When was the last time you went to an art gallery? Many people never go, yet it's not unusual for them to have strong opinions about them anyway. For Dani Marti, they offer a means of creating exhibitions of which film is a part, using short films alongside installation art to talk about intimate areas of life. Dani is interested in the impossibility of portraiture and the difficulty any artist has in getting truly intimate with a subject. He uses experimental methods to try and transgress that space.
You might not expect this to be the cause of much political concern, but Dani's recently scheduled exhibition inadvertently got caught up in controversy surrounding another art project at Glasgow's Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA). The sh[OUT] exhibition was intended to examine the lives of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people living in the city, and it included work by famous artists and filmmakers worldwide. It also included a piece of work by a local church group, who provided a Bible and a pencil, inviting visitors who felt they were left out of the holy book to write themselves in. Unsurprisingly, a few decided to express anger at the church. Having seen the exhibit, I was actually astounded by how mild this was, but nevertheless it was enough to get the Bible placed behind glass (interestingly, much more strongly worded homophobic comments in the gallery's visitor's book remained publicly available throughout) after other religious groups sparked a protest. In all, the city council received 650 letters of complaint (only just over 200 of those writing are believed to have witnessed the exhibit themselves).
What has all this to do with Dani? Well, his exhibition looks at the lives of gay men living with HIV. "It was fine when I initially talked about it with Mark O'Neill at Culture and Sport Glasgow [the Gallery's owners]," he said. "Then his colleague Bridget McConnell got back from holiday and said that there was a problem because they'd been under a lot of political pressure due to the Bible exhibit. It seems to me that basically the GOMA was ill prepared to handle the press."
"The nature of some of the exhibits, and more specifically, certain elements of the outreach programme have provoked a response that has negated both the artistic and societal endeavour," said a spokesman for Culture and Sport Glasgow, in their defence. "In order to reframe the debate, a weekend of film and discussion at Tramway will be held and Dani's work will be included. We understand his disappointment, but our first priority must be to protect the integrity of the entire programme, the vast majority of which remains unchanged."
Dani is cynical about this, stressing that there are several ways the situation can be looked at. He explains that he was asked to withdraw his two films, in which HIV positive gay men talk about their lives, but that he was told he could leave an installation piece - a sort of sculpture made using red pot scourers which look like blood corpuscles - in place. Feeling that this wouldn't work on its own and that he owed something to the men involved in making the films, he opted to remove his work entirely. It will now be shown in an alternative space the council has provided on the city's Parnie Street "Underground, underneath a shop, in a space where only seven people can see it at one time, and there's water on the floor."
This, Dani feels, go against the whole point of his work, which was to bring the lives of men like his film subjects out into the open. "I think the council would be happy to see HIV positive men presented as victims," he says. "I've been positive myself for 22 years now and that's not how I see things. I have to take a lot of pills but life goes on, you know? In the first of my films the subject is an Australian man who doesn't talk about is HIV at all, though he gave me permission to mention it. He's 63 and he talks about his life, his divorce, his relationship with his son and his life as a gay man. The other film subject, John, is from Glasgow. He's 33 and he talks about how he went to Miami, became a prostitute, got hooked on drugs and ended up in a mess. Then he starts questioning things like the meaning of life and relationships. It was important for me to show that these people are happy with themselves and HIV is just happening at the side of their lives.
"There have been a lot of false rumours about my work," Dani says. "It's been said that I filmed gay men in saunas and that I found prostitutes to act things out in my films, and that's just totally untrue. There is some nudity but that's because I felt it was important to have that kind of intimacy. I worked with a total of nine men on my films and it was a really big step, a very brave step, they took in disclosing their HIV status. The sh[OUT] exhibition was supposed to be about civil rights and this is a joke."
One of Dani's film has already been shown in Zurich. When he asked Glasgow City Council about this he was told "It's all right for Zurich, but the West of Scotland is not ready." Not ready for what? Uncensored access to film? Civil rights? Art?
Fellow artist and filmmaker Kate Henderson of Bildwechsel, who has also received a recent commission from GOMA, says that she has been well treated by the gallery and appreciates that they are in a difficult position. She is concerned that city councillors have put pressure on the gallery to drop Dani's work, so that politics is interfering directly with creative expression.
The red pot scourers from Dani's exhibition, sewn by women who are affected by HIV in Zimbabwe, will begin to appear around Glasgow from next week.