Monday, 12 January 2015

Sweetness and Light

At last I found myself in Cardiff with a couple of hours spare to visit the 2014 Artes Mundi (‘Art of the World’) exhibition at the Amgueddfa Genedlaethol. To be honest I was prepared to be unimpressed, after seeing the lacklustre offerings at Chapter Arts Centre.

However, the National Museum exhibition hit you in the face with a visual and acoustic maelstrom as soon as you step through the gallery doors. Chicago artist Theaster Gates presents you with three engaging installations of ‘found objects’, spotlit in a darkened room to the backing incantations of “Amazing Grace”. There are strong religious overtones everywhere. Art should engage and this definitely engaged me. Theaster Gates has an interesting background, setting up a project in Chicago selling artworks to finance the refurbishment of buildings using salvaged materials. I guess his section of slate roofing at Artes Mundi has some allusion to his interest in buildings and construction, though on closer inspection it is put together in a crude manner so flatters to deceive!

There is an architectural element in the next exhibition space, an epic one, which divides the room in three using two impressive, full height walls made from corrugated cardboard and packing tape. Contrary to its name, Carlos Bunga’s “Exodus” certainly didn’t make me leave immediately. It relates directly to the human scale and to the generous Edwardian exhibition space of the Amgueddfa. This site-specific aspect I admire. But at the same time it puts in mind those corporate team building exercises where you build a tower using balloons, straws and sellotape. Bunga’s walls are sturdy and the idea might be cute, but it seems to be put together without any love. An architect would say, like Gates’ roof, it is let down by the detailling. The artworks in the newly created white spaces are easily missed and forgettable.

Upstairs the exhibition takes a completely different turn. Renzo Martens’ chocolate sculptures have caught the imagination of the reviewers. Beyond the heady smell of cocoa, this is a presentation that raises the question of authorship as well as global issues of poverty, capitalism and exploitation. I love it!!! Beyond the tactile and sensuous nature of the chocolate self-portraits, there lies the story of an ambitious project in Central Africa. Martens (et al?) set up the grandly titled Institute of Human Activities on an ex-Unilever cocoa plantation in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This was a collective project which engaged the local population in creating art, ostensibly keeping the money and accolade for their art within Africa. But very much to the chagrine of the capitalist landowners, it seems. In 2013 Feronica (successor of Unilever) kicked them out and they had to relocate to a more clandestine location.

Collapsible pseudo paste-tables leave me cold. I passed quickly through Renata Lucas’s installation space (the hinged boards around the edge of the room were kept conveniently flat) and found myself unexpectedly at the cinema, a darkened room showing a 40 minute film in German. Video art normally does nothing for me, though this piece by Omer Fast was extremely professional indeed. If only I’d had 40 minutes spare (and a box of popcorn). Steve McQueen watch your back!

According to the visitor e-comments, cardboard walls have won the day. But Gates and Martens tick all my boxes, with their thoughtful, layered and socially engaged practise. If Gates or Martens win the 2014 Artes Mundi it will be very well deserved and I’ll be very happy. Martens in particular meets all the criteria of ‘Art of the World’ and he gets my vote. I only hope, if he wins, the award will be collected by the combined forces of the Congolese Plantation Workers Art League!!

Artes Mundi 6 exhibition continues till 22 February at the National Museum, Cardiff, Chapter Arts Centre and Ffotogallery, Penarth (winners announced on 22 January)