STUDY COURSE – ARTES MUNDI, CARDIFF, 14.11.14

This was my first study course with the OCA as it was the first one that was reasonably close, but I had some reservations about how relevant it would be for me.  I had been to two previous Artes Mundi exhibitions some while ago and although I had got something from it I had been somewhat bemused by the experience.  For the first time, the exhibition was spread over two other venues as well as the National Museum, namely Chapter in the Canton area of Cardiff and at Photogallery in Penarth.   Because of a prior engagement, I was only able to attend the first day and so missed out on the visit to the installations at Photogallery in Penarth.

We were a small (and select!) group.  The course was led by Helen, a tutor with the OCA, and Dawn, a photographer with Photogallery.  We were also joined by Helouise, one of the Artes Mundi team, who was able to give valuable insights into the works as we went round.  I was pleased to meet my fellow students as well, including Tony who I had been in touch with previously through the OCA website.

I will give a brief description of the individual installations in the National Museum and my responses to them in the order in which we viewed them followed by an overview of the exhibition as a whole.  I have used photographs taken from other sources to illustrate this review as I did not bring my camera to the Museum.

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THEASTER GATES

This installation covering two rooms was entitled ‘A complicated relationship between heaven and earth, or when we believe‘.  My first impressions were of a sense of awe and spirituality generated by the shadowy space, with pockets of light and the sound of singing or chanting emanating from a video installation of two singers, one I believe being the artist.  The first thing I saw on entering the space was a large and primitive looking bull-like figure reminiscent of much smaller sculptures that I know of from the Dogon culture of Mali in Africa who create them as spiritual evocations of fertility and use them in ceremonies.  This large representation was supported on a ramshackle wheeled trolley type base with an overarching framework all made from recycled materials.  It was restrained by straps and packaging onto the base and in front was what appeared to be a section of roadway which had lost much of its surface to expose the structure.

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Opposite the entrance was a sloping structure faced with slates which was open at the back revealing the supporting framework with corks in a range of different configurations attached to the wooden supports and a small coloured image of Christ tucked away in a corner.

There was a strange and intermittent metallic clanking sound coming from a second room and on investigation this room held a circular railway trackway with a strange metal wheeled trolley occasionally going round on it and on which was a white goat figure clothed in a draped white sheet. I read in an article that this is masonic symbol and that it is apparently ‘part of the artist’s attempts to link spirit with labour’ whatever that means!

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In one corner of this room was a plinth on which was a small perspex showcase containing a white beaker with a gold masonic symbol on it.  On a nearby wall was an old wall hanging from a church or school depicting the history of mankind and its most significant moments from Adam and Eve through the life of Christ to the World War.

I felt a sense of awe without knowing why, a sense of being in the presence of something mysterious but intangible which was largely induced by the singing, the two animal based installations and the  ambience created by the pooled light.

This installation generated some interesting discussion about the sources of spirituality and imagery but it was not clear to anyone what was in the artist’s mind when he created it.   The meaning of the work was unresolved for me, but it left an impression and a sense of depth and weight that was missing from many of the other installations.

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CARLOS BUNGA

The central and principal element of this installation was visually and emotionally impressive on first approach.  Constructed of cardboard and adhesive tape, it comprised a corridor of towering and half constructed walls and openings almost reaching the ceiling, unpainted and brown on the interior surfaces and painted white on the outside.  The initial impression I had was of massive architectural bulk reminiscent of the ruins at Petra or Ephesus, and it reminded me of some of the galleries at the British Museum.

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Passing out of one of the portals into the side areas of the room led to light areas which were very sparse and empty.  Occasional small cardboard hollow structures painted brightly on one side were fixed to the walls or mounted on plinths and a line of framed pencil drawings of human figures with heads composed of architectural shapes were hung on one wall.

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Considerable discussion ensued about the impact of the installation and its possible meaning.  Its title, ‘Exodus‘, gave no clue and seemed to be divorced from any meaning that our group could find.  The initial sense of mass and bulk was soon overtaken by a sense of its fragility and temporariness as suggested by the thinness of the walls of the central structure and the presence of apparent cracks in the structure.

My thoughts on the installation changed many times and I only reached a sense of completion when I let go of the idea that it was architectural in nature and more a statement about human psychology.  The painted bulk of the exterior with its attempt to appear strong and powerful despite the presence of cracks is belied by the thinness and weakness of the structure when seen from the inside.  This has resonance for me with the human need to put on an appearance of lightness, strength and solidity on the outside whilst, inside the head, all is dark uncertainty, frailty and trying to stop things falling apart. This resonance extends to the drawn images of the human figures with heads which look like strong and impressive architectural structures and the small cardboard maquettes which appear bright, colourful and strong on the outside and weak and empty on the inside.

I have no idea if this was in Bunga’s mind and there seems to be no correlation with the title ‘Exodus’, but at least this explanation enables me to believe that I have found some meaning in the piece which gives me some strength.  However, it may be that this theory has no more substance and reality than the installation itself!

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RENATA LUCAS

The installation by Renata Lucas entitled ‘Falha (Failure)’ was reconstructed for the Artes Mundi prize using local materials and makers, paves a gallery floor with wooden panels which you are invited to lift into ‘A’ shapes and otherwise rearrange. This left me cold, and, try as I might, I could not understand its purpose or meaning. I was reluctant to enter the room in the first place as it was uninviting, bland and lacking in any interest at all for me.

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It was with a sense of relief that I left the installation as I was no longer confronted with the questions it raised such as – what was it that inspired the artist to spend (waste!) time, effort and materials on the installation? and – what was going to happen to the attractive floor underneath with all the movement of the boards?  It was clear from the lay out of the boards that the scope for realignment of them was limited and we were told that there were other limitations to the areas that boards could be moved in.  These ‘rules’ added to the sense of pointlessness of the installation and I could not bring myself to start ‘playing’ with it all.  It was clear that there was no place of meeting or understanding between me and the installation or me and the artist and it left me with a feeling of frustration and even irritation!

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RENZO MARTENS

I initially approached this work with a sense of anticipation as I have an interest in African sculpture.  However, the more I discovered about it the more uncomfortable I felt.  The basis of the work appeared to be the highlighting of the exploitation of subsistence chocolate and coffee farmers in the Congo who receive very low wages for the crops they produce whilst those higher up the chain in the developed world get all the profits and the recognition.

The sculptures of human heads and figures which formed the basis of the installation  appeared initially to be made of clay but it soon became clear that they were chocolate.  We were then told that the farmers had modelled sculptures of their own heads or bodies and that these sculptures were turned into 3D templates in the West and then covered in chocolate by a high class Belgian chocolatier.  It seemed to me that this was still a form of exploitation, despite the fact that some of the profits of the sale of the chocolate sculptures were allegedly being returned to the farmers.

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We were also told that the artist had some 5 year plan to introduce trendy coffee bars and bistros to the Congo so that the farmers could experience their product as Westerners do!  If this is true, this would be a very unfortunate development to my mind, but it was generally felt by the group that this was a wind up by the artist in order to further highlight his message.  We did not have time to watch the accompanying video which was unfortunate as it might have clarified the message and purpose behind the installation, but as it is I am rather ambivalent about it.

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OMER FAST

This is a video installation called ‘Continuity‘. It is a 40-minute looped film and it follows a German couple, middle aged, middle class or upper middle class, who appear to have lost a son after he went to Afghanistan and fought with the ISAF forces.  The film is described as ‘exploring repetition and loss’ and it certainly makes for an interesting and absorbing viewing experience.  It is dense in its imagery and detail and is disturbing in its content and in its complex story line.

To describe the film in detail beyond saying that it explored a range of human relationships and emotions would take too long and not achieve much.  Suffice it to say that it was intriguing and would have merited a second and maybe a third viewing to explore its depths and layers.  It certainly led to a lot of debate amongst the group who generally thought that it was a deep and fascinating experience, but there was no agreement as to what it’s purpose and message were.

In an attempt to gain some insight into the artist’s aims in creating the film, I read the Artist’s Statement on the film on the Culture 24 website.  In this, Fast states that “What the piece does literally is just, I suppose, show and confront the viewer with the notion of repetition at a domestic level and leaving the options open for what that involves or means.”  I regret that this means nothing to me and it has left me feeling disappointed and with a sense of being let down.  The film was very well made and was clearly a quality production. but I still question what its purpose was and even the artist himself was able to assist me.

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SHARON LOCKHART

As soon as I entered this installation I was struck by a sense of bleakness, utilitarianism and lack of interest.  On display were 3 large photographs of shift workers at work and rest in an American manufacturing factory and smaller images of lunch boxes.   In two perspex display cases on plinths were a few old artefacts used by shift workers such as miners tags and a water bottle.  In a second room was a looped video installation entitled ‘Exit’ of workers leaving the factory shot with a fixed point camera from behind.

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The photographs were of a very high quality particularly the shots of the workers which despite being considerably enlarged showed no graininess or other defects.  They were a good record of life in the factory and apparently were part of a larger body of work that the artist had amassed over a 2 year period of working alongside the men.  The image below particularly impressed me with its composition and wonderful light which reminded me of an interior painting by Vermeer.  The video provided an interesting, if limited, insight into the individual workers as they left the factory through their actions, clothing and lunch bags and boxes, but at 40 minutes long and covering 5 days it soon raised the question as to what purpose was being served by its length and repetition.  Both the video and the still images whilst being ‘fly on the wall’, unengaged records of events or subjects still managed to capture an intimacy somehow which was intriguing.

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While there was some value for me in the installation on the level of its being a record of a way of life for many, as a whole it disconcerted me for a number of reasons.  My discomfort was about the artist and her motivations rather than the subject matter which seemed to me to be commonplace and unremarkable and one with which I am familiar.  I was not clear what the artist was trying to show here and what motivated her to spend so long on the project.

The photographs were an excellent documentary record and provided an insight into the everyday life of factory workers and their retention of individuality within the corporate organisation.  However, I sensed that Lockhart was trying to elevate her work into the headier realms of contemporary art by making it appear more than it was.  This feeling was reinforced when I was told that the artist had employed the services of a professional architect to assist with the layout and design of the installation. This struck me as being entirely unnecessary and over the top and actually detracted from the value of the piece for me rather than adding to it.  She should have saved her money!

Overall, it seemed to me that there was too much of Lockhart and her ego in the work and not enough about the subject.  It might have helped to see the whole body of her work resulting from her time at the factory so that what was on display here could be put in context, but I doubt it.  For me, some of the photographs could indeed be classed as art from the skill of their creation and their impact.  However, if it was Lockhart’s intention to create a work of art from the project as a whole it failed for me and adversely affected my response to the individual elements. My feelings of disengagement and lack of empathy on entering the installation were the same when I left it.

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 OVERALL SUMMARY

On the positive side I was pleased I had gone to the Study Course and I came away quite energised by the experience.  It was good to meet others from OCA for the first time which left me feeling less isolated and it was also inspiring to be able to discuss the installations with others and bounce around ideas.  I really welcomed the input from those who had some knowledge of the artists and their projects as this added a lot to the rather general research that I had carried out beforehand.  I have been left with some vivid impressions of the works I saw, including those at Chapter which I have not discussed above, and I am sure that they will be part of my thought processes for a while as I try to assimilate the experience.  The works of Theaster Gates and Carlos Bunga in particular carry some resonance for me even now and even if I do not know what was in the artists’ minds when they created them.

On the down side, other works, in particular those of Renata Lucas and Sharon Lockhart, left me with feelings of annoyance, exclusion and negativity which I often experience from contemporary art.  My research into these artists and their work carried out both before and after my visit to try to put the works in context and to seek insight and understanding has only reinforced those negative feelings and emotions.  I have experienced similar negative feelings and emotions when reading some of the books on the course reading list and looking at the projects and images of many other contemporary ‘artists’.  I can rarely escape from the feeling that the artist is so self-obsessed that they have lost touch with reality and what is important.  The questions of ‘What constitutes art?’ and ‘What is an artist?’ always arise and always remain unanswered, as do such questions as ‘Is the artist really serious or are they taking the p**s?’ and ‘Are the artist and I living on different planets?’  As much as I question the artist’s motives in creating the work and their status as an artist, I also painfully question my own judgment and my inability to ‘get’ the work in front of me when others apparently seem readily able to do so.

On a more general note, it seemed to me that spreading the exhibition across three venues was a mixed blessing.  Whilst it gave the three venues additional publicity and enabled visitors to experience some of what the three venues had to offer, maybe for the first time, it required quite an effort to get round all three and watered down the experience.  I wonder how many will have taken the trouble to travel to the out-posted venues.

Did I enjoy the event?  I certainly found it interesting and I was pleased that I went.  Indeed I will be visiting the National Museum exhibition again in mid December when I am visiting Cardiff with my partner.  It will be interesting to see if my thoughts are changed as a result.

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