HAVING represented Scotland at the prestigious Venice Biennale in 2007 and shown his work at the Sydney Biennale two years ago, Scottish artist and film-maker Henry Coombes is no stranger to big stage art events. So his perspective on Glasgow International (GI), Scotland's own biennial celebration of visual art, is worth noting. It is, he thinks, both a window on the world for homegrown artists and an important showcase from which those same artists can launch international careers.
“The programme's becoming more international and the Director's Programme [a series of exhibitions curated by GI director Sarah McCrory] has a greater mix and seems to be getting more ambitious in that way, so it widens the cultural world for the artists that live and work in Glasgow,” he says.
At the same time, GI “gives Scottish artists a great opportunity. It allows their work to be shown to a greater international audience. It was through GI that I exhibited at the Sydney Biennale in 2014 and then that same piece of work [the film I Am The Architect] got shown in China and New Zealand. So there was a snowball effect.”
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Founded in 2005, GI's seventh “edition” opens for business on Friday with 220 artists from 33 countries showing work in 78 exhibitions across the city. Coombes is again one of them, taking space in the Avant Garde venue on King Street to show a series of works on paper and film under the title Seat In The Shadow.
London-born but Glasgow-based since graduating from Glasgow School of Art in 2002, Coombes is best known for his 2009 short film The Bedfords, which re-imagines (in typical Coombes fashion) the relationship between the 6th Duke of Bedford and the landscape painter Edwin Landseer. The film gained Coombes a reputation as an artist who tackles class. But over the last five years, and certainly since I Am The Architect, that focus has shifted, he thinks.
“I can understand why my previous work was looked at that way. It had a lot of stuff about hunting, I played around with Victorian icons like Landseer. But I think my work has moved on into a different area.”
When we talk, he has just returned to his home in Glasgow from Spain where he's been completing his first feature film, also called Seat In The Shadow. It's a re-purposed, 10-minute segment from this that he will show at GI, alongside 180 collage-based “storyboards” he created while developing the film and a selection of the 40 or so complementary paintings he also made.
“When I come up with a script I'm always drawing or painting to try and find a narrative,” he explains. “Increasingly I'm realising that's about getting into the frame of mind where ideas come. The storyboarding generates those ideas.”
The film itself is in post-production and won't be completely finished until June, when Coombes hopes it will premiere at a film festival rather than in a gallery. Either way, it promises to be a typically imaginative, strange and multi-layered work, though he's able to offer a simple enough distillation. It is, he says, “a love letter to Glasgow”.
This particular love letter also features a cheeseplant haunted by the spirit of Karl Jung; a young man obsessed with Australia who recreates the Outback in the bedroom of his Glasgow flat using cardboard and paint; and the man's therapist, who employs a technique called psychosynthesis to introduce his patient to one of his sub-personalities. This happens to be Ned Kelly – or Ned Kelly as painted by Sidney Nolan, the Melbourne-born artist whose 1940s paintings of the legendary outlaw, 27 in all, are among the most iconic images in Australian art.
Budget restrictions meant Coombes was unable to travel to Australia to film the Outback scenes. Instead, he shot in the Almeria region of Spain, favoured location for everyone from Steven Spielberg to Sergio Leone. And – art trivia fans take note – even Arnold Schwarzenegger has walked its dusty plains.
“We actually used a tree in the film which we thought was a real tree and when we got closer we realised it was a prop," says Coombes. "It was the tree Schwarzenegger was tied to and crucified on in Conan The Barbarian. So it's in the film.”
Henry Coombes: Seat In Shadow is at Avant Garde, 34-44 King Street, April 8-24