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Artes Mundi 5

National Museum Cardiff & Chapter , Cardiff, UK

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Phil Collins, This Unfortunate Thing Between Us (TUTBU) (2011)

A relational or participatory art based on some form of social engagement tended to dominate ‘Artes Mundi 5’, Wales’ leading international contemporary art exhibition and prize, the UK’s biggest at £40,000. Directed by Ben Borthwick and selected by curators Anders Kreuger and Sofiá Hernández Chong Cuy, the show made use of the newly designed contemporary galleries of Cardiff’s National Museum, as well as involving performances, screenings and video work at Chapter. 

Phil Collins’ free fotolab (2009) comprised a beautiful slideshow presentation of other people’s colour photographs. Drawn from several European countries, it was a celebration of the ceaseless surprises and often unintentional artistry found in amateur photos. The work tapped into an abiding fascination within the history of photography – William Eggleston’s turn to the everyday and colour photography, for example, was said to be inspired by watching hundreds of colour prints being churned out of developing machines at one of the first industrial photofinishing laboratories. 

But free fotolab carries another interesting dimension. Collins’ processing of people’s undeveloped rolls of 35mm films comes at a cost, with those using his service having to sign a contract granting the artist universal image rights to their private photographs. Such work, compelling and succinct, resists the idealism that can accompany art based upon social exchange by making explicit the unevenness of the transaction: I give you something but in return you allow me to use your pictures as I want. Set against the public circulation of private images on Facebook, Instagram and Flickr, Collins’ insistence on dealing with pictures made on film photography and presenting them as slides is deliberately archaic and this gives the whole a retrospective cast, an emotional yellowing. At the same time, the amateur photographer’s relinquishing copyright for free fotolab has its equivalent in the costs of the free services of social media and photo sharing sites, an exchange in which the ownership of images is also given up.   

Two of the shortlisted artists, Tania Bruguera and Apolonija Šušteršič used the institution of art as a structure through which to address particular causes and issues. Šušteršič literally constructed a platform in the gallery for a debate about Cardiff’s waterfront development, including the building of a barrage and the protests this provoked. Engaging with the local community, she made a video documentary allowing both promoters and protestors to air their views about the regeneration. This was projected on a billboard structure set on a green platform of artificial grass within the gallery – a mode of display clearly reiterating her work’s focus on city development. Šušteršič also set up a talk-show-style event in which the people she filmed were invited to come together in the museum and argue their different views. 

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Bruguera decided to not show any art in the museum. Instead, visitors were invited to sign a commitment promoting the rights of immigrants, for which they received an enamel ribbon bearing the words ‘Immigrant Respect’.  But can the affiliation and identification encouraged do more than appease middle-class guilt? Calling for the experience and rights of migrants seems also not without irony in light of the privileged nomadism of a globe-trotting art cognoscenti. As part of her work for Artes Mundi, Bruguera held workshops with young Cardiff-based immigrants and helped them present their ideas on immigration to 6 Assembly Members of the Welsh government, with the hope of influencing future policy. The logic of using an art context for social work is that the art work as such evaporates, or becomes dissipated and dispersed in events and situations outside the more familiar boundaries and conventions of what art is. Opening art out to other disciplines and knowledges also brings with it the problems and dangers of amateurism, as artists engage with situations in which they are not always experts.

Bruguera’s more traditional artistic identity was not however fully done away with. For one night she presented a version of her performance Tatlin’s Whisper #5 (initially held at Tate Modern (2008)) at the National Museum. In this spectacular event, two riot police mounted on horses (and a reference to Jannis Kounellis’ famed exhibition of 12 horses in a gallery in Rome in 1969) entered the museum and demonstrated crowd-control tactics on the audience, allowing them the thrill of experiencing a manifestation of state power, but at the same time always safe in the knowledge that they were not on the street. The oblique title is apparently a reference to the present’s weakening of the historical moment when art exalted in the ideals of a socialist revolution – a moment exemplified by Tatlin’s proposed but unrealized Monument to the Third International.   

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Miriam Bäckström’s sumptuous photo tapestry was unequivocal in its status as art – a large-scale curving screen (three metres high by 12 metres wide) hung within the first gallery room. Titled Smile as if we have already won (2012), it created an optical puzzle with its textile surfaces translating photographic source images of interior spaces and figures fragmented by mirrors. Its back, akin to the negative of a positive image, was as fascinating as its front. Bäckström’s Motherfucker, a play performed at Chapter, concentrated on the tensions and shifting behaviour of its two actors, one female and male. The demanding roles involved switching between being in character and the supposed more natural mode of not acting – underlined by the man’s frequent address to the audience as well as to the cameras placed on tripods around the actors, projecting live feeds of their performances onto surrounding screens. Here one supposed was a theatrical equivalent of the scattering and fracturing of images in the tapestry. 

Lithuanian artist Darius Mikšys’s The Code (2012) involved a display of disparate and unrelated artefacts and objects from the National Museum’s collections, their selection apparently determined by search categories based upon certain words used in the accompanying catalogue essay about his art. This quirky and hermetic gesture was continued in his Artists’ Parents Meeting (2012), which involved inviting parents of artists exhibiting at Cardiff at the time of Artes Mundi to a closed meeting – the event recorded in the form of drawings. Art here turned inwards not outwards in its musing on authorship. 

The Mexican artist, Teresa Margolles, this year’s prizewinner, often produces works based upong the tragedies of violent deaths in her country. Her pathos-laden use of materials set up a kind of morgue kitsch. The display of a minimalist slab of tiles was evidently taken from the floor on which an artist friend was murdered. In the more elaborate sculptural installation, Plancha (2010) water – apparently taken from washing corpses in a Mexican morgue – ceaselessly dripped on ten spot-lit heated steel plates, staining their surfaces with limescale (and other, more speculative and bodily) deposits in the process.

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Sheela Gowda’s deliberate formal configurations of tar drums and coloured tarpaulins, Kagebangara (2008), were set against their original context and use by roadside workers in India. Two cultures and economies were brought into uneasy relation in this aesthetic display that also included one of the makeshift living spaces the workers would construct from such elements. 
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Originally broadcast on a German digital TV channel over two nights and before a live audience, Phil Collins’ This Unfortunate Thing Between Us (TUTBU) (2011) was presented on televisions inside two caravans outside Chapter. By far the strongest artwork in this year’s exhibition, it offered a brilliant and hilarious send up of trashy TV entertainment. Creating a teleshopping programme selling experiences as commodities, Collins deployed stand-up comedians, porn stars, television presenters and musicians to entice people to phone in and buy one of three experiences, at only €9.99, discounted to €7.99 for students, pensioners and the unemployed. One could either undergo a Stasi-style interrogation, perform in a porn scene set in the Victorian era or have the chance to wake from a coma in a hospital and tell gathered relatives what you really think of them. On the first night, such experiences were demonstrated by actors, while on the second night the purchasers were given the leading roles. For all the farce and comedy in this work, it still raised important questions about our culture’s compulsive need to commodify and market aspects of human behavior and desire, explicitly implicating the viewer in the process through the participating consumers who publically act out – on stage, on TV and in art – their experiences and fantasies of choice.

Mark Durden


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About this review

Published on 22/01/13
by Mark Durden


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