Artes Mundi 5: Curator Ben Borthwick on finalists Sheela Gowda, Darius Mikšys and Miriam Bäckström

| 10 October 2012
Artes Mundi 5: Curator Ben Borthwick tells us about the artists taking to the first three rooms of this year's exhibition...

Miriam Bäckström (Sweden)
A photo of a length of reflective and reflactive colours and shapes on a gallery screen
Miriam Bäckström, Smile as if we have Already Won (2012) (wide angle). Cotton, wool, silk and lurex© Courtesy Miriam Bäckström. Photo: Wales News Picture
“This is the second tapestry she’s made, but it’s really a new direction for her. Because it’s not a photograph, it creates a way of understanding photography that a photograph would never allow.

This is an image which is really for this moment in time – it’s a completely digital, virtual image. The space does not exist: it collapses inwards on itself, it infinitely expands. You can make out figures and architecture, but it’s a concept.

Miriam’s work deals with the relationship between public personae and the private self. This gap of how we try and make sense of who we are. There’s a confusion. I think it’s like a virtual brain. Information is constantly being refracted, reflected backwards and forwards.

Miriam’s also producing a play at Chapter Gallery as one of the events we’re producing throughout the exhibition. The play is called Motherf*cker, which is one of her stock characters, a bit like how Chaucer has these stock characters.

She has the model, the sportsman – these tropes that appear throughout her projects. Motherf*cker is a pretty despicable character. The play is just two people – a theatre director and an actor – in a power play.

The figures in this piece are very difficult to make out. It’s a game to try and work them out for yourself.”

Darius Mikšys (Lithuania)
A photo of a stuffed seagull next to a piece of precious rock inside a museum case
Darius Mikšys, The Code (2012) (Detail). Selection of objects from the National Museum of Wales Collection© Courtesy Darius Mikšys. Photo: Wales News Picture
“Locals may recognise some of these objects, but probably won’t because they’re all from the museum’s collection. Museums have vast, vast holdings, and only the tip of the iceberg goes on display.

Darius was very keen to work with the museum collection. Something that we’ve tried to introduce for Artes Mundi 5 is to bring all of the artists to Cardiff and allow them time to check out the city, museum, and build relationships with the local arts scene. When Darius looked at the collection he was fascinated by the breadth of what’s here, but also by some of the gaps.

He invited a writer to make an essay, then handed it over to Sally Carter, the woman who runs the museum databases. She identified what she, as a database expert, felt were the key search terms to arise from the essay.

These terms were then filtered through each of the seven databases held here. The objects gathered here are the first ‘hit’ that came up from each collection. In some sense it’s a portrait of the artist carrying out this sort of Frankenstein form of knowledge, in some sense it’s a portrait of the collection. In each case there’s an arbitrariness about it – who would think that a 150-million-year-old dinosaur would be part of a contemporary art project?

Starting with Miriam and Darius, you’re starting to get a sense of uncertainty and questioning. Museums propose a narrative that enables us to make sense of history and who we are, and I think it’s entirely appropriate that artists are at the forefront of questioning official narratives.

I’m sure that curators from geology or natural history have all been up into this gallery, but it’s the first time they’ve brought their knowledge to this space. Setting up that dialogue was important, and for the museum I think it’s been a revelation as well.”

Sheela Gowda (India)
A photo of various oil drums stacked inside a gallery with yellow and blue wall squares
Sheela Gowda, Kagebangara (2008). Flattened tar drum sheets, tar drum, mica, tarpaulin and mica tar sheet© Collection Sunitha and Niall Emmar. Photo: Wales News Picture
“Kagebangara means “crow’s gold” – it looks valuable, so crows would peck at it. It’s an installation made out of sheets of metal, tarpaulin, drums and shiny, reflective material.

Sheela worked with road levellers, getting to know them for a number of years. She followed them around to get access to the material. At the end of the day, the workers are paid in empty drums. There’s a black market, an alternative economy in place. These are not just materials they work with.

They’ll come from farmland, gather together for a few months and then disperse again. The sheets get cut up, made into temporary structures that they can take with them, then the next night they set up. So there’s this constant movement of transient workers.

There were various pieces by Sheela we could have shown, but I wanted there to be something from this more industrial body of metalwork that she’s made, relating to industrial history. The function of these kind of materials in the developing world gives them a completely different kind of resonance.

All of these sheets, which began their lives as drums, are cut by hand. The tar is blowtorched off. The drums are flattened with a steamroller. Her work has gone through all of these processes, using the skills and techniques used by the road workers.

The composition on the wall has very strong resonances with abstract modernist paintings of the 1930s – Theo van Doesburg, in Britain someone like Ben Nicholson, who overlapped planes with blocks of colours. From the contemporary point of view, Sheela’s work can also be read as occupying a space where the western model of capitalism collides with traditional cultures in developing countries.

That might be more abstract in the sculptures, but the image on the wall addresses it more explicitly. It’s a photo and newsprint. What we have is a Tribal rebel from the Indian forestlands who’s been captured by the Indian military. This dynamic and tension between the individual and the state is caused by the transformation that’s happening with development, as large tranches of rural areas are taken over by industrialisation.

Of course there’s a social transformation as well. I felt like it was important to make a connection not only between the different modes of the artist’s practise, but also in the references each piece makes.”

  • Artes Mundi 5 is at National Museum Cardiff until January 13 2013. Follow the prize on Twitter @ArtesMundi and read our Review.
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