Shaken & Stirred at the Millennium Stadium

Male Singer,  Shirin Neshat - Turbulent, Wales Millennium Stadium 18.10.2012 EG

We sit chatting in a stadium meant for many thousands. Slowly the roof closes above our heads, the chatter fades as the sky shrinks. The giant screens switch from the blue logo of Outcasting : Fourth Wall festival to black and white.

4W screen at the Wales Millennium Stadium 18.10.2012 EG

To our left a man, his back to a theatre full of seated men; to the right, her back to us and him, a woman in a black veil stands, facing rows of empty seats. Below them both the real seats of the stadium, tipped up until the next rugby match.

The man leans forward to the microphone in front of him and starts to sing. Everyone is silent as the extraordinary, passionate song echoes around the space, bouncing into our ears and building in intensity. Even if I understood the language it would be secondary to the meaning of the performance. Across the pitch the woman stands motionless, waiting. The man steps back. His audience – on screen and off are appreciative – and he stands, looking out at us, his gaze not reaching the figure across the cavernous space.

Female Singer, Shirin Neshat - Turbulent, Wales Millennium Stadium, 18.10.2012 EG 3

A sound swells from the woman. It seems not-quite-human. The hackles on my neck begin to lift. She turns and pours out music that is so other, so different from my experience that my mind stumbles to relate it to something familiar and can’t. Visceral is a word that gets bandied about, but it feels apt here. This sound goes beyond sound or language. It is raw, pure emotion. We are transfixed. It rises, an outpouring of feeling that is as universal as the sound is alien.

She stops. It is over. The empty seats behind her remain silent. A performance for no-one. Except us. We pause as the title roll. We clap.

Shirin Neshat, the Iranian artist who gave us this extraordinary work – Turbulent (1998) – is not here, but we clap anyway because there isn’t anything else to do.

As the hackles fold back to the napes of our necks the screen brightens again. This time we are in more familiar territory. People are standing at the roadside, waiting for something. Their faces anticipatory, anxious, strained or perplexed and bored, depending on their age, experience or understanding of what the waiting is for. There are men in garish regimental ties, older men with medals and uniforms, children, women clutching flowers. Behind them a High Street like any other – bright fronted shops, street furniture. Dogs strain at their leashes. We understand that something is expected and it’s not a good thing, not something to encourage bunting and flag waving.

Katie Davies - The Separation Line, 2011

We never see what it it is but Katie Davies in her 2011 film The Separation Line creates a sense of expectation, of sadness and manages to evoke the mixed emotions that accompany any crowd gathered together to mark something important. Although the film is edited from a series of recordings made over several years, when Wooton Bassett (now Royal Wootton Bassett) was the scene of all too many repatriation ceremonies to mark the return of the bodies of soldiers killed in action far away, the film is seamless and seems to exist in a continuum of anticipation, aftermath and grief.

Again we clap. The artist is present but doesn’t rise or bow – artists can be ridiculously modest in the face of appreciation.

Again the screen switches from the blue to black and white. This too seems familiar. Old footage and a face addressing a crowd. I know this scene, Martin Luther King is about to share his dream. Will this be our rousing finale to damp down the range of emotions stirred by the last two films? No, wait a minute, that would just be an appropriation of existing footage. As King begins his defining speech his words are transmuted into the staccato of stringed instruments. The sound penetrates us through a public address system more used to accompanying a sporting fixture. As each swell of oratory reaches for punctuation, the sound burst forward. The applause from King’s crowd also bursts out of the PA, so that the whole experience becomes a pure interpretation of feeling

Donald Harding in his film MLK (2011) has transposed and re-coded something we think we understand to reveal an under layer of feeling and response.

Again, we clap, again the artist doesn’t bow.

In a half hour loop we have run through a gamut of emotions. We leave, but need to stick together a while so head for the pub while we process what’s just happened.

Artists’ film, at its best, is like a really good short story. In half an hour and three films, I was as stirred as I might have been (but often disappointingly am not) by three feature length movies. Here things are stripped down to the essentials, little details are pulled into focus, emotional peaks are reached quickly, laughs come faster. And then they’re gone.

When we set out to put on a modest festival for artists’ moving image in Cardiff, we thought we’d get some films, commission some new ones, show those and we’d try and find the right platforms and contexts for showing them. We didn’t dream of being let loose on the Wales Millennium Stadium traditionally the home of rugby, of the stadium rock gig, but we thought we’d ask and found ourselves pushing at an open door. As Roger Lewis Welsh Rugby Union Group Chief Executive, and the man in charge of all things Wales Millennium Stadium, noted earlier on the day of the screening, when he welcomed the Arts Council of Wales to the WMS for the annual conference, culture is culture, be it rugby, music, art.

So, in a place that usually reverberates with the hymns and arias of thousands of rugby fans, or the eardrum-challenging anthems of a rock concert, for one night only the stadium became something else, something equally stirring.

The first artists’ moving image festival for wales, Outcasting : Fourth Wall (O:4W) runs to November 30 in spaces and places across Cardiff, co-curated by Michael Cousin and Ruth Cayford. It is supported by the Arts Council of Wales festivals fund and Cardiff Contemporary, a new initiative from Cardiff Council. O:4W headquarters in the Queens Arcade

Creative Wales

Simon Fenoulhet - Lucent Lines 2010

The Arts Council of Wales recently announced the latest batch of Creative Wales recipients, including two Creative Wales Ambassadors. The cat, which has been wrestling in its sack for several months since the decisions were made, was finally let out of the bag at the awards event hosted by Galeri, Caernarfon (the first North Wales ceremony).

Now this is a scheme that is very dear to my heart, established not long after I started working for the Arts Council of Wales in 2002. Unlike other schemes this one allows artists to step away from their day-to-day commitments and focus on a period of experimentation, research, trial and error. It is important because it recognises that there might be some failures which, we all know, are never truly failures but rather prompts to reflect, digest and move forward.

It is, however, a tricky beast. I have watched artists’ brains on the verge of explosion as the research period leads them off in many directions at once. On the plus side this creates fodder for the years to come, but focusing down to the most fruitful areas for creative pursuit can be difficult – seeing the wood for the trees from the middle of a forest in a storm – can be hard. This is where a critical friend or a professional mentor can help to shape the work at hand.

When I was trying to prepare artists for what might lie ahead I found it easier to draw as I went along, which resulted in a series of strange beasties that I called The Art Centipede (the illustration below is a mock up I did for g39’s closing show are we not drawn onward to new era and seems to have fewer legs than I usually managed). It’s not easy to explain the creative process as it’s so particular to each individual artist, but I had noticed a pattern forming at certain points in the Creative Wales process.

It should also be said that the post CW period can be very tough. Going back to the daily grind, but this time with a mind stuffed full of potential projects and fizzing to start realising them. That’s why it’s so important to keep talking to potential galleries or supporters while the project is ongoing to stimulate a bit of interest for the next stage.

I’m glad to see so many visual  artists make the cut again (three major and three lesser awards plus an arguable seventh in Simon Whitehead) – this scheme is almost tailor made for individuals used to working alone, albeit with an inclination to collaboration, and applied artists and writers often do well here too. Luckily ACW have laughed in the face of the winds of recession and upped the kitty by £50,000, recognising that investment in creative individuals to think and dream will bear fruit for everyone further down the line.

On the visual arts front there’s a picture forming – winners have had support earlier on in their careers by the galleries and organisations who make it their business to give emerging artists space to develop. g39, for example, can boast a relationship with five awardees and another is on his way to an exhibition in their new space. They are: S Mark Gubb, Simon Fenoulhet, Miranda Whall, Simon Whitehead and Craig Wood, alongside future g39 exhibitor Paul Emmanuel (winner of last year’s Welsh Artist of the Year). They were too modest to mention that the g39 staff can claim a total of four CW awards between them: Anthony Shapland, Michael Cousin (also a CW Ambassador) and Sean Edwards (who runs the Welsh Artists’ Resource Programme Warp).

So early support is obviously vital, but there’s still no commercial infrastructure to represent artists in Wales, apart from the sterling efforts of agencies such as Mermaid and Monster. Those few who do have commercial representation often have to look outside Wales for this. Artists who have come out of the Creative Wales process often pick up big solo shows: Sue Williams* went on to be one of only two Welsh artists included in the Artes Mundi Prize exhibition. Tim Davies, one of the very first AM artists (2004) got his CW award and went on to represent Wales at the Venice Biennale of Art in 2011 and is now on the board of Artes Mundi. Both Simon Fenoulhet (after his first CW award) and Andrew Cooper have had big solo shows at the ever-supportive Newport Museum & Art Gallery (which I’ve already covered in previous blogs – Andrew Cooper here and Simon Fenoulhet here), but what next? It seems a lot of artists are running to stand still in Wales.

Andrew Cooper - Dis-Location at Newport Museum & Art Gallery, 2011

And faced with the inevitable criticism about spending money on artists when the economy goes to hell in a handcart, it’s worth remembering that the spend on arts in Wales can, if equated to the expenditure being spread over a year, amount to a morning (with time off for tea and recession-friendly, poor-quality biscuits) of the Welsh Government’s budget. And behind all of this is the still very serious question of how artists’ awards are treated by HMRC. While the big boys of the creative industries get new tax breaks in the latest budget, the approach to these awards is patchy across tax offices. Some will be taxed on it, others not and I was once told, by a helpful HMRC officer, not to ask the question as it would result in everyone being taxed. Yet the creative and cultural industries still come in as the sixth biggest earner for Wales (way ahead of sport btw), and those big commercial enterprises feed off the original ideas of our artists. So go figure.

Culture Colony were in Caernarfon for a series of conversations around Creative Wales, with past and present recipients teasing out what it is. You can watch them here

*As an aside, but to illustrate the press reaction to artists here’s a little anecdote for those of you who have bravely read to the end of this: A Sunday Times journalist, casting around for a new story after the expenses’ scandal had stalled, cornered me for a quote about Sue Williams’ perfectly serious exploration of sexuality through body casting. I had no notion that the whole thing would turn into what I now, still shuddering, refer to as ‘Buttock Gate’ (I’m not linking to this or it’ll all rear up again, do your own googling). The story went viral and it’s deeply disturbing to see yourself (mis)quoted in many languages, while the illustrative pictures accompanying the story go from the artist in her studio to a random nymphette in a pair of lacy pants. Journalists eh!

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.