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.

Writing The Future

Richard Higlett from Welcome to You World g39 @The DairyThe last month or so have been incredibly busy and it’s going to take me a while to catch up, but two things have happened in the last few days that raise a lot of questions and signal some potentially very positive things, so I’m going to try to weld them together.

The first happened last Saturday, when I went along to the New Critics Day at the Welsh College of Music and Drama. This was the culmination of a joint initiative put together by Literature Wales and National Theatre Wales to stimulate critical writing about theatre in Wales. The first cohort of mentored new critics came to share their experiences of covering NTW’s first year of productions with their mentors, The Guardian‘s Elisabeth Mahoney and Lyn Gardner (and you can read Gardner’s blog about the day here).

Now with the focus of the day on Welsh theatre and largely reviews, or the lack of them, in the (UK) national press, plus the inevitable kicking of The Western Mail‘s critical engagement, I wanted to consider how the what was said related to the visual arts. If Theatre thinks it’s got it bad, contemporary art in Wales and its communities can seem invisible.

One transferable thought came through, that without reviews and a wider critical dialogue around work, we lose opportunities on all fronts. Artists and curators don’t get the feedback they need to help them move on; potential audiences miss out on conversations that offer a way in to work that can often be challenging, daunting, perplexing but often inspiring (not a word I use often). Without the access to ideas, to critical conversations, how can audiences be expected to engage with contemporary practice? And if they can’t engage who will advocate for the arts in a climate where the chilly winds of the recession are whistling up everyone’s jumpers?

Hold that thought for a moment, as I go on to event number two. The launch of the rather sexily entitled strategic vision from  Stevens & Associates and Holder Mathias architects for Cardiff Council – Establishing Cardiff as Europe’s Largest Contemporary Art and Design Gallery: A Clever, Creative and Collaborative Cardiff Solution (yes, really).

I say strategic vision, but at this stage it’s more of an ambition as the meat isn’t on the bones of how it will be delivered yet. However the aim is  to get Cardiff on the European contemporary art and design map in five years, using existing organisations and resources to create a critical mass and profile for the plethora of activity in the Capital City.

This, I’m reasonably convinced, comes out of a pragmatic response to the Arts Council of Wales and National Museum of Wales’ joint study into the Future Display of Art in Wales, by consultants DCA  and the subsequent report, by ABL Consulting (who seem to have vanished, along with all traces of their report), that looked specifically at a National Centre for Contemporary Arts (non-collections based) for the Arts Council of Wales. That report concluded that a) such a centre should be in Cardiff and b) that it would cost around £40m, which put the wind up everyone in 2008, with then Heritage Minister, Alun Ffred Jones parking it as something to be considered in the future.

In the interim the National Museum has been able to deliver their stunning new galleries for Modern and Contemporary art, creating a new focus and context for contemporary art in Cardiff, but with no municipal art gallery to match the ambitions of The Depot project (part of the close, but not close enough bid for Capital of Culture 2008 bid) there is no real focal point (Chapter Arts Centre aside) for the fizz of activity in Cardiff.

So, it was a rallying day, with lots of feedback and suggestions from those present, including a heartening number of artists and curators, in stark contrast to the launch of @Creative Cardiff, but no real clear way forward.

Now it seems to me that this could go several ways – it could end up being a joint marketing exercise (although we were assured that this wouldn’t be the case) or it could signal real investment in the visual & applied arts and design in Cardiff from Cardiff Council, focussing on supporting activity rather than infrastructure (those with long memories are still smarting from the collapse of the Centre for Visual Arts). Where this investment will come from remains to be seen, but it’s obvious that Cllr Rodney Berman, Leader of Cardiff County Council is quite passionately and emphatically behind this.

So back to the first event – I promised they linked up somewhere – the problem with arts activity in Cardiff isn’t its paucity, it’s the lack of critical coverage to draw attention to it, to address the sometimes variable quality of what’s produced and to boost Cardiff up the search rankings for cultural tourists.

Supporting new critical writing is all very well, but it needs a platform. Who will be covering this year’s Experimentica, Made in Roath and tactileBOSCH’s colonisation of Cardiff under the MOIST umbrella, which links the two festivals and more besides? Where are the reviews for the current shows at Chapter and g39 (image above from Richard Higlett’s Welcome To Your World at g39’s temporary home in Pontcanna)? It’s clear that the Western Mail just doesn’t have the staffing capacity or the resources to cover these things, except as listings, so a concerted effort will be needed to create outlets for critical conversations.

We’ve got Pitch* on Radio Cardiff, we’ve got blown ** magazine  and Culture Colony is proving to be an important online forum across art forms in Wales (I’m not ashamed of plugging three projects close to my heart) and more magazines launching soon, but we need to be getting this stuff into the Nationals, onto the telly and generally out there if the Cardiff initiative is to succeed. And if it does it’ll have a very positive impact on the rest of Wales.

Anyway, watch this space for new developments, and if anyone has the answers, on a postcard (or more digitally, in the comment box) please.


* Read Elisabeth Mahoney’s review of Pitch for The Guardian here
** And Peter Finch’s blog take on blown here