Emma Geliot's picture

202 Artes Mundi

The dust has settled, the bun-fights abated, the solemn columns of curators have flown back to their icy lairs, so perhaps now is the right time for a fast rundown of Artes Mundi 6 from Ric Bower.

If you have had a hard day then head down to Ffotogallery's Turner House outpost first and lose yourself in Ragnar Kjartansson's nine screen installation. The Visitors (2013), is based on a musical performance staged in upstate New York's Rokeby Farm with the artist and his closest friends, many of whom are renowned musicians. They perform in separate rooms of the old house, apparently synchronised by some kind of technological wizardry. The Visitors takes its title from ABBA s final album and features lyrics based on a poem written bysd s Sif Gunnarsd ttir and musical arrangements by the artist and David por Jonson. I achieved a PB (personal best), 42 minutes (of the total 64 on offer), for sticking out for an artist's video work. To be honest the only reason I broke off my engagement was that I could have done with a beer for company. The premise is delightfully simple, exquisitely executed and yes, for once, it actually needs all of those screens. I was awash with warm fuzzy feelings ten minutes in; it was the cultural equivalent of a long soak in a hot bath - excitingly, Ragnar shows off his willy towards the end too. Where do we seek affirmation of our humanity nowadays? In the gallery as The Visitors posits? Perhaps... but I am with Theodor Adorno: I think art makes us a promise of happiness that it should not, or perhaps even cannot, keep.

I can see why Sanja Ivekovi was curated into AM6: she has a fine provenance as an artist/activist. Her presentation Gen XX downstairs at Ffotogallery feels somewhat timorous next to Ragnar's extravaganza. She appropriates magazine advertisements featuring professional models replacing the branding and logos with the formal charges and execution dates of young female anti fascist militants who were imprisoned, tortured or executed by the Quisling regime in Croatia during WWII. Next door The Disobedients employs cuddly toy donkeys as display cased surrogates for individuals who resisted injustice in Nazi Germany. In case we for some reason did not get the message, through blindness, or drunkenness or perhaps even both, each donkey is meticulously named after an individual who fought against unjustness.There is helpfully explanatory archive image showing a Nazi officer and a donkey fenced in with barbed wire in front of a crowd on Kassel's Opernplatz. The 'concentration camp for stubborn citizens' was constructed as a warning not to buy from Jews. Ivekovi 's work evoked in me profound annoyance, not at the injustices she is so rightly reminding us of, but for the linear and didactic way in which she communicates.

Photographing Carlos Bunga's architecturally scaled installation in the National Museum Cardiff felt pointless. It is an experience of controlled immersion that any flattened expression will never do justice to. Bunga uses a limited palette of brown cardboard, brown packing tape and emulsion paint. The rigorous control of his choice of materials frees him to explore fully their expressive potential. The forms he constructs respond directly to the environment in which they are constructed and echo a plethora of architectural motifs (Gordon Matta-Clark, for instance) lending weight to his own narratives of ephemerality. The work, entitled Exodus, resembles a pop-up Doric temple, identical repeating columns of cardboard forming a towering corridor quietly mocking the permanency of the museum space. The play on a familiar architectural form makes the disrupted proportioning of his pedestals, fluting and architraves seem like the film set for some imagined futuristic public space. The quiet gravitas of the work is undermined by the tentative inclusion of other smaller scale pieces.




 Ric Bower


You Are the Prime Minister, Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, 2014, Installation, neon sign, 220x12cm, Courtesy waterside contemporary, London, photo credit: Ric Bower


Chapter Cafe has been invaded by giant Thatchers, well not actually Maggies but Meryls; not that the enthusiastic defacers, who have added biro slogans and a Hitlertache seemed to notice - and this is kind of the point. In the gallery, Mirza and Butler s The Unreliable Narrator, a dual screen video work, a voice speaks of the 2008 Mumbai attacks alternately from a position of the terrorists and then from the position of a seemingly impartial commentator. The video, sourced from CCTV recordings of the siege, together with telephone conversations between the attackers and their controllers, is interspersed with Bollywood depictions of terrorist atrocity. The manufactured, manipulated and then projected symbol consistently wields power beyond the gamut of any traditional notion of truth. The viewer is denied the comfort of a narrative that is not consistently disjointed, disrupted and subverted. I am left feeling uncomfortable and somehow implicated in that which I might, or might not, have actually witnessed.

You are the Prime Minister is the title of the installation that greets upon entering the gallery space. The statement belongs to a larger text from a scholarship exam for thirteen years-old boys entering Eton College, an elite school that trained 19 of Britain s Prime Ministers and 12 members of the current government. Lines of school desks have on them the exam paper ready to sit down at and write answers on, inviting implication by aspiration - to be part of the hegemony of control. The theatrical presentation of the room, replete with red curtains and neon sign, in my view, does not aid engagement with the work, but is perhaps an understandable device in the context of a big, loud, international show and the proximity of a very noisy cafe. To understand Mirza and Butler's work you need to understand Mirza and Butler and to do this read my interview with them in issue 3 of CCQ - who they are and what they do, as ever, are inseparable.

If there were any artist that needed a neon sign announcing her work, it would be Sharon Lockhart. Her quiet, documentary responses to the lives of industrial workers, entitled Lunch Break, requires a swift change in mental pace. The beautifully composed and observed large format images of workers on lunch at Bath Iron Works are interspersed with still life presentations of a few actual physical found objects to ground the narrative in space and time. The accompanying film, Exit, is alock-off on the workers leaving the plant after their shift, shot over a five day period. Her work is deeply traditional, it does not in any way rail against the confines of its medium, as say, Chanarin and Broomberg's practice might attempt.

Renzo Marten's work is split between Chapter, where he is showing his film Episode 3 (Enjoy Poverty) and The National Museum where chocolate sculpted self-portraits, created by Congolese plantation workers, are located. In the film we witness Martens visiting the ruined Congo, interviewing photographers, plantation owners and locals; playing the role of western journalist, colonist, missionary and aid worker or, as he put it to me in interview,the white tit . He posits poverty to be Africa's biggest export and. as with other natural resources, it is exploited by the western world through the media. He tells locals that poverty must be seen as commodity and encourages them to sell their own photographs of starvation and death rather than let western journalists profit from them. The film is carefully positioned to press buttons but then, at the same time, makes our ramshackle rafts of charitable self-satisfaction very difficult to keep afloat. The self -portraits in the museum are unmistakably African and, as such, are redolent of early modernist expressions of the human form, which African artefacts so directly influenced. Martens takes on the Beuysian role of cultural shaman or prophet. He makes little with his own hands but his mark is on everything, right down to the provocatively prominent commercial branding of the chocolatiers commissioned to cast the self-portraits in the museum. I was a slightly disappointed that he chose to cast the self-portraits in chocolate; it was conceptually, what you might call, the obvious option.




 Ric Bower


A Complicated Relationship between Heaven and Earth, or When We Believe, Theaster Gates, 2014, Mixed media Freemason's bucking goat, cart, track, photo credit: Ric Bower


In When We Believe (2014), also at the museum, we are told,Theaster Gates is bringing together a series of objects from different continents and cultures that have been used by people as vehicles to realise their individualhigher selves . These include a boli from Mali, to ward away spirits and protect crops and a goat on a bike, used in masonic initiation ceremonies . His collection of symbolic objects, so the blurb continues,challenges the euro-centric mapping of Christianity that marginalises other religious traditions . All the above is undoubtedly true, but conveys nothing of the sheer aesthetic power the objects carry. That noise of the goat on the train track... I can still hear it now.



 Ric Bower


A Complicated Relationship between Heaven and Earth, or When We Believe, Theaster Gates, 2014, Mixed media Boli, metal armature, wheeled cart, light, photo credit: Ric Bower


I am aware of that I have, at times, complained bitterly when an artist feels the need to embellish an excellent video work with piles of charity shop tat masquerading as installation. My wife taught me that if you give someone five gifts for their birthday they become suspicious that you are just trying to get rid of stuff. Omer Fast s film Continuity however, suffers from the opposite problem - the production values are very high and there is only the film on show. But sitting on a plastic couch in the bowels of National Museum Cardiff, without popcorn or beer, my back to the door where a bunch of strangers are milling about suspiciously, is never going to be a particularly feng shui viewing experience. Artists seem to forget that they are communicating to people,real people. And when presentations are super slick wereal people need to be offered something human, something material and fleshy to grab on to, an object perhaps or a crack in the production values (Thomas Demand does this well), otherwise usreal people , have a tendency to slide right off the plastic couch. Give Continuity to me on DVD, I will test drive it home from my well-farted-in couch with an ice cold Amstel in my hand; and if I don t like it I can always carry on with that box set of Homeland 3 I am so enjoying at the moment.

I completely failed with Renata Lucas Falha (Failure 2003). I had lost interest in the visually uninspiring installation of B&Q leftovers by the time I had trawled through the unmitigatedly obfuscating wall-drivel, something about language, I think... yeah, whatever.

Overall Artes Mundi 6 is an amazing show. Hats off to the dedicated team headed up by Karen McKinnon and make sure you get yourself down there before it closes. There will be full interviews with Carlos Bunga and Renzo Martens in our December edition.

Artes Mundi 6 is on at Chapter, National Museum, Cardiff,and Turner House, Penarth until 22 February 2015.www.artesmundi.org


Image Credit:

Top: Mbuku Kipala, Self Portrait without Clothes, Renzo Martens and The Institute for Human Activity, 2014, Chocolate, 33 x 30,84 x 33,58 cm, Courtesy of Institute for Human Activities, Galerie Fons Welters, Amsterdam, photo credit: Ric Bower