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

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).

The Culture Colonists

Now I’m guessing that Anna Wintour didn’t start her career by flogging copies of American Vogue from a cardboard box but, as deputy Editor of blown magazine, I set off for Aberystwyth with said cardboard box,  some pretty pictures and assorted stationary and passengers. The rain lashed down as I did various pick-ups from Splott, Riverside and Carmarthen, looping around Wales before finally reaching my bed for the night.

In the run-up to pulling together an issue for production it takes something pretty special to drag me away from my obsessive war against missing or misplaced apostrophes, but then I was heading for an event that I couldn’t miss: the launch of Culture Colony.

Now if you’ve had your head in a bucket or don’t live in Wales you may not know about this creative community, the love child of the remarkable Pete Telfer or, to be more technical, an on-line community for creative people and organisations in Wales.

Telfer, a former cameraman for the BBC, notching up an impressive portfolio of films for such programmes as The Slate, before the Beeb dumbed down their arts content, felt it was high time to circumvent the Welsh media, who had so poorly served the arts in Wales and go, as Culture Colony’s  slogan has it: “Beyond TV”. And he has.

The site offers a non-hierarchical forum for creatives in Wales. There’s no advertising (but please subscribe to keep it going), no agendas, but high production values and a lot of film content from Telfer, who can often be found, camera clamped to his editorially incisive eye, documenting cultural activity around Wales. What’s not to love?

For the launch (it’s been going a while but the site’s just had a major re-vamp) there were no press/media, no politicians or arts administrators, just a bunch of people who believe in the power of the collective platform and of the third (fourth? fifth?) way.

I was torn between (wo)manning my stall and attending the really engaging discussions. So, in the morning I sneaked into the session to hear a really thought-provoking conversation about archiving the arts, chaired (but in an informal “let’s just have a nice chat” kind of way) by  artist Stephen West.  Dr Heike Roms talked us through her work to date on What’s Welsh for Performance, followed by Eluned Haf from Wales Arts International, talking  in Welsh at breakneck speed (props to the fantastic translator who was just a heartbeat behind her) about the need for critical debate in Wales and bigging up Culture Colony.  Richard Huw Morgan, a last minute sub, who talked about some of his previous projects, future plans (both solo and as part of good cop bad cop) and how Culture Colony has supported his latest project – the cross-over from the digital world into the world of actively supporting creativity.

Around Aberystwyth Arts Centre artists had been invited to make interventions. So we had Kathryn Dodd and Louise Bird’s White Shift – Short Shrift; Roger Loughor’s subversive road signs; Kim Fielding’s disturbing photographs and Michelle Collins’ invitation to curate her un-edited archive while wearing a badge that said ” Artist”, “Curator” or “Critic”, with sustenance provided by Pete’s mother’s cake and sundry biscuits. But I can’t pull up at this point without mentioning the rather wonderful Dartboard for Witches in  the gallery. This exhibition offers a refreshing new look at textiles in art and has been exceptionally well presented.

This was not an event, nor  is Culture Colony an organisation, that could be dreamt up in any strategy. It is driven by goodwill, vision, passion and the collegiate and collaborative nature of the arts community in Wales.

Plugging blown, as was my mission, I was suddenly conscious of the role that arts centres and organisations play in Wales. This role doesn’t fit neatly into any monitoring or assessment format but… Aberystwyth Arts Centre have put themselves squarely behind Culture Colony, who are now housed in the splendour of the Thomas Heatherwick studio spaces. I ruminated on this as blown has had so much encouragement and support from Chapter Arts Centre. The unsung part that arts organisations play in developing artists and the wider culture in Wales deserves a big shout out.

If you haven’t had a look at Culture Colony yet I urge you to do so and, if you can find the modest wherewithal to join, then get PayPal-ing forthwith.

And finally, my apologies to my loyal blog fans. I have been out and about, and can commend to you: To the Buddha Veils and Voids, at St David’s Hall, Cardiff, featuring Peter Finnemore and Jonathan Anderson (who has a show coming up at The Mission Gallery in Swansea very soon); Bystanding at g39.  I also revisited the wonderful new Mostyn Gallery and  We have the Mirrors, We Have the Plans, (sorry but you’ve missed it, but more great shows on the horizon), which was well worth a quieter visit, away from the private view hoopla; spent too little time at Re:Animate at Oriel Davies (this year’s curated Oriel Davies Open curated exhibition, featuring the full gamut of some of the most exciting moving image practice form across the UK) and did my annual pilgrimage to the  National Eisteddfod in Ebbw Vale, the gold medal for Fine Art this year going  to Simon Fenoulhet (hooray!)

More bloggery when blown issue 2 is safely at the printers (and there’ll probably be a shameless plug too).

Go West: For The Bees, Ironstone and Turning Tides

If you’re not lucky enough to live in West Wales (my former stamping ground for over 15 years) then here are some reasons to brave Arriva Trains or the caravan infested M4.

First of all there’s a really rare-as-hen’s-teeth opportunity to see sculpture in the stunning setting of Kidwelly Castle. Sculpture Cymru have done it again – filling the gaping void left by the galleries and museums in Wales and pulled another cracking show out of their collective hats.

Ironstone, at Cadw’s Kidwelly Castle, celebrates contemporary cast iron sculpture and was selected by Sir Wilfred Cass of the Cass Sculpture Foundation and he did the opening honours at the private view in July for the collected sculpture enthusiasts, including international delegates from the Sixth International Conference of Contemporary Cast Iron Art, who had taken up residence at Kidwelly Industrial Museum.

The sculpture on offer covers the range of work in this medium from the functional to the thought-provoking (and chuckle-inducing), and all points in between. I’ve written about this show more extensively in the current free blown magazine‘s July/August e-zine so please follow the e-zine link. The show runs until September 17 and is definitely worth the modest admission charge to the Castle, one of the best preserved of the Norman castles that watched over the seas and the restless natives.

On the way there or back you can visit the more urban waterfront of Swansea and call in to the golden nugget that is The Mission Gallery in Swansea to see Aled Rhys Hughes exhibition A Turning Tide. These images capture the essence of the Welsh coast and examine notions of The Seaside. They are in a sense quiet and contemplative, even in the drama of some of the images. The exhibition is half of a whole as the original project was a collaboration with the late poet Iwan Llwyd that led to a book for Gomer  Rhyw Deid yn Dod Miwn.

Elsewhere in Swansea, Owen Griffiths and Fern Thomas are worried about the bees. On Friday 6th August they brought an especially formed choir together to sing to their two bee hives, in the gardens of Swansea University. The project has already attracted a lot of media attention and is set to rack up more as the artist-duo produce records, video, drawings and project documentation to raise awareness of the decline of Britain’s honey bees.

Following the short but beautiful choral performance the audience had a chance to to view footage of the work so far in their golden caravan (see pic top) and to buy badges and prints in support of the project, quite possibly one the very last to be funded through the Stiwdio Safle progamme before it comes to an end with the wind-up of Safle, as covered in my previous blog. How artist-initiated projects will fare in the future is a topic for another day, but my cogs are already whirring on this one…