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

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