Turner, not Turner – ‘Artes Mundi’ and the Turners that were, then weren’t, then were

22 Oct

When the Turner Prize rolls into town, it’s often difficult to remember that there are other arts prizes and events in the UK, and that the prize was named after a Victorian artist who didn’t staple Polaroids of Peter Sutcliffe to a stuffed pig. Or something.

ART.

Fortunately, the National Museum in Cardiff is showing two exhibitions that remedy this.

J.M.W. Turner – The Davies Collectionlooks at the small but rather lovely collection of Turner paintings, watercolours and sketches bought by Gwendoline and Margaret Davies, wealthy granddaughters of the Victorian industrialist and philanthropist David Davies Llandinam.

‘The Rainbow’, J.M.W. Turner, ca. 1835

When they died the Davies sisters bequeathed their impressive collection (including several Monets, a number of Rodin sculptures, a Van Gogh, and the aforementioned Turners) to Cardiff Museum, but there’s a twist in the tale. In 1956, five years after Gwendoline’s death but while Margaret was still kicking around, the Turners were declared forgeries!

Who knew?

It’s taken best part of the last 55 years for critics and art historians to come around and acknowledge that most, if not all of the Thomas sisters’ Turners are the real deal, but it did get me thinking: How much does it matter, more than 150 years after an artist’s death, if a painting is actually by them? The paintings in question were sufficiently Turner-ish to be credited to him for maybe 100 years before being declared fakes, having been in the possession of two very seasoned art collectors since the eve of the First World War. And nobody called bullshit in all that time?

It’s not as if the paintings were suddenly found to be photocopies, untouched by human hand, or clever machine-made forgeries. These are beautiful paintings – regardless of whose name is printed along the bottom of the frame – hand-painted by a living, breathing person.

The mini-exhibition – it occupies only one room – includes some of the letters from 1956, adding a bit of drama (and comedy) to the story. I particularly liked the line where somebody (I think it was the Davies sisters’ representative in the whole debacle) declared, “Somebody’s pulled a fast one, here.” You can take the boy out of Wales etc…

“Oh. We’ve come to ‘ave a look at yer Picaahsso.”

The second exhibition was part of Artes Mundithe biannual international arts prize hosted in Cardiff. I’ve been to the last two shows, in 2010 and 2008, but found much of the work on show a little dry and academic. The 2010 competition, in particular, was dominated by artsy documentary-style videos that, 25 years ago, you’d have been more likely to see on Channel 4 than in a gallery.

Artsy documentaries… and ‘Max Headroom’.

In 2012 we have an abundance of artists “exploring social themes from across the globe”, but again much of it left me feeling a little underwhelmed. Cuban artist Tania Bruguera doesn’t actually have any work on show in the museum itself, as she considers “the encounter with the artwork (to be) more powerful when it is dislocated from the conventions of the gallery and integrated into social reality”. Instead, Bruguera is competing with an “artist-initiated socio-political movement exploring what defines an ‘immigrant'”.

Is this a racist joke? Discuss.

Now… That’s all well and good, but it sounds to me like a political campaigner getting away with calling what they do “art”, which it blatantly isn’t. It’s political campaigning. For the last 10 years, to subsidise my (modest) income as a writer, I’ve worked in a crappy office job, but at no point during that 10 years did I try and pass off my day job, which involved assessing loan applications, as a “writer-initiated exploration of the contemporary work space”. It was just my fucking day job.

Fortunately, your experience of the Artes Mundi show itself kicks off with a vast, impressive tapestry by Miriam Bäckström:

‘Smile as if we have already won’, Miriam Bäckström

Sadly, the above picture really doesn’t do this justice. Smile as if we have already won is an intricate piece of work depicting multiple mirrored surfaces that becomes more and more fascinating, the longer you look at it.

The offering from Lithuania’s Darius Mikšys reminds me of those Friday mornings at art college when you realise you’ve forgotten a deadline, and it’s a presentation day, so you just throw any old rubbish together and make some shit up. Here, he’s  chosen to fill a small room with various items found in… Cardiff Museum. Which, frankly, doesn’t even get a D for effort.

“Er… It’s a seagull. Because, like, seagulls are really, you know, wise and shit?” – ‘The Code’, Darius Mikšys

Sheela Gowda’s large-scale installation (Kagebangara, pictured below) had something to say, at least, having been fashioned from oil drums and tarpaulin, the materials used by migrant construction workers in India to build temporary shelters, but didn’t really communicate this idea aesthetically or emotionally.

‘Kagebangara’, Sheela Gowda

I wish I’d gone a little earlier, and given more of my time to Apolonija Šušteršič’s Tiger Bay Project, which looks at the environmental and sociological implications of the Cardiff Bay development project. Unfortunately, the brief time I spent watching her video The Tiger and the Mermaid left me almost apoplectic. Though I liked the Astro-Turf viewing platform and stools, I found the video itself dry, like a corporate presentation (perhaps this was the intention), and I rankled a little at its snide voice-over, which framed the redevelopment of Tiger Bay (the bulk of which happened almost 20 years ago) as the behemoth of capitalism trampling over both communities and wildlife. And there was me thinking Cardiff Bay brought jobs and improved facilities to one of the poorest communities in Wales, and is now a place much loved by almost everyone in the city. Turns out it’s Cardiff’s answer to the Tuskegee Experiment.

“The horror… the horror…”

Fortunately, having been left nonplussed by everything except Bäckström’s tapestry, I was blown away by the last two artists on show.

Teresa Margolles’ work, dealing with drug-related gang violence in Mexico, is like a punch in the stomach; visceral, political, and deeply moving. Sonidos de la morgue is a sonic work, a 66 minute looped recording of the first incision in a murder victim’s autopsy. While listening to it, your eyes are drawn to a section of tiled floor beneath a spotlight; an apparently innocuous piece that resembles – superficially – Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII (aka, ‘The Bricks’) but which is in fact the section of studio floor where the artist’s friend, Luis Miguel Suro, was found murdered.

’32 años. Levantamiento y traslado donde cayo el cuerpo asesinado del artista Luis Miguel Suro’ – Teresa Margolles

While listening to the nauseating, squelchy sounds of an autopsy, you are looking at a crime scene. Finishing this unflinchingly forensic work, Plancha takes water once used to cleanse bodies in a Mexican morgue, and at random intervals drips it onto an extended hotplate, beneath a row of dim spotlights. The greenish corrosion of the metal, and the wisps of steam each time a droplet of water lands, only add to the unease, and it’s something of a relief to move on to the next room.

I first came across the work of Phil Collins (the artist, not the singer) in 2006, when he was nominated for the Turner Prize. Then, I thought his return of the real (in which he interviewed people who have appeared on reality TV) was eclipsed by the gorgeous abstract paintings of that year’s winner, Tomma Abts, and the colossal, quasi-Stalinist posters and bonkers contraptions of Mark Titchner, but here at Artes Mundi he’s the star of the show.

From ‘free fotolab’, Phil Collins

His piece, free fotolab, is a slideshow of photos taken by people in several European cities. Collins offered them free processing and prints of their undeveloped films, in return for the right to use their photographs in his installation. The end result is a moving and often very funny montage; it’s impossible for you not to at least try to fashion some sort of narrative, even though the same subject never appears twice. Blowing the images up until the people in them are more than life size invites you to almost over-analyse each one, to study every detail, and to appreciate the beauty of even the most casual snapshot. A stunning piece of work, and far more empathetic and “socially engaging” than a pile of oil drums, or a woefully misconceived “power to the people” documentary.

Artes Mundi is heralded as the UK’s “biggest art prize” (actually, at £40,000 it’s on an equal standing with the Turner Prize), so it should probably get a lot more attention than it currently enjoys. Perhaps the trick to achieving this would be to recognise work that stimulates the heart – as Collins and Margolles both do – and not just the brain.

  • J.M.W. Turner: The Davies Collection runs until January 20th 2013
  • Artes Mundi runs until January 13th 2013
  • Both are free entry
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One Response to “Turner, not Turner – ‘Artes Mundi’ and the Turners that were, then weren’t, then were”

  1. psychedk October 24, 2012 at 5:39 pm #

    Turner is one of my favorite painters. There’s so much movement in his motifs, you can practically smell the storm when you look at his frothing seas. His way of playing with light is really interesting, too. How very lucky you are to have seen that collection!

    My other favorite artist is Vilhelm Hammershøi. There was an exhibition of his work here in May, including an introduction by the two people who had worked for years to make this exhibition happen. They talked about how it came to be, anectotes from the artist’s life, his themes and symbolisms (which they amusingly did not agree on). For an art newbie like myself it was deeply fascinating stuff. I shamelessly took a lot of photos of the paintings, they’re here if you’d like to see https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150937901846870.439014.665556869&type=3

    They had also borrowed other contemporary paintings to compare styles, etc, and among them was Whistler’s Mother, so it was fun seeing that one in real life 🙂

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