Artes Mundi 4

Artes Mundi 4 has arrived in Cardiff and there’s so much to engage with that this will be my initial response, rather than a full and detailed review. I’m afraid that this exhibition will have to be tackled like a part work, so here’s the collector’s first edition.

But first, there’s good news and bad news.

The good news is that the National Museum, Cardiff, is building a new space, dedicated to modern and contemporary art and it’s scheduled to open in June 2011. So for those who were wondering what all the scaffolding was for, it’s to create the new galleries, which will be home to Artes Mundi 5.

The bad news is that this will be artistic director, Tessa Jackson’s last Artes Mundi, as she leaves to run Iniva (Institute of  International Visual Arts) in London.

But that’s where the bad news ends. The reach of this exhibition, and the associated £40,000 prize, extends with each iteration. Nominations for this one came to 500 from 80 countries. While we’ll have to wait until 19 May to find out who has won, the prize is really a secondary consideration. Sure, it shows that Wales means business, that contemporary art is as important to us as rugby – and I do wish we could follow through a bit more with proper support for this and the other visual arts organisations in Wales – but, more importantly, it offers another world view, another take on the themes and topics that affect our daily lives.

And the fact that most of these artists aren’t on our daily radar, one that is influenced by an art market as fickle as it is influential, makes no difference to the messages that they have for us.  In the catalogue essays and the speechifying that goes with an important exhibtion like this, it seems there is a big emphasis on the political turmoil or national upheaval of the artists exhibited in Artes Mundi 4. That many of them have grown up in period of totalitarian rule, where democracy was far down the agenda, almost goes without saying, but when liminal states of national becoming are given an artistic take, as seen in Chen Chieh-jen’s Empire’s Borders, there is a presmuption that we view them from a sanguine state of happy democracy ourselves. Unfortunately there is no Welsh perspective in this exhibition, nor is there any expectation that there should be one by default, but Wales and its artists have witnessed quite a period of change over the past decade and there’s a possibility that more autonomy might be heading our way. It would have been interesting to unpick this further as part of the wider Artes Mundi range of events.

But back to the exhibition, which is compressed into a smaller space this time, but the fact that the separate installations now interlock with each other creates a greater coherence.

There is one notable exception in the beautiful watercolours of Russian artist Olga Chernysheva, sited in the historical galeries alongside those of eighteenth century watercolourist JC Ibbertson, while her video work, Russian Museum is inserted amongts a run of Madonna and Child paintings.

The watercolours are deceptively simple. The subjects, market vendors and their stalls, are excised from context, rather as a child would do, bringing them into clear focus, but the facility with which they are produced is far from child-like, as could be expected from someone who would have studied art at a time in Russia’s history when skill was acquired for the communal good, rather than the communication of any message. Back in the main Artes Mundi galleries, Chernysheva offers a series of light box photographs – The Catcus Collector.  In a typical gallery context these would be interesting works but here, in the heart of a musuem, these images of museums and an obsessive and apparently camera-oblivious catcus collector, have a new resonance. My favourite image, so far, is of the catcus collector absorbed in his work as two giant stags in an oil painting above his head lock horns in combat.

And this is important to remember, that while there are serious messages, brought to us from artists who are either far from their homelands, or reflecting the changes in the countires of their birth, there is also humour and a light touch to draw us in, rather than heavy duty hectoring.

Don’t take my word for it, have a look for yourself. The exhibition is open Tuesdays  –  Sunday until 06 June, with lots of related activities and live guides on hand to talk you around the exhibition. I’ll be back soon with part two.

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