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.

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).


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.

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.