Tag Archives: Cardiff

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.

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No Fit State Circus – ‘Bianco’

7 Jun

Bianco

Until this week, I had only been to the circus twice. Once, actually, if we don’t include a 2004 performance by Circus Oz at the Royal Festival Hall. The only other occasion was in some muddy field in Cwmbran, and was a thoroughly depressing experience. Oh, I’m sure I probably marvelled at the animals and the trapeze artists and the clowns, but what stayed with me long after the show was the sight of a miserable-looking tiger, his chin resting dolefully on crossed paws, in a cage outside the big top. The sky was grey and it was raining. Even at the age of 8 or 9 I knew that was no place for a tiger.

Since then, circus animals have gone out of vogue, and have all but disappeared, leaving behind a slightly different kind of circus; one self-consciously old fashioned, but also artistically ambitious. Companies such as Canada’s Cirque du Soleil (est. 1984) have become global brands, with branches in Vegas and Disneyworld, and countless others have followed in their wake.

I must admit, I’ve been a little slow in coming to the No Fit State party. Though consisting of performers from around the world, the company has been Cardiff-based since 2006, and was founded all the way back in 1986, yet I hadn’t heard of them until they moved into a deconsecrated church a few streets from my home a year or two back. Suddenly it seemed as if everyone I knew had heard of them, and not only that but had signed up to the company’s circus skills classes.

"The dream of the '90s is alive in... Cardiff?"

“The dream of the ’90s is alive in… Cardiff?”

Like many other new circus companies, No Fit State specialise in themed, narrative-driven shows – though, to be brutally honest, I’m never entirely convinced a narrative is necessary. If Bianco is about something other than people in peak physical condition doing amazing things with ropes, I honestly couldn’t tell you what that “something” is.

Where No Fit State differ from the likes of Cirque du Soleil and Circus Oz, however, is in the staging of their shows. Like a traditional circus, they operate out of a big top (nicknamed the Silver Spaceship), but unlike a traditional circus, there are no seats. Once inside the tent, you are more or less free to wander around, to experience the show from different angles. Sometimes you’ll find yourself in the front row, sometimes the back row.  And no attempt is made to hide the mechanics of the circus from the audience – the athletically squirrel-like crew members clamber up and down the rigging in full view, and are often almost as compelling as the trapeze artists themselves.

Blogpic

The show begins with much of the rigging concealed behind translucent sheets, the performers visible only as shadows. Over the live band’s almost klezmer-like intro music they holler and whoop. As a newcomer to this kind of circus, there was the distinct worry in these opening minutes that what was about to follow would be much more fun for the artists than the audience… Thankfully, that worry was unfounded. Within minutes I found myself thinking, “I AM EXPERIENCING A CHILD-LIKE SENSE OF WONDER FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MANY, MANY YEARS.”

Blogpic

Whether it was Hugo Oliveira’s insanely dextrous juggling, or Elena Burani’s genuinely breath-taking trapeze work, there was constantly something happening that defied belief. You have to remind yourself – in an age when, thanks to CGI, movie characters can do just about anything – that this is really happening, that these people are actually doing this for real, in front of your very eyes, without the assistance of Industrial Light and Magic.

Reassuringly, the children in the audience seemed equally impressed, though they were considerably outnumbered by adults. This does make me wonder who, ultimately, modern circuses are for. One would hope they are still conceived with a family audience in mind, because it strikes me that we are desperately in need of family entertainments that aren’t screen-based, that today’s children are growing accustomed to the idea that the only things worth experiencing are experienced via a TV or tablet. The first thing I did, on stepping out of the big top, was send a text message to a friend with children, recommending the show; but I did so with the caveat that her son, now almost 11 years old, might have reached an age of peak cynicism, when the sight of someone almost literally flying might inspire nothing so much as a shrug and a “So what?”

"I have seen a man fly, and quite frankly, it was a disappointment."

“I have seen a man fly, mother, and quite frankly, it was a disappointment.”

Still, for this 36-year-old, Bianco was the stuff of wide eyes and a permanently dropped jaw. I was going to wrap this post up by telling you that those of you in Cardiff have one more night (June 7th) to catch it, but I’m both afraid and pleased to say it’s sold out.

Bianco goes on tour from June 14th, and will be appearing in Limerick, Rennes, Edinburgh and Utrecht between then and the end of September.

“Hoots, mon! Where’s ma heid?” – ‘Maria Stuarda’ at the WMC

6 Oct

Maria Stuarda

And so to the final installment in Welsh National Opera’s Tudor Trilogy, Donizetti’s trio of operas based on Tudor queens. Last week we had the stylish but musically limp Anna Bolena, about Henry VIII’s ill-fated second wife; then, on Wednesday, it was the turn of Elizabeth I in the truly showstopping Roberto DevereuxLast night the stage was taken once again by Elizabeth I, squaring up to her nemesis and cousin, Mary Stuart, better known as Mary Queen of Scots.

Chronologically, in terms of both story and order of composition, this is the middle chapter in Donizetti’s Tudor epic. Here, Elizabeth is a younger queen, but just as prone to bitter jealousy as the older, more brazenly villainous character seen in Devereux. Maria Stuarda forms a kind of spiritual bridge between Bolena – in which Elizabeth’s mother Anne is a woman (to borrow a Shakespearean turn of phrase) more sinned against than sinning and Devereux, in which Elizabeth proves to be every bit her father’s daughter when it comes to the ruthless elimination of former flames.

In its first half Stuarda performs a kind of seesaw between Elizabeth and Mary, the first few scenes focused almost exclusively on the Elizabethan court before the action shifts to Mary’s incarceration at Fotheringhay Castle. Even so, Mary is a constant presence. Madeleine Boyd’s set – again using the same plain black background as Devereux and Bolena – is dominated by two large, cuboid cells. One, dressed with ornate, mahogany-like panels, belongs to Elizabeth; the other, identical in size and shape, is its bare, skeletal twin, representing Mary’s prison cell at Fotheringhay.

Maria Stuarda

As we’ve already seen in both Bolena and Devereux, Donizetti couldn’t even count the number of fucks he gave for historical accuracy on one finger, so it’s no surprise that he has Elizabeth and Mary meet. That said, this is a common feature in many dramatic portrayals of the story, with the two squaring up to each other in just about every movie and TV series based on them, from Mary of Scotland (starring Katherine Hepburn) to Elizabeth: The Golden Age (with Cate Blanchett and Samantha Morton).

Where Donizetti goes one further than his TV and big screen successors is in doing away with much of the political and religious turmoil behind the cousins’ bitter rivalry, reducing it to its basest – and most historically inaccurate – elements. You see, according to Donizetti, Elizabeth hated Mary not because she was a Catholic who plotted against Elizabeth’s life but because she was having an affair with Elizabeth’s favourite – Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.

"Hold the fucking phone..."

“Oh no she di’in’t.”

The midpoint confrontation between Elizabeth and Mary, in which Mary – who has had it up to here with Elizabeth’s trash talk – turns the tables on her captor, calling her a “whore” and a “vile bastard”, was enough to make the WMC audience gasp in 2013, and over 150 years earlier saw the opera more or less banned throughout much of the 19th Century. It’s certainly dramatic stuff…

But no. This Footballers Wives-like confrontation didn’t actually happen. Nor, when Mary was about to climb the scaffold, did Leicester draw a semi-automatic handgun and shoot himself in the chest. This addition – which caused some of those sat near us to giggle – is more the work of director Rudolf Frey than Donizetti, and was one of several baffling notes in the production, alongside Lord Burleigh’s strangely anachronistic clip folder and the impromptu fag break that Mary and her servant Hannah take when no-one’s looking.

Now, I know what you’ll say. You’ll say, “Hey, didn’t you enjoy Roberto Devereux? And didn’t that involve the queen riding around on a giant mechanical spider?” And yes, you’re right on both counts, but with Devereux, a certain, expressionistic visual licence was present from the get-go. Here, no visual or artistic justification is given for these  flourishes – the production doesn’t earn them – and so when they appear they simply seem a little silly.

Though it's still unlikely to win the coveted "Silliest Depiction of A British Royal Award 2013".

Though it’s still unlikely to win the coveted “Silliest Depiction of A British Royal Award 2013”.

This is a shame, as out of all three operas Maria Stuarda has perhaps the most well-rounded and sympathetic protagonist, and comes closest to feeling like a genuine tragedy – rather than a brutal spat between jealous, sex-mad aristocrats. Donizetti’s use of the chorus here is at its strongest, and – save for a single bum note fairly early on – Judith Howarth’s performance as Mary has been a highlight of the whole trilogy.

The device of the two boxes, mirroring one another, works splendidly in some scenes (the moment when Mary plays “reflection” to Elizabeth, only to have her throat “cut” with a daub of paint, was a visual stand-out), but in others leaves the main cast and chorus with far too little space to move around, pushing them awkwardly out to the periphery. The production, on the whole, doesn’t feel quite as tight as Devereux or Bolena, both of which were directed by Alessandro Talevi. That said, the opera’s climax – Leicester’s gun-play aside – is every bit as gripping as – and possibly more moving than – its stablemates’.

Maria Stuarda

All in all, the Tudors Trilogy has been a pleasure, and a success. It goes on tour next week, and will visit Swansea, Oxford, Liverpool, Bristol, Birmingham, Llandudno, and Southampton. Though it’s certainly worth seeing all three operas, if you can only make it to the one, I would recommend Roberto Devereux, for brevity, eccentricity and all out, balls-to-the-wall drama.

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.

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

Five days with Iris

15 Oct

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Since 2007 Cardiff has played host to the Iris Prize, an annual competition to find the best LGBT short film from the last year. The shortlist of 30 or so films are put forward by partner festivals around the world (New York, Los Angeles, Sydney, Hong Kong, Tel Aviv etc) and from open submissions. I’ve been lucky enough to attend every Iris Prize Festival since its inception, writing a blog for their official website (which you can read here).

LGBT cinema has come a long way in the last three decades, and even within the 5 year time-span of Iris I’ve seen the films get better and better. Obviously, the winning films from each year would still stand a very good chance of winning now, but what I’ve noticed is the overall quality of the films improve, making the jury’s job harder each and every year. In its infancy LGBT cinema was almost invariably political, issues-driven, and though there’s nothing wrong with that it meant that there was often very little variety on show. In recent years there’s been a noticeable shift, particularly in European cinema, away from coming out stories, or stories about bigotry, towards films (dramas, thrillers, horror films, science fiction, rom-coms) in which characters are gay, but in which sexuality is not the driving force of the plot.

A great example of this is writer-director Till Kleinert’s film Cowboy, which scooped the Iris Prize in 2008. Here we have a film that owes as much (if not more so) to films like The Wicker Man and The Hills Have Eyes as it does anything in “Queer Cinema”.

Till Kleinert’s ‘Cowboy’

In fact, since it began only one of the Iris-winning shorts (Dee Rees’s excellent Pariah – adapted into a feature film in 2011) could be described as a “coming out” story. Elsewhere we’ve seen small, intimate dramas and bizarre tales of the unexpected and sweet coming-of-age stories and this year a violent drama set in an young offenders’ institute (Grant Scicluna’s brilliant ‘The Wilding’). And no one country or culture has the monopoly on LGBT cinema right now. Winning films have come from the US, Germany, Israel, Norway, Brazil and Australia.

I’ve gone into some detail about the individual short films I enjoyed on the festival blog mentioned above, but really wanted to talk a little about my favourite feature film shown this year. Though there were seven features shown during the festival, I was able to catch only three of them, having been pressganged blackmailed forced given the wonderful opportunity to join the jury and help pick the winning short. The audience award for Best Feature went to Xavier Villaverde’s film Sex of Angels, which sadly I missed, but of the features I did watch, my favourite has to be Matthew Mishory’s Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean.This was a biopic with a difference, focusing only on the period of Dean’s life immediately before his meteoric rise to fame and premature death. There have been a number of previous films about Dean, including one starring James Franco and another featuring beefy Starship Troopers star Casper Van Dien. The former chooses to play James Dean as if he were being played by James Dean (and not how James Dean would have been off camera), while the latter movie could only have been more miscast if they’d chosen Whoopi Goldberg for the lead.

Mishory’s film gives us a fragmented, dreamlike vision of the actor as an enigmatic young man in the process of becoming an icon; a conflicted character one minute extolling the virtues of getting by on talent alone, the next going to bed with whichever lecherous mogul will offer him a role. Here, Dean is a Rimbaud-like figure (a comparison made explicitly in the film’s opening minutes), wandering through a bleak and desolate California. Sexually ambiguous, extremely masochistic, and virtually incapable of reciprocating genuine tenderness, this is less Dean the matinee idol than Dean the existential anti-hero.

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‘Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean’

While he’s not quite a dead ringer for Dean, star James Preston manages to convey something of the actor’s mystery, and thanks to some stunning make-up, lighting and photography there are shots that border on the uncanny. Much of the film is shot in a gorgeously authentic black and white, with occasional scenes in Super 8 and Technicolor, but often feels as if it owes as much in tone and look to David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch as it does Nicholas Ray or Elia Kazan.

I’m not sure if Joshua Tree, 1951 has a DVD/Blu-Ray release date for the UK yet, but I’ll be clearing some shelf space (and you know what I’m like about shelf space) when it does.

The Book-Devouring Vulture of Jacob’s Maahket

3 Oct

There’s a flea market in Cardiff called Jacob’s. It’s one of those quintessentially Cardiff things, like Clark’s Pies (a thick-pastried minced beef pie) and Brain’s Dark (a bit like stout, but kind of chocolatey) that are not only precious to us Cardiff folk, but which sound hilarious when said in a Caaahdiff accent: “Claaahk’s Pie”, “Pint of Daahk”, “Jacob’s Maaahket”. Is this a coincidence? I think not.

Anyway. The point is, I can’t walk past Jacob’s without knowing that on the third floor there’s a tiny little bookcase full of old Penguin Classics, and that they sell for £1 a copy. That’s right… Just £1 for a whole book, with a gorgeous orange-and-white (or blue-and-white, or purple-and-white – depending on what type of book it is) cover. And if you’re extra lucky, the book’s first owner will have made their mark on the inside, eg: “Anne Richards – 1953”.

I mention Anne because she was the first owner of the editions of The Odyssey and The Canterbury Tales I picked up at Jacob’s a few months back. More recently I picked up Balzac’s Old Goriot, and wouldn’t you know it… Once again it was a book straight from the Anne Richards Collection. Which makes me a little sad, because if most of the Penguin Classics on that shelf are Anne’s, that probably means she’s no longer with us, and I’m benefiting from her demise, like some kind of book-devouring vulture circling around her the not-yet-tepid carcass of her book collection.

Actually… “Book devouring vulture” is a pretty good description for my whole approach to books. I bloody love books. I’ve loved owning books since I was a kid. We didn’t have much money (cue: violins and black-and-white footage of postwar deprivation… even though I was born in 1978), so books – along with hand-me-down Star Wars toys – were my default Christmas and birthday present. Such was my obsession with buying and owning books that I kind of forgot libraries were a thing until about 3 years ago, when I ran out of available space for books.

Since then I’ve done a pretty good job of keeping the book-buying habit in check, only buying one (or asking for one as a gift) when I absolutely, positively couldn’t think of taking it out from the library, but lately… lately it’s been getting hard. Especially since I stumbled, quite by accident, upon the legacy of 1953’s very own Anne Richards.

Today, once again, I found myself on the third floor of Jacob’s Market, this time coming out with three titles: Roald Dahl’s Kiss, Kiss; Ivan Turgenev’s On The Eve, and Sophocles’ Theban plays, all for the princely sum of £3. Only problem was… Shelf space. For a couple of months now, our Ikea Billy bookcases (black ash effect, in case you were wondering) have been crammed. It’s hard enough to take a book out, let alone squeeze one in. A sacrifice (or, more likely, two or three sacrifices) would have to be made.

On getting home I scanned the shelves, feeling like Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice. Which of my babies would have to go?

In the end the decision was quite easy. There, up on the top shelf of Billy No. 2, sandwiched between John Pearson and Sylvia Plath, was DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little. I bought it not long after it scooped the Booker Prize in 2002, and even at the time, even in those heady Bush Presidency days, I found it thoroughly annoying. The whole thing was written in a kind of snide, sub-Salinger attempt at teenage American vernacular, but played to a gallery of European snobs. “Look at how dumb and violent American culture is! No wonder they have all these high school shootings!” (It’s a while since I actually read it, so that may or may not be an actual quote from the novel.)

Maybe it’s just me, but I found the whole thing offensively xenophobic. Not that there’s much wrong with xenophobia in fiction. It’s just that I don’t think it works if you’re an outsider posing as an insider. If you’re an author who isn’t from that country posing – via your narrator – as a person from that country, the whole thing just feels like a bad joke, not to mention grossly inauthentic. In short, it felt like DBC Pierre had gone around to somebody’s house, and spent the duration of his visit impersonating his guests and mocking their choice of decor.

Off to Cancer Research with him, I say.

Second to go – and this cleared a lot of space – was John Peel’s autobiography, Margrave of The Marshes. Now, I felt a bit guilty about this one. It was a gift (I hate giving gifts away), and I’d always had a bit of a soft spot for John Peel, but then I went and read this piece by Julie Burchill. Now, I don’t agree with a lot of Burchill’s writing, but I realised I probably wouldn’t be able to read an autobiography by the 15-year-old-marrying, 13-year-old-boning-by-his-own-admission Peel without feeling a teensy bit nauseous for some time.

So in the bag it went, next to DBC “I almost definitely wouldn’t have won if I’d been published two years earlier” Pierre.

Anyway. All this is a very long-winded and only vaguely entertaining way of saying that I successfully cleared some shelf space. Enough, in fact, to justify a return trip to Jacob’s Market, to see if Anne’s left me any more treasures.