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!

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What you see….

Newport Museum and Art Gallery has just been transformed into somewhere magical as it hosts Cardiff artist Simon Fenoulhet’s latest offering Lucent Lines,  which opened last Saturday (30 January) and runs until 3 April.

Fenoulhet is an artist that takes the most mundane and prosaic objects and Rumplestiltskins them into extraordinary objects and installations. In this show it’s neon bright plastic drinking straws, bootlaces and plastic piping, but this isn’t apparent at first.

And that’s what’s so good about this work, behind the beautiful and engaging works there are layers of thinking and, in the case of the curtain of illuminated straws, some mighty complicated technology. However, as Dr Kieran Lyons, Programme Leader for Fine Art at University of Wales, Newport said when he opened the show, “what you see is definitely not what you get”.

As you look at the three works they dance and sing with their inherent light, dazzling the eye so that it takes a while to realise that the pulsing, rippling neon curtain is, in fact, thousands of drinking straws, threaded onto electro-luminescent wire , programmed to switch on and off in response to a data feed from a pixel slice of a video (I told you it was complicated). My companion on the day went mad looking for the projector until I told her that the rippling was coming from inside.

The glowing red floor piece looks like an arrangement of fluorescent red lights, until you remember that they don’t come in red, take a closer look and realise that they’re just plastic pipes with red LED lights inside. The abstract charcoal drawing is, in fact, a series of black bootlaces, their fuzzy edges echoing the idiosyncrasies of the hand- drawn mark.

I’ve known Simon Fenoulhet for more years than either of us cares to remember and have always been a fan of his championing of the overlooked, the ordinary. When he first showed me his early experiments with electro-luminescent wire it was in his studio and was just a single strand, suspended from the ceiling. Then he turned the lights off, flicked a switch and started to describe what he wanted to do and I was hooked.

No description is going to do this show justice so I strongly recommend that you see for yourself. The majority of Fenoulhet’s work is made to commission and for a specific site, so when the show’s over, it’s packed away and only exists in the memories of those who saw it, although these works are probably more tourable than his last major show at the Glynn Vivian Art gallery in Swansea, but don’t wait for the tour go and see it…now!

And it’s worth seeing the newly titivated Museum and Art Gallery (NMAG) in John Frost Square. For a while it was stuck in the middle of a major development that stalled with the credit crunch, but things are moving again and looking up for the gallery. They’ve also re-hung some gems from their collection, but it’s the accommodation of some curatorially challenging installation work in a space designed for hanging pictures that’s really impressive. Congratulations are due to Sandra Jackaman, Shaun Featherstone and the team at NMAG and, of course, to Simon Fenoulhet.