We finally got around to visiting the Artes Mundi 4 Prize exhibition at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff this week. It’s an interesting project; the prize is awarded every two years and at £40,000 it is one of the largest arts prizes in Europe. However, rather than being established to promote the work and talent of artists in Wales it’s aim is to bring art into the country from all across to globe to highlight the cross-cultural impact that art can have. As a result Artes Mundi 4 features work from as far away as Peru and from little known countries such as Kyrgyzstan which is sandwiched to the east between Kazakhstan and China. Needless to say, having taken in some of this information prior to our visit we were looking forward to an exciting array of international arts.
The first work we encountered was that of Peruvian artist Fernando Bryce. The room‘s walls had been covered with framed hand drawn copies of pages from newspapers from the turn of the twentieth century. Bryce has meticulously copied the pages from newspapers and books in Indian ink and re-presented them to us here in the gallery. The majority of these newspapers were European or North American and due to the glut of information that was presented it took us some considerable time to make our way around the room.
Unfortunately we are not a linguistically gifted bunch and so we had to decipher what we could from the content presented in foreign languages through the accompanying images and the occasional recognisable words. It was certainly an interesting exhibit. Reading the propaganda and stories about political and social upheavals that were appearing in the newspapers at the time with regard to what is happening in the world today gave us cause to pause for thought. However, the display felt more akin to a museum exhibit than a work of art. We struggled to understand Bryce’s need to have spent what must have been some considerable amount of time copying these articles. There was nothing apparent in his drawings that appeared to suggest that he had added anything to them physically or philosophically, and Artes Mundi’s claims that his “process of copying, highlights the ways in which facts are constructed, culture is described and history is reported” seem somewhat unfounded. We felt that he could have highlighted these points equally as well by presenting the originals or even photo copies thereof.
Having examined Bryce’s drawings we moved on to a look at a series of photographs by Olga Chernysheva entitled “Cactus Seller”. The images appeared to have been taken inside a natural history museum of sorts. The monochromatic series featured shots of empty spaces and taxidermied museum exhibits that were interspersed with images of an old man looking after a collection of cacti with a small stall in the foyer of the museum. The man in question was not posing for the photographs but going about his business apparently unaware that he is being observed. He is presented in such away that he seems as if he is as much a part of the museum’s exhibit as the artefacts featured in some of Chernysheva’s other images.
There was also a reel of Chernysheva’s videos playing at the exhibition although we didn’t stumble across these until later due to the way in which the show had been curated as they had been separated from her photographs by another artists work. There were three videos roughly shot from afar at what appeared to be community events in her homeland of Russia. The most interesting of these was footage of some young boys dressed in military uniforms looking somewhat uncomfortable and unable to stand still. Next to them a troupe of slightly older cheerleaders were performing some rather lacklustre routines whilst a band played a repetitive tune across the top of the whole event. It was the children’s apparent discomfort that was most appealing about this video. We’re sure that it was not the dressing up that was causing them such discomfort but that they had clearly been made to adopt the role of adults for the purpose of this event, for example, as guardsmen standing to attention.
Chen Chieh-jen’s videos explored ideas relating to migration and consumerism with one video relating to each theme on display at the exhibition. The first of these that we watched was filmed at an airport and consisted of a number of Taiwanese women recounting stories about their attempts to get visas to visit the US. The second, “Factory” was a beautifully shot silent film shot in a derelict factory in Taiwan. We found the first of these two videos the more engaging which was perhaps down to the human stories that were being recounted. However, upon reflection it was perhaps the latter that we enjoyed the most. Without the stories as a sound track to the work we felt more freedom to absorb the imagery and give consideration to the spaces presented in relation to the theme that Chieh-jen. Although engaging, both the videos could certainly gone further to explore the themes at their core. In “Empire’s Borders”, for example, the medium could have been used to much greater effect. The static shots of the women telling their stories did to add a great deal to the work and as it stands. We didn’t feel the work would have lost much add it have been just audio.
Yael Bartana’s politically motivated work consisted of three videos and a couple of posters which had been produced en masse and were available for visitors to take home. One of these was a pictogram explaining how to create a wooden tower similar to that featured in one of the videos, “Wall and Tower”, and the second was a manifesto. Unfortunately we failed to fully appreciate the film, “Wall and Tower”, which is perhaps a result of our own ignorance with regard to world history. We’ve since been undertaking a little investigation and will be back to watch it again in due course.
Of the video works on display it was certainly the most filmic and was extremely enjoyable as we watched a group of people dressed as workers march into Poland where they proceeded to construct the said wall and tower of the title. The film clearly shows the creation of this structure in a public space and so the video becomes both a documentary as well as a political statement. Given the level of production in the video we were left in no doubt that the work was being presented as more than just a documentary. It would be interesting to compare the reactions of those people viewing the video with those who encounter the construction of the wall and tower.
Possibly the most disappointing work to be included in Artes Mundi 4 was the work of Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev from Kyrgyzstan. Their work documents life along the silk roads of their homeland along which silk would have once been transported from Asia to Europe. Of course transport has moved on since these times and now the Kyrgyzstani people are left to make their living by any means they can. A number of photographs provided us with examples of the way in which these people do this, for example, by driving caravans of lorries full of scrap metal into china for smelting and recycling. Although interesting to observe the life which these people live the artists really offered no critical insight into their subject. In addition to these photographs we were presented with an enormous five panel video installation. Again we saw images of people working and trucks travelling along the silk roads. As the videos unfolded we got a feel for the rhythm of life along the silk road but from a visual point of view we felt that Kasmalieva and Muratbek failed to make great use of the five video screens.
There was yet more video installation work on display from Ergin Çavu?o?lu. “Liminal Crossing” was one of our favourite works at this year’s exhibition as we watched, what appeared to be, a family pushing a piano across the border at the crossing between Bulgaria and Turkey. It is a very real place and there is real sense of struggle as the protagonists push the piano along despite the grim weather and steadily failing light. There was a magical quality to the film that drew us in as we watched them working together to pass through the border control. The video was edited in such a way that real sense of time passing was created. It provided a beautiful metaphor for life, of the passing from one place, one point in time, to another.
We weren’t so fond of the second of Çavu?o?lu’s video installations which was comprised of three screens and appeared to be shot in the Hebridean islands. It again dealt with ideas of time and place. The focus of this work was a father and son whom we assumed were being played by actors since dialogue between them felt scripted and unnatural.
The final work we viewed was that of Adrian Paci. Having already spent the best part of five hours taking in the work on show we must admit that we only skirted around his large tempura painted “Facades”. These large free standing paintings presented us with a brief story as the panels were divided up into squares each depicting different picture in the manner of a story board.
Although we might’ve not given these paintings the time they deserved we were very happy that we’d waited for Paci’s 35mm film, “Per Speculum”, to rewind. It was a beautifully shot and very cleverly staged piece. We were shown a group a children in an idyllic setting in a lush green landscape with clear blue skies above. As the camera pans out we realise that it is a reflection of the children we are seeing in a mirror that is fixed in the ground. This idyll is shattered when one of the boys throws a stone at the mirror mutilating the reflection of the children. We then see the children taking the shards of glass sitting in a tree and reflecting the sun towards the camera. The camera pans out so far that we can no longer see the children but just the reflections of the sun bouncing across the screen. A real sense of magic is created as the light dances randomly across this idyllic backdrop. The work conjures up ideas of worlds within worlds and asks us to question that which we believe to be real. It was a fantastically poetic way to end the exhibition.
The Artes Mundi 4 exhibition is open until 6 June 2010 at the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff. Entry is free so there is no excuse not to go and see it if you are in the area, we’ll certainly be back for more. Of course we will be waiting excitedly to hear who will be awarded with the grand prize on the 19 May.