Artes Mundi prize has global focus

Copy: The National, November 2012

>> The Turner Prize is obviously the most prestigious art prize in Britain, but Artes Mundi is certainly the most lucrative – the winner receiving £40,000. Focusing purely on financial reward, however, does this Cardiff-based competition a huge disservice. Unlike the Turner, this is a contemporary art prize with a global focus, and to that end, the seven finalists this year come from Sweden, Cuba, Slovenia, Lithuania, Mexico, the UK and India.

I went down to Cardiff last month for The National, as they were particularly interested in the Indian artist, Sheela Gowda. Her installation, Kagebangara, is one of the favourites for the prize, which is announced tomorrow. Comprising cylindrical tar drums sourced from Indian road workers arranged into columns,and flattened barrels hung along the wall next to bright yellow and blue tarpaulin, it’s possible to reflect on the piece as both a comment on migrant labour and a little tribute to Mondrian’s famous grid-based paintings.

Sheela Gowda

Oddly, when I spoke to Gowda, she wasn’t willing to make any real judgement on what her work means, fearful of making “superficial social comment”. But it is a powerful piece in a competition which has plenty of thought provoking entries – and a few less satisfying moments.

Teresa Margolles work, for example, is the most moving installation I’ve encountered in some time. A treatise on death and what mark it leaves, there is a bare tiled floor, once stained by the blood of a friend who was murdered. The hiss you hear as dripping water hits a hotplate is all the more arresting for its context: the water has been used to cleanse dead bodies in a Mexican morgue and thus the hiss is a cipher for the transition between life and death.

Teresa Margolles


Meanwhile, Miriam Backstrom’s tapestry is intriguing; a massive hall of mirrors which dissolves from the photographic image it first seems into something far more fragmented and unsettling. Finding the narrative in the piece is tough but rewarding – in fact, the gallery assistants call it a game.

Miriam Backstrom

And finding narratives is a key component in the single British entry from Phil Collins. His slide show of found family photographs is compelling stuff; you find yourself creating stories for these anonymous people, pondering your own photographs and what they might mean to a stranger.

It’s certainly a more profound idea than the other element to his show. Two caravans outside Chapter Arts Centre are screening his This Unfortunate Thing Between Us, which was originally commissioned by German television. The idea was to sell fantasies on a shopping channel (including a Stasi interrogation and a porn scene) and then get the public to purchase and act them out. All while Gruff Rhys from Super Furry Animals plays a suitably dark soundtrack. But it doesn’t really work: it just feels odd for odd’s sake.

Elsewhere, Lithuanian Darius Mikšys gathers together everything from a cricket ticket to a miner’s helmet in a strange room that only really makes sense when the idea is made clear: he deconstructed an essay on his work into search terms and then looked for those items in the National Museum Wales collection. It’s a neat idea but because too much is left unsaid it doesn’t quite hang together as a comment on what we keep or indeed what makes up Wales.

Talking of Wales, Slovenia’s Apolonija Sustersic’s video installation looks at the past, present and future of Cardiff Bay. It’s perhaps the crowd pleasing entry, but it’s slightly frustrating; there are some beautifully constructed sequences, and then there’s an interview seeming to come straight out of a regional news programme. And not a good regional news programme, before anyone asks.

Finally, Tania Bruguera investigates the lot of the immigrant in her work. But the poster campaign across Cardiff wasn’t up when I was there, and neither was the “moral commitment contract” gallery visitors are asked to sign. So, er, if she wins, I will either be amazed or look stupid.

Anyway, despite some misgivings, Artes Mundi is a fascinating survey of global art. My money’s on Teresa Margolles, with Gowda a close second.

Click here to read my interview with Sheela Gowda in The National


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