Artes Mundi 9 is, like its predecessors, a complex affair. With a £40,000 prize to be announced on 17 June, the much delayed and postponed exhibition of six shortlisted artists is a bumpy ride. Spread over Cardiff’s National Museum Cardiff, Chapter and g39 (where some screenings will take place later this summer), it always strives for some sort of social or political relevance. We go from hundreds of drawings of the sea to the atrocities of the Japanese occupation of China, from the post-colonial Caribbean to the Covid pandemic, from coal mining and farming in rural India to the sacred, the surreal, the disaster zone and racial injustice.
Choosing a winner is always difficult. At the national museum Carrie Mae Weems presents repeated images of a hooded young man, as well as archival photographs of the beating and gassing of civil rights leader John Lewis in 1965 by state troopers in Selma, Alabama on “Bloody Sunday”. These are shown alongside Weems’ own photographs, many of which reconstruct historical events in staged tableaux – President Kennedy and Jackie in the car in Dallas, black kids in a classroom, a white guy seated with his gun. At Chapter arts centre, her posters and other large images promote togetherness and distance in the face of Covid. The sentiment is laudable, their impact less so.
Firelei Báez’s paintings are great, hectic, explosive things. Her art is filled with origin stories, histories, mythologies, beauty and violence. Erupting with fur and hair, feathers and eyes, the Dominican’s paintings are mashups of the painterly and the delicate, with burning tyres and books on fire, and populated by black women with impossible hairdos and sassy walks.
The action takes place over canvases printed with flotillas of British sailing ships and maps of the Caribbean, charts of the West Indies and architectural plans and diagrams of sugar refineries, military hospitals and factories. These are more than backdrops. While her larger canvases roar off the walls, her arrays of smaller paintings jostle together, homing in on details. A fire burns on the cover of an FBI document investigating the Black Panther party. A snake writhes in foliage. Her drawing is precise. And everywhere there are the buttoned-up white men and strutting, majestic black women.
Indian painter and sculptor Prabhakar Pachpute also works between the large and the small. His biggest paintings extend beyond the margins of his hanging canvases on to walls laboriously tinted with a grey wash. Are these paintings or coloured drawings? Heavy on symbolism, a bestiary of phantasmagorical creatures and part-humans trudge and toil – half-man, half-helmet, the people who are becoming rocks and the rocks becoming human, the walking log and the bird-footed horse’s head, across a bleak landscape ruined by industry and vast, mysterious earthworks. It is as if Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer had decided to do land art in Mordor. Nor can I decode the overwrought symbolism, apart from a raised fist which rises like a monument from a pile of earth.
Hundreds of drawings by Dineo Seshee Bopape, of different sizes and on different sorts of paper all depict the same thing and not the same thing. Fast and loose and gungy and sluggish, tempestuous and calm, lulling and turbulent, rhythmic, flattened by rain, flowing and furious, they represent tides and choppy seas, squalls and doldrums. The ebb and flow might record states of mind as much as the sea itself, emotional weather and inner turbulence recorded by the simplest and most direct of means. The drawings use clay and soil as their medium, collected from Senegal and the Mississippi, Ghana and South Africa. An installation uses a brick from Senegal, and soil from a sacred site in Wales. A boom-box on the floor plays a song. But it is the drawings that captivate me most. Somewhere at sea, I thought, all this is happening.
A very old man, Hajime Kondo, sits in a room, being interviewed by Japanese artist Meiro Koizumi, who gives Kondo a copy of the book he once wrote, detailing his experiences as a soldier in China and Okinawa. Now 99, frail, forgetful, looking sometimes lost, Kondo stares at typed-out quotations from his book, his own shocking testimony of his four and a half years in China as a conscripted soldier, where, he wrote, he turned into a killing machine. In his 2005 book The Two Battlegrounds of a Japanese Soldier: Kondo Hajime’s Unending War, Kondo describes the bayonettings, the gang rapes, the decapitations, the casual horrors he and his comrades inflicted.
Described unflinchingly and with a graphic factuality, much of what he describes is too shocking, disgusting, callous and brutal to retell here. The old man drools and cries. For long periods he just sits, or knocks his knuckles against his head as if to dislodge a memory. Sometimes the camera focuses on the papery skin of his hands. “I don’t remember,” he repeats. But he does remember, even when he thinks he has perhaps dreamed these shocking events, and goes on to say that even if he said sorry for a hundred years it would not be enough.
On two larger screens a number of young people rehearse the old man’s testimonies, repeating over and over what he is saying and what he wrote. They sit in rooms and they shout out the phrases on the streets of a city, goaded by to shout louder, to repeat. They lie on the ground like the dead and they look at the camera. Koizumi’s three-channel The Angels of Testimony is a gut-wrenching work. This chorus of the young (all teenagers who collaborated with the artist), adds a dreadful poignancy.
A number of short, looped films play around the walls, their projectors clattering in the gallery. An island silhouetted on the horizon is flipped from the horizontal to the vertical, flaring with the light of dawn or dusk. Footage of a craft making its way along a channel is projected upside down, and the camera wavers over a woman’s face, a foal, foliage, brush being cleared, trees in the bright day. Projected large and small, in black and white and in colour, Beatriz Santiago Muñoz’s short 16mm films and videos present fragmentary views of Puerto Rico, some shot in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017. The tiltings and inversions reference earthquakes, climatic disasters and conflicts.
These atmospheric shorts swerve across the walls, the splinterings of Santiago Muñoz’s images redoubled by her use of splicings, mirrorings and other manipulations of the film. A number of pyramids and wedges of mirrored glass sit on a table, further indications of sheering and splintering and fragmentation. What am I looking at? How do I read all this, and what connects these images? Coming directly after Koizumi’s work, I have to admit I found it almost impossible to give Santiago Muñoz’s work the concentration it deserves. Koizumi’s overwhelms everything else in Artes Mundi. I wanted to look away, but I couldn’t. I stayed with this difficult work for a long time. It is still with me now.