Such is the nature of the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art that you have already missed its keynote show, which opened and closed in the space of an hour the Thursday before last.
Here is what you didn't see. At a little after noon, 100 or so cyclists pedalled into George Square amid much clapping and bell-ringing. A man in a blue peaked cap climbed on to a dais and painted a bicycle white, while two others addressed the crowd through a megaphone in alternate English and Dutch. "The White Bicycle will free us from the car-monster!" [Cheers.] "De Witte Fiets wil ons van die auto-monster bevrijden!" [More cheers.] "The White Bicycle is an anarchist!" [Loud cheers, ringing of bells.] "The White Bicycle will liberate us from bourgeois capitalism!" [Tumultuous cheers and ringing.] And then, variously, they all pedalled off again.
In case you didn't get the reference, this was a re-enactment of the Witte Fietsenplan (White Bikes Project), an anarchist eco-action from 1960s Amsterdam, staged here by a Glaswegian environmental art group called NVA. For all its good nature, the happening had a serious intent. NVA stands for nacionale vitæ activa, a Latin tag exhorting the people to take politics into their own hands. The re-action is also there to help visitors to the festival get to its further-flung parts. (Various witte fietsen will be dotted around Glasgow, free for use and unlockable with the code 6510.)
More than any of this, though, the Witte Fietsenplan offered a clue as to Glasgow's idea of itself, festival-wise. Edinburgh's visual arts festival, like the city itself, tends to the Parisian and well-behaved. Glasgow's not-so-auld-alliance is with Amsterdam, a city whose name has long been a byword for communalism and grunge. If a single voice runs through the Glasgow International, then it is mildly bolshie and prone to taking the piss.
Thus Susan Philipsz's Lowlands, a site-specific sound piece commissioned by the festival. Philipsz, a Glaswegian, has recorded herself singing several versions of the 16th-century Scottish lament from which her work takes its name. These are played, at 20-minute intervals, under the arches of the George V bridge over the Clyde – the kind of place you'd expect to find unshaven men drinking lager out of cans and where, in all probability, you will. Philipsz's lament is less for a drowned love than for a lost Scottishness; for a lyrical past and a grimy present. Which is to say that Lowlands is both sad and mildly satirical of itself, in the Glaswegian manner.
The same might be said of the "artoonist" David Shrigley, a Glaswegian by adoption. If Philipsz's bridge is a relic of the city's pre-war prosperity, then so, in spades, is the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Kelvingrove's echoing galleries evoke a de haut en bas society, honest workers being fed culture by silk-hatted philanthropists. Shrigley subverts this history by quietly infiltrating a corner of the museum with vitrines of his own. One contains a stuffed dog carrying a placard that reads "I'M DEAD", another holds two large white plaster spheres inscribed with the words "the world".
I suppose it's arguable that the Victorian mania for taxonomy extended to social gradations – rich men in their castles, poor men at their gates – so that Shrigley's cheeky-chappy intervention, like NVA's bikes, has a gently revolutionary intent. So, in quite a different way, does Douglas Gordon's 24 Hour Psycho, a replaying of Hitchcock's masterpiece slowed down to a day's length. I've seen bits of this work in various places, but it looks particularly good here at the Tramway – not so much because its (re-)maker is likewise from Glasgow as because the space in which it is shown is both grand and workaday. There's no hiding the fact that Gordon's appropriation is theft, but equally that it is theft as homage. If there is one person in the world you can imagine sitting through the whole of 24 Hour Psycho – Hitchcock's tricks and cuts rendered wonderfully statuesque – then it is Douglas Gordon.
None of this is to suggest that the festival is parochial; rather the opposite. Perhaps more than in any other British city, Glasgow's artists have gone out into the world and brought the world back home with them. NVA's white bicycles are Dutch, David Maljkovic, whose architectural photo-dramas are on show in Miller Street, is Croatian; Gerard Byrne (also Miller Street) is Irish, Fiona Tan (Gallery of Modern Art), Indonesian. For the next week or so, though, they are all Glaswegian, which is no bad thing at all.
The festival is at various sites around Glasgow until 3 May (0141-287 8994)
Charles Darwent weighs up the works in Beauty and Power: Renaissance and Baroque Bronzes from the Peter Marino Collection at the Wallace CollectionReuse content