REVIEW: Artes Mundi @ National Museum Cardiff, 26/10/18-24/02/19

The Verse’s Jake Francis tell us about the Artes Mundi event that is happening at the National Museum of Cardiff. 

The Welsh capital of Cardiff. This city is prolific for its numerous and famed landmarks. Not least its castle, Millennium centre, and an impressive, yet ludicrous amount of Greggs franchises. Amongst these must-sees is the National Museum Cardiff, a cultural hub of the usual heritage timelines, localised treasures, and taxidermy critters. For several years, however, the museum has also been the pastoral host for the slightly peripheral, yet highly pivotal art prize; Artes Mundi.

Artes Mundi – or ‘arts of the world’ for us fearers of Latin – is an arts initiative that celebrates and supports artistic practices of a certain ‘social’ ilk. Established in 2003, the prize has set its sights on artists that contribute to and highlight the modern ‘lived experience’ of an international, contemporary reality. Aimed to provide an enriching programme of educational and cultural debate for its native Wales, the prize highlights and enables a global platform for diverse and multilingual projects. With prizes worth £40,000 for its selected winner, the biennial has solidified itself as one of the most prominent career achievements. Not just for Wales and the UK, but for the art world as a whole.

Now in its 8th edition, Artes Mundi has once again filled the museum’s temporary exhibits with a shortlist of socially engaged combatants; the final five whittled down from a gargantuan 450 nominations spanning 86 countries. This shortlist includes Anna Boghiguian, Bouchra Khalili, Otobong Nkanga, Trevor Paglen, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. (Try reciting those out loud after a few drinks, I dare you.) With Artes Mundi hosting such a concise focus on its manifesto, you’d be forgiven for assuming a lack of variation between each of these international artists. I can assure you, however, that you will be pleasantly surprised.

On entry to the exhibition, the first room clearly belongs to Anna. I use the words ‘clearly’ and ‘belong’ because, quite simply, she is the pivotal example of spatial confidence and claim throughout the entire show. A bold wash of colour and jagged divisions, Boghiguian clearly has no sympathy for the white cube and its associated sterility. A cadre of drawings, artist books, cut-outs, and installation tricks, one feels in absolute certainty that the artist has well and truly emptied her toy box. Congregated under the title ‘A meteor fell from the sky’ (2018), this mixed media explosion of styles and forms could quite easily stand as the epitome of an effigy; The Cairo based artist famed for her disparate, yet unequivocal material curiosity.

Artes Mundi 8 – Anna Boghiguian

On this occasion, Boghuiguian sets her sights on the histories of the steel industry, and the far-reaching implications associated. Constructing a timeline from ancient meteor showers to our ‘second industrial revolution’, the artist peppers contemporary news stories of trade with a personal anecdote of conversation and shared experience; a true concoction of hard facts and individual perspective. As the room bustles with surrogate figures of theatricality and mirrored floors, it’s hard to deny a duality of intrusion and inclusion within this world that Boghuiguian has crafted; we appear to all have a part to play in this infinite, unfolding narrative.

Although a stark contrast to Boghuigan’s controlled chaos, the next gallery undoubtedly shares her affinity for calculated questioning and historical analysis. Entitled ‘Twenty-Two Hours’ (2018), this video by Berlin-based artist Bouchra Khalili embodies a generational retrospective of social responsibility and identity. Centred on the relationship of mutual support between the Black Panther Party and French novelist come-activist, Jean Genet. The film offers both analogue footage and contemporary renewals. Hosted by two 20-something African Americans as narrator and interviewer – the artist delivers a surrogated timeline of communal goals and entwined commitment; with potentially uncomfortable questions thrown in at various intersections for good measure. Pondering the very nature of continuing relevance and definitions of the term ‘witness’, Khalili does not shy away from tugging at the rose tinted glasses sat firmly on the nose of history; the artist and her counterparts have no qualms in prodding common truths.
Artes Mundi 8 – Bouchra Khalili

Following Khalili only in medium, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s video ‘Invisible’ (2016) is perhaps the perfect example of that age-old idiom ‘less is more’. Notorious for his spats against native censorship, Weerasethakul’s sundry of directorial styles and mediums is internationally renowned. Despite being most famous for his feature-length works and music videos, Weerasethakul has become a staple figure within Thai cinema and its associated social commentary.

Artes Mundi 8 – Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Within this short, we are subjected to a recognisable, yet uncanny haze of mute characterisation. Echoing a flash-back of semi-remembrance, this mute narrative offers something that is both empathetic, yet troubling. Always somewhat out of focus, this ‘puppet-show’ of intimate moments feels simultaneously melancholic and celebratory; a representation always susceptible to a skewed reading. With the jarring jerk of the projectors offering the only break from Weerasethakul’s constructed silence, it’s hard to ignore the artist’s ability to inject a sense of the now into materials of the then.

Perhaps the most traditionalist in regards to curatorial choice, the next room offers a palette cleansing array of uniformed images from American artist Trevor Paglen. Regularly cited as today’s ‘landscape artist’, Paglen has most notably formed his career around negation; constantly in search of the contemporary red herrings of our time. This has commonly taken form through a highlight of the hidden – Paglen photographing and reclaiming sites not found on the average map. Arguably parallel to an operative mission set by the likes of the FBI or the CIA, Paglen ironically turns the spotlight on those he may unintentionally emulate; photographing the secret sites of confidential airbases, data collecting units, and symbols of surveillance.

Artes Mundi 8 – Trevor Paglen
On this occasion, we are treated to images of an Earthly, and intergalactic scale; Paglen displaying his images that track classified American satellites, space debris, and those infamous military bases we all half suspect to be mere old wives tales. By using an array of high powered telescopes for both of these concerns, the depravity of this duplicity is palpable; a fear usually reserved for the Orwellian novel. Entitled ‘The Other Night Sky (2007 -) and ‘Telephotography’ (2005 -), the ongoing, and seemingly endless production of these images speak more than Paglen ever could; unfortunately, the artist’s work here is clearly far from finished.

The final gallery plays host to the works of Otobong Nkanga – a purveyor of resource biography and environmental profiling. The Nigerian born, the Belgium-based artist is perhaps best paired with her co-exhibitor Anna Boghuigan; a kinship of practices that translates the human trace through a vast arsenal of materials and forms. On this occasion, Nkanga displays two sets of works under the guise of the titles ‘Manifest of Strains’ (2018) and ‘Double Plot’ (2018); each the very embodiment of cause and effect. Where the former brings a sense of traditional storytelling to the table by the form of tapestry, the latter echoes a glimpse of scientific advancement and material understanding.

Artes Mundi 8 – Otobong Nkanga

Despite the clear differences in material aesthetics, the shared concern is fiercely present; a myriad of decision, act, and consequence. Much like Weerasethakul, Nkanga also interrupts the pensive tomb of her statements with a sharp blast of noise signalling a controlled shift – moulding the very fabric of her work in real time. These sounds indicate a sudden heating of an element within ‘Double Plot’. The rail glowing red whilst sections of the metal corrode and wilts in unison. This experience, combined with the headless, renaissance-like figures of the tapestry, add a sense of repercussion and interchangeable correlation. Nkanga has constructed remnants of an abstracted, ever teetering scale; our political and social landscape counterbalanced with the trajectory of our impuissant world.

With artists such as these under the Artes Mundi belt, it is all too easy to oversimplify and gloss over detail. As it has been demonstrated by each of the exhibitors, the importance of experience is a quintessential part of a shared understanding; representation is but a hollow shell without the dialogue to fill it. Although it would be difficult to clump these individuals under one niche sign-off, this international group represent the promise of not just artists, but those who are inquisitive enough to open a discussion on our generation as a whole. That, in itself, makes them all winners in my book – regardless of the official outcome.

Artes Mundi 8 is now open at National Museum Cardiff until the 24th of February 2019. Entry is free. The winner of the prize will be announced on the 24th of January. For more information, please visit the following links:

The Verse Staff

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