As I ascended the steps of the National Museum I consciously attempted to clear my head of any preconceptions – an essential exercise if one is to get to grips with the ‘demanding’ conceptual art of those vying for the biennial Artes Mundi prize. I thoroughly enjoyed Artes Mundi 6¹ four years ago (see https://tinyurl.com/ybzvml3h) and then Artes Mundi 7² two years later (no blog on that one – probably because of my mood at the time I didn’t feel I had anything worth saying), so knew I should expect the unexpected from one of the few events in Cardiff predisposed to stretch and challenge.
For the 8th prize (£40,000 as usual) five contemporary artists have been shortlisted, none of whom I knew much about. Having spent the best part of a day experiencing the five exhibits, here are my responses:
A Meteor Fell From The Sky
Nomadic Armenian artist Boghiguian’s installation, spread across two rooms, sets out to probe the global steel industry in paint, collage, sculpture and drawing. It initially struck me as incoherent, misfiring and not good enough technically to carry the weight of such an issue. Lots of confusing bits and bobs are scattered around, seemingly at random: childlike scribbles and scrawls, undistinguished paintings and drawings, dodgy papier mâché ‘meteors’, puzzling floor mirrors and underwhelming cut-outs of steelworkers and steel bosses, all set against a lurid pink background and framed by steel joists and girders. But I was determined to give myself time to appreciate the work, and gradually it began to get through to me. It was the multiple, touching postcard-size photo montages of comprehensively raped and ravaged Port Talbot³ that triggered this process. Boghiguian, now in her 70s, is the only one of the five contenders for the prize to explicitly reference Wales and, for that awareness alone, she deserves reciprocal respect from us. Her expressionist approach is such a refreshing, outsider’s angle on this dreadful industry, lauded by the Labour establishment in Wales as a sacred cow that must be kept alive no matter what the cost. With empathy and grasp, as well as visual verve, she nails the steel industry’s baleful effects, from the mean Taibach terraces, via the dirt and squalor, to the restructured pensions ripping off past and present workers while distant bosses line their pockets. I don’t entirely grasp all her imagery, but it’s rewarding and enlightening attempting to follow her inventive mind.
It is so considerate of the Artes Mundi director and curator Karen MacKinnon, not forgetting the three selectors and the trustees⁴, to make sure that this year Artes Mundi had an exhibit especially for me! Twenty-Two Hours is a gripping 35-minute video by Moroccan-French visual artist Khalili abut the visit of French poet and writer John Genet (1910-1986) to the US in 1970. He had been invited by the Black Panther Party, a revolutionary movement dedicated to toppling the institutionalised racism and oppressive capitalism of the richest country in the world. At the time many of the Black Panther leadership were being arbitrarily detained without trial and Genet, not in the best of health, spent three months touring the US giving amazing lectures and compellingly campaigning for solidarity. John Genet is one of my all-time heroes (see Influences tab). Translated from their original French, Our Lady of the Flowers (1943) and The Thief’s Journal (1949) are two of my all-time favourite books, while the final film of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982), Querelle (1982), an adaptation of Genet’s Querelle de Brest (1947), is still perhaps my all-time favourite movie. I love John Genet, or as David Bowie (1947-2016) called him in his 1972 hit single, The Jean Genie. Khalili’s beautifully paced film cuts between Genet’s live appearances, former Black Panther Doug Miranda reminiscing and two young African-American women discussing and examining the seminal visit from today’s perspective. She has brilliantly captured his immaculate intelligence, modesty, right-on political awareness and sublime poetic sensibility and her film has already prompted me to buy Genet’s final book, Prisoner of Love, a memoir of this very US visit, published posthumously in French in 1986 and in English only as recently as 2003. It’s a masterpiece of tender wrath and pulverising imagery – thanks Artes Mundi!
‘Joe’ Weerasethakul is a fiercely independent Thai film director garlanded with awards and lauded by cinephiles, cineastes and film buffs around the world. That said, I just couldn’t get into this technically superb video on split screens. Perhaps it was the situation: there I was, alone on a highly uncomfortable wooden bench with no back-rest in a large darkened room, unable to relax enough to surrender to the dislocated, otherworldly twin images of rustling trees, shadowy people, silhouettes and sewing-machines, unspooling in repetitive loops in front of me. And just as I was beginning to appreciate the film’s whispering rhythms and disconcerting atmospherics, my concentration was shattered by two harassed mums trooping through the cinema with four loud, squealing and oblivious little kids in tow. Considering the Museum has phalanxes of vaguely menacing attendants hovering everywhere, I was surprised that these clearly inappropriate toddlers had been allowed into spaces that it goes without saying are not for children. They moved on to the next room and then, just as I was getting into the hypnotic film again, did the reverse journey back through the cinema space making the same cacophony of noise! Children should be neither heard nor seen – invisible in fact. It briefly crossed my mind that the mothers and children were actually performers and all part of Weerasethakul’s installation, making some sort of statement about elitism and the ignored – but surely not…? I ditched that disturbing thought process and tried the next exhibit.
The Other Night Sky and Limit Telephotography
American Paglen is renowned for his fabulous photography, and this exhibit of big, breathtaking telescopic photos of the high-tech US surveillance systems that monitor every inch of planet Earth and every breath of its eight billion inhabitants does not disappoint. His message is explicit: we have wandered blindly and dumbly into a nightmare, led by the cruel, hard, paranoid and monomaniac Good Ol’ US of A. Paglen’s long-exposure camerawork shows night skies dazzling with the bright lights and white lines of what appear to be galaxies, nebulas and stars shooting through space, but are actually the myriad spy satellites policing and cataloguing us all. Other stunning photos capture secret bases in the Nevada desert, sinister hangers shrouded in dust and distorting heat, as unfathomable and unaccountable as those who have presumed to seize such invasive power. A memorable, sobering exhibit and a real contender for the prize.
Manifest Of Strains and Double Plot
The final exhibit in a room at the end of the gallery consists of a large circular sculpture (Manifest Of Strains) and an even bigger hanging tapestry (Double Plot) by Belgium-based Nigerian Otobong Nkanga. Both are certainly bold but failed to impress: inside the circle is a steel ring of glowing and then fading red light and hissing apertures, elemental representations of fire and air; while the intricately woven textiles of the tapestry portray a panoply of jarring symbols that, try as I might, left me unmoved and uninformed. The booklet accompanying the exhibition told me Nkanga examines issues of colonialism, land value and the exploitation of natural resources, but I couldn’t get a handle on her concerns from these metaphor-heavy abstractions. For me, this was the least interesting and arresting of the five works.
If I were on the panel of judges picking the winner, I would go for Bouchra Khalili, but that’s because of my personal interests and enthusiasms rather than particular artistic merit necessarily. The winner will be announced on January 24th.
Artes Mundi 8 exhibits at National Museum Cardiff until February 24th, admission free.
¹Won by Theaster Gates (USA), who generously chose to share the prize with the other eight finalists.
²Won by John Akomfrah (Ghana/England)
³The extraordinary history of the steel industry in Port Talbot can be traced back to the 13th century monks of Margam Abbey extracting iron and lead ores from the North Cornelly area and melting them down in furnaces using charcoal from the timber of Margam and Baglan Woods. Commercial operations properly began with the 1717 Aberafan Forge and evolved via copper works at Taibach in 1770, ironworks at Cwmafan in 1819 and tinplate works at Margam in 1822. The development of the area was entirely determined by the Talbot family, Glamorgan’s largest resident landowners. Their vast wealth had been accumulated via a sequence of violent appropriations: Norman Conquest, Marcher lordships, Hundred Years’ War, and then the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century which allowed the landgrabbers to get a foothold in Glamorgan by acquiring the 12th century Cistercian monastery Margam Abbey and its 8,000 hectares (20,000 acres). Strategic marriages with the equally vile Mansel dynasty, High Tories who had maintained a vice-like grip on political power in Glamorganshire since the annexation of Wales, increased the Talbot holdings to 14,000 hectares (34,000 acres) and fired the starting gun for the systematic exploitation of the area’s immense mineral riches. All was coordinated by Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot (1803-1890). Elected by less than half of the mere 2% of the population allowed to vote, most of whom were on his pay-roll, he was the county MP (Whig) from 1830 until his death, a 60-year stint that made him the 19th century’s longest serving MP in the entire UK, illustrating the subservient state of vassalage in which Wales was gripped. Having eliminated the ancient harbour at the Bar of Afan, diverted the sinuous river Afan directly into the sea and constructed docks by 1837, egotistical Talbot decided that the new place would be named after himself. So Port Talbot was created, and the town would expand remorselessly from the docks and tinplate works to swallow and supercede Aberafan and its towering sand-dunes, as well as Taibach, Margam and Cwmafan. After dock expansion and the construction of railway connections to the coal valleys, the first steelworks opened in 1902, a joint enterprise by the Talbots and the Gilbertsons, a London family that had run copper works in Cwmafan previously. Quickly the remorseless logic of capitalist market forces, conglomeration and acquisition saw it fall into the hands of Baldwins, a company run by Worcestershire Tory MP Alfred Baldwin (1841-1908), father of future Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin (1867-1947). Baldwins had been aggressively expanding into Wales from its base in the English midlands with tin-plate and steel operations in Panteg and Pontypool in Gwent, and took over the Port Talbot steelworks in 1906, naming it the Port Talbot Steel Company. In 1918 Baldwins built the nearby Margam steelworks and, riding out punishing US tariffs, temporary closures and the economic depression of the 1920s, gobbled up metallurgical and mining operations across Wales while the population of Port Talbot, made a borough in 1921, rose to 40,000. In 1930 Baldwins amalgamated with GKN, a company originating in the iron belt of north Glamorgan which had opened giant steelworks on Cardiff’s East Moors in 1895, to form Guest Keen Baldwins (GKB). Baldwins created another offshoot, RTB, in 1945 with Richard Thomas & Co, a voracious outfit with tinplate works across southern Wales founded in 1871 by Bridgwater-born Richard Thomas (1837-1916). In 1947 expansion continued with the formation of the Steel Company of Wales out of GKB, RTB, Lysaght of Newport and various other smaller companies. Next came the creation of the Abbey Works, a huge project that obliterated the magical Margam Moors, along with the enlargement and modernisation of the Margam steelworks and the docks. Through the 1950s the vast complex grew ever bigger and by 1967, when the Steel Company of Wales was nationalised by the UK Labour government and absorbed into the British Steel Corporation (BSC), Port Talbot had the largest steelworks in Europe with nearly 20,000 people out of a population of 50,000 employed at the gargantuan fire-belching monster covering what had been pristine woods, cornfields, coastal dunes and sea-marshes to the south of the town. The opening in 1966 of the first section of the M4 motorway in Wales eradicated most of the north of the town. The road swooped at roof level through what remained and completed a brutal pincer movement to form one of the world’s most desecrated, polluted and spectacularly hideous environments. An immense new tidal harbour to accommodate the huge vessels carrying iron ore to the steelworks was opened in 1970 and the old docks closed for good the following year. The remorseless anarchy accelerated into the 1980s as the Thatcher Government privatised BSC, creating British Steel for the convenience of shareholders and hedge funds and chucking Port Talbot to the tender mercies of the globalised steel market’s profit-hungry race to the bottom. Sure enough, in 1999 British Steel merged with Dutch steel producer Hoogovens, founded in 1918, to create Corus, give shareholders another bumper bonanza and shed thousands of jobs in Port Talbot. Now just a plaything tossed around among multinational corporations, Port Talbot’s steel industry suffered more grievous job losses in 2007 when Indian buy-out specialists Tata, founded in 1868, took over Corus and proceeded to pare staffing levels to the bone. More job losses came in 2018 when Tata merged with German conglomerate Thyssenkrupp, itself the result of a 1999 merger between two steel makers Thyssen, founded in Duisburg in 1891, and Krupp, founded in Essen in 1811. Today only 4,000 direct jobs remain in the steel industry in Port Talbot, although because of the UK’s general collapse as a manufacturing economy it is the largest steelworks in the UK. The once beautiful coastal location is a crazy tangle of coke ovens, plant stacks, cooling towers, blast furnaces and pipework, visible for miles, belching out phenomenal levels of fumes, particulates, vapour, gases, by-products and sheer filth, drenching Port Talbot in a pall of pungent sulphuric air and particulates, imposing pandemics of lung disease and ill-health on the population and adding huge amounts to the greenhouse gases that are killing the planet. Was it worth it? There can be only one answer: NO.
⁴ The selectors for Artes Mundi 8 are Nick Aikens of Van Abbemuseum Eindhoven, Alia Swastika an Indonesia-based curator and writer and Daniela Pérez a Mexico-based curator. The current trustees under the chairmanship of Mathew Prichard, grandson of Agatha Christie (1890-1976), who uses the proceeds from his grandmother’s prolific output of whodunits to help fund the arts in Wales, are Sue Balsom, Robin Morrison, Adam Salkeld, Michael Tooby, Siân Williams, Derek Howel and Claire Doherty.
Artes Mundi 8 judges are Laura Raicovich, an independent curator from New York, Katoaka Mami, Deputy Director of Mori Art Museum Tokyo, and Anthony Shapland, Creative Director of g39 Cardiff.