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Amnesty International Looks at How Artists Picture the Intangible

Glasgow exhibition aims to raise awareness about prisoners of conscience through art

The Jean-Jacques Rousseau summation of the human condition ''... born free but everywhere ... in chains'' might be a motto for an exhibition that just opened in Scotland's second city.

It is called ''Freedom,'' and it was organized on behalf of Amnesty International by the Glasgow branch of this human rights movement.

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But many of the 15 artists taking part seem to be talking more about forms of entrapment - of victimization, interference, even of ways to express a kind of mute despair - than about freedom. Perhaps it is more feasible to approach this vast subject by exploring what it may mean to be deprived of freedom, than to try to symbolize it directly.

The show as a whole is no less indirect. You could go to it and, apart from a few banners high on the walls, well above the art, you might casually assume that it is just a sampling of contemporary art. It is rather provocative, perhaps, but not strikingly unusual.

The main purpose of the exhibition, however, is to further a campaign by Amnesty to free three prisoners of conscience. You learn this when you read the catalog and some of the wall texts.

The three prisoners are Ma Thida, a writer and doctor imprisoned in Burma (also known as Myanmar) for ''campaigning for democracy.''

Hwang Suk-yong, a South Korean novelist, serving seven years for ''making a trip to North Korea.''

And Manuel Manriquez San Agustin, a musician in Mexico ''sentenced to 24 years on a murder charge based only on a 'signed confession' extracted under torture.''

Art's power for change

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The art itself is far from being tritely or obviously campaigning. It is more to do with climate of thought and attitude. Much of this art is somewhat subversive, stirring up underlying questions, trying to upset apathy rather than provoke head-on collisions.

The 15 artists are all working in Britain. But their origins are widespread. They come from Nigeria, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Czechoslovakia, France, the United States, Malta, India, and Lebanon as well as England. They are artists, as Angela Kingston, curator of the show, puts it, who are ''often emerging from the so-called margins of society.'' They are also ''motivated by a belief in the capacity of art to bring about change.'' And she adds that they ''grapple with issues of race, gender, sexualit y, disability, and class.''

One might also add one artist who grapples with taboos surrounding death. But even this work, which is posthumous, seems peculiarly oblique. The artist, Jo Spence, collaborated with Terry Dennett to make ''Metamorphosis'' in 1991-92. A photographic lineup of four images, it was ''pre-planned'' at the time Spence ''was finally forced,'' Dennett writes, ''to think seriously about the possibility of dying.''

In each photograph, Spence's moribund face seems to shrink, merging sideways into its own mirror image, until it is no longer recognizable. The result is grotesque. But it is still hardly more than a kind of emblem. It is not unlike an old death mask. It says little about the experience of the enigma it presents.

In the case of some of the artists, Mona Hatoum for example, the rather oblique effect comes from the particular works chosen. This Palestinian exile from Lebanon has made some gruesomely disturbing works in which she herself features as a victim, in one case as a corpse.

In this current exhibition, however, a comparatively gentle video that shows a series of changing images of her face. As you watch, you can also listen to her taped voice repeat the same words: ''So much I want to say.''

It reminded me of the Samuel Beckett one-act play in which the sole character keeps saying, ''There is nothing more to say.'' Hatoum's mouth, at the foot of the screen, is covered by someone's fingers (the catalog tells us they are a man's). This is not forceful or aggressive. But it apparently expresses the artist's frustrated sense of being unable to speak freely (the work dates back to 1983). It is not a work you forget. But it is insistent rather than overtly dramatic.

The other work by Hatoum (who is shortlisted this year for the prestigious Tate Gallery's Turner Prize to be announced in November) is an unpainted steel trolley-like object. It could be a baby's cot. Perhaps it is a cage. Where a mattress might have been, are thin taut wires like a hard-boiled egg slicer. It might be taken to suggest that, whatever Rousseau's dictum might mean, not everyone is born free.

On the other hand, this object, parked in the middle of the floor, could almost be from a hospital or a supermarket but for its size. It is a large, empty basket on wheels. What is difficult to gauge is why this undemonstrative thing carries any emotional charge (content) at all. Yet it does.

Some of the paintings selected for this show are puzzling choices. The curator mentions in her introduction that some of the works ''make a bid towards freedom through the language of art. For within abstract art there is a constant testing, a constant impulse to experiment....''

Under this banner fall the paintings of American Mikey Cuddihy, who explains: ''I'm trying to tap into a 'free' self.... I need the freedom to re-invent painting for myself, to question current orthodoxies: that decoration and the feminine are weak, for example; that lightness is synonymous with superficiality.''

One work hints at freedom

There are Matisse-like leaf-shapes in some of these paintings, which led me to ask myself which artists might not have been suitable for inclusion in an exhibition devoted to the freedom theme. I wondered, for instance, about Matisse, who always maintained an apolitical, lighthearted stance; yet his work is the very epitome of freedom.

One single work in the exhibition addresses with an almost naive directness concepts of political freedom and rights of conscience. It also hints at a concept of freedom itself.

Avtarjeet Dhanjal is a Sikh from the Punjab who lives in Shropshire, England. His sculpture, ''A Candle'' - a massy block of Welsh slate which looks (though in miniature) like an enormous promontory - has at its highest point a single lighted candle literally imprisoned in a circular iron cage.

Even a small child cannot fail to see that although the candle is imprisoned, its light is not. The wall text points out that a candle ''can easily be ignored or blown out, yet it has the capacity to light another thousand candles.''

Amnesty could hardly ask for a more compelling symbol.

* 'Freedom' continues in Glasgow through Jan. 21. It travels to Belfast; Southampton, England; and Dundee, Scotland.

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