There is a crucial distinction between art that addresses important subjects and important art. It can become difficult not to confuse the two. Art that engages with social injustice, human rights abuse, repressive regimes, environmental disaster, systematic prejudice and the myriad other vile ills of the current world can often wear its righteousness like a critical force field.
This distinction is an important one for Artes Mundi, a political art prize that rewards artists ‘tackling the biggest issues facing our world.’ How to avoid turning such a prize into a beauty contest for the best-intentioned? For one, we should check our innate desire to reward works that reinforce our own worldview.
Otobong Nkanga, Trevor Paglen, Apitchatpong Weerasethakul, Bouchra Khalili and Anna Boghiguian are all shortlisted for the eighth edition of this biennial award. Their works have been handsomely installed at the National Museum of Wales, where an overall winner of the GBP£40,000 pot will be announced on 24 January 2019.
Boghiguian is the only artist to have engaged with Artes Mundi’s Cardiff location. Her new work A meteor fell from the Sky (2018) is a complicated and multifaceted installation that sets the mighty steel works at nearby Port Talbot within the context of a global industry and its deep history. Through books, drawings, cut outs in paper and steel, model meteorites and sheets of metal in various stages of refinement, Boghiguian evokes humankind’s relationship with iron. From our transition from an agrarian society, through the industrial revolution to the discovery of steel and the accelerated production of armaments, the relationship amounts to a kind of self-destructive worship. Within this context, groups of protesting workers from steel plants owned by the multinational Tata Group – in Port Talbot, Jamshedpur, and Kalinagar – are shown like shadow puppets, standing together against exploitation.
Set within rooms painted in the hot colours of metal working plants and hi-vis clothing, A meteor … carries its big ideas and redoubtable efforts of human production elegantly.
Boghiguian’s theme of global interconnectivity is echoed in new works by Otobong Nkanga. The tapestry Double Plot (2018) suggests energies from the living natural world – a headless figure and flowering tree – feeding through copper wires into a kind of universal mechanism flooding out into the Milky Way: a passage of energy from the particular to the universal, or perhaps vice versa. On the floor the tubular metal circle Manifest of Strains (2018) exhibits strains and energies: in one segment heat, another light, another emits electromagnetism that causes a rock to levitate, various kinds of corrosive substance eat their way through other parts of the metal, and shunting noises alert us to the final segment being submitted to extreme pressure.
It’s a neat evocation of global stresses – greed for resources, climatic warming, the heat of conflict, and poisoning of the atmosphere – and the fact that all are taking place within this same object simultaneously. I wonder how long the work will remain stable – the strains it is under are real.
Trevor Paglen recently won a MacArthur ‘genius’ Grant, has a massive show running at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., and is about to launch the satellite-as-artwork Orbital Reflector into space. Is Artes Mundi high on his list of priorities? Paglen’s somewhat hands-off display, including works dating back to the earliest years of this decade, suggests possibly not, but it’s also true that his projects takes vast efforts and many years of planning.
For Artes Mundi, Paglen is represented by ten photographs, each the result of his ongoing surveillance of the surveillance system. Taken together they suggest new forms of image making at its outer limits. One series shows telescopic views into space focused on space debris and remote satellites looking back down at us. The other series features blurry photographs of unlisted US military bases, photographed from distances of up to 18 miles, due to security restrictions around the sites. We can make out personnel, hangars, parabolic antennae and in one, a Reaper drone being prepared. Hovering on the edge of formal abstraction, Paglen’s photographs expose the concrete realities and real-world evidence of concepts we too easily hold to be abstract: the systems connecting us, watching us, manipulating us and ultimately threatening us.
Filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Invisibility (2016) performs at a pace quite alien to the rapid telecommunication depicted by Paglen. That call to slowness is perhaps a political gesture in itself. Projected on twinned screens, Invisibility evokes shadow puppetry, showing the occupants of a room as fragmenting and sometimes multiplying silhouettes. The setting is simple: two figures in a room surrounded by trees, one sitting on a bed dressed with medical paraphernalia, including a drip, the other seated at a table beside a sewing machine. The camera moves as though we were within a magic lantern, watching the passage of the shadows against a wall as they slowly spin past. For all its beauty and masterful cinematography, the atmosphere is of sickly claustrophobia. Invisibility, the work suggests, is a form of camouflage: but to become a shadow hiding amongst shadows seems half a life, if that.
Of all the works, Bouchra Khalili’s Twenty-Two Hours (2018) broadcasts its political concerns the loudest. The kernel of Khalili’s film is a covert trip to America made by the French writer Jean Genet in support of the Black Panthers. In the US, Genet attended and spoke at rallies and other events, at times escorted by party captain Doug Miranda. At MIT 1,500 people turned up to hear Genet speak, in 1970 he published the book of essays Here and Now for Bobby Seale.
It’s a fascinating and perhaps largely forgotten historic episode: but as an artwork Twenty-Two Hours struggles to transcend its source materials. The story is unpicked for us by two young women who have evidently been directed to speak in blank, uninflected tones. They swipe through a slideshow on their iPhones, then question Doug Miranda in an equally mannered style. There’s material for an incredible documentary lurking in here, but – looking beyond the force field of righteousness for a moment – it’s being cramped by this mannered reimagining as an artwork.
‘Artes Mundi 8’, runs at the National Museum Cardiff until 24 February 2019.
Main image: Trevor Paglen, They Watch The Moon, 2010, c-type print. Courtesy: the artist and Metro Pictures, New York