Tag Archives: art

“I don’t know what art is…” Why Martin Creed is a simpleton or a fraud

16 Jul

Martin Creed

Martin Creed was on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, involved in a brief discussion about Kazimir Malevich’s painting Black Square, which is being exhibited as part of a Tate Modern retrospective that opens today. The painting, for the uninitiated, looks like this:


That’s right. It’s one of those ‘Ronseal’ paintings. It’s called black square, and it is a black square. It was apparently inspired by the artist’s reading of Schopenhauer, which is way too hefty a subject to get into here without essentially copying and pasting big chunks of World as Will and Representation, but suffice to say, our pal Kazimir wanted painting to move away from the representational, and towards the kind of abstraction that music offers, thereby helping us transcend this dull and dreary world of ours. Hence, a black square.

The important thing to remember about an artist like Kazimir Malevich, however, is that he arrived at his black square through a lengthy process of practice and thought. He wasn’t capable only of covering a canvas in black paint. He could also paint stuff like this:

Dude was versatile, is what I'm saying.

Dude was versatile, is what I’m saying.

Abstraction, in his case, was an artistic choice, not the end result of having little or no skill. The same cannot be said about Martin Creed. I’ve waffled on about Creed in a previous blog, holding his work up as an example of the kind of conceptual art I find not only utterly vapid but nihilistic and viciously elitist. It is the dreary cul-de-sac of 20th Century art. Stick a blob of Blu-Tac to a wall, call it art and hope you can get enough gullible saps to agree. Except, of course, Creed doesn’t even do that. He is either gleefully in on the joke, or a simpleton who is unaware that there is a joke to begin with.

This is Creed's Work No. 88. It is exactly what it looks like - a scrunched up piece of paper.

This is Creed’s Work No. 88. It is exactly what it looks like – a scrunched up piece of paper.

On Today, for example, he was asked if he considered Black Square to be art.

He replied, “I don’t know if it’s art or not, because I don’t know what art is, because I think art is just a word… that’s difficult to understand.”

So, if I’m right, because art is an often difficult concept to define, we shouldn’t even bother calling anything art, or trying to understand or define it? Why have that discussion when you could just stick some Blu-Tac to a wall, switch some lights on and off, get everyone else to call it art, and then giggle all the way to the bank? Though, of course, when I say “everyone else”, what I mean is, “Other artists, art critics and people who went to art school.” Not the countless people outside those three categories who can spot the Emperor’s naked, bouncing bollocks a mile off.

The most frustrating thing about Creed is the kind of almost uniform, unquestioning loyalty he inspires in so many art critics (with the notable exception of the Times’ Waldemar Januszczak). The now-defunct Review Show’s four-way rimming session about Creed’s Hayward Gallery retrospective was one of the most unedifying bits of arts programming I’ve ever seen on the BBC, so much so that when the show was cancelled, I found myself thinking, “Good riddance.”

That not one of the guest critics (Paul Morley, Denise Mina and – most disappointingly – playwright Mark Ravenhill) nor host Kirsty Wark were prepared to stick their hand up and say, “But… it’s all shit, isn’t it?” says a great deal about the kind of cliquey, incestuous media world in which Creed operates while feigning an aloof disinterest; the critics themselves presumably too scared of bumping into him at their next shindig to pipe up honestly.

Pictured: Paul Morley and Martin Creed.

Pictured: Paul Morley and Martin Creed.

Martin Creed did not arrive at his empty rooms or his scrunched up bits of paper or his blob of Blu-Tac after a lengthy period of learning his craft, or engaging with contemporary thought. He did it because he is incapable of doing anything else. The only thing original about this routine is that he was one of the first people ballsy enough to produce such blatantly lazy work without bothering to provide any justification and get away with it, and “getting away” with something should not be enough to earn you plaudits. Not when you have slammed a great big door in the faces of anyone not well-versed in art history and said, “Fuck off. You won’t get it.”

What Creed’s work says to all the struggling painters who learned how to paint, struggling sculptors who learned how to sculpt, and struggling conceptual artists whose concepts are original, fresh and thought-provoking, is, “Ha ha ha… Fools! Why did you bother? Look at me. I’m a fucking dimwit, and I get to do this for a living.

If you doubt this is the case, if you think I’m misreading Creed’s work, or underestimating him, I’ll leave you with a quote from the man himself, about his work The Lights Going on and Off:

“There was nothing that I could think of that was important enough to put in that room and say, “Hey, look at this.” And so, in the absence of that, I tried to do something with the room. And so I switched the lights on and off, because that’s all I could think to do.”

Howard’s End – The CSAD Summer Show

9 Jun

Elaine Begley

I’ve a particular attachment to Cardiff School of Art and Design’s campus at Howard Gardens. Not because I studied there – my alma mater was at Dartington, in Devon; a college that has since amalgamated with Falmouth and moved a further hundred or so miles into the deep, dark wilderness of the West Country. But Howard Gardens was where my partner studied, and every summer since we “became an item” we’ve gone along to the student summer show there.

This year has a particular poignancy, as it’ll be the last CSAD summer show held at Howard Gardens before the school ups roots and moves across the city to the leafier environs of Llandaff. The move seems a shame for a number of reasons. First, Howard Gardens – while definitely in need of a lick of paint here and there – is an excellent building for artists-in-training, filled with workshops, nooks and crannies, and beautifully well-lit studios on the upper floors. Secondly, it’s well-situated, slap bang in the middle of town; whereas Llandaff’s setting is much more quiet…

Pictured: Llandaff, circa 2009

Pictured: Llandaff, circa 2009

Who knows… Perhaps the students will benefit from being somewhere that’s closer to nature and further away from quite so many Wetherspoons. All I do know is that having spent my 3 years at Dartington surrounded by fields and trees, I developed an unhealthy longing for McDonalds, multistorey car parks and graffiti-and/or-urine saturated underpasses.

Anyway… I’m kind of drifting away from the point, here, which was, of course, the CSAD summer show. Like any graduate show, it’s an inevitably hit and miss affair – lots of work by lots of artists of varying abilities – but there are always a handful of gems that make you genuinely optimistic for the future of British art. (Especially in a world in which a recent Martin Creed retrospective, featuring such seminal works as a blob of Blu-Tack stuck to a wall, received nothing but glowing plaudits on the now-defunct Review Show.)

Fucking seriously.

Fucking seriously.

Go to enough of these shows, however, or hark back to your own art school days (if you went to art school), and you’ll realise that certain trends pop up, year after year. Oh… You’ve taken a mould of your own vagina and reproduced it in plaster/plastic/chocolate? Well done, you. That’s one in the eye for phallocentric hegemony. You’ve nailed some bits of wood together and have them jutting out of the walls at funny angles? Yes… That really makes me reconsider this “space”.

But I’m being cruel. If you were born in 1993, and thus didn’t study at Dartington in the late 1990s or attend the last 5 or 6 CSAD summer shows, perhaps you’ve no idea that you’re not the first artist to serve up vaginas or bits of wood.

For me, though the overall standard of work this year was very high (even the plaster vaginas looked good, en masse) there were four real stand-outs. Beth Marriott’s exquisitely detailed matchbox tableaux, based on the ailing memories of her grandmother, are just stunning and packed full of detail. I only wish I’d had more time to look at them.

Elaine Begley has crafted wax cubes, each one filled with layers of detritus, that manage to be both a little bleak (they look like polluted ice cores dug up in the distant future) and very beautiful. Placed on a grid of pedestals they were visually striking and endlessly fascinating.

Pic by me

Pic by me

I do love a good, tactile, hands-on installation, and James George’s Brecon Beacons Project ticked all of those boxes. Set in a large chest of draws, the artist has carried out lengthy research; photographing, documenting and taking samples of material from the Brecon Beacons, before producing his own rough-hewn paper and notebooks, as well as perspex artworks based on the results. Like Marriott’s matchboxes, it’s a work I wish I could have spent more time looking at, as I felt I was only able to scratch the surface.

My personal star of this year’s summer show, however, was painter Helen Bur. Without realising it, I’d actually seen a number of her works before. She has painted giant murals in and around Roath, and exhibited at Milgi’s Art in the Warehouse, but her paintings on show at the CSAD are just exceptional. Reminiscent of Gerhard Richter’s portraits and character studies in their hazy, but almost photographic focus, I could have spent the whole day staring at them. Absolutely stunning.

The Leader by Helen Bur

The Leader by Helen Bur

Perhaps the best thing about the CSAD summer show is that you’re given no idea which students will be rewarded with the highest marks for their efforts. You might be able to work one or two out for yourself, but – unless you have a loved one exhibiting and are a bit biased – you really are free to pick your favourites, with no pressure to like any particular style. The artists are unknowns, without the weight and baggage of famous names that can make first-time gallery-goers feel obliged to like a certain work which, otherwise, they’d be quite indifferent to. As Grayson Perry pointed out in last year’s Reith Lectures, all galleries should have a sign over the door saying, “You don’t have to like everything”. A student summer show does more or less exactly that.

Having gone through the art school system, I can say this is probably for the better. The year I graduated, the vaginas received the only First Class Honours on the entire course.

The CSAD Summer Show is on at Howard Gardens until Friday 13th June.

The image at the top of the page is Elaine Begley’s own photo of her work Tranquility.

Conceptual Art is Dead (and about f**king time)

23 Jun

In 2006 the gallery at Cardiff’s Chapter Arts (Londoners should imagine Battersea Arts Centre, but better) exhibited Gallery Space Recall by Simon Pope, an artist who had represented Wales at the Venice Biennale in 2003. The work consisted of… nothing. The walls and floor spaces were empty. Instead of looking at pieces of work crafted lovingly by the artist, visitors to the exhibition were invited to remember previous exhibitions they had gone to.

Be still, my beating fists.

Be still, my beating fists.

It marked, for me, the nadir of conceptual art; the point when it went beyond parody and vanished up its own fundament. Having long been subjected to the accusation that it was like the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes, here was conceptual art using that fairy tale as its template. There was nothing to see, but seeing nothing made you a philistine.

What’s more, it was a perfect illustration of conceptual art’s very worst traits; cultural navel-gazing and the assumption that the viewer would already be immersed in that world. This was art about art for the benefit of artists and people who already know about art. If you fell outside that spectacularly narrow group, you could fuck off, you fucking pleb.

Martin Creed's 2001 Turner Prize-winning Work No. 227, the lights going on and off.  In which the light goes on and off. Fucking seriously.

Martin Creed’s 2001 Turner Prize-winning Work No. 227, the lights going on and off. In which the light goes on and off. Fucking seriously.

In my mind, it’s no coincidence that this kind of conceptual art should come to dominate Britain’s art scene when it did, during the late-1990s and early 2000s. This was a time of economic prosperity, when the country’s creatives were, by and large, still in love with our government. They had very little to react against other than a kind of sketchy, nebulous “conformity”. Marcel Duchamp’s prediction, that the artist of the future would be “a person who points his finger”, looked dangerously close to coming true.

Of course, the ultimate irony of a movement that began with the intention of making art less elitist, less bourgeois, was that from Duchamp’s urinal to Damien Hirst’s rotting carcasses and Tracey Emin’s Unmade Bed (one of the great shibboleths of conceptual art) the exact opposite happened. Art became inexplicable  to the newcomer, a high-walled fortress accessible only to those “in the know”. Forget craft… Craft was bourgeois. Forget work that was actually about something; having something to say was just so ’80s.

As the decade known nauseatingly as the Noughties wore on, however, something interesting started to happen. First, in 2003, Grayson Perry won the Turner Prize with lovingly crafted pots featuring sexual imagery; work that took skill to create and was actually about something. He was followed, in 2006, by Tomma Abts. Though abstract, her paintings were breathtakingly beautiful, painted with stunning control; a celebration of the amazing things a skilled artist can do with paint and a paintbrush. And there… I’ve said it. Skill. Here we had artists winning the Turner Prize, the tabloids’ cultural bête noire, whose art couldn’t have been created by a six-year-old or “any old Tom, Dick or Harry”.

Or Tammy, Doris and Nancy.

Or Tammy, Doris or Nancy, for that matter.

Since then I’ve been to a number of exhibitions of contemporary British art, at the Saatchi Gallery, the Royal Academy and, yes, Chapter Arts, and I’ve seen this trend continue. Artists, it would seem, are returning to craft. Tracey Emin is now a professor of drawing at the Royal Academy. Even Damien Hirst went back to more traditional painting… with less-than-successful results.

This isn’t to say that art should return to some atavistic, pre-Duchamp state of grace, in which only traditional painting and sculpture are valid. There is still plenty of room for experimental films, photography and installations. The Mexican artist Teresa Margolles won last year’s Artes Mundi with work featuring bloodied tiles taken from a crime scene and a rusting hot-plate, and yet was an emotionally engaging, accessible piece that was actually about something. Jeremy Deller’s projects, which include an inflatable “bouncy castle” version of Stonehenge and a brass band playing rave classics, are very “conceptual”, but also entertaining and thought-provoking.

Jeremy Deller's Acid Brass.

Jeremy Deller’s Acid Brass.

Rather, this is a celebration – and hopefully one that isn’t premature – to mark the death of conceptual art at its laziest, its most vapid, its most dangerously nihilistic. If art can be anything, by anyone, the word loses all meaning and anything that follows and places itself beneath that banner loses all value. Art, once enjoyed by people from all walks of life, becomes the exclusive preserve of the elite; the chin-strokers who’ll happily discuss “the complex nature of beauty, and the complex beauty of nature” illustrated by a rotting cow’s head while Hirst falls cackling into a bed covered in banknotes.

Thankfully, after a blockbuster retrospective at Tate Modern in 2012, his star is finally in the descent. Prices of his work, once as ludicrous as those of single bedroom flats in central London, are beginning to drop. He was recently forced to lay off a number of the technicians and engineers who actually make his work for him while he sits there, like a scruffy Barbara Cartland, coughing up ideas with all the enthusiasm and creative passion that most of us hack up phlegm.

"Hmm. What next? Fuck it... Where can we get a gazelle?"

“Hmm. What next? Fuck it… Where can we get a gazelle?”

In London over the weekend, I saw multiple clues that this particular tide is turning. At the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition you’ll see Grayson Perry’s amazing series of tapestries, The Vanity of Small Differences. Inspired by Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, these epic works take a warm but satirical look at modern Britain, with all its idiosyncrasies, and are a real highlight of this year’s show, which as always is a bit of an all-you-can-eat buffet of art.

From The Vanity of Small Differences, Grayson Perry.

From The Vanity of Small Differences, Grayson Perry.

 Meanwhile, the younger artists on show at the Saatchi’s eclectic but entertaining show Paper seem as committed to big ideas as they are craft. Their work is unafraid to say something, to be about something. Anne Kevans’ oil paint sketches of war criminals and mass murderers as children are incredibly powerful, as are Eric Manigaud’s pencil drawings of psychiatric patients and painstakingly recreated aerial shots of a devastated Cologne in 1945. Ten years ago there’s every chance UK critics would have dismissed Yuken Teruya’s trees made exquisitely from designer label and fast food paper bags as twee, but they’re stunning.

From LVMH, Yuken Teruya.

From LVMH, Yuken Teruya.

The signs are promising. The stranglehold that the talentless and the profligate have had on contemporary art is starting to loosen. The emperor has at least – and at last – got his pants back on.


David Llewellyn is the author of six novels, most recently Ibrahim & Reenie, which you can buy here.

A Guggenheim for Wales?

4 Jun
Photo by Jon Pountney

Adam Price at the Pierhead. (Photo by Jon Pountney)

Last Sunday marked the launch of the Sunday School, a series of free talks given at Cardiff Bay’s beautiful Pierhead Building. There are six talks planned in all, on a variety of subjects, but the inaugural talk was the proposal by Adam Price (former MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) that Wales should join the likes of Bilbao, Venice and Abu Dhabi in having its very own Guggenheim.

Now, it should be pointed out that this isn’t, at present, an official proposal; the application form isn’t in the post, the Guggenheim’s men and women with clipboards aren’t this second wandering in small groups around the waste grounds and abandoned power stations of Swansea, Cardiff or Newport. It’s just an idea.

It’s important to say this because, though the Guggenheim’s international office in Bilbao knew about the talk, their colleagues in New York felt it necessary to tweet this:

Consider our chips pissed on.

Consider our chips pissed on.

So there isn’t going to be a Guggenheim in Wales any time soon, but does that mean there shouldn’t be one? And does Wales even need a Guggenheim – or something like it – in the first place?

Wales has many of the cultural blocks that go towards nation building. We have national teams in rugby and football, a national opera company, a national theatre, a national museum. We have our own national anthem, and – of course – our own language. It seems a national gallery for contemporary art is one of the few things we’re missing.

Along with one of our dinosaurs.

Along with one of our dinosaurs.

Whenever debates like this surface, there are invariably a small, dedicated band of rabble rousers in the press who will bend over backwards to give their readership a simple choice.

“Do you want an art gallery or do you want a children’s hospital?”

"Sorry, darling. You can't have your heart transplant. The Tate needs that money for a new acquisition."

“Sorry, darling. You can’t have your heart transplant. The Tate needs that money for a new acquisition.”

This is essentially what happened when plans were drawn up, back in the 1990s, for an opera house in Cardiff Bay. It was called Cardiff Bay Opera House and much like Sydney’s would have been the jewel in the waterfront’s crown. Zaha Hadid’s winning design beat competition from the likes of Norman Foster and Itsuko Hasegawa, and everything seemed on the verge of being green-lit when the Millennium Commission withdrew its support.

The media campaign against the project was tinged with inverted snobbery (“Opera? Who wants to go and see opera?”) as well as a vague subtext of xenophobia; Hadid being an Iraqi-born architect designing a major British project 4 years after the first Gulf War.

In the pages of the local and national press the debate was invariably framed in terms of, “Which would you rather? A rugby stadium or an opera house?” As if the people of Cardiff, or indeed Wales, deserved one but not the other. As if you, yes you were allowed only to like rugby or opera. You bloody peasants.

In the event, of course, Cardiff got both a stadium (the Millennium Stadium) and an opera house (the Wales Millennium Centre), but as long as we don’t call it an opera house that’s fine, and everyone can go and watch Les Mis or the Britain’s Got Talent auditions and not feel in the slightest bit elitist.

Of course, if we’re going to have a bloody great big gallery money will be an issue, and right now more than ever. Even when this country was on its uppers, in the late 1990s, you would hear folk complain about how National Lottery money was being spent on the arts when – in their view – it should have been spent “on hospitals”. Never mind that the whole point of the National Lottery was that it would take the burden off the taxpayer and fund the nice things in life, the jam to make our daily bread that little bit more interesting. No… Some people would rather live in a world where all culture is dictated solely by market forces and ends up being an endless marathon of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.


We could discuss the importance, the necessity and the relevance of art until the heat death of the universe. And, of course, if life really was a case of binary choices (“Dialysis machine… or ballet?”) we’d have to choose the life-saving option, but it isn’t, and so we don’t.

“Ah,” says the straw man in this argument. “But why should we, the tax payer, have to pay for the arts?”

This, of course, brings us back to the reason we have a lottery, but even without the lottery there would be good a solid case for state funding of the arts. You could, for example, argue that benevolent (i.e. non-interfering) state sponsorship encourages far greater innovation and experimentation than art propped up by commercial interests; the flourishing of American music, theatre and the arts during and immediately after America’s “New Deal” years being a fine testament to this.

But even if we’re talking in terms of cold, hard business, public funding of the arts still makes sense. For every pound spent on arts and culture the taxpayer gets, on average, four back. In the case of Bilbao, in particular, we see a region whose authorities made the brave choice to stump up what is known technically as a “f**kload” of public money to win itself a Guggenheim; and that decision reaped dividends. Prior to the building of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao received around 25,000 visitors annually. In 2009 the city was visited by over 600,000. Even now unemployment in Bilbao, a former docks town comparable to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne) is over 4% lower than Spain’s national average. (Newcastle, with – at the time of writing – 7.8% unemployment matches the UK average exactly.)

Photo courtesy of dalbera, via Flickr.

Photo courtesy of dalbera, via Flickr.

Leaving aside the question of funding, what does a museum like a Guggenheim (or a Tate, or a Hermitage) give a place? I would argue that it can be one of the vital ingredients in a region’s civic pride, contributing to people’s idea of their corner of the world as a place worth living in. Ask anyone grimly hanging on to a city as overcrowded and overpriced as London, Paris or New York why they stay there, and chances are they’ll cite something cultural. When those of us who don’t live in London feel envious of those who do, isn’t it the Southbank/West End/Brixton Academy/Wembley Stadium [delete according to taste] we wish we had right next door?

These places matter, and they make the people who live near them think that they matter too. And as for the contents, I genuinely believe that looking at art is good for us. I don’t care what inverted snobs will say. Art, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent, makes you feel something, think something, and if it’s great it will carry on making you think and feel something long after you stop looking at it.

I grew up in a very working class household, in a very working class part of the country during the 1980s when, according to some cynics, I should have been glued to the telly box stuffing my face with BSE-infected beef or lost in a world of increasingly violent video games. And yet a day trip to see Cardiff Museum’s modest-but-impressive art collection was never anything less than awe-inspiring. I can still remember looking up, wide-eyed, at Graham Crowley’s The Poetics of Space (named after the book by Gaston Bachelard) and, as soon as we got home, sitting down and writing a story about a spooky, wall-less house in a creepy, near-deserted town. Growing up in a home where there wasn’t the money for foreign holidays or day trips to theme parks, museums and galleries meant a great deal to me. Seeing paintings was sightseeing.

Now, I may be a bit of a snob, but I’m not enough of a snob to think all 10-year-olds are like the 10-year-old me, or that all kids should be, but some are, even now, even when they all have Angry Birds, “miao miao” and disturbingly easy access to pornography. To deny those kids access to art because we think it’s “elitist” or it’s “not their kind of thing”, is the very worst kind of snobbery. A museum of contemporary art in Wales could serve not only as a showcase for the best in modern Welsh art but as a window on the world of contemporary art for countless thousands of young people.

In discussing the Guggenheim satellites that never were (including Rio, Taicheung and Helsinki) Adam Price was sure to point out that many of these projects – particularly Helsinki – failed because they came to the general public not as ideas but as finished proposals.

“Hey everyone!  We’re applying for a Guggenheim!”

They also began, almost without exception, discussions that led to other, more successful projects. If some of us want a museum of contemporary art (whether it’s a Guggenheim, a Tate or a Hermitage) in Wales, rather than lobby the national and global titans who hold the purse strings until they send around people with clipboards, we should begin a discussion at the grassroots level, and I think that discussion may have begun at the Pierhead Building last Sunday.

The next Sunday School talk, ‘Drama: Conversation, Charisma and Chance‘ takes place on Sunday June 16th.

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.


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

Stuff I Love – 1: Weegee

18 Oct

Okay, so I’ve now written a few blogs, and by far the most popular has been the one in which I slagged off Fifty Shades of Grey, and that’s great because, you know, “Yay! Hits!” But when you’ve written something like that, it does leave you feeling as if your total contribution to  humanity can be summed up in one long sneer.

Pictured: The author, circa 2012

So, to balance this out, and fully aware that this will be read by nowhere near as many people as the Fifty Shades blog, I’d like to start an occasional series called “Stuff I Love”, dedicated entirely to, well, stuff I love.

First up: Weegee.

This guy.

Born Usher Fellig in the Galician (now Ukrainian) village of Zlothev, in 1899, Weegee was a news photographer who crossed the line successfully from reportage to art photography, often in a single image. Though many of his most famous photographs were taken for newspapers and magazines, they were never just documentary images. Through subtle framing and observation, many became clever statements and puns, a background billboard or notice acting as ironic commentary on the scene itself.

‘Simply Add Boiling Water’ (1937). See? Subtle.

He earned his nickname from the NYPD, who could never quite understand how he was able to arrive at crime and accident scenes before them, and joked that he must have a Ouija (“Weegee”) Board. In fact, he was actually listening in to police radio, and would go wherever there had been a shooting, a fire, or an arrest.

As a result, his photographs capture moments of drama and violence with an intimacy that had never been seen before. Is his work exploitative? Hell, yes. Did it change the way we witness news events? Without a doubt. The debate as to whether this is a good thing is, I feel, endless. But Weegee didn’t only deliver scenes of carnage and tragedy.

Though admittedly, they were his specialty.

As he became more successful, and was able to indulge his artistic inclinations more and more, Weegee gave us some of the most heartwarming, uplifting, and eye-popping images of the 1930s and ’40s. Take, for instance this very famous photograph of New York’s Coney Island, from July 1940…

If you just said, “Where’s Waldo?” or “Where’s Wally?”, punch yourself.

If that picture doesn’t take your breath away and make you smile, you have no soul. By some estimates, there are about a million people on that beach. A million. This is an America just crawling its way, squinting, into the sunlight after the dark days of the depression. In another 18 months, they’ll be at war. There is something so beautiful about the concentrated fun in this picture.

Over and over again, as if to counter the accusations of cynicism and exploitation, Weegee displays an amazing compassion and warmth in his work, whether it’s for tenement kids trying to sleep in a heatwave…

…the most dapper man in Harlem…

If this guy didn’t have a voice like Morgan Freeman, I’d be bitterly disappointed.

…or a teenage girl at a Frank Sinatra concert:

“Beliebers” eat your hearts out.

Like Spirit creator Will Eisner, Fellig/Weegee was a Jewish immigrant (though Eisner was first generation), whose work developed and matured way beyond its pulpy, commercial origins. Both documented the mid-20th Century uniquely, both tested and expanded the boundaries of their chosen media. In Eisner’s case, the way was paved for comic book artists to go beyond cowboys and superheroes. In Weegee’s, it was for documentary photography to become an artform. And if nothing else, he photographed the world’s least convincing transvestite.

The hairy arms? The tattoos? He’s not even trying, is he?