Contemporary Art and Artes Mundi

There are something’s governments and the civil service are competent to do and some things frankly they should steer well clear of. As a one time civil servant I know that when things are going smoothly you are invisible and seldom thanked; but when something – a response to a seemingly innocent freedom of information request (the email someone wrote in the 5 minutes before leaving on that last day before Christmas (your boss having already cracked open the Crofts Original)) – and yes in a millisecond the most junior of minions becomes highly visible if not florescent! Just occasionally something from the dim and distant past resurfaces and makes one smile discretely of course. On reading the review of the Artes Mundi Prize shortlist in the Guardian I was reminded of the small contribution I played in the development of this contemporary art initiative. In the wake of the closure of the Centre For Visual Arts (more commonly known as the CVA or the Old Library) I was a member of the senior management team at the Arts Council of Wales; during the aftermath of this somewhat difficult period the Council had made a commitment to retain the (CVA) funding for the visual arts sector.

As I reflect on this period of my career I struggle to remember the details; it was the only time in my life where I can honestly say ignorance was bliss. By this I mean I had no prior knowledge, no vested interest and found myself in a constant state of bemusement. Punch drunk with the barrage of organisations and individuals lobbying the only person who seemed to stand still long enough; I was genuinely intrigued as to how we had got here and the logical thing seemed to be to listen (and hear) to what people were saying.  The truth of it was I didn’t know who people were and being polite I engaged innocently in what might start as idle chitchat before ending up somewhere a little less familiar. I was blissfully naive but the approach served me well with one well known visual artist observing ‘who cares if she knows nothing about the arts she’s alright!’

Fresh from the civil service my skin had yet to be thickened sufficiently enough to ride the emotional rollercoaster that accompanied being part of an organisation that at one point had been denounced in the House of Lords, the Houses of Parliament and the (then) Welsh Assembly Government. Should one so desire the detail is apparently in Hansard. Fortunately my name was never recorded thus. I recall leaving a particularly lively conference in Mid Wales – the venue was a converted chapel where the pews remained in situ and the speakers stood at a lectern in a pulpit – it was autumn and dark although it was only 2 pm.  My next destination was rural west Wales to the house of the gentleman with the original vision for what became Artes Mundi.

It was one of those journeys without maps and before the sat nav. Driving thorough drizzle, entering an autumnal canopied tunnel with a rising sense of anxiety; punctuality is all important when one is on the back foot especially when the person one is meeting can claim their place in Welsh society. The house was at the top of a long drive with an impressive entrance designed to reinforce ones social standing or so it seemed at the time. The other thing I knew was that the occupant was a visual artist who spent the summer’s painting (landscapes) in Venice; was I intimidated? Quite possibly (and quite wisely)!

It never ceases to amaze me how breeding (and a private education) gives a person confidence; an ease of discourse on a vast range of topics from the trivial to the erudite. As I have a certain ‘accent’, some would say ‘posh’ it is not uncommon for people to believe I hail from such societal regions; I do not as it happens but don’t always disabuse those who mistakenly make this assumption! On this particular day presentation was all important and as we drank tea from a china tea service I got the distinct feeling I was being granted an audience; that entre nous a shared understanding would be in both our best interests!

In the early days there was a school of thought that Wales was presumptuously buying its way onto the international visual arts stage; then as now Artes Mundi is the largest cash prize in the sector (in the world).  This was the very early days of devolution and it was culturally significant that the Arts Council of Wales committed to a Welsh presence at the Venice Biennale as well as Artes Mundi (originally called Humanitas – the name had already been used elsewhere – the advantage of a classical education (via Oxbridge) afforded access to such a richness of alternative suggestions designed to capture the essence of the human condition).

The Artes Mundi Prize has certainly raised the profile of Wales on the contemporary art scene; I doubt somehow that in those early days the visionaries behind the initiative would have anticipated the increase significance (or predominance perhaps) of the moving image and video installation work. The only British artist in 2012 is Berlin based Phil Collins whose work is housed in two second hand caravans on the Chapter forecourt. This Unfortunate Thing Between Us was conceived as an alternative home shopping channel selling real life experiences (in lieu of the more usual ‘jewellery’ and electrical goods).

The offerings are based on imaginary German fantasies (none of which Mrs Merkel would be spending her euros on I’d venture) – choose from the chance to be the victim of a Stasi-style interrogation or a role in a period-drama porn scene or (my particularly ‘favourite) the opportunity to stage your own death in a hospital bed surrounded by family and friends! The accompanying flier includes the sentence ‘TUTBU TV offered (it was shown on a German digital channel) a tantalising glimpse into what could prove to be the future of consumer television!

The world seems forever to be brimming with the stories people tell themselves to understand the life they find themselves leading; we all do it to one extent or another but I confess to laughingly incredulously out loud when hearing Martha Stewart being interviewed by Jennie Murray on Womens’ Hour today. When asked how she had dealt with being in prison for 5 months she responded that she had simply considered it as an extended vacation! Using the time to review things and come up with new products!

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