Artes Mundi 6: A guest's review (last chance this week)

I was thrilled to be asked to contribute to the biennial Artes Mundi prize’s return to South Wales this year.

I wanted to post this months ago, but the arrival of a baby boy in our household has left my notes languishing on my desktop until they've become a call to anyone who hasn’t yet been, to go & see as many of the works as possible in the next week.

As an artist with my own area of practise situated in the realm of how performing arts forms can (and should) cross between disciplines; this invitation from the Artes Mundi publicity team to be a guest reviewer felt like a chance to reaffirm Wales’ artistic connection with the rest of the world.

The Artes Mundi prize is a significant one as far as the actual cash award is concerned (“TWICE THE SIZE OF A TURNER!” - if I was designing their T-shirts), but it has a much wider, and disordered, remit than the headline-grabbing Turner Prize in that it “identifies, recognises and supports contemporary visual artists who engage with the human condition, social reality and lived experience”.

So, with that in mind, I went to the three locations where the installation pieces are being shown until 22nd Feb 2015. Here are my personal highlights of the exhibition, in the order I encountered them:

Chapter Arts

Chapter is the perfect location for Karen Mirza and Brad Butler’s work where the visitor is placed as an exam entrant facing a complex moral question; it’s inscription about the possible nature of a future revolution is a snapshot of the power of contemporary, conceptual art at its best.

I was moved by Sharon Lockheart’s “Exit” because it laudes the moments of humane fragility that unify us. It’s not the most visually arresting work, but it reminded me of an old friend who's job is as an A&E nurse in Manchester, telling me that sometimes the most upsetting thing in dealing with a fatality is when she comes to itemise their personal belongings, and would find the packed lunch they had made earlier that day. I know it sounds sentimental, but Exit’s reminder of workers undertaking small, personal rituals of sustenance before facing dangerous working conditions was deeply touching.

National Museum of Wales

Something told me that I shouldn’t have been surprised to see a mechanised rotating goat somewhere on this trail. Theaster Gates’ offering has now won the prize and I would have loved to have been there to hear the panel arrive at that decision. His research and the message of the piece is relevant and interesting in an anthropological sense, but I worry that the experience of standing in front of this installation is what puts a wider public off from engaging with contemporary art exhibitions.

Carlos Bunga’s and Renata Lucas’ pieces felt somewhat flat and gimmicky.

Ffotogallery, Penarth

Ragnar Kjartansson’s film, music + emotion installation is a snug, warm hug about how friendship, creativity and coming together can be a beautiful foil to the sense of ennui that might creep in when asked to consider the “human condition, social reality and lived experience”  for too long. The heavily pregnant (at the time) Bridie & I lay down on the floor with another ten, or so complete strangers in utter bliss for nearly an hour. 

Thank you Artes Mundi team for another fascinating exhibition and all the wraparound activities you provided to an appreciative, growing & hungry audience with a proven appetite for excellent, thoughtful and progressive work. 

James Doyle-Roberts

(Co-Artistic Director of Citrus Arts)

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