IF all great art is provocation, Glasgow's Commonwealth Games organisers might yet have a masterpiece on their hands.
If public art is a grand gesture, blowing five denigrated tower blocks skywards with 2755lbs of high explosive while a global TV audience looks on is probably one for the books.
Destroy what once were homes, however, and you turn thousands of lives and memories to dust. Tear a hole in a familiar skyline for entertainment's sake and you reduce the idea of civic pride to rubble. Add some straight-from-the-brochure chatter about a city always looking to the future - it used to be called "moving with the times" - and you risk leaving visitors from around the world baffled.
Loading article content
This is the best, they might ask themselves, that local culture has to offer? Who doesn't tear down brutalist tower blocks these days? People from overseas attending Glasgow's Games, no knowledge of the Red Road flats and the city's history, might ask why a 100m-wide LED screen has been erected in Celtic Park for this. Why are they being invited to celebrate nothing more than some overdue urban renewal?
The questions might become trickier. Two of the original eight blocks have already gone; one will survive the big bang on July 23 for the excellent reason that it still contains people. They won't be around during the demolition, of course, but the idea that asylum seekers and their families have to be decanted for the sake of the festivities might not chime well with all that Commonwealth idealism.
The excuse for flattening the five blocks is that they are unfit for family habitation. All of the Red Road flats were to go in due course, with or without a celebratory event. But the proposition put before us, on behalf of the city and Scotland, is that the surviving edifice will continue to suffice for asylum seekers after the visitors have gone. There might be no choice about that - equally, it's probably not something to which you would want to call attention.
Last week, in a letter to the press, the chief executive of Glasgow 2014 defended the project. Among other things, David Grevemberg wrote: "By dedicating just a few moments of the ceremony to the extraordinary story of Red Road it is our ambition to depict Glasgow as a brave, confident and great city that is confronting the need for change."
With more than 15,000 people having signed a petition opposing demolition-as-theatre, it may be that Mr Grevemberg has more explaining to do. Is there really something brave and confident about eradicating a city's past failures as though wiping away a troubling memory? Are you really "confronting the need for change" when you knock down flats that were built in the 1960s expressly to meet the need for change and raise people out of slums?
It is difficult, in fact, to portray destruction as a cause for celebration or even, as some would have it, a bit of fun. The Red Road flats will go because they are decrepit failures in which Glasgow has taken no pride for a very long time. Levelling them will not erase that fact. Equally, failures or not, the towers raised to house 4700 people have contained much of the life and history of the city. Can you delete all that and turn the act into an entertainment?
The opening ceremonials for these great sporting events are always tricky. Most are risible, in large part because no-one is quite sure about their purpose and meaning. Too many competing interests are at stake, too many contradictory notions of taste, too many mutually exclusive ideas of civic, political, cultural and economic value. Do you promote a country or portray it? Do you sell an image or convey a reality?
The usual answer is to get in the singers and the dancers, the flags and floodlights. Tell a few simple stories with imagery that isn't too puzzling and satisfies the visitor's preconceptions. Scotland is well-versed in that art. The default display is some version of a Highland games, because that's what tourists like and expect. You could therefore give credit to Glasgow 2014 for attempting something whose meaning is a little more complicated.
HOWEVER, the risk remains that the global TV audience will be left with a single memory: "Glasgow? That's the place where blowing up old buildings is a big deal." That kind of reaction will leave little room for clever arguments over the relationship between past and present, decay and renewal. Oral histories and respectful exhibitions won't change the fact the towers are to be blown down for the sake of spectacle.
It seems plain enough, certainly, that where the levelling of the Red Road blocks is concerned, a lot of people don't get it. A lot of people, meanwhile, grasp an argument about civic improvement and don't care much for it. Not for the first time in Glasgow, the relationship between the fabric of the place and its people has been misunderstood. Hence the complaint that blowing up some old flats in a civic art event shows a lack of "respect" for those who lived and died in the towers.
I think there's truth in the charge. The reaction to what is planned for the Red Road flats is related to the apparent paradox that causes people to have affectionate memories of long-gone slums. No-one wanted those places preserved, but what they contained is held to be precious. Glasgow 2014 might intend no such thing, but the destruction of the towers in 15 seconds seems to say that the lives lived there didn't much matter.
Carolyn Leckie, the former MSP who launched the protest petition, has made that sort of point. She does not oppose demolition, but insists that it should be done with some dignity, and certainly not as part of a showpiece event. The Commonwealth Games organisers would meanwhile argue, no doubt, that disrespect is the furthest thing from their minds; that the great explosion will be just one part of a bigger story. After all, the usual promotional exercise would have omitted Red Road entirely.
Destruction for the sake of art or entertainment makes us uneasy. Sometimes that is its intention. Glasgow 2014's scheme doesn't quite count as auto-destructive anti-art, but it has the same whiff of the conceptual. Nevertheless, there is a promise for the future implicit in the demolition of the Red Road towers. Something far better is supposed to come from the rubble - isn't it always? - and some will find beauty in that. I'm not convinced.
The photography group which calls itself The Unconscious Art Of Demolition makes haunting images from "ghost" buildings. Members preserve the strange effects created when one building is knocked down and the side of an adjacent block is left exposed - wallpaper, fireplaces, doors - as though in memory. In those artworks, the shadows left by the past are all-important.
Glasgow 2014 says it has not forgotten the idea. It says that it means to honour the city's history. High explosives and a TV audience say otherwise.