Artes Mundi 6

Now that I am a gentleman of leisure, I’ve got the time to catch up on things I’ve been putting off for years: read literary fiction, become fluent in Welsh, go to the theatre a lot more, sprawl on my day-bed nibbling truffles in an embroidered Chinese silk smoking jacket, re-dig the Glamorganshire Canal by hand from Cyfarthfa to Hamadryad, make an accurate scale model of HMS Hood out of match-sticks, clear out the shed, change the world, stuff like that. A high priority will be to deepen and broaden my shallow and narrow appreciation of the visual arts. To that end I’ve been exploring Artes Mundi,  the biennial exhibition of cutting-edge art which culminates in an award of £40,000 (the UK’s biggest art prize) to one of the shortlisted works on show until February at the National Museum, Chapter and Ffotogallery in Penarth. With Artes Mundi’s mission statement ringing in my ears (“To present a landmark programme of international contemporary visual art that will enrich the cultural and educational life of Wales and its people, develop and inspire new audiences and build cultural bridges between Wales and the wider world”), I viewed the various exhibits unburdened by preconceptions and equipped with nothing but an open mind. Here are my personal responses to the nine works:

Bunga has installed a site-specific corridor of cardboard columns held together by packing tape in the National Museum. Supposedly, this edifice challenges the mock-classicism and delusory hauteur of the generic gallery while commenting on flux, transience, migration and urban life. Initially I was dismissive, reckoning the Portuguese sculptor/painter was putting the conceptual cart before the operational horse, the flimsy mediocrity of his architectural fancy quite incapable of bearing the weight of all those pressing issues. However, after a while the tactile sensuousness and wobbling vulnerability of the smooth cardboard began to grow on me, and then I noticed a small screen playing on continuous loop a video of a light bulb being smashed – and the penny dropped. Since everything’s temporary (cardboard, lightbulbs, art, museums, us) any transforming intervention is ultimately irrelevant. In which case, as Bunga virtually urges, it’s fine to vandalise namby-pamby art installations (so long as it’s done creatively). Well, I figured, if it’s good enough for the K Foundation and Jimi Hendrix…so I indulged in a little light vandalism of my own. Subtly and secretively. What an autumn I’m having: first a book in print, now I’m being exhibited at the National Museum of Wales!

OMER FAST Continuity
This 40 minute film about a middle-aged German couple who hire a series of male prostitutes to enact the return that is never going to happen of their dead soldier son from Afghanistan is grindingly gripping and unpleasantly unsettling from start to finish. Israeli-born video artist Fast had me squirming on the edge of my bench in a darkened far corner of the National Museum, repelled and magnetised all at once. Shot with bleached-out hyper-real intensity from disconcerting angles and ominous perspectives, and performed by a superb cast mercilessly stripped of the usual actorly camouflage right down to their wonky features, crow’s feet and pus-filled pimples, the film hurls a wrecking-ball at the conventions of cinematic language while holding up a mirror to a panoply of subjects yer average multiplex-going punter doesn’t want to look at: war, death, imperialism, incest, ageing, boiled sprouts. I both hated it and loved it – and, since I’m precisely the kind of despondent, navel-gazing Welsh person the Artes Mundi prize wants to jolt into life, this means Continuity counts as an out-and-out triumph. SPOILER ALERT! Beware the camel.

THEASTER GATES A Complicated Relationship between Heaven and Earth or When We Believe
Gates comes to Wales on the back of a growing reputation as an innovative revitaliser of poor neighbourhoods in his home town Chicago, using his quirky installations to bring sustenance to blighted urban deserts. Normally he works on big projects transforming big architectural spaces, but in the confines of two rooms in the National Museum he has to bring his ambitious concepts to fruition on a smaller canvas. Tackling the complexities of ‘belief’, he offers five of its varieties: a piece of slate roof from a demolished Chicago church; an amorphously-shaped, west African sacred ‘boli’ stood on a wheeled trolley; a Catholic poster from the 1920s charting the progress of humanity from Adam and Eve to WW1; a video of an old man singing Amazing Grace accompanied by Gates’ own band, the Black Monks of Mississippi; and a Freemasons’ stuffed goat noisily going round and round a rickety track. Belief, it is clear, comes from the believer’s cultural context, not from any external spiritual force, and what we believe depends on when, where and to whom we were born, not on profound conviction. Gates captures the chaotic, stupid, almighty mess of competing, contradicting global belief systems with compassion, humour and insight. His touching work resonated for days afterwards, and was powerful enough to make even this proselytising atheist resolve to be more tolerant of our pathetic human frailties, foibles and fallacies in future.

SANJA IVEKOVIĆ The Disobedient (The Revolutionaries)
Modern art is a leftwing pursuit per se, creativity and originality not being compatible by definition with the rightwing totems of authority and tradition, and Artes Mundi 6 provides further evidence of this intrinsic rebelliousness. Most of the works start from an out-and-out anti-capitalist position, none more so than Croatian feminist Iveković with her show at Ffotogallery, a corruscating, sombre dissection of the murderous violence faced by opponents of exploitation, repression and oppression. Photographs of airbrushed glamour models are tagged with the names of tortured and killed Yugoslav anti-fascists and cute soft-toy donkeys in a glass cabinet are each labelled with the name of a great leftist martyr, while a centrepiece lightbox contains the infamous 1933 image of a crowd of German onlookers watching a Nazi officer tormenting a bedraggled donkey in a barbed wire enclosure. There is no pussy-footing equivocation here: Iveković nails the tawdry, coercive lies of consumer capitalism and strips away its glitzy, cuddly veneers to expose the appalling reality beneath. Let the stubborn resistance of the gentle donkey be our inspiration. Inevitably, for a know-it-all like me (so super-socialist I oppose the very idea of an “economy”) there was a feeling of the long-since converted receiving a preaching; but even I came away better equipped for the struggle by helping myself to a free handout giving the potted biographies of 49 global activists who paid for their principles with their lives. This is art as agitprop, art as political tool, art with a purpose: important and unmissable.

Icelander Kjartansson’s work is a film of a 40 minute live performance of one song by eight musicians occupying different rooms of a rambling old house in New York State plus a group of people contributing occasionally outdoors on the verandah. Each of these nine scenarios is visible on nine separate screens slung around the upstairs gallery in Turner House, Penarth’s 1888 terracotta crucible of culture (donated to the National Museum in 1921 by the philanthropic Thompson family and run by Ffotogallery, Wales’ development agency for lens-based media, since 2003). There are dazzling technological skills involved here, whereby nine stand-alone soundtracks are somehow synthesised into one, but even more compelling is the music itself.  Despite being just a short, simple verse/chorus ballad consisting solely of the words “There are stars exploding around you and there’s nothing you can do. Once again I’m falling into my feminine ways,” backed by two pianos, banjo, cello, concertina, guitar, bass and drums all played with impeccable minimalist casualness, it ebbs and flows, swells and subsides, roars to emotive peaks and stutters to whispering, halting troughs, over and over again in an ever-shifting, ever mutating mantra. You would think this might be boring, but on the contrary it’s utterly bewitching, not to mention an ingenious re-invention of two entire genres: music and film. More than this, to my complete surprise I found my moods gradually synchronising with the music. As it metamorphosed in pitch, timbre, phrasing and tempo through rhapsodic, whimsical, plaintive and joyous, so did I. Alone in the barn-like loft of Turner House, I was forced to face my demons. Why can’t I work collaboratively? Why am I so short-tempered? Why do I antagonise people? Why am I always in a minority of one? Why do I think there’s got to be a reason why?

American Lockhart contributes Exit, a film of workers leaving a shipyard in Maine USA at the end of a shift, plus photographs of them during their breaks and displays of their workaday ephemera. The hypnotic film, in which a static camera passively observes wave after wave of mainly male workers pouring out of the shipyard’s rusty portal from Monday to Friday in five real-time takes, is an explicit referencing of the first ever publicly-screened film, La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon (1895) by the Lumière brothers. The 1895 French original was just 45 seconds long and featured mainly women workers (available on YouTube), but nevertheless Lockhart’s 2008 update looks surprisingly similar. It seems little has changed in over a century for the masses: we still have no agency, we’re still clock-watching, we’re still wage-slaves, we still can’t wait to get home. The film, rather like work itself, is dull and repetitive – yet I increasingly became mesmerised by its flat realism, agenda-free curiosity, unscripted outcomes and naturalistic rhythms. This is a ‘motion picture’ pure and simple, as limited as when the Lumières invented the technology. Movement alone suffices as the ‘action’ and the ‘soundtrack’ is merely the clatter of boots and the mens’ throwaway interchanges as they pass the fixed microphone – as effortlessly true as the mood-matching musical accompaniments of silent film were painstakingly contrived. It is clear: people are the same regardless of time and place. Like armies of ants we swarm as one organism while jealously guarding our personal space; like drones we obey orders while cherishing our small assertions of individuality; and, like all creatures, en masse we are hard to tell apart. All this is hardly revelatory but never hurts to be re-iterated. Eventually, by the time the works’ claxon went off on Thursday, the film began to annoy me. Bringing this account of the smoke-stack, blue-collar working life to Wales, of all places, is like taking coals to, to, to Nantgarw (that’ll do – it’s got three syllables and begins with an ‘N’), and informing the first country in the world to have more industrial than agricultural workers about the dehumanising effects of exploitative capitalism is like teaching mamgu to knit shawls. I slunk away into the adjacent room at Chapter to look at the display cabinets of the workers’ lunch boxes, water bottles and baccy tins and prints of them sat around eating their sandwiches. Annoyance increased. It was only when I came upon a couple of Welsh colliery tokens, chucked in by Lockhart as a brazenly derisory afterthought for us slow-on-the-uptake locals, that I got the message. Those patronising tokens, literally and metaphorically, are symbols of what else but tokenism, stupid. And that token nod in the direction of Wales encapsulates perfectly our continued marginalisation, oppression and irrelevance. The truth hurts; I ached. Cheers Sharon, brilliant!

RENATA LUCAS Falha (Failure)
Conceptual art is, first and foremost, about the concept, about thinking up an original idea. That alone is not easy in a post-modern world of second-hand emotion, self-conscious detachment and controlled homogeneity. Thus, conceptualism is inherently radical. No wonder then that the reactionary rightwing from the Nazis to the Daily Mail are always threatened by the modernism, not to mention the ‘difficulty’, of conceptual art and frequently seek to deride, belittle or ban it. Of course this doesn’t mean that just because the Daily Mail disapproves it’s automatically any good. That depends on the second tricky problem facing the conceptual artist: the execution. The concept of Brazilian Lucas is to manipulate public space, often on a grand scale, so that individuals are forced to re-evaluate and change their relationship with the built environment. Within the restrictive walls of a side gallery in the National Museum she executes that concept by covering the floor with hinged, wood panels that can be lifted into different configurations as you walk through the space. They’re slippery, heavy, awkward and unstable. Liable to slam back down to the ground at any moment, they could take a finger off if you’re not very careful. With small children on half-term holiday running everywhere it was actually quite dangerous, necessitating vigilant monitoring and frequent interventions by platoons of museum officials. To ‘ell with ‘elf ‘n’ safety! Thus, inadvertently or otherwise (it matters not in conceptual art), Lucas proves her very point about lack of control of our environment. Both concept and execution succeed; but, as the jarring banging of the boards echoed through the Museum’s habitually hushed galleries, the ultimate failure of this installation became apparent – it’s in the wrong place.

RENZO MARTENS Episode 1 & Episode 3
Split between the National Museum and Chapter, Belgian Martens’ intriguing but irritating contribution uses video, sculpture, artefacts and lightboxes to document the nightmare that is the Democratic Republic of Congo, a post-colonial basket-case ravaged by endless wars, corporate greed and extreme poverty. His shtick is to pose as the idiot abroad, the clueless, complacent, ‘well-meaning’ Western interferer, a depoliticised husk reduced to spectator status. Taking passive consumerism and don’t-rock-the-boat conservatism to their logical conclusion, Martens satirically advocates poverty-porn as a solution to the starving Congolese. Where there’s muck there’s brass, and if everything’s up for sale then why not flog your misery? After all, there could be a market for soft-focus photogenic African skeletons or shrunken heads made out of cocoa in the drawing-rooms of Mayfair. Hmm…although left unamused, unshocked, unstimulated and unenlightened by this hollow study in hopelessness, reckoning post-modern irony is not a suitable bedfellow for other peoples’ suffering, I still extracted a recondite rush from Martens’ reworking of the age-old question: should art seek to alter reality or merely reflect it?

KAREN MIRZA & BRAD BUTLER The Unreliable Narrator
In Chapter, double-act Mirza and Butler are given two gallery rooms and the walls of the bar to express their ideas about participation. In one room the 2011 Eton examination paper, which asks for speech justifying military force written for a hypothetical PM in the year 2040, sits invitingly blank on rows of school desks under a blue neon sign saying “You are the Prime Minister”.  Certain that David Cameron won’t be losing any sleep over such a lame gimmick but unsure whether I should actually have a go at the task or not (nobody else had), I moved on quickly to the next room to watch a video installation called Act(s) about the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. Utilising both the mobile phone conversations of the bombers and the rolling-news commentary of the establishment broadcasters, the film failed to hold me, what with its repetitive longeurs and plodding banality-of-evil subtext. In the red-curtained, dark space my attention wandered to a blackboard upon which a series of words had been beautifully inscribed. Absent-mindedly I ran a finger over the alluring words only to find, to my horror, that they really were chalked up and I had smudged a few of them out!  I hastened to the bar, which Mirza and Butler have encircled with blown-up images of Meryl Streep playing Margaret Thatcher, half-heartedly defaced by scribbled Hitler moustaches and scrawled slogans. After every philistine’s kneejerk platitude (“I could do that”) had duly run through my mind, I couldn’t help smirking at the thought of all those bearded Pontcanna hipsters trying to digest their pea and asparagus ravioli under a rotten pastiche of milk-snatcher’s pitiless gaze for months to come. But then I’m childish like that. This is far and away the worst of the nine exhibits, and it’s no coincidence Mirza and Butler are described as being from the UK (ie: England; ie: London). As Artes Mundi makes such a point of being “international”, and as Wales is part of the UK last I checked, then this entry would only be “international” if it were attributed to England: either that, or we must collude in the subsuming of Wales – a bit of a cheek when that £40k comes out of scarce Welsh public funds. This leads to a neglected topic I will return to in a future blog: our grovelling habit of paying the world and his wife to honour us with their presence when the world never feels obliged to return the compliment. I’m available! For ready money!

If I were on the judging panel, my vote would be going to Ragnar Kjartansson. No contest. Get down to Penarth and see/hear for yourself.