Comment | Participation and Political Space

Asana Greenstreet takes a look at the latest efforts across Wales to increase public participation and political space as part of a greater drive to develop a civic society.

Art galleries want to capture audiences and involve them in contemporary art discourse. They do this through public engagement programmes by offering a series of talks, performances or practical sessions that explore the current exhibition. The Arts Council Wales released the ‘Coming of Age‘ annual report which stated that the Arts Council would have increased levels in attendance and participation in the arts in Wales by 3% by the end of this year. What’s interesting here is not the percentage, but how the galleries go about the task.

Artes Mundi is an exhibition currently at the National Museum in Cardiff. Artist Tania Bruguera uses art in order to address the politics of daily life. First performed at Tate Modern in London, Tatlin’s Whisper #5 (2008), is one of the unannounced events included by the artist as part of her entry to the exhibition. In this performance, Bruguera attempts to reach out to audiences by inviting them to participate in the performance. Therefore the artist does not represent politics, but political situations, as she told Kathy Noble in an interview for Frieze magazine in January 2012.

Political Art and Political Performance in Cardiff

For Artes Mundi, Apolonija Šušteršič’s Politics “In Space” / Tiger Bay Project (2012), considered the contentious history of Cardiff Bay in the late 1980s. Its development into today’s Mermaid Quay saw the predominantly Somalian community increasingly detached from the area where they had settled. This project in cultural tourism – truly political and locally relevant – did not win the artist the prize.

These ideas are important this year as much as they were 20 years ago because they are relevant to Cardiff’s current social makeup. So much so that National Theatre Wales is now working with a group of Somali poets from the Butetown area of Cardiff to produce ‘De Gabay’ (‘The Poem’) – a one-off production happening next March. The poets will perform work that speaks about their lives, firstly as Somalis, and secondly as Somali-Cardiffians. I spoke to Mathilde López from NTW, who told me that the company embraced the project ‘to make Cardiff aware of the Somali culture at their doorstep’.

Apolonija Šušteršič’s Politics “In Space” / Tiger Bay Project Political Space
Apolonija Šušteršič’s Politics “In Space” / Tiger Bay Project

A Critical Mass for Political Art

In an effort to bring together a critical mass, and coinciding with the relaunch of its new website, Wales Arts Review held its first Critics’ Round Table discussion on the 17 November 2012. The theme that started the discussion was the historic lack of criticality in the arts in Wales. In a country where the national media scrutinize current affairs issues relating to political devolution – the Silk Commission being the latest example – why doesn’t Welsh art follow Welsh politics?

Over the border, England has an established history of fusing art with rebellion against the established order. Art Historian Griselda Pollock, artist Tracey Emin and filmmaker John Akomfrah are three examples from the many people who achieved critical acclaim for doing this. A slap in the face of the then power hierarchy, music was able to popularise political dissent. Think God Save the Queen by the Sex Pistols (1977).

But where is the Welsh political art that deals with contemporary political change?

Welsh Political Space

The answer to this question should lie in those places which represent Wales as a nation. So the National Museum is by default a political space. What happens then when an art work, politically active through its aesthetics, is placed into the galleries of the National Museum?

Sheela Gowda’s Kagebangara (2007) is made of plastic tarpaulins and tar drums sourced from Indian road workers, who would use them as make-shift shelters from the rain. Knowing this information, the installation brings to mind an industrial scene from India.

The experience of the artwork becomes politically active. This is because the viewer can juxtapose the makeup of India’s industrial scene in the developing world, with the experience of the gallery space – a Welsh space – that brings to life its own history of manufacturing in South Wales.

Sheela Gowda’s Kagebangara Political Space
Sheela Gowda’s Kagebangara

Political Sound Space

Perhaps it’s easier to understand political space through sound. The synaesthetic experience of music can be more prominent in audiences than the experience of visual art. Alex Corlett, as part of Sinfonia Newydd, was asked to compose a piece in response to Sheela Gowda’s artwork. I spoke to Corlett to find out just how he composed political space on his music score.

It is possible to increase public participation in contemporary art, it just takes creativity.