Entering Artes Mundi 2012, it’s immediately clear this is an exhibition with an ambitious framework. Miriam Bäckström’s large-scale tapestry dominates the wall, showing a densely populated world fragmented like the facets of a brilliantly cut diamond. It could be the interior of a busy restaurant, or a party in a loft apartment; it might be a scene from an epic piece of theatre, or an cut by a frenetic video editor. Bäckström’s world is a place of transience, where a perception of personal identity slips, slides and coalesces into a mesh of conflicting parts. The tapestry is beautifully created out of cotton, wool, satin and lurex, materials which initially seduce the viewer, but ultimately leave a more disorientating impression.
Social themes link each artist’s work, themes as diverse as migration, extra-judicial killings and the struggle for ethnic minority rights. These themes are presented in works that sometimes defy easy classification; they are many nuanced, whilst several feature additional events or happenings during the run of the exhibition to further enhance the experience of exploring the artist’s process in creating work. Tania Bruguera’s approach is probably the most extreme in this respect, a work that isn’t actually viewed in the gallery at all, but will be experienced in a series of unannounced happenings and interventions city-wide. The title of this work, Immigrant Respect Campaign, hints at the choice of such a method of delivery. Bruguera is putting the immigrant at the heart of her project; a state of being which by its very nature is shaped by flux and impermanence. A fixed exhibit in one space can’t really reflect the experiences of someone who may have to cross geographical, cultural and linguistic boundaries many times during their lifetime. So what better way to embody that state of transience than by ’embodying’ it in activities that underline a sense of disorientation and surprise?
Apolonija Šušterši adopts the strategy in reverse, bringing the outside indoors in Politics “In Space”/ Tiger Bay Project. Her starting point is the history surrounding the development of Cardiff Bay in the 1980s. An architect as well as visual artist, Šušterši is concerned with questioning the social, political and cultural influences shaping the environment we live in. Extracts from television documentary programmes, an animation feature, and interviews with local people and developers all contribute to a dialogue of ideas, primarily filtered through a video projection viewed on camp stools set out on a platform of artificial grass. A public panel discussion will also take place as part of this installation, a means to further debate the future of the Bay project. Through these means, the artist offers a work which appears to be in a constant state of evolution, one that directly impacts on Bay residents, but also has wider implications, reflecting on our environment as an ever-changing space, and not something interpreted through one model for economic revival.
Sheela Gowda’s installation Kagebangara is also concerned with the environment, namely its re-invention and its reclamation by those seemingly without power. The installation is made up of tar drums sourced from Indian road workers and tarpaulins in bright primary colours. Some of the drums have been beaten flat and are stacked up against the gallery wall, below the tarpaulin sheets. Others spill out over the floor, or form a pillar and a tunnel. One tarpaulin has even been left lying discretely in a corner, as if waiting to be unfolded and re-arranged by a visitor. The juxtaposition of these materials conjures up images of the improvised living spaces that can be found in many migrant communities outside Gowda’s native India.
Alongside the installation, there is a more intimate work based on a newspaper photograph. Heartland shows a young man under arrest. The khaki uniforms of the five soldiers behind him are picked out in watercolour, but the young man stays in monochrome outline. Again, Gowda’s image has universal appeal in a world where many minority communities are campaigning for recognition. In this instance, it’s a suspected Maxalite-Maoist insurgent captured by the Indian military, but the colour-monochrome contrast plays out a conflict of power that is readily understood even for those without knowledge of Indian politics.
Two of the selected artists have directly invited others to participate in the development of their work. Darius Mikšys’s The Code is made up of objects sourced from the National Museum of Wales’ collections, drawn from its database using ‘search terms’ selected from an essay about the artist’s work. It’s inventive and fun, and results in a magical mystery tour through Cymru spanning everything from a miner’s hard hat to a sheep drenching gun. The process has thrown up a seemingly random juxtaposition of artefacts, but what’s fascinating is the way it allows each visitor the means to explain and organise the exhibit for themselves. Phil Collins has made use of undeveloped rolls of film donated by residents from various European cities to create his installation free fotolab. He’s processed these films and used the photographs to form a slideshow. At times, the familiar turns into something more troubling in this kaleidoscopic encounter with other peoples’ lives. A boy leaning on a serving counter, his pose taut with despair, segues into a close-up of a woman with immaculately braided hair lying in an open coffin; couples dance at a provincial wedding, and a dog dances on a box in the snow.
The world of forensic medicine and the morgue imbue Teresa Margolles’s trio of works, subtle explorations of death and loss informed by the drug-related violence of organised crime found in North Mexico. 32 anos features a section of a tiled floor taken from the studio of artist Luis Miguel. The ceramic tiles display general evidence of wear and tear as well as smears of what appears to be blood. This innocuous object suddenly takes on a different slant, one reinforced by the knowledge that this was indeed the floor where Miguel was found murdered. Sonidos de la morgue is a recording taken during an autopsy. It’s a record of a legal procedure, but also evokes another world where random violence and extra-judicial killings frequently cancel out such order. Ten hot plates are lined up in a row in Plancha, each emitting puffs of hissing smoke as drops of water fall, leaving in their wake a series of singed, circular pockmarks. Margolles uses the process of evaporation to reflect on the decomposition of the dead body, but the markings building up on top of the plates also echo bullet wounds. It’s hard to imagine how the selectors for the Artes Mundi Prize will choose from such a disparate collection of work, but for me Margolles work stands out for its skilful translation of the world of forensic science into powerful and poetic meditations on loss and absence.