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 and The Beast in Swansea

Christodoulos Panayiotou Slow dance marathon, 2005 Video still Video (documentation of a performance) 4 minutes 22 seconds © Christodoulos Panayiotou, courtesy the artist and Rodeo, IstanbulOn the monitor screen a couple cling together on the dance floor, fingers slide softly up and down backs, bodies pressed up against each other. I am thrown back to the 1970s and the Marconi Club in Lavernock – hanging off a lanky youth in black velvet jacket and flares to whatever’s playing: Chicago’s If you leave me now, 10cc’s I’m not in love (I couldn’t be too fussy, The Clash didn’t do smoochie numbers). The slow dance, the kiss, the wait for the phone call, the trip to the cinema, the hand casually snaking across the back of the seat. This is a scenario that most will recognise. The end of the night, droopy eye-lidded and lost in the moment.

All of this before I put on the headphones in the gallery to hear Diana Ross’ When You Tell Me That You Love Me (hit the link if you’re feeling sentimental). I am just considering the intimacy that the slow dance engenders and what might grow from that proximity, when a figure interrupts the dancers, cutting in and taking over, and the intimacy is transferred. Something that will be endlessly repeated over the course of 24 hours in Cypriot artist Christodoulos Panayiotou‘s Slow Dance Marathon (2005)

I’m visiting the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, in Swansea, for the preview of two shows: Parasol Unit‘s I Know Something About Love Part II and an outing for Laura Ford‘sShirin Neshat Fervor installation view Beast & Other Works. The former suggests fluffy kittens and flowery meadows, but it’s a more in-depth look at love from different cultural perspectives. When I take the headphones off again, I’m still looking at the dancers as I become aware of a passionate Arabic oration from the next part of the gallery. The contrast couldn’t be more stark. In one room casual intimacy, in the next sit rows of men and women, gender-separated by a black curtain, with two characters -a  man and a woman – slowly becoming the focus of a developing visual narrative. The work, Fervor (2000) speaks of the destructive effect of the post-revolution regime in Iran that restricts human relationships and places a wedge between men and women. Which, of course, could be said in an essay or tract, but not as eloquently or poignantly as this two-channel, black and white filmic poem by Shirin Neshat. The work is eleven years old, but the situation in Iran hasn’t changed.

Another shift, another apparent contrast, in the final work of the show named after The Exciters’ lyric from Tell Him, occurs in the final tri-channel film by Yang Fudong, Flutter, Flutter… Jasmine, Jasmine (2002). Here a Shanghai couple talk about falling in love and being in love, sing, dance and canoodle. It’s sweet, occasionally funny and visually engaging. Yang Fudong Flutter, Flutter...Jasmine, Jasmine (2002)But Yang is not an artist concerned with sweetness and light or the flowers of romance. A closer look at the scenery and the context  – glossy skyscrapers and run-down alleyways – China’s jump from a culture of repression and suppression to one of embracing Western mores and materialism is not one that Yang wholly approves of. And the volte face of the current regime doesn’t seem to be entirely driven by a desire to liberate and liberalise the Chinese people. The Westernisation seems to be a glossy façade, like the skyscrapers, covering something that is still held together with sticky tape and blood-stained string.

Fresh from my explorations of love I trotted down to the Atrium space to say “hello” to Laura Ford’s Beast, an old friend from the Welsh offering at the Venice Biennale in 2005. The Glynn Vivian acquired this work for their collection after Somewhere Else (the Wales in Venice show) had toured Wales and have given it a regular airing since. This is hardly surprising as its bathetic presence, speaking obliquely of the atrocities at Guantanamo Bay, of degradation, humiliation and disorientation,makes an immediate connection with audiences.

This time it’s accompanied by equally strong works – Mummers (2011) and Espalier Girl (2007). While Ford’s work is made from materials that make them immediately familiar and the human forms create a strong sense of empathy, there is a dark thread throughout her work that slowly reveals itself. The child-like figures, covered in shaggy felt costumes in Mummers, speak of play at first and the title references ancient rustic theatrical tradition, despite the obvious character lying on the ground. But then you notice that one of them is holding something that looks like a crow bar and the mood darkens. It’s not hard to draw a connecting line between this childish scene and the increasing incidence of child knifings and shootings by other children.

Laura Ford Mummers and Espalier Girl

Laura Ford Beast and Espalier GirlBy the same token Espalier Girl draws the eye in to what seems to be a comic costume – girl as tree – but of course espaliering is a gardening technique to force plants to grow to the gardeners will.

These are dark themes for a public gallery but, just before the show officially opened I met the team who had been working with local schools in Swansea, who were rhapsodising about the response of children to these sculptures.

Perhaps the response is not so surprising. Ford recently showed a new work, Little Bird (2011) in the Locws International Festival earlier this year, which provoked strong reactions – some people wanted to protect the forlorn figure in fancy dress, while others tried to destroy it. You can read my review of Locws for a-n here.

So I left the Glynn Vivian, once again, knowing something more than I had when I’d entered it and with The Exciters tune thrumming in my mind.

I know Something About Love Part II and Laura Ford: Beast & Other Works runs Tuesdays to Sundays until 04 September 2011

And while you’re there… don’t miss two shows in artist run spaces:

Thomas Goddard: 1961 – 1999 at Supersaurus. Goddard takes up residence with the friendly collective until 15 July 2011


Sublinear 5: Perspectives on Drawing at Elysium Gallery. Dalit Leon, Elizabeth Waterhouse (image), Fran Williams, Penny Hallas & Richard Monahan
24 June – 16 July 2011

and last, but by no means least, Second Star to the right and Straight on Until Morning at The Mission Gallery  for Ben Rowe’s take on escapism

How Dumb Are We? Kim Howells and Dougal

Penrhiwllythau by Paul Emmanuel

I did O level Maths at school, but I’d never set myself up as a mathematician for the purposes of punditry, so why did the Western Mail feel the need to ask Kim Howells, a politician who once went to art school, for a response to the winner of the Welsh Artist of the Year? And to do so by looking at Paul Emmanuel‘s winning work online.

That’s it. The final straw. I am so fed up with the way that the (admittedly tiny, circa 32,000) readership of the self-styled Newspaper of Wales are treated like unintelligent morons and that contemporary art is regularly denigrated, dismissed and misrepresented. It makes Wales look stupid and backward-looking and can’t, I am sure, do much to make the case for Wales as a lively, critically-engaged nation to which big companies would want to re-locate.

Of course my comments were taken out of context in the WM piece as, I suspect, were the quotes from Howells. I am sure that he would have been careful not to juxtapose his criticisms of the Turner Prize judges with a reference to my colleagues and I as the judging panel of the WAotY competition this year, as we’re skating towards libel here. Now, we didn’t all sit down and decide to come up with something controversial, to be seen as being ‘avant garde’ (a term that I don’t believe has been seriously used for many decades). We chose works that reflected current practice in Wales and rewarded artists at the top of their game in their areas of expertise. Paul Emmanuel was an obvious choice for winner. He’s taken seriously by those who really know about art and has carved himself an international reputation with his exhibitions in Taiwan, amongst other places. At home he’s been shown at the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery , the opening show of the Mostyn and had a stunning solo show at Oriel Myrddin

I’m just back from Venice and the 54th Biennale of Art. There, even tiny, economically challenged nations take contemporary art seriously and present it as such to appreciative audiences. They know it’s important to present a forward-looking face and to champion their artists and the arts in general. Isn’t it about time we did the same?

You can make up your own mind about the Welsh Artist of the Year competition by seeing it in the flesh at St Davids Hall until 06 August 2011.


The past few weeks have offered up some exhibitions that unintentionally drew together a lot of disparate threads in the chaotic loom of my imagination.

It started with a trip to Swansea, to catch the very last day of Peter Finnemore’s show at the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, and the last week of Willie Doherty’s.

Two very different artists, one from West Wales, the other from Northern Ireland, whose work is rooted in their understanding of the place from which they come.

Finnemore’s show was a chance to showcase a collection of his work, purchased by the Glynn Vivian. It is immediately clear that there is a curatorial sympathy for his practice, played out in the imaginative and well-thought out “tree” of tiny dvd screens. Each showed different scenes from Finnemore’s garden in the Gwendraeth Valley. As birds flock and cluster around bird feeders all is so-far-so-good bucolic fantasy. Until Finnemore looms up into shot, clad in his trademark camouflage. The birds carry on feeding and there is an indescribable sense of sinister benevolence (even as I type it it sounds pretentious, but it’s really hard to define otherwise).

Into the main space to watch a loop of  films, all handled with the same subtle humour and some highly surreal moments – Finnemore as a camouflaged Elvis impersonator miming to Eve of Destruction by Barry McGuire (the link won’t take you to Finnemore but to YouTube), using a a giant sunflower as his mic. There are fires and explosions, sheds and greenhouses and the late great Myffin the cat. To go into much more detail would be unfair, as the show’s over. The point is that this is confident work that comes from a strong identification with place. As does Willie Doherty’s.

In the main galleries Willie Doherty‘s films Buried and Ghost Story are glossier than Finnemore’s. The shots are sumptious in Buried and, I suspect, more budget-greedy for the long tracking shot in Ghost Story, narrated by Stephen Rae. In the former we are in dark woodland, in that dense coniferous light that could be day or night. Smoke drifts from a near-dead fire; invertebrates ooze from bark like resin. Slowly the human traces come into focus: shell case, melted plastic, along with the memory of some of the dark deeds that occurred in the woodlands of   Northern Ireland’s bloodied past. It is difficult, as audience, not to overlay meaning on to the astonishingly beautiful and well-shot images.

Again, mean of me as the show finished on 14 February, but this is all by way of setting the scene, so bear with me please.

After a hurried lunch it was off up the Swansea Valley to Newtown and Oriel Davies. Although I’d been up and down the Swansea Valley before, this was the first time I’d done it all in one stretch – watching the Sleeping Giant heave into view at the head of the valley tinged with the colour of pale dried blood as the bracken turned in the late winter sun.

Across the Brecon Beacons, past the absurd German village on the army range near Sennybridge, devoid of all other human traces except for the green plastic porta-loos that modern soldiers require for their comfort. Little fishhooks of hiraeth (which translate from Welsh rather crudely as longing or yearning for home) tweak at my heart.

Missing my secret short cut, I can see the now dark Newtown twinkling below and arrive just in time to miss my next artist’s first howl on the roof of the gallery. Simon Whitehead‘s work, the culmination of some 15 years, is embodied in two core elements: Afield and Louphole. Whitehead’s approach is informed by his days as a dancer and a geographer and has incorporated many different ways of working but all refer back to the landscape and human habitation of and movement through it. This sounds dense and worthy but the results are far from it. He is a generous collaborator, inviting other artists and a wider public to engage with him as he re-examines ways of travelling through a landscape – sometimes by just slowing up the pace to that of a walking horse, or by strapping cameras to the chests of willing participants and asking them to describe their journey, as he does in Stalks.

Since a residency in Quebec, Whitehead has become interested in wolves – hunted to extinction here centuries ago – they were still present in Canada and their howls permeated his consciousness. Had I arrived in time I would have seen him on the stainless steel roof of Oriel Davies, giant galvanised megaphone in hand, howling to the populace of this town in Powys. Instead I’ll have to wait until 04 March (at 7pm if you’re in the neighbourhood).

Meanwhile, back in Cardiff, photographer Martin Parr has been documenting the traditional Saturday night out in working men’s clubs in South Wales. the results can be seen at Earlswood Social Club in Rumney and are well worth a visit. The project is part of public art agency Safle‘s collaborationwith St David’s Partnership – the organisation behind the new St David’s 2 development in Cardiff’s city centre. The launch night offered up bingo, a wonderful Elvis impersonator and I even managed to win the raffle (I’m easily pleased, me).

The show runs until 14 March so catch it if you can.