Feature: Artes Mundi Prize at National Museum Cardiff

A Moscow museum, photographed by shortlisted artist Olga Chernysheva

The UK’s biggest art prize, Artes Mundi, is vying to become the most talked about. At £40,000 it is worth twice as much as the Turner, which should provide twice as much scope for controversy.

While installing work by shortlisted artists at National Museum Cardiff, the organisers make clear their intent. “We’ve taken down a Madonna and Child from the 1600s and put in an LCD screen – we are very pleased with that,” says Director Tessa Jackson.

It now shows the work of film maker, photographer and painter Olga Chernysheva, one of eight international artists contending for the prize. Chernysheva is from Russia, her competition from Peru, Israel, Albania, Bulgaria, Taiwan and Kyrgyzstan.

Jackson points to this worldwide range as the main difference between the fourth Artes Mundi and the annual hoopla of the Turner award. “The Turner prize is very focused because it’s British. It’s every year. It’s a constant search,” she says.

Artes Mundi, by contrast, is held every two years, and the shortlist is chosen by a team of curators who sit apart from the judging panel, which she calls a “different architecture”.

“Each Artes Mundi will set up a different discussion and we have cultural commonalities and cultural differences,” she says of the Turner comparisons. “But we do quite a lot of work, as they do, around familiarising people with contemporary art.”

Indeed, during eight years Artes Mundi has brought 32 international artists to Cardiff. The 2008 show broke records with 70,000 visitors. Last year’s Turner Prize, although a paid exhibition, drew only 7,000 more to Tate Britain.

To convert that interest into lively nationwide debate, Artes Mundi are pulling out the stops in terms of visitor engagement and interactive technology.

Head of Administration Carl Grainger is clearly excited about the virtual comments board. “The idea is you can write or type comments on the exhibition,” he explains. “It appears on the LCD screen in the reception area and selected comments get transferred to our blog. I have never seen anything else quite like that.”

Each proudly wears a t-shirt proclaiming, in English and Welsh, “I’ve met the artists, ask me.” Artes Mundi education co-ordinator Ffion Rhys corroborates this fact.

“The guides all have met the artists, so they all know them first hand,” she declares. “They have all researched a lot of their past work, not just the work included here, and will be able to tell the audience more about other pieces they might have done.”

Live Guide Ruth McLees was clearly enthused by her encounter with the finalists.

“It was amazing speaking to someone, rather than reading about it, and also being able to ask background questions and meet people as a person rather than just an artist,” she says. “They are just a person like us. And they have all these experiences as people which feed into the work.”

Given the geographical range of artists included in the show, the viewer might need these points of reference. Curators Viktor Misiano, from Russia, and Levent Çalikoglu, from Turkey, have chosen an uncompromisingly serious selection in which film and photography predominate.

The results will make demands on your time and offer unfamiliar viewpoints from across the globe. There are no quick hits like those you might find at Brit Art’s biggest prize.

But popularism has never been the only benchmark of success, as Lucy Stout, Head of Development at Artes Mundi, points out: “Of course we all know that some people loathe something so much other people have to see if they loathe it as well,” she concedes. “It’s all good. It’s all talk.”

So whether or not you think the best art should deal with international politics, head for Cardiff and have your say.

Written for Culture24.

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