The Human Condition, in Wales

This text was originally published in The Critic.

Universalism, the belief that some fundamental parts of the human experiences are common to everyone regardless of their creed has taken a battering of late. Under late identitarianism, the very notion that a subject may involuntarily share their lot with others is tantamount to abuse. ‘Lived experience’, a concept for which culture had little use until a decade ago, holds primacy over any other category of evidence.

Art was once humanity’s choice tool for sharing what we all share. The programmes of leading museums and galleries today, however, pursue radical individuation as an end in itself with the zeal of moody teenagers. The promise of Cardiff’s Artes Mundi, a biennial exhibition and prize committed to examining the human condition may thus offer some hope to a critic lamenting this state of affairs. The event’s tenth edition takes place this winter in venues across Wales and boasts internationalism and commitment to dialogue. 

Such proclamations are as commonplace as they are hollow in the cynical art world, but the show’s Latin title sets it up for the challenge. What does it mean, precisely, to gather the world’s art in Wales, and which version of whose world is it? When tropes such as decolonisation and indigenous knowledge production dominate art institutions, the consensus condition is that this world is in peril. Can an endeavour as programmatically determined offer an insight into our own lives by reflecting the lives of the other?

The Iraqi Kurdish-born artist Rusdi Anwar’s photographs and installations at Cardiff’s National Museum rehearse a familiar rhetorical strategy. The work’s site is the 1988 chemical attack in Halabja, part of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal campaign against rural Kurds. A series of dark but obscure images counts out the bodies of dead civilians. On the floor, a dozen or so reliquaries collect the detritus of a more recent attack by ISIS on a Christian church in the same geography. 

The horror experienced by this soil and its people is hard to dispute. Anwar, however, is not interested in mere compassion. Archival magazines, postcards, and recordings, as well as stylised graphic objects displayed alongside them unambiguously lay the blame for the Kurdish plight at the door of the British Empire and its allies and successors. These materials mix the British war effort (“Turn your silver into bullets at the Post Office”, one urges ironically) with the 2003 toppling of Hussein’s statue in Baghdad. Anwar makes this argument to the soundtrack of American and British patriotic songs, including the 1917 Over There (“Johnny, get your gun”) whose tune is more familiar today from the USA Freedom Kids’ version (“When freedom calls, answer the call”) performed by cheerleaders at Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign rally.

Dealing in guilt may be a profitable strategy for the Australia and Thailand-dwelling Anwar, and the Empire isn’t underserving of such condemnation. But this story relies on too many footnotes and wears the reader down before it makes its case. The Canadian Carolina Caycedo’s recourse to the non-human is even more baffling. Her video Reciprocal Sacrifice, shown at Newtown’s Oriel Davies, is narrated by… salmon. The fish species once thrived in the waters of the Pacific Northwest wilderness but today suffers from habitat loss caused by human development. “People”, the creature addresses the audience in Caycedo’s voice, “I know you have tried adding spillways. But this isn’t enough.” 

Carolina Caycedo, Reciprocal Sacrifice, 2022, video still.

Indeed, it isn’t. The artist thus deploys a group of Nez Perce people as tokenistically legitimate indigenous guardians of nature. “Breach the dams,” one calls, as though egged on by a producer of a patronising reality TV programme. Caycedo’s “spiritual fieldwork” which informs this campaign would be droll if it weren’t one of many such art projects. Today’s museums are full of talking birds and calls for camaraderie with ants that would rather give geese the vote than pay attention to the needs of the people closest to them. By contrast, graffiti in the museum’s bathroom urges visitors to join a trade union.

Naomi Rincón Gallardo works in this same vein, but her claims are even more extraordinary. The characters in her loud video trilogy which fills the gallery at Cardiff’s Chapter – a coterie of blue-haired queers and freaks – would have us believe that they are beyond-human by fiat and that their brash, jerky assaults on our consciousness are manifestations of their inalienable freedom. In this universe, every man is a pig and every woman a witch in the service of “decolonial queer joy”.

In this orgy, Rincón Gallardo breathes life into what was once rightly a memento mori. Her imagery is not unattractive, though pales in comparison with Pasolini’s Salo with which it shares a morbid legacy. These works, no doubt, make a great soundtrack to a drug-fuelled party for the art world’s lifestyle political activists. In Cardiff, however, the otherwise bustling Chapter had no takers for her “critical-mythical” brand of extreme liberation, leaving the gallery noisy but empty. 

A studied detachment from the subject at hand has become the art world’s habit as, paradoxically, its claim on the diversity and minutia of human experience has colonised the institutions’ programmes. In Artes Mundi’s literature, the very question of the ‘human condition’ is posed in inverted commas, as though foreclosing the pursuit of meaningful answers. This makes for some odd forms. Alia Farid’s giant fibreglass and polyester resin renditions of water pitchers, bottles, and jerricans polished to mimic marble, are stuck in this rut. Their generically Arabic appearance points to the lot of oil-rich states whose land, people, and economies fell prey to the commodity form. 

Alia Farid, In Lieu of What Is, 2022. Photo: Polly Thomas.

As an opportunity to lament other people’s problems, art is the news channel’s poor cousin. Farid’s videos which accompany the sculpture only exacerbate this by their thirty minutes’ duration. The films intersperse slow, almost unedited shots of Iraqi children singing and dancing with views of marshlands populated by water buffalo. Inconsequential exchanges between the filmmaker and her subjects occasionally break the silent passages. Their Welsh subtitles earn no patience from museumgoers. The little information about the work made available to them implies some unexplained “lesser-known events” and Farid’s family history. Such exalted ethnography profits from mindless third-worldism. It is also grossly indulgent, suggesting that the artist and Artes Mundi’s curators care little for the lives of their Welsh audiences.

The inveterate recorder of human stories Mounira Al Solh reverses this pitiful trend. Her presentation consists of simple notepad portraits made over tea and annotated with the sitters’ narratives. A central gazebo-like installation plays host to a meeting and relays the confessions of a nurse struggling in a Beirut hospital. Absorbed in this ritual, a teenage boy mutters with excitement as he reads from the panels. These narratives, even when set in distant lands or relayed in foreign tongues, are more than enough. 

Elsewhere, Al Solh’s modest embroidered motifs narrate life’s greater intrigues: a dagger for “close friendship”, three candles for “stupor”, a lily plant for “grief”. It is among those works that one finds a homeless man in deep contemplation, his sleeping bag slung over his shoulder. This sight, highly unusual in any gallery despite the art world’s proclaimed openness, is poignant when Welsh museums are poised to reintroduce entry fees. 

Taloi Havini, Habitat. Courtesy Silverlens.

For Artes Mundi, the search for the universal is a competition. This year, the £40000 prize went to Taloi Havini for her document of the environmental destruction caused by mining on her native Bougainville, Papua New Guinea. Habitat, shown in the North Wales town of Llandudno, is a video and photographic installation which poses vulnerable human bodies among the remains of industrial infrastructure and lush tropical vegetation. 

This part of the world deserves an advocate and Havini plays this role from her adoptive home of Brisbane. She barely hints at the devastation of Bougainville that motivates her work and many of her images have the appearance of travel agent brochures. This is jarring until one remembers that in the Visit Wales version of a similar local story, the collapse of coal mining has only made the people and nature of the valleys more quaintly attractive. And, in a final blow to Artes Mundi’s stated objective, Havini’s win proves that art today only finds the universal once it is irredeemably forfeited.

Artes Mundi 10 continues in venues across Wales until 25 February.

Main image: Naomi Rincón Gallardo, Sonnet of Vermin, 2022. Photo: Gesner Melchor.