Liverpool and Swansea: Objective eyes and passionate responses

It’s often the case that an outside eye can pick up on the things that are under our noses and, equally true, that to come back you have to leave first.

From the Liverpool Biennial to Swansea and the Swansea Valley, artists have been responding to space and place this month. Sometimes they have the insider’s knowledge, but the objective eye of a visiting artist can illuminate the familair with a different light.  And so it was with the Liverpool Biennial.

This year’s curatorial theme, Touched, was as open ended as these city-wide events need to be, but invited artists to respond to the theme – to touch or be touched by the life of the city.

With one day to soak up the Biennial I had to skip the conference and concentrate on getting around as much art as I could in a very short time – all the hotels being full of footie fans and Lib Dems. There was a lot to pack in with the John Moores Painting Prize, at the Walker Art Gallery; the Bloomberg sponsored New Contemporaries at the A Foundation and a host of exhibitions, installations and site-specific works across the city.

But my first  stop was the Cathedral (The Gilbert Scott Gothic  Anglican monster, not the new, metropolitan one).  Here was one of the gems of the Biennial – Danica Dakić’s Grand Organ, 2010 – which was one of a number of works that referenced an aspect of the cityreflecting the curatorial theme of Touched. (Creative Times reflects on this very well here). Meanwhile, the subterranean life of the city was captured by Rosa Barba in Free Post Mersey Tunnels, 2010, at 52 Renshaw St. Barba, a Berlin-based artist, managed to bring the buried sounds below Liverpool to the surface in a way that snagged my, by now jaded, attention. By the same token Spanish artist Cristina Lucas encouraged former trades union members to hurl stones through the windows of the derelict, but evocatively named, Europleasures building to make her film Touch and Go (see picture at top for the results).

There’s a lot more to say about the Biennial, but this is a blog about contemporary art from/in Wales and, while Liverpool is the unofficial capital of North Wales, I was visiting to refresh my perspective on what’s going on in Wales.

So, armed with my slowly processing responses to Liverpool, I went to Swansea, to the National Waterfront Museum to see how John Cale’s offering for the 2009 Venice Biennale, Dyddiau Du/Dark Days translated to the place that had provided the impetus for it.

When I saw the work in Venice I was carrying the anxiety and baggage of an ex-officio member of the committee charged with delivering a Welsh presence in Venice. I was all too aware that there had been mutterings and rumblings about the selection of Cale, better known as a musician and one who had left wales for New York many years ago, carrying with him a bundle of ambivalence towards his native land. In Venice I looked for the flaws, listened out for negative reactions and generally hopped around like a scalded cat. Ah but this time was very different…

Granted, there have been a few editorial tweakings to the five films and and the music/sound that either accompanies them or, as with the sustained drone, stands alone. But this time I could relax into it (I wasn’t the only one – I saw some involuntary swayings to the sound works) and try to unravel my response to his responses to his fraught relationship with Wales. It doesn’t all work, but when it does it provokes a response that starts in the gut. There’s a Welsh word, hiraeth, that imperfectly translates as homesickness, but it’s one of those words, like the German Schadenfreude (the malicious joy in the misfortune of others), that’s not so easily defined or summed up – longing for the past; for a place that may not have ever existed; a kind of nostalgia that isn’t necessarily sentimental. Cale, in reconnecting with the place he thought he’d left behind, summoned up for me the essence of hiraeth. See for yourself, the show runs until November 7, but will be touring Wales, ending up in the new galleries at the National Museum in Cardiff next year.

While the artists I’ve mentioned have responded to the places they’ve made work about from either an outsider’s perspective – as with the Liverpool projects – or across a distancing gulf of time, in Cale’s case,  artists have also been reflecting on turf that is more familiar to them:

Kathryn Ashill is currently showing the fruits of her residency at Craig y Nos castle, near Pontardawe, at Pontardawe Art Centre’s Oriel Lliw. The place is full of childhood memories for Ashill and she wove those memories into the works she produced: hanging from rhodedendron trees; kissing the ornamental goat heads at the entrance to the park a fond farewell. The show runs until October 29.

Back in Swansea, Locws projects launched last week. Like Liverpool, albeit with more modest financial resources, Locws International offers a major biennial response to a variety of sites across Swansea. While international artists are invited to participate, those from Swansea and wider Wales also have the opportunity to work in contexts that are outside of the gallery confines. In the down year (the next Locws is 2011), smaller projects keep the appetite whetted and the public engaged. These projects can be seen until October 30. I haven’t yet to see this year’s Locws offering, nor Kath Ashill’s show (though I have the book!), but on past performance for both I’d give a hearty “recommended” and will report back when I’ve visited.

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