'Come and See What the Arts of the World Are Saying to Us' with Just Days to Go until the Winner of This Year's Artes Mundi Prize Is Revealed, Arts Council of Wales Chairman Dai Smith Reveals Here Why the Visual Arts Are So Important to Us
Byline: Dai Smith
WHEN I was a boy in the Rhondda in the '50s a visit to the pictures was a stumble in the dark with only the flickering beam of a torch to guide you to your seat.
What was on the screen was the nearest most of us in Wales ever came to anything resembling art. Our horizons were limited and very distant from our life experience.
Times have changed. Last summer I stumbled in the dark again, and this time with no torch to pick out a pathway through a lightless former brewery turned makeshift gallery. But I had put away childish things by now and the reward, in the Arts Council of Wales' Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, was the revelation of John Cale's multi-screen presentation Dyddiau Du: Dark Days.
Here was a visual autobiography that was an auditory social history. Here was one Welshman's consciously experimental take on the cultural paradoxes of a Welsh upbringing in the West of Wales half a century ago. It was provocative. It was disturbing. It was challenging. It was art. It was ours.
For me, it grabbed at the shiny enamelled surfaces of video art and it pitted it with the grit of life experienced beyond the image, and of life not revealed except through the maker's vision of sound and image.
Now, in 2010 we can look wider and deeper from within Wales towards the horizons of others. Artes Mundi is back in town. The contemporary visual arts exhibition was invented in 2003 by the incomparable impresario genius of its chair, William Wilkins and staged every two years since 2004 at National Museum Cardiff under the genial presence and gimlet eye of its artistic director, Tessa Jackson.
The world is searched for artists who stimulate us to think about the contemporary human condition and its specific locational or individual identity, and about the underlying humanity which survives or sinks in the morass we make of society.
The distinguished judges appointed bring us artists at a cutting edge of practice, often well known in their own countries but unheralded as yet in the UK. The prize of pounds 40,000 will be awarded to the winner from this year's eight artists on Wednesday. So far already almost 20,000 people have been to see the work. They will have been entranced and, perhaps, puzzled. They will certainly have had horizons widened by the way the work moves about from within the techniques of photography, film, video, sound and installation, and incorporates, in the work of Fernando Bryce and Adrian Paci, the narratives of print, media, comic strips and traditional story-telling. Who tells our history, they ask, and to what purpose? The themes this year - in Yael Bartana's complex re-enactments, teasing and terrible, on the Israeli experience of war and insecurity, or in the work Kasmalieva and Djumaliev conjure up to convey the values, personal and economic, changed in Central Asia on the fall on commission - are about the very politics of existence not the frippery of politic interchange. Our new century is one of dislocation, mobility, ever more change and the human quest for meaningful individual life.
From China to Russia to Turkish exile, Chen Chieh-jen, Chernysheva and Iavusoglu use the technologically familiar to penetrate to what is more subtle and more at risk in the lives and societies they re-configure.
Venice Biennale, where contemporary art comes together in every odd year, is now the established "away fixture" for the Arts Council of Wales' international programme. …