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Artes Mundi 7 - Underneath the whimsy and wacky is path to Armageddon

Celia Lyttleton visits the Artes Mundi 7 International Art Exhibition & Prize in Wales and finds that we are on our way to Armageddon

Nástio Mosquito -Transitory Suppository

Artes Mundi is the arts of the world - the seven shortlisted artists have a truly global perspective. It is Britain’s largest contemporary art prize, with the winner receiving £40,000. Although the theme is the ‘human condition’, the installations, which are predominantly film and video based, address more urgent issues of migration, alienation, current conflicts and politics, rather than the philosophical meanderings of La Condition Humaine.

The main body of work is at Cardiff’s National Museum, and transports one to all corners of the world; both imagined and real. Beirut, once the ‘Paris of the East’ now riven by civil war, a terrifying unpeopled ‘new city’ in the Welsh mountains, a boat journey from Oslo to Cardiff with a cargo of EU banned seeds, school children playing Monopoly in Kiev, and a Sephardic cemetery in Barbados.

The second part is at the Chapter Gallery in the suburbs of Cardiff, where writ large across the front, one is greeted with ‘F**k it just take it’ a new wonder drug, the rantings of an African despot and a 20-minute film on three screens, charting the course of the river Nahr in Beirut, now all but a trickle, the sad trajectories arising from the dried up river-bed, is a parable of our troubled times.

Lamia Joreige’s Under-Writing Beirut is a poignant and powerful exploration of a city beleaguered by civil war and corruption in an increasingly fragile region. A dossier from the Beirut National Museum, of all the works looted, lost or destroyed, mosaics from Byblos and Baalbek, among them a Roman one called The Good Shepherd from the fifth century BC, a photograph of the damage done by a sniper and a cement cast of the gaping hole, are gathered like evidence for an investigative novel.

The Good Shepherd was the only object that was made available to Lamia, by the keeper of Antiquities, while a leather bound book about the disappearance of the objects is shown alongside Lamia’s pictograms shot by pin hole camera of the museum. A film tracking the course of the River Nahr that ran through Beirut, watering its numerous plots of land and gardens, connecting the port to the hinterlands, today, is all but a stagnant polluted trickle along a cement canal. In a non didactic way, Lamia, a Beirut-based film-maker and artist presents us with the facts; while hideous towers do rise unchecked, without planning permission, obliterating sea views for most citizens, choking up the last bits of vegetation and cementing over football pitches, light industrial and artisan quarters, all the construction workers are, however, Syrian refugees, thus providing them with a chance to rebuild their lives and feed their families.

Lamia Joreige’s Under-Writing Beirut

Lamia works like an archaeologist; digging up past and showing recent developments, unravelling some of Beirut’s complex history, as no-one fully understands Lebanon and its city, which is a palimpsest of Roman ruins alongside modern bombed out ruins, Arab and Ottoman mansions demolished to make way for luxury flats with the sea views and a new quarter imitating an ancient one.

Bedwr Williams is a kind of perverse 21st century Welsh bard and wizard, casting a spell in the dramatic Welsh mountain valley and lake, (Idris’ Chair) by endowing it with a creepy ‘instant city’, the kind that are built in China, almost overnight the size of Cardiff. In a darkened chamber an entire wall covered with a screen some 20 metres long and nearly as high, reveals an eerie chilling metropolis. Famous buildings like the Guggenheim, Zaha Hadid’s doomed Cardiff opera house, Rem Koolhaus’s CCTV tower in Beijing coined ‘big pants’, and the infamous demolished Glaswegian Red Road Estate high rise slums spring incongruously out of the mountainside like jagged teeth.

This Dystopia seems static at first but then slowly over a twenty-minute loop the tempestuous skies turn from dawn to dusk and lights flicker on, up the glass edifices, but there is not a soul in sight, it is devoid of all human presence; the lights are on but no one is in. Williams’ monologue tells a day in the lives of the imaginary citizens, their hollow and banal comments are leaden and unintentionally ironic. ‘“No excuse not to have a good time here,” says a taxi driver.’ Williams explains over his own voice over, “It’s one of those instant cities, but this one has no airport – it’s about the ass holes who have built them and the ass holes who live in them.”

Bedwyr Williams, Tyrrau Mawr (Big Towers)

Big Towers (2016) is dystopian and yet it is mesmeric and the visual effect is sublime; a Caspar David Friedrich landscape in real time, with an ironic digitalized twist. Williams has employed matte painting using computer technology; a cinematic trick that is added to live-action footage to enable film-makers to create the illusion of environments, that otherwise would be too expensive, or impossible to build. Computer technology has long replaced traditional matte painting, but the skills involved creating an illusion of space remain broadly the same.

Neil Beloufa is French Algerian, and is a mischievous maker of witty installations, devising games acted out by pseudo actors. World Domination (2102) are two teams playing ‘If I was dictator/president’, each participant is given a role, be it Minister of the Interior or military leader and are invited to discuss global problems like poverty, abortion or immigration. Improvised it may be, but as Beloufa points out “What is scary, is how violent and super racist they become, adopting Maoist strategies and the Final Solution, just like people sitting around in a café discussing world affairs, and after their third whisky, they get vocal, bigoted and opinionated.”

A Chinese woman says, “A Dutch man left a pair of trousers and an Iraqi left an egg in our capital and it is disrespectful to our country,” (referring to Rem Koolhaus’ CCTV tower … and Zaha Hadid’s Bird’s Nest stadium for the Olympics 2008). To solve the population problem, she suggests, “We attack South America and displace all our young people,” (to be used as cannon fodder). Another player says ‘Economy is the future not culture; we have to bury the past,’ and so on. The commingling of statecraft jargon and real political opinions is ambiguous. The entire scenario is projected on two screens and onto a mechanized moving dinosaur concluding that world domination will inevitably lead to extinction.

Monopoly was originally designed as an anti-west, cold war propaganda tool highlighting the failure of private land-ownership by Elizabeth Magie. You are a capitalist. Forced to move through a city-scape where you either own or rent. When different areas are fully owned, their owners are allowed to extract extortionate rents from everyone else forced to pass through. The only way to succeed is to bankrupt all the others before they bankrupt you. One can see how convincing an argument this was against Capitalism. The only flaw was that it was so successful as a game per se, that it was banned behind the Iron Curtain. In another work Monopoly (2016) Beloufa has filmed a group of Ukrainian school children playing a version of Monopoly, only the sites are renamed; such as Karl Marx Avenue or Khavkova Reservoir. Euros and Roubles are superglued around a copper floor framing the video loop.

From the Ukraine to Oslo, visitors are given some respite from darkened chambers of video screens to a light typically Nordic simple room charting a ship’s course carrying a cargo of ancient grain seeds, that have been saved during the siege of Leningrad, or discovered by archaeologists in an old Norwegian sauna. The project Flatbread society/ Seed Journey (2013 ongoing) was initiated by an artists collective Futurefarmers, founded 10 years ago by Amy Franceschini, a Californian. The aim is to bring the very seeds of grain used to make bread that were brought to Europe from the fertile Crescent 1000’s of years ago, in an act of reverse migration. A decommissioned rescue boat, the Christiana is to sail from Oslo to Ramallah. Along the way The Christiana will anchor at ports to interact and exchange more seeds (not approved by the EU) with artisan bakers and farmers; thereby keeping the ancient grains alive, preserving the ‘hand to hand’ network and sharing of seeds, such as Finnish Forest rye, without the constraints of food fascists and their genetically modified farming policies.

ohn Akomfrah - Auto Da Fé

Into another film screening, (it is like going to the movies, albeit watching the rough cuts,) by the acclaimed John Akomfrah OBE, who is a founder member of the Black Audio Film collective, called Auto de Fe (2006). The 40-minute colour video brings together eight mass migrations over the past 400 years, starting with the Sephardic Jews fleeing to Barbados from Catholic Brazil in 1654, while also focussing on displacement through the centuries up to the present day, such as Hombori, Mali and Mosul, Iraq. Employing a period drama aesthetic, ‘Auto de Fe’ has a dreamlike elegiac quality. The landscape and figures are described as ‘deliberately ambiguous’ - aren’t they all? - otherwise it would not be ‘art’ and the same applies for ‘challenging’ and ‘controversial’, words, which frequently crop up in the catalogue, full of the usual turgid art speak, which does not help the uninitiated to enter the realm of cutting-edge art.

Nastio Mosquito’s performances, videos, poetry, installations and digital art are bonkers. A room is scattered with blister packs of cure all suppositories that ‘soothe, shrink locate and awake God’; commenting on the hypocrisy of charitable medical relief, dominated by the global health system and pharmaceutical companies. Another space is papered with his bombastic free verse and in a corner on a tiny TV, Nastio Mosquito presents a stinging rendition of himself as dictator of a fictional country, Botrovia, proposing fast practical solutions to world problems; it is an antithesis of political correctness, similar to Beloufa’s World Domination Game. Deceptively whimsical and witty as many of the Artes Mundi 7 seem, they are profound and deadly serious, beneath their witty interplay and whacky presentations, they imply, that there is a strong undertow pulling us, closer to the Armageddon.

Artes Mundi 7

National Museum and Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, Wales

Showing until: 26 February 201


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