Claire Barclay

Claire Barclay

In the aftermath of this year's Glasgow International, we asked volunteers to come forward and give their own personal responses to the exhibitions on show. As part of our look back on some of the highlights of GI, Alice Basson reviews Claire Barclay's Bright Bodies

Bright Bodies is a vibrant, reflective installation created by Scottish artist Claire Barclay for Glasgow International Arts Festival. Born and raised in Glasgow and a graduate of the Glasgow School of Art, Barclay’s Bright Bodies encapsulates the artist’s interest in the cultural history of the city, and its heritage in production and industry. 

Using steel, rubber, machined metals, coal tar, engine grease, soot and cotton fabric, the exhibit is an ode to the past, a reflection on the impact coal, steel and other industries had on the legacy of Glasgow and its people. The exhibit draws you into images of lost cultures, of forgotten circuses and carnivals, and of periods of production that faded with the finite period of industrialisation. While heavy in form and saturated in colour, the installation has a subtle smoothness of line and feminine curvature. The intense boldness of the red, black and grey colour scheme stands dominant as you walk in, with tall columns that quickly seem to melt and fall onto the floor below before rolling out towards cages and colours reminiscent of shapes familiar to our modern perception of the circus and its imagery. Materials are used as a means to encapsulate a multitude of meanings, providing both an engaging and thought-provoking work of art which governs itself confidently in the faded upper balcony of the prestigious - if slightly now neglected - Kelvin Hall.

While walking amongst the installation, under the chandeliers of a bygone era, we are pressed to investigate past and present attitudes to the industrial heritage of Scotland and encouraged to reconcile their similarities and differences. 

As part of her artistic research, Barclay investigated Kelvin Hall’s significant position as a host to various cultural trends and exhibitions that had occurred during Glasgow’s years of fruitful production. She gives special mention to a 1951 ‘Exhibition of Industrial Power’ which, as part of the Festival of Britain, showcased Scotland’s industries to the world and celebrated the country’s scientific and engineering achievements. While the work relates to this era of exhibitions, Barclay provides more than a mere two-dimensional appreciation of achievement: instead looking past the material, and to the physical impact of human labour on the city and the individuals involved. While we look at the material and physical elements of industrialisation laid out before us, we are reminded of the skill, strength, exploitation and vulnerability of human engagement and the organic natural power behind the movement. Though the sculpture begins dominant, standing proud in its initial form, it soon falls to the floor, spreading colours across the ground in a reminder of the juxtaposition between stability and subjection. The flat shapes of the artwork then lead us on a walkway towards the cylindrical cages, once again an indication of the brutal impact of the hard work and labour experienced by the people that embody the struggle and exploitation of industry. 

Bright Bodies shapes, materials and dominance in a room where celebrations of these types of industries were common place, works to explore contradictions that may have occurred when a romanticism of hardship and physical labour was evident. Events such as the 1951 exhibition celebrated a time where the city of Glasgow thrived. Barclay looks past the physical power of what was happening, and brings a focus back to the people; to those who were pushed to the limits of mental and physical endurance, whose hard labour and endeavour was actually the raw power that forced through the industrial age. The installation therefore stands not just as a monument to industry and heritage, but it investigates the juxtaposition between strength and vulnerability, between the brutal force of industry and the fragile power of human life and experience. We, as contemporary viewers, can look beyond the shining beacon of success that the city of Glasgow embodied in this period, and see instead consequences of such a heightened, idyllic experience. The people of Glasgow, after all, have seen what came after the collapse of industry in the country, and have worked hard as a community to build back up what had fallen so quickly and dramatically down. 

What gives Glasgow its powerful and passionate art scene is the organic nature of many of the artists who have studied at the GSA, lived in the city and developed their working style and oeuvre in the ever-changing, growing metropolis.  Whether it be Mackintosh’s iconic stamp across the city, or the on-going influence of the Glasgow Boy’s foray into abstraction, or Glaswegian artists’ consistent appearance on the shortlist of the Turner Prize… or the dynamic murals adorning walls all across the city (I could go on!), a bold indulgence into what art can be and what artists can express about themselves and their environment is what makes this city so important for a contemporary understanding of art. In the work of artists living and working in Glasgow, there always seems a pronounced sense of place: of the very nature of what it is to live and work in the city. 

To conclude, Barclay’s exhibit reveals her understanding of the depth of culture that makes Glasgow the place it is, and how past productions have formed our contemporary understanding of historical material. The installation, while working with its surrounding, provokes tension and discussion on how achievements are celebrated, how cultures are formed and how human engagement is often highly romanticised in the face of the brutal nature of production.  

The addition of forms reminiscent of carnival and circus spectacles brings another dimension to the artwork. We see new meaning occurring from shapes that once again look at the demise of a different way of life. A life we see in the archives of locations such as Kelvin Hall, but lay forgotten, or disconnected, in the modern world. 

To see more of Claire Barclay's work visit:

Words by Alice Basson

To see more of Alice's work, see here:

Photographs courtesy of Glasgow International

Kate V Robertson

Kate V Robertson