 30 young people teaching them how to make films.”
Trongate 103 will also be home to the Russian Cultural Centre, a charity founded in Glasgow in 1998 by immigrant Lev Atlas. His aim is to promote cultural diversity and positive relations between Scotland and Russia. Among other initiatives, he does this through Café Cossachok, which has been in King Street for more than a decade, offering Russian food, live music and visual art.
Atlas, a viola teacher and professor of music at the Royal Scottish Academy for Music and Drama, hopes the arts centre will further enhance a part of the city close to his heart. “I came to Glasgow via the United States in 1992 and founded our charity to provide education through music. We have been very successful through many projects from classical to jazz, and we’ve brought many Russian children to Scotland and vice versa.”
He has high hopes for the centre. “This whole area was terrible but it has improved tremendously and now we hope that this beautiful new building will generate much more activity in the arts for Glasgow.”
Trongate 103 opens on Saturday. Visit www.trongate103.com.
Last Updated (Wednesday, 16 September 2009 10:43)