Artes Mundi 4

Chen Chieh-jen

First appeared on Big Issue Cymru online on March 31 2010

Artes Mundi 4
National Museum Wales, Cardiff




As the old saying goes, ‘there’s nowt so queer as folk’. This year’s Artes Mundi short list reflects just that, from complex social and political struggle down to the tiny details and strange habits that make humans so intriguing.

The eight artists from around the world taking part in the fourth Artes Mundi competition are all vying for this year’s top honours. This year the works, which are judged in May, are all based around the theme of the human condition.

Fernando Bryce’s painstaking Indian ink copies of media, including newspaper articles and posters, cast their eye over history, laying bare the power of propaganda. It’s interesting to notice what and who is absent in these pictures; it’s clear the media gives only a snapshot, reflecting only the voices of those with the power to make themselves heard.

Chen Chieh-jen’s films about the position of Taiwan in the world are haunting. The stories, which are among the strongest works displayed this year, include the wives of Thai men from China and their struggle to be accepted as citizens. The imagery is dark and mesmerising – their tales told against a background of motionless women, silent in protest.

After the gloom, it is refreshing to step around the corner and lay eyes on Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev’s lively and engaging photographs capturing the fall of Communism in Krygyzstan. The country’s Silk Road route connects it with China and other parts of Europe and North Africa and the images feature a light, vibrant and rich set of characters.

Yael Bartana’s work on the formation of Jewish identity, is striking, particularly his Mur i Wieża (Wall and Tower). A serene group of people, seemingly oblivious to the walls and barbed wire being constructed around them, are shown learning Hebrew to Polish translations in central Warsaw.

The beauty of Olga Chernysheva’s work, which explores modern Russia, lies in the tiny details of everyday moments. A young boy struggles with his uncomfortable cadet uniform while a teenager climbs a pole aided by the men below who are struggling to help him.

The amount of footage displayed this year means the exhibition can be time demanding. Meanwhile, some of the concepts shown are sometimes difficult to grasp – Adrian Paci’s work about Albanian weddings is elusive.

This year’s Artes Mundi shortlist collates a very diverse set of works, but sadly Africa and Oceania are not represented. An engaging collection, albeit one that sometimes masks its deeper meanings (exhibition runs until June 6th).