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.

From Mill Lane to Cotton Mill – g39 in Leipzig

g39 Portmanteau entrance, Halle 14  Leipzig 2011
I’m just back from my first gig as an embedded journalist – not, I hasten to add, a flak-jacket, helmeted journo reporting from a war zone, but still in the front line of international cultural relations. Cardiff’s g39 were making their presence felt as international guest curators at Halle 14 in the giant ex-cotton mill in Leipzig for the big art weekend Zeit Fuer Kunst. For some reason Ute Volz, manager of  Halle 14 (the title grossly belies what she actually does, but it’s the closest translation I can come up with)  thought it would be a good idea if I came along too.

It all started when the Contemporary Art Society sent g39’s co-director, Chris Brown, on a research visit to Leipzig last autumn (2010). From there he invited Ute Volz and Karsten Schultz of Halle 14 to speak at the On Collecting symposium at the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff at the end of last year (some of you might remember me writing about it here). After the formal presentations things became more relaxed as we shared some of Cardiff’s less salubrious watering holes with Volz and ended up pledging to visit Leipzig as soon as possible.

Well these things get said in the afterglow of a lively seminar. So imagine my surprise when an invitation to come for the big event on April 30/ May 01. Halle 14, along with all the other creative enterprises and galleries that make up the Spinnerei, takes the interesting approach of each inviting an international partner to exhibit in their space for the big art weekend and this year g39 was it.

As the logistics of shipping big and complex artworks across Europe would have wiped out a big chunk of this small-but-perfectly-formed gallery’s budget, g39 decided that works should fit into a suitcase, or small crate, and the show Portmanteau began to form. Chris Brown, with curator Michael Cousin selected a show reel of  12 existing moving image works and some works by artists who’d already shown in the gallery. Then they went on to commission three new works by Dawn Woolley, David Cushway and Sam Aldridge – two performance/installations and some very mobile sculptures.

Now this isn’t going to be a formal review of the show – that’s going on Culture Colony (and when it’s up I’ll put in the link), but I hope it’ll provide a glimpse into how this kind of international enterprise works.

Arriving a few days after Brown, Cousin and some of the exhibiting artists (I draw a veil over my accidental diversion on a high-speed train to Hannover), things had already begun to take shape. Helen Sear’s beautiful wall print of a photoshop-manipulated image of stuffed birds in a glass vitrine, first seen at g39 in 2009, had been hung on a wall in a space already twice the size of g39’s diminutive exhibition area; Richard Bevan‘s black vinyl triangles – a deceptively simple rendering of information based on significant times and places in g39’s history – stuck to the wall, facing  Candice Jacobs‘ gold vinyl “Thank You!”, a starkly decontextualised pleasantry glinting in the sun. Anthony Shapland’s film poster (text deleted), hung next to the film projection area, linking it to the film work he was showing – an introduction to a longer project about the life of Raymond C.Cook. In fact several of the exhibiting artists also had moving image work – g39 having been an early pioneering promoter of this kind of work in Wales.

Helen Sear, Display 2008 at Halle 14, LeipzigCandice Jacobs, Thank You, from Too Much 2010, Halle 14, LeipzigRichard Bevan, Untitled, Halle 14 Leipzig 2011Dawn Woolley, Foolish Passion, Halle 14 Leipzig 2011

Away from the yellowing beams of the same sunshine that poured into the vast third floor of Halle 14, Lesley Guy‘s painstaking pen work on images from  a series of a hundred obituaries pages formed a ghostly phalanx around the space that Dawn Woolley was filling with her photographic installation, which would provide a setting for a gruelling performance that she did not once but twice. Halle 14 had provided technical support through the wonderful Denis, who managed to source all sorts of extras to make sure that the show and the performances were presented to g39’s exacting high standards.

David Cushway, Plate Spinner, Halle 14 Leipzig 2011Sam Aldridge, 2 x Safety Helmets, 9 x Safety Cones, Halle 14 Leipzig 2011

As Cousin tweaked the projector for the 12 moving image works and David Cushway set out his plates and poles for his plate-spinning performances, I helped Sam Aldridge assemble his nine cardboard traffic cones. These would be placed in the gallery with instructions in Google-translate German to move them around, wearing hard hats he’d made a couple of years ago.

Dawn Woolley - Foolish Passion, performance, Halle 14 Leipzig 2011

By the end of Friday everything was under control and we could go into VIP mode with the option of Porsches to ferry us about (I opted for Volz’s Peugeot, I’m not really a Porsche kinda gal) to the various events associated with the big art weekend: the Blixa Bargeld/Carsten Nicolai (the latter also showing in the Spinnerei)  concert was a definite highlight for me, as was the enervating trip to Bimbotown, possibly the maddest nightclub ever. I was eaten by a sofa – ’nuff said.

Over the weekend I had a chance to look at what the other galleries  and organisations were offering. The g39 floor was host to Basel Art Academy’s student show – demonstrating what can be achieved with proper resourcing and support – and to put the Welsh offer in context. I know I’m biased but I think we kept our end up, and the 5-7,000 people (the g39 attendance clicker was still in Cardiff) who visited Portmanteau seemed to agree.

The love and respect between g39 and Halle 14 just seemed to grow and grow – possibly because there were no tantrums, no hissy fits and everything was possible and effortlessly dealt with.  At the end of the weekend Halle 14 announced that g39 were to become permanent international partners. And nothing could be more perfect.

My profound thanks go to Halle 14, g39 and all the exhibiting artists for making me so welcome and so proud to see contemporary art from Wales make such a big impression in an international context.


Opportunity Alert: Halle 14 is just launching a new residency programme with a May 20 deadline. If you’re an artist who is interested in living and working in Leipzig for three months and can respond to the theme “What Happened to God?” then follow the link asap.


Portmanteau featured:

Sam Aldridge, Richard Bevan, David Cushway, Lesley Guy,  Candice Jacobs, Helen Sear, Anthony Shapland, Dawn Woolley (installed works/performances)
Pascal Michel Dubois, Maia Conran,  David Cushway, Candice Jacobs,  Tamara Krikorian, Jennie Savage & James Tyson, Helen Sear, Anthony Shapland, Lisa Stansbie, Dawn Woolley (moving Image)

On Collecting – How to build a commercial arts sector for Wales

On Friday 04 December, at the National Museum Wales, Cardiff, a group of artists, curators, funders, arts administrators, art lovers and collectors gathered for On Collecting: Transactions in Contemporary Art. The event, pulled together by NMW and g39, with backing from The Contemporary Arts Society, was chaired by Gordon Dalton of Mermaid & Monster and was intended to explore the necessary conditions for stimulating the commercial arts economy in Wales and for looking at the current picture.

So far, so good and extremely timely. It has long been recognised that there is a hole in the arts ecology in Wales that can only be filled by proactive engagement with the international art market.

What followed, though fascinating in terms of what others have done elsewhere, left me with a Welsh arts equivalent of penis envy.

Sorcha Dallas, of the eponymous Glasgow gallery, provided the first pangs of this envy by stating that her enterprise had grown out of the buzz created by the reputation of Glasgow School of Art, who have been feeding a steady flow of new life blood into the local scene, with many graduates (Dallas included) choosing to stay in Glasgow, set things up and create a critical mass of interest and activity. On the day that the astonishing news that Cardiff School of Art and Design (CSAD) were going to axe the Sculpture department ( Media and Performance having fallen earlier this year), leaving Painting and Printmaking to make up the Fine Art course, these observations really hit home.

As Dallas continued to talk us through the evolution of her gallery and her commitment to representing Scottish artists on an international stage, I remembered a conversation with Amanda Catto, of what was the Scottish Arts council, now Creative Scotland. She had described to me SAC’s strategic decision to prime the pumps of the nascent commercial arts sector and offer support to attend art fairs and promote the work of Scottish artists to international collectors and institutions.

Dallas was clear that her initiative had grown out of a strong local arts scene, with Transmission in Glasgow, a place for artists to meet and discuss work as much as a platform for work (in Cardiff Chapter Arts Centre is a valid equivalent) at its heart. While she takes the work of the 13 artists she now represents to key art fairs: Art Basel, Frieze, Art Miami, New York, Cologne, Turin etc, to build up a collectors’ base for them, Dallas is equally committed to ensuring that the shop front gallery is part of the local community too, and works in partnership with public and private galleries, managing exhibitions, publications and residencies.

Karsten Schultz, who was next up with Ute Volz, had come to talk about a project that had grown out of Schultz’s collection of contemporary art – Halle 14 in Leipzig.  A former cotton spinning mill, theLiepzig Spinnerei had been abandoned for some time. It’s a massive site and, in 2001, Schultz, having seen its potential, pulled together a symposium of architects, artists and curators to talk about potential ways to develop the site into a creative force. Now Schultz hadn’t come from nowhere. He was an established collector, largely of German contemporary art, and had run out of space for his collection, especially the larger installations and sculptural works. He had already formed the Federkiel Foundation (I’m afraid that some of the translation is a bit bonkers on the english version of the site) and was proactively supporting emerging artists, alongside more established ones, with grants and other means of support.

Long story short. The Spinnerei is five floors of approximately 4,000m2 each (that’s 20,000m2!), housing exhibitions, a library and an art education programme, and has been slowly building relationships with the art school and other creative organisations and businesses. Ute Volz is the managing director of the centre. It has the capacity to support presentation, experimentation and production. Hold that thought (and see point 5 below for what might have been).

The final panel speaker was Ellen Mara de Wachter, exhibitions curator at the Zabludowicz Collection in North London. Founded in 1994 by Poju Zabludowicz and  his wife Anita , the Zabludowicz Collection brings art to new audiences and supports arts organisations and artists. (But follow the last link to find out where the money comes from). As she spoke I found myself nodding my head at the supportive approach to artists and to allowing projects to develop, while helping them to build their careers and profiles.

At the end of the session Nicholas Thornton, Head of Modern & Contemporary Art at NMW,  talked about recent contemporary acquistions and the support of the Derek Williams Trust in purchasing work by living artists in Wales (or, in the case of acqusitions from Artes Mundi, shown in Wales). But I’m afraid at this point my blood began to simmer.

I know that the National Museum is building a new 800m2 gallery space for contemporary art, due to open next July (2011), but am equally aware that they’ve been sitting on some significant works by Welsh artists (see opening image by Anthony Shapland – the last work to make me cry) for many years without proactively getting them out to other institutions or doing anything much to help raise the profile (and, let’s face it, the commercial standing) of those artists. I am also aware that they have made purchases from exhibitions, curated by publicly funded galleries in Wales but, rather than pay those galleries (who paid for production and promotion of the exhibitions), chose to negotiate with the artists direct, or with their London galleries (in the case of Bedwyr Williams’ Bard Attitude, made as a result of the Art Share Cymru partnership this was particularly galling).

There was no panel representation from the Contemporary Art Society for Wales, who are important collectors of Welsh art (although their policy of only showing their collection every five years is baffling), nor any input from other collectors or independent galleries in Wales.

So I left the day feeling frustrated and aware that there are still many dots to join up before Wales can have a viable commercial art market, or replicate any of the projects outlined by the guest speakers. Here’s the checklist for growing a successful commercial arts economy for Cardiff and Wales:

  1. Lively and engaged art school with an international reputation
  2. An arts council/government prepared to give fledgling commercial art galleries some pump priming funds
  3. Rich patrons
  4. Rich collectors
  5. A space with capacity for production and presentation, capable of having an international profile
  6. An arts ecology that is properly interrelated and each element equally respected
  7. A critically engaged and supportive press and media

While we’re waiting for those dots to emerge and be joined I’d recommend that everyone supports their local gallery and Welsh artists by buying art this Christmas. That’s my plan. And if you need some financial breathing space then check out the galleries with the Collectorplan logo.

Kathryn Campbell Dodd, in her Bird-in-the-House blog has given a really faithful description of the day, so please follow this link for a less ranty perspective. Meanwhile, having put the word penis in this blog, I’m looking forward to lots of interesting e-offers that will help me address my envy issues.