Prize Possessions

Left: Artes Mundi director Karen MacKinnon. Right: Curator and writer Matthew Hearn and International Print Biennale director Anna Wilkinson. (All photos: Alex Thomas)

AS THE TRAIN TRUNDLED INTO NEWCASTLE, I had a vision: A vast figure rose out of the gray mist. Its wings outstretched, it threatened to engulf me in a steely embrace. I’d encountered The Angel of the North.

The rust-red sculpture might look like the stuff of legend, but it’s rooted in gritty reality. In another age, the northeast was Britain’s industrial powerhouse. Built by Antony Gormley in 1998, The Angel reminds visitors that coal miners once sweat where it stands.

Gormley’s statue warned me, but my guide, Newcastle-based art historian Matthew Hearn, made the message clear: I was entering a Different Britain. I was the guest of the North East Contemporary Visual Arts Network (NECVAN), a conglomerate of sixty-odd organizations, artists, and curators on a mission to give outsiders the inside scoop on the region. My thirty-six-hour immersion in Newcastle and Gateshead included visits to artists’ studios (and taking tea with star-twins Laura and Rachel Lancaster) and artist-run spaces, a flying leap to the International Print Biennale (curated by Anna Wilkinson), and a jaunt to Laing Art Gallery, where Rosie Morris’s architectural installation Circles Are Slices of Spheres encircled me with cerulean-painted squares. A boozy dinner at the BALTIC museum served up (British?) beef with breathtaking views: The lights of Gatehead shimmered, BALTIC’s Julia Bell glittered, and curator Alessandro Vincentelli sparkled. “Isn’t this heaven? I came north years ago and never returned,” curator Michelle Hirschhorn-Smith confided.

Left: Artist Lauren Williams. Right: Artist John Akomfrah.

For others, Paradise is more than one dinner away: The artist-led initiative NewBridge Project hosted “Hidden Civil War,” an exhibition of performances, installations, and slogan-carrying balloons. “It’s about exposing the divided nature of Britain,” director Charlotte Gregory growled. Craig Ames’s video Green and Pleasant Crammed paraded the epithets used for European immigrants during the Brexit debate: “swarm,” “beggars,” “besieged.” Back at the BALTIC, NECVAN unleashed its ten-year strategy for developing the northeast’s visual arts scene. “This is a call to action!” declared BALTIC’s fiery-haired director, Sarah Munro. The mission behind the missive: Look out, London! However, dealer Miles Thurlow argues, “The center is a disappearing concept. It’s a bit like the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz: There is no margin anymore. There’s no place like home.”

Really? Imitating Dorothy, I went home. Back to Cardiff and the National Museum’s celebration of the Artes Mundi 7. The Artes Mundi award is Wales’s answer to England’s Turner Prize. It competitively bestows a heftier sum upon winners—£40,000 makes it Britain’s largest monetary art prize—and, in contrast to the Turner (which limits itself to UK-based artists), the Welsh award is international. (Tagline: “Wales and the World.”)

This year’s shortlist includes Welsh Bedwyr Williams, Londoner John Akomfrah, Lebanese Lamia Joreige, French-Algerian Neïl Beloufa, Angolan Nástio Mosquito, and American Amy Franceschini. Phew! Curated by Artes Mundi director Karen MacKinnon, the exhibition of the Chosen Ones begins with a river (Joreige’s drawings of a doomed one in Beirut) and ends with the sea (Akomfrah’s soporific film set in Barbados). At the heart of the display is Williams’s Tyrrau Mawr, a video of an imaginary metropolis built on Cadair Idris. (Wales is as famous for its mountains as for its myths.) “This is most satisfying, my head slowly filling, my eyeballs being massaged by spectacular visions,” sighed critic Ric Bower, cuddling two glasses of red. Williams is the first Welsh-speaker to have made the shortlist. Will he win? “I will leave that to our judges!” said McKinnon, grinning. (The victor is to be revealed in January.)

Left: Artist Nastio Mosquito. Right: Artist Lamia Joreige.

Time enough for cocktails. Mingling in the foyer, the Welsh government’s Ken Skates bestowed hugs, and artist-cum-politician Peter Wong shook hands with educator Stephanie Bolt. David Anderson, director general of National Museum Wales, fraternized with local talent: Lee Williams, Neale Howells, and Richard Bowers.

The party spilled into the morrow, when Cardiff Contemporary, a citywide visual-arts festival, had its opening night. “It is the third time Artes Mundi and Cardiff Contemporary have run in parallel—connections between the local and international are manifest!” declared Ben Borthwick, director of Artes Mundi 6. This year, Cardiff Contemporary conquers unexpected territory. Below the stairs of the Angel Hotel, Megan Broadmeadow shows Let the Stars Be Set Upon the Board. Two video projections face each other. In one, a woman in a purple sparkly outfit walks on a cliff. In the other, the same woman appears in a gold sparkly costume. Water flows between the projections, connecting the doubles and separating them. Is Stars a metaphor for Wales’s status in the UK? Insiders who are also Outsiders? Or does it refer to the Welsh art scene, its love-ins proverbially confusing to guests?

Over at “The Garden of Earthly Delights”—less seedy than it sounds—a sprawling exhibition colonized the old Customs and Immigration Building. Staged by Wales-based artist collective tactileBOSCH, it commemorated Hieronymus Bosch. The private view of this steamy Paradise included a black-clad bouncer at the trellised gates and a Vampire (aka artist Lauren Williams) guarding the threshold. There were dancing clowns, sonic performances, and installations of mirrors. One cubbyhole was smothered in vegetation, nibbled apples perched on the verge of a grassy shelf.

Left: Artist Rachel Helena Walsh. Right: Artist Bedwyr Williams.

Upon entering this green Eden, I caught the echo of distant music. Who needs Heaven when you can have a sip of sin? A man with the head of a goat led the way to the bar. Cocktails included “Neck Pain” and . . . Stop! A lady in a kimono spooned bloodlike liquid into someone’s mouth. “Care for a drink?” she asked. “I have had enough!” shuddered a bystander. Descending into the building’s nether regions, I encountered sad-eyed dolls hanging from the ceiling. In a nearby video installation, a fire raged: Was this Hell or Port Talbot’s infamous steelworks? Post-Brexit, the plants’ continuing existence is the subject of (heated) debate.

References to Wales’s past, Britain’s uncertain future, and their entangled aspirations proliferated in this garden of earthy delights. ARTPLAY’s multimedia offering Bosch. Visions Alive offered animated versions of the master’s masterpieces: Devils cavort with pink fish; bare-breasted damsels mate with man-beasts. A blond beauty clutches a man on a boat; their shadows coalesce as they sail into a shimmering sunset. I thought about angels, demons, and a multicultural Britain. Is heaven in our own backyard? Or, should I exchange my Welsh Real Ale for a cosmopolitan?

Left: Charlotte Gregory, director of NewBridge Project, Newcastle. Right: Kathryn Hodgkinson, director of COBALT studios, Newcastle.

Left: Critic Ric Bower, editor of CCQ Journal. Right: Artist and political advisor Peter Wong.

Left: David Anderson, director general of National Museum Wales. Right: Artist Neale Howells.

Left: Julia Bell, Baltic's head of partnerships and coordinator of the North East Contemporary Visual Arts Network. Right: Cardiff Council leader Phil Bhale.

Left: Paul Moss and Miles Thurlow of Workplace Gallery, London & Newcastle. Right: Plymouth Arts Center director Ben Borthwick and artist Mark Gubb.

Left: National Museum Wales trustee Carys Howell with Ken Skates, cabinet secretary for Economy and the Arts. Right: Curator Michelle Hirschhorn-Smith and artist Mike Collier, cofounder of WALK Research Centre, Sunderland.