Messy Lines in Cardiff: International meh

Artes Mundi 8, National Museum Cardiff, until 24th February 2019, free

I don’t think it reflects *that* badly on me that for the decade I’ve been going to Cardiff twice a year, I’ve never before been inside the main museum.  I go to see friends, and that’s what we do – have fun, have some drinks, maybe go for a hungover spot of fresh air on the Sunday.  But this trip, we had time to do more.  Thanks to the whims of the footie scheduling we had plenty of time between the Reds’ glorious win and the festivities kicking off to check out what the city’s biggest museum had to offer.

What this was on this occasion was Artes Mundi 8, the exhibition of the UK’s largest contemporary art prize.  It’s not restricted to the UK, though, with featured artists coming from across the globe.  So a great chance to discover some new and exciting artistic innovations?  Probably should have been: the problem is, it’s just not.

Anna Boghiguian, steel figures, bright painting, mirrors
Anna Boghiguian

Let’s start with the good.  Trevor Paglen’s photographs (featured image) were my highlight.  Taken from two separate series with a shared theme of surveillance, Paglen knows how to get a photograph to create a dialogue with its audience.  In the middle of a moment of staring into the beauty of space, you remember that this particular space contains a satellite that is staring back.  The images from Limit Telephotography, meanwhile, set up a bounce-back of perspective between us and the surveillance teams that we are surveying, whilst also being slight disorienting in themselves.  I also mostly enjoyed Anna Boghiguian’s installation A Meteor Fell From the Sky, which evokes science fiction in its investigation of the human uses of steel and their implications.  The mirrors on the floor are perhaps a little gimmicky, and the figures side room too obvious in comparison to the main display.  But she’s set up a nice narrative and mostly followed it through.

Twenty-Two Hours
Bouchra Khalili’s narrator, who deserves a better script.

Unfortunately, this is then followed (by virtue of the space, the display is sequential) by a work that left me feeling really cross: Bouchra Khalili’s Twenty-Two Hours. It’s a film about the witnesses to racial injustice in the USA in the 60s-70s and events around the Black Panther Party.   The style hovers poorly between artistic interrogation and television documentary, doing neither very well.  There’s too many jarring and unnecessary jumps, too much deliberate, affected speech that feels like what bad art does when it wants to labour to the viewer that it’s MAKING A POINT HERE.  This is all the worse, and made me so particularly angry, because this is a genuinely valuable and interesting subject that could resonate with how we view and respond to contemporary politics.  But it doesn’t, because it’s a bad film. I was just left feeling a mix between angry and bored.

As for the work by the two other artists, it felt…inconsequential.  Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s dual-screen slides projections are rather dull.  I kept wondering when the juxtaposition of images was going to mean something, but it never seemed to.  I was more intrigued by elements of Otobong Nkanga’s work,  but not particularly enthralled.  The sculpture Manifest of Strains feels like a clever idea that doesn’t actually make the point the wall text claims it wants to.  I got that it linked to the tapestry, but felt like these were two parts of a bigger whole, with something missing.  I’d like to see more of her work – I suspect it might click more then.

Slides by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, two people
Apichatpong Weerasethakul

I know I’m a writer who likes a lot of things.  I worry about this, sometimes – that I’m almost too positive in looking for the point/ essence of what artists create.  In a weird way, then, it was something of a personal relief to leave Artes Mundi 8 feeling annoyingly underwhelmed.  Cardiff is a nice city, a major city.  If this is the pinnacle of the contemporary art its shown, it deserves better than this.  The art prize world needs to do better than this: Paglen should win this one, he’s not up against strong competition.  I don’t know if its the artists, jurors or way its been displayed, but someone in the setup for this needs to have done better.

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