Alan Riach takes a look at an exhibition of strange things which have peculiar relevance for our changing times: Transitional Toys (Security Objects)

IF you wander down Hyndland Street in Glasgow to the corner of Fordyce Street (across the way from the Gaelic Books Council shop, which is always worth a visit), you’ll find the Iota Art Space gallery, Unlimited Studios. On show there until Saturday is an extraordinary exhibition entitled Transitional Toys (Security Objects).

Its catalogue opens with a quotation from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, from their book Mille Plateaux/A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1980): “There is a joy inherent in desire which seems brim-full of itself and its contemplations, where nothing is lacking, or impossible, or to be gauged in terms of pleasure, since it is that joy which metes out the intensities of pleasure and will not allow them to be spoiled by anxiety or shame or guilt.”

“There is a joy inherent in desire … ”

Yes, but there’s another kind of joy in fulfilling desire, in accomplishment, achievement. And it’s wise to find that – let’s say, the accomplishment of independence or the achievement of wisdom – without shame or guilt.

That motto is an indication of some motivating force behind the work of all the artists here: Alexa Montani, Carmen Perrin, Caterina Borelli, Chris McCabe, Clara Brasca, Craig Mulholland, Duncan Scott, Jacques Demierre, LA Hunter, Peter McCarey, Robert McNeil and Vincent Barras. The works themselves are registers of this desire, and the guiltless pleasure in it, its joy.

But it’s ambivalent. That sense of desire is perhaps most keenly felt by children, who show it by holding on to their toys as they grow older, keeping things they’ve outgrown, just as some politicians don’t know their ideas died long ago while they still keep spewing out the words we’ve heard too many times before. There is indeed something shameless and sinister here. It can have malevolence. But it is also sometimes natural, tender, worth pausing to consider from more than one point of view.

The poet McCarey (check out online and his book, Collected Contraptions) supplies notes for the catalogue: “I was having tea and buns in the Cafe Gandolfi with the poet David Kinloch, telling him about Samuel Beckett and Donald Winnicot.

“With its designer driftwood furniture, the place itself is a transitional object, a time machine parked in Albion Street for 40 years now. Probably the first real piece of style [in Glasgow] since Mackintosh’s Willow Tea Rooms. Cafes and bars have to make you feel at home, or that you are in someone else’s movie, or even both at once. Otherwise you won’t go back. […] I was telling him that Wilfred Bion, Beckett’s psychiatrist, had written a book about the psychological function of cuddly toys.

“Well yes and no: he was Beckett’s analyst, but it was Winnicott, not him, who wrote the book. Still, it got us both musing what manner of object old Sam would have cuddled as a toddler (or pointedly ignored). We wondered about a number of unlikely objects and unrequited writers, which led to the idea of asking living artists for their take on the subject.”

And this is the substance of the show.

The artists, working in widely different media, have various things to say and suggest about what these “transitional toys” might do, and be for, in any person’s life, through transitional times. They apply to individuals, individually, but they might also apply to entire societies, nations, cultures, moving through different times. In the 18th century, Shakespeare’s King Lear could only be performed with a tacked-on happy ending provided by his adaptor, Nahum Tate.

Passion becomes sentiment, despair becomes elegy. The virtues of civilisation are above the Gothic barbarities with which tragedy confronts us. Financiers, bureaucrats and managers are above “creatives”. The result is catastrophic and its legacy has been with us ever since. So this is an exhibition for our era. The works are looking on, as well as looking back.

THIS logic has much to do with memory, as McCarey explains: “Memory, in the past, was seen as an art, and its cultivation was a virtue. Speakers and writers had to be able to bring to mind an orderly association of ideas and quotations. To do so, orators might construct a palace of memory in their head. […] By taking different routes through the rooms of the memory palace, the speaker could pick out items in any order he chose.”

McCarey gives an example of that from his own memory, thinking back to his vision of the Glasgow School of Art: “That art school, its east facade in particular, was what architecture meant to me in my adolescence: a sheer, almost blank wall of sandstone with a subtly weird balcony 2/3 of the way up. That was architecture. It was art and drama. It was nearly poetry.”

But as he points out, as generations pass, people forget or misremember: “Orators such as Cicero knew what they required of their memory palaces: clarity, structure and immediacy.”

But later, after the European renaissance: “The mediaeval thread had been broken. People pored over the gnomic emblems as they did over hieroglyphs. The original simplicity was lost and magical associations were overlaid on the practical techniques.

“Anyone interested in this – and it is utterly fascinating – should read The Art of Memory by Frances Yates and then The Book of Memory by Mary Carruthers; they will then understand how fatuous it is to attempt to reduce the subject to two paragraphs.”

Or a newspaper article. All I’m trying to do here is offer the invitation. Go and take a look for yourself.

As McCarey puts it: “Installations might look like a formal innovation but they are older than oil on canvas (which, according to Clara [Brasca, one of the artists], dates to Venice in the early renaissance, a matter of protecting pictures from flood tides).

“There’s a Shingon Buddhist temple in Kyoto with statues arrayed like man-sized chess pieces. In Europe there are thousands of churches of the sort Calvin disliked, and tens of thousands of side-altars with statuary, furniture, fabric, glassware and illumination natural and artificial: installations all.”

Two examples from the show: Perrin’s circular sculpture “Le bruit des yeux” (“the sound of the eyes”) is a circular wall-hanging of hundreds of dolls’ faces, their twiced hundreds of eyes opening and closing at unpredicted moments, continuously (for as long as the electrics work), some pairs opening and closing in the same face at different times.

It isn’t just the look of the thing that’s weird. If you’re there in silence and approach it quietly, it’s the sound of the eyelids clipping up or down onto the rounded cheeks that’s unsettling.

McCarey comments: “Dolls’ faces aren’t masks: masks are for real eyes and they can encourage brazen, bare-faced gazing. You might object that masks can be just as spooky as blinking dolls; but they are uncanny in opposite ways: masks are objects endowed with human qualities; dolls are human faces reified.

“Dolls that blink are doubly blind, but their apparent watchfulness – compared to stone statues with their boiled-egg orbits – mocks the matchless faculty of sight. They are machines come to tell us and to tell our children that art, in the age of mechanical reproduction, is neither needed nor wanted.”

THAT’S a seriously chilling proposition and has its application immediately. How easy it might be to dismiss it all as fancy, nothing to do with the urgencies of the political world. But no. All art slows you down and quickens you at the same time. You have to take the time to stop and look and see, and listen, and hear, what the world is, if you’re going to change it for the better.

So, as McCarey puts it: “This is not to read the sculpture as nightmare, but to wonder what any child might make of objects put before them by adventitious adults, and how the child deals with their implications.

I guess that for infants the dominant sense is touch, which is as intimate as taste and smell, but also able to act on the object and mould it in a way the other senses cannot. (This could be why toddlers are so attracted to wrapping paper.) “I am guessing also that the transitional toy is an envoy of silence, something that accompanies the child on the way from infancy to speech, and that will never spill the beans.”

Take a moment to let that sink in. We’re only just through the year’s high point for wrapping paper, after all. It’s a universal point with domestic application.

So now turn to take a look at the installation by McCarey himself, which has its own history, as he explains: “Mrs Tibby used to live downstairs from us at 3 Lendel Place in Cessnock. Whenever the children (us) were too noisy for her liking (frequently) she took a besom, broom or brush and knocked on her ceiling. One night my mother took a brush and knocked on our floor. Silence.

“I watched the cars and buses out the window. We didn’t have a car, but we had a pig-iron bath with a mangle on top of it, which must have weighed as much. It looked a bit like a freighter, and it steamed like one.

“I probably did have a teddy bear, but what I remember is the foundering weight of Glasgow and its artefacts.

“This piece, roped off with stanchions painted CalMac white, consists of a cast-iron bath tub, with a clothes-wringer (mangle) set beside its taps, sinking through the floor of a tenement flat. A teddy-bear in a T-shirt is halfway through the mangle. The viewers standing on that floor will see two-thirds of the tub as it sinks through the linoleum, bow first, 22 degrees back from the vertical, with a five-degree list to port.

“What they won’t see, beneath the linoleum, is the rough wooden floorboards or, beneath that, the coal-ash soundproofing among the joists over the downstairs ceiling. Beneath that, standing on the closed toilet seat with her brush, Mrs Tibby is pushing up at what’s just come through her ceiling, trying to stop the lower one-third of the bath from doing any further damage to the plasterwork.”

Isn’t it something like the relationship between two governments, above and below, either side of a border?

There are other works. All I’ve done here is pause on two and introduced the idea. There’s more to be seen. And done.

According to the catalogue, there’s an old Soviet saying that goes: “initsiativa nakazuema”: initiative is a punishable offence. Well, come along and witness the offences. See what you make of them. See for yourselves.