Engaging

As the Engage (National Association for Gallery Education) goes into the second day of its annual conference in Cardiff – Landing Place – it seems like a good time to look at how art reaches audiences and how they react.

I have to confess that I’ve been a bit too awash with various projects to make it to the conference, but did get to the pre-conference social at Ffotogallery’s Turner House Gallery two days ago to meet up with a very lively group of gallery educators who make up the coal face of visual arts mediation and interpretation across the UK.

Before everyone got even more lively on the mulled cider on offer they were treated to a quick overview of what the education team at Ffotogallery have been doing. And here I have to declare a big fat interest. Last year I asked them if they’d be interested in working with me on an outreach project as part of a public art programme I’m managing in my home town of Penarth. A social housing project called the Billy Banks has passed its sell-by date and is being re-developed into the new Penarth Heights. I’ve been anxious to fold in the people who used to live there, to capture the history of what was a bold experiment in social housing back in the 70s, and to link the project to the wider town. Before the bulldozers had razed the last traces of the old site to the ground, Ffotogallery sent six artists in to six local schools, taking them on site visits and getting them to make their own very individual responses to the change. You can see the results here.To say they exceeded my wildest expectations is an understatement, underlined by the massive grins on the faces of the pupils who came to the launch event at the end of last month.

For some of those young people this was their first contact with an artist. And here’s the thing. Most artists don’t make their primary living form making and selling their work. It’s through education – teaching, artist-in-residence projects and activities that may seem at a tangent to their artistic practice, that many earn their daily crust. And for artists like Matt Wright, Faye Chamberlain, Chiara Tocci, Michael Iwanowski, Ewan Jones Morris and Nat Higgins this is an opportunity to work directly with a new audience. For the schools, of course, it’s a rare opportunity to work with new media and processes, as well as giving pupils and teachers an insight into how how artists work and adding a new dimension to curricular work they may already be working with. I just hope that this is the kind of work that registers with the Welsh Government’s New joint review to look at broadening access to the arts in education.

David Garner Future Tense But of course gallery education isn’t just for the children. Last week I took myself northwards to Aberystwyth Arts Centre for a talk by artist David Garner. His current show Future Tense is dense with meanings, as is much of his work. For this body of work he has thrown all of his thinking about the impact of globalisation into the creative furnace to produce a series of works which, in the pared back shell of the gallery, set up conversations with each other and send out narrative threads across the space.

Looking at them without recourse to the information sheet and before the scheduled gallery talk, they spark off a range of thoughts and responses, informed by my own baggage of experience. And then I start to consider them as distinct objects. All are made with an exceptional attention to detail so that I found myself looking for the joins, the interventions with the found objects that transform them to something else – a shift in scale in a child’s school desk,; the dark and exotic woods of what looks, at first glimpse, like a normal wooden pallet but has tiny dowel pegs where the roughly banged in pegs would be; the retro paint on the base of a giant spike at human height. piercing hundreds of time cards (the punched out chips in a glass jar nearby).

David Garner Future Tense detail from Lost Symbols in a Global CurrentWhen Garner starts to tell the gathered audience (I think there were about 30 of us but we were walking and talking so head-counting was tricky – it was a good turnout anyway), he starts to feed us details, thought processes, material information that adds another layer. There are some things intended by the artist that will never be obvious to the gallery viewer but, half an hour over time, we leave with a sense of having taken something new on board and that an exchange has occurred.

Back to Cardiff and even further back in time. As part of the current Artes Mundi prize offering at National Museum Cardiff shortlisted artist Apolonija Šušteršič managed to do what no-one else has managed in over 25 years. As part of her presentation for Artes Mundi she created a new project and an archive around the development of Cardiff Bay and the barrage that changed the view of what was once Cardiff’s Docks forever. As part of this project she filmed the pro and anti-barrage protagonists and, for Talk Show, she invited both sides to look back at the changes to Cardiff Bay. This was to be the first time that both sides had ever been able to share a platform, filmed live and unedited for an hour, the ensuing debate  showed that feelings around the development that displaced people and birds (Šušteršič remained neutral, although she has her own views on economically driven development, I am less so) are still raw.

Apolonija Sustersic Talk Show 19.10.2012

So within the context of a gallery exhibition, the outsider’s eye, in the form of the artist’s camera, brought a new perspective to an understanding of how places get made and un-made. And the events around art practice, when artists are allowed the opportunity to add another dimension to work that is already interesting, leave everybody better off.

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Backwards and Onward

Happy 2012 blog fans and welcome, as the last pine needles embed themselves in the carpet, to a rather random review of the visual arts year in Wales.

And it was a good one, with lots of highlights:

There have been some mighty fine shows on offer this year and I’ve been lucky to see a lot of them. In no particular order of favouriteness here are some of the ones that tooted my horn:

Project Object at Oriel Myrddin in Carmarthen had everything going for it. I love it when artists are let loose on collections, or people are invited to talk about or curate objects that mean something special to them. This show came in four equally good parts and gave me the chance to come as close as I’m likely to get to the Aurora Borealis and slip a poodle into a public gallery. The Glynn Vivian unleashed David Cushway and some delighted individuals on their precious collection of ceramics. The resulting film,  Last Supper at The Glynn Vivian, shows how passionate folk become when asked to talk about the objects they love.

One would never have guessed that the Glynn Vivian team had been holding their collective breaths, waiting to get the green light for the new development project – the programme was as lively as ever. I’ve already written up my highlight here. The off site programme continues – follow it here.

Neil Mcnally was let loose on Newport Museum & Art gallery to curate a show – The Institute of Mental Health is Burning. Mcnally selected objects from NMAG’s fine collection, mixing it up with a host of artists. Those who went will have Goldie Lookin’ Chain’s Newport State of Mind (You’re Not From Newport) etched into their memory banks forever more. NMAG also brought us Dis-location by Andrew Cooper, an artist who never fails to engage my attention. Pete Telfer, God of Culture Colony, filmed Cooper talking about his work.

In mid Wales, Oriel Davies gave us two artists associated with the 2007 Wales at the Venice Biennale offering: Bedwyr Williams and Paul Granjon. Williams’ show, Nimrod, launched with one of his trademark darkly funny performances and the humour threaded through the exhibition, which coincided with the National Eisteddfod up the road in Wrexham – Williams took the Gold medal and went on to win the People’s Choice and Ifor Davies Award in an unprecedented hat trick.

Bedwyr Williams, Nimrod Oriel Davies

Granjon took over the gallery to create a workshop for unlikely gizmos with very willing volunteers for Oriel Factory. With a suite of his quirky drawings and a loop of films featuring some of his performances, inventions and songs to spur them on, the workshop elves came up with some highly inventive creations – none of which are likely to feature in the Innovations catalogue any day soon.

Across the Cambrian mountains, Aberystwyth Arts Centre has become an important venue for artists’ moving image with The Box seasons, but I’ve also enjoyed Visitor (still  on, if you’re quick) and Wild Thing.

Back in Cardiff Richard Higlett had his first solo show in Wales at g39’s temporary new home in The dairy, Pontcanna with Welcome to Your World. Higlett never fails to surprise and this show was no exception: a talking cat, the GPS (gallery of portable sound) car and a band (Bear- Man) playing from a hole in the gallery floor. Experimentica came back for its 11th outing at Chapter (where else could you find a man covered in mucus bouncing on a trampoline?) Chapter Gallery continued to surprise and delight with Pile and  The With Collective my personal faves.

Over in Penarth, Ffotogallery’s programme was as strong as ever, showcasing new and established talent and with complementary and engaging talks and the ever-popular Artists’ Book Fayre I’m so glad that this is my local. They’ll be bringing an international photography festival to Cardiff in 2013.

Artist-run spaces offered some really exciting shows and events this year: tactileBOSCH in Cardiff, continued to present rare opportunities to see performance, along with installations and painting shows that spilled out all over Cardiff for MOIST; Elysium ran another Bus Stop Cinema and disrupted the streets of Swansea; g39 hit Leipzig’s Spinnerei for the big Art Weekend; The Rhôd created a new series of site-responsive works in an old Mill in the hills of Carmarthenshire and created their own pavilion at the Venice Biennale (Rhodio). Swansea’s Supersaurus played host to shows by Gordon Dalton and Tom Goddard, while Supersuarus member Owen Griffiths dug up a football pitch to grow vegetables for Vetch Veg (sometimes you just couldn’t make this stuff up!)

Online artists’ film platform, Outcasting is heading for world domination. Not content with presenting international content, Outcasting’s evil genius, Michael Cousin, has joined forces with, er, me and St David’s Hall’s exhibitions officer, Ruth Cayford to form Fourth Wall. Pedwaredd Wall CIC, which will be filling Cardiff with artists’ moving image this autumn, thanks to festival funding from the Arts Council of Wales. Watch this space for more info and a call for artists to submit.

Goodbye and Hello

2011 was tinged with some sadness as Swansea lost two inspirational women: Swansea Metroplitan University lecturer Susan Griffiths and Mission Gallery Director Jane Phillips. Both died too young and leave a big hole in the visual arts community.

We also said goodbye to arts education as we know it with some major restructuring of fine art courses and a few closures. I’ve already written about this here so I won’t bang on but I’ll be watching as things unfold over the next few years.

James Boardman, Light Corridor, CSAD degree show 2011

And last, but not least, of the farewells goes to all of my former colleagues at the Arts Council of Wales, who find themselves staring at an uncertain future following the recent major restructuring (more on this as it unfolds).

Meanwhile some new faces appeared on the scene and began to make their mark:

Amanda Roderick took over as director at The Mission Gallery under very sad circumstance, but her work to date would, I’m sure, make Jane Phillips proud. Ben Borthwick got into his stride as Chief Executive of Artes Mundi, which is scheduled for this Autumn in Cardiff. Up in Llandudno we said goodbye and good luck to Martin Barlow, who left Mostyn after steering its development into one of the finest exhibitions spaces in Wales. He is  replaced as director by Alfredo Cramerotti, who took over as the first major retrospective of Blaenau Ffestiniog-based sculptor, David Nash – Red,Black,Other – launched to much excitement.

And finally, we said hello to #0 of tant magazine. They’re currently inviting submissions for #1 so please follow the link.

    David Fitzjohn, TactileBOSCH Citizen 2011     Jonathan Anderson, Dark Star - Mission Gallery

It’s been such a busy year and I’m sure I’ll have forgotten to mention a lot of the wonderful things that I have seen. Please feel free to add your own favourites in the comments section.

In the meantime I hope you have a very productive and creative 2012.

Love Art : Art Hate


It’s been a period of enormous activity, set against a background of anxiety about cuts in the arts and a swelling campaign to exert pressure on the Government (in Westminster – everything is disturbingly quiet in Wales).

In the middle of all of this I found myself heading to the one part of London that I thought I’d avoid forever – Cork St. I’ve probably spent too much time away from the commercial art world, but have developed a bit of an allergy to the comodification of art (I lasted an hour at Frieze Art Fair last year). So why go to the dark heart of art commerce?

Artist Billy Childish, aided and abetted by two of his galleries, (L-13 and David Lilford Fine Art) had managed to secure a gallery space for a week to host his latest Art Hate outing, following Art Hate Basildon (or Baseldon) in June.

If you don’t know about Art Hate then you can catch up here, or go for a more traditional approach here. Now I don’t hate art and nor does Childish, he’s still producing paintings along with the sold-by-the inch Art Hate merchandise. But it’s the stuff that goes with the territory that he challenges – the arbiters of good taste in our national institutions, the passing off of less-than-great work for all manner of reasons and, I suspect, the complicated dances with commercial galleries and the repositories of a narrow view of national cultural values that artists have to engage with. And, to be fair, he’s also established the Anti-Art hate movement too.

In any event I enjoyed the context of the night, in the middle of the most established purveyors of art, and the bar (fizzy stuff, wine and Malibu) certainly helped to create a convivial mood of art-hating. The original plan had been to erect the metal sign (see pic) that reads Art Will Make Us Free across the entrance to Cork St and to block off the end of the street  (the eagle-eyed will have spotted the echoes of the Nazi Arbeit Macht Frei sign over the entrance to Auschwitz). Unfortunately the Council and the Police had other ideas.

As the long knives come out for the public sector, I suspect there’ll be more artist-led activity that, unfettered by the constraints of funding and the strings-attached institutional agendas, will create its own momentum and context. But I also hope that those institutions that create the right framework for artists to make responsive work don’t fall victim to an ethos of playing it safe and keeping the metaphorical heads below the parapet to avoid the swinging axe.

Certainly the public funding of the arts looks grim and, for individual practitioners, it’s going to be tough times ahead. But, without wishing to sound too Polyanna-ish about it, the dwindling of resources has never seemed to faze artists, who are so used to working on next-to-nothing. In Wales pretty much all of the funding for artist’s projects and professional development has come via the lottery pot. With pressure mounting on that pot to soak up the activity that has been cut from the Arts Council’s portfolio of revenue funded clients, there’ll be a temptation to turn away would-be applicants and to turn down those who don’t fill in the forms to the letter. For many artists and artists’ groups the form-filling will prove to be too much of an obstacle and they’ll give up, which would be a real shame. I really hope that the future of funding the arts in Wales doesn’t rest on the administrative prowess of applicants, but you can see that this form of self-elimination will provide an element of relief to those trying to cut a cake that’s too small.

On the other hand, squashing projects into someone else’s priorities or agendas is never easy either and going it alone, or inventing new models, offers a level of relief from those pressures. If you want to voice your ideas or concerns, then the Arts Council of Wales annual conference is where you should be. Amongst other speakers Sean Edwards from g39 will be leading a breakout session on how to manage in times of austerity (although at £45 I’m not sure how many artists will be able to afford to go…)

Meanwhile here are my tips for things to see:

Tim Davies – Between a Rock and a Hard Place at Mostyn gallery, Llandudno (to  Saturday  Nov 06)

Condition Report Ffotogallery bring new Czech photographic art to Turner House (to Dec 11)

Bound Within a Hidden Space – Gemma Copp’s solo show at Elysium gallery (to Nov 20)

Pascal-Michel DuboisShow One of Each at g39 (to Nov 27)

And coming up:

Lucent Lines – Simon Fenoulhet’s adventures in light at Oriel Davies (from Nov 13) (featured in previous blog What You see)

Smile – Mission Gallery, Swansea (from Nov 13)

And finally, if you want to find out more about why I’m blogging and my other writing activities, I’ve been asked to give a talk at the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery at 1pm this friday (Nov 05). I’ll be plugging the immenent blown issue 2 and thinking out loud about the attitude of the Welsh and national media to contemporary art from/of/in Wales. Come and throw me questions or throw non-staining vegetables (it’s in the Atrium with lots of art around).

Citizen

It seems that drawing,  painting  and print are back on the agenda again. Artists’ collective tactileBosch put out a call for artists working in two dimensions and the selection that forms Citizen certainly proves that there’s plenty of mileage left in the traditional media.

Curated by Sam Aldridge, Andrew Cooper, Kim Fielding and Neil Jeffries, there’s the usual eclectic mix of stuff, but the venue’s nooks and crannies lend themselves to a range of work and nothing seems overcrowded, nor are there any jarring juxtapositions.

True to form, tactileBosch made the opening on 01 May memorable and really did roll out the red carpet. And there was live music from the likes of techno duo Barry Hole’s Hit List, offering up terrific renderings of 80s classics like Kraftwerk’s Das Model on a multitude of synths and gizmos. Made me almost nostalgic for my youth.

As with any open call, new voices emerge and Citizen offers a chance to see the unfamiliar alongside those who have embedded themselves on the Welsh art scene.

Jonathan Powell’s bathetic heads and Richard Monahan’s dysmorphic characters require a longer look. While Elys John’s monochrome flowers, (see main pic above) painstakingly rendered, bloom and grow to fill the screen: Computer rendering, but without the usual showing off. He also offers a slightly harder-to-see projection that’s part dandelion seeds, part jellyfish, part heavenly bodies. Tucked under the roof, it’s easy to miss it but worth looking up. Both films are hypnotic and, despite their hidden techno credentials, are beautiful in their organic simplicity.

There’s the full gamut of approaches here. Matt Skelley’s Three Chairs, uses light to create an afterburn image that transforms the mundane into something magical. Martinez de Lecea’s series of digitally tinkered with images are extremely powerful in their restrained use of technology, while Mi-Young Choi offers hyper-real skies with lone missiles cutting across the canvas, in sharp contrast to the dark canvasses of Steph Goodger’s hellish painting’s, based on Dante’s Inferno. Similarly Sonja Benskin Mesher’s jewel-like abstract landscapes contrast with Geraint Evan’s apocalyptic urban scenes.

Of course it wouldn’t be a tactileBosch exhibition without a performance. As he and his fellow students deal with the news that the MAP (time-based/performance) at UWIC will be no more from the end of this academic year (snuffed out with barely a murmur), Chris Evans decided to rebrand himself as a painter – literally. In his performance Jackson Bollocks, he suspended himself from the ceiling and used his head as a paintbrush.

There are 23 artists in this show and a blog can’t do them justice, although the foursome of curators certainly seem to have done so. I suggest you get up to Llandaff in Cardiff before 23 May and see for yourself. Check website for details of opening times and days.

If you want to see more of drawing but not as we know it, here’s a trail for the forthcoming Opus show at Bay Art. It’s called “What will be seen” and promised to stretch perceptions of drawing to the limits.

Meanwhile, I’m off to the opening, across two sites, of Ffotogallery’s latest exhibition, Life Less Ordinary looking at performance in display in South African Art.

Silent Village

Dead Village - Paolo Ventura 

Today (27 January) is Holocaust Memorial Day, so here’s a post about an exhibition to remind us why we remember.

In a reprisal for the assassination of Obergruppenfuhrer Reinherd “The Hangman” Heydrich, Hitler ordered the effective obliteration of the Czech village of Lidice on 09 June 1942. All the men were executed, the women and some of the children sent off to concentration camps, while other children, capable of being Germanized, were sent off to live with SS officers’ families in Germany.

Instead of erasing the village from the face of the earth, as was intended, it became an icon for those resisting the Nazis.

Back in Britain the Ministry of Information commissioned Humphrey Jennings to make a film about this atrocity, but located it closer to home at a time when the Allied forces were struggling to capture the hearts and minds of a beleaguered Britain. Jennings responded, in 1943, with The Silent Village. Setting it not in Czechoslovkia but in the village of  Cwmgeidd, in the Swansea Valley.

Nearly 70 years later Ffotogallery, at their Turner House Gallery in Penarth, re-present Jennings’ film, with responses from artists Peter Finnemore, Paolo Ventura and author Rachel Trezise. <

The atrocities of  WW2 are so appalling that they numb the brain to the point of almost disbelief (this is not to be confused with Holocaust denial).  Bringing home the millions of individual tragedies is a tall order for any artist or organisation but this exhibition, curated by Russell Roberts of University of Wales Newport, aided by the touching simplicity of Jennings’ film (all characters are played by the residents of  Cwmgeidd) and the light touch of Finnemore, Ventura and Trezise, picks out the human elements, making a visit to the gallery a truly moving experience (I went twice and will go back again).

While Ventura offers ambiguous photographs that prick the curiosity – who are these people? What do they represent? Finnemore mines the riches of his West Wales  family home not far, as the crow flies, from Cwmgeidd, focussing on the personal and familiar objects that make a house a home, speak of the absent occupants. Trezise’s trademark detached, and occasionally acerbic, observations unravel a story from the perspective of a young woman, whose connections to the Lidice massacre slowly unfold, in what is some of her tautest writing to date. You can listen to her read from Belia as you look at Finnemore’s images in the upper gallery, with the echoes of the film running in the gallery below.

Finnemore’s pictures have been bound into a small book, as has Trezise’s text. Both will be incorporated into the forthcoming (10 February) publication that has been such a labour of love for for curator Russell Roberts.  

Attention! click here for details of publication launch 10 February

More of Peter Finnemore’s work can be seen at the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea until 07 February

As a sad footnote to the exhibition, Dave Berry, the film buff’s film buff and advisor on this project, died on 22 January. He will be sorely missed by all who knew him.