On leaving and arriving

17 September - 21 October 2005

To mark the centenary celebrations of Cardiff in 2005, the artist-run space g39 presented a citywide exhibition. ‘On Leaving and Arriving’ draws on the historical role of Cardiff as a port city where trading and global influences shaped its social dynamics, its infrastructure and its physical and cultural make-up.

It was the growth of the iron industry along the Heads of the South Wales Valleys that gave the initial impetus for the development of Cardiff as a port. After that, coal began to supplant iron as the industrial foundation of South Wales, as the deep seams of the valleys were exploited. South Wales’ steam coal was soon to be as important to world energy supplies as oil is today, and annual exports reached 2 million tonnes as early as 1862. Cardiff was the boomtown of late Victorian Britain. For a few brief years just prior to the First World War, the tonnage of cargo handled at the port outstripped that of either London or Liverpool. The demand for labour in the industrialised communities meant that Wales experienced internal migration rather than mass emigration, with two thirds of the population moving to the South. This was combined with the enormous variety of settlers arriving through shipping routes to contribute to the rapid growth in population. As goods were moved south from the different coalfields, Cardiff was the narrowest point of this funnel of trade to the wider world, the place where things developed the fastest.

But with every swell there is a fall, and the decline of these industries means South Wales still faces serious questions about its role and future. The boom time of the industrial revolution is only just making way to new definitions and is leaving room for the area to be re-examined and re-invented. Today Cardiff aspires to be a culture hub and is a city in rapid transformation, facing challenging questions about identity, inclusion, accessibility, adaptability, profitability and the implications of socio-political change.

‘On Leaving and Arriving’ will take place in a series of shipping containers placed around the City centre and within g39, housing contemporary works by artists selected both from the UK and from a handful of the many port cities that are or have been linked with Cardiff by commercial sea routes. Not merely intended to be an illustration of the far reaching shipping destinations of the port, the exhibition profiles nine contemporary artists that begin to look at notions of displacement, of leaving and arriving, of crossing a threshold into another place.

Richard Powell is interested in the idea of crossing a void, moving from one place to another and the fragility of that journey. Stretched between the front and the back of the gallery he produces a sculptural version of the bridge of Mostar, a place where conflict has caused it to be destroyed and necessity meant it was rebuilt. This replica is as fragile, being made from thread. It is a suspension bridge of sorts, unable to take any weight, it does nothing but hold itself up, a literal tie between one place and another.

Marcos Chaves’ work opens a dialogue with the geographic and historical condition of places. A recent work was made in Topolò, a town located on the top of a mountain on the border between Italy and Slovênia. The town had belonged to both countries on different occasions and was also on the volatile fault line between the opposing ideologies that characterised the Cold War, one side capitalist, the other communist. Typical of his practice this work looks at borders between different countries and differing states. Chaves will be producing new work for the exhibition.

Shilpa Gupta presents Blame, an installation and performance that looks at the complex issue of mixed cultural identity and cultural difference. Gupta distributes Blame in small bottles with instructions for use. She highlights the ease of ‘finger-pointing’ blame that is about the differences between cultures and presents us with the much more complex alternative of understanding difference. The piece was first commissioned to take place on the border of Pakistan and India. In Cardiff the project will be produced in Urdu and English.

Stephen Brandes’ current body of work stems from a visual diary he made during a recreation of his grandmother’s flight through Europe to escape from the pogroms in Romania. Brandes’ intricate and complex drawings, executed in differing scales and on unexpected surfaces, interweave this history with his own experience and invention. Using the pictorial language of European fairytales, American comics and medieval cartography his work represents fantastical, dysfunctional landscapes that suggest the imagined places of history and fairytales, albeit from a distinctly suburban viewpoint.

Carwyn Evans’ work is concerned with migration. The changing face of Wales means that his home has shifted from agriculture to tourism and working buildings have become holiday homes. He takes the simple generic template of bird-boxes and reproduces it a thousand fold to create a landscape of boxes, a hill of dwellings for a migrant community. They tumble all over the space and resemble cuckoo clocks in shape with the cuckoo being the only bird that takes over the nests of the others.

Joao Onofre produces works that operate on the unsettling nature of displacement. Here we are presented with a short video of the artist’s studio, a white ordinary space. Into this he has introduced a cabaret magician who performs a levitation act with all the flair and sequins of the stage, but as his assistant rises into the air it is made more ridiculous by their shabby surroundings. This is part of an ongoing series of video works that deal with this notion of things not quite fitting together, things seem to be in the wrong place at the right time.

Heidi Morstang’s video work allows us to witness a threshold of indecision. Two teenagers are seen on the top of a diving board. They are held in stark contrast against the sky and cannot decide whether to jump or climb back to the ground. Teasing each other and testing their limits they waver between the challenge of the dive or the humiliating descent. We are left with the impression that they are at more than one threshold throughout the work.

Rabab Ghazoul produces a performance and installation about her relationship with Iraq, a place that she is separated from by only one generation but a thousand miles. In previous work she collaborated with her father, her hand traced the writing of her father’s hand in different languages. For g39, she sits at a piano attempting time and time again to learn an Iraqi lament, a remembrance for things she will never know and has to learn. This is the artist’s ‘gesture’ to mourning or its absence and underscores the notion that grief is ‘learned’.

Tiago Carneiro Da Cunha presents a short film. We see the image of a corner in a white room. In that room are 3 boxes and a very chunky man. This man has short crutches attached to his arms, which he uses to walk and run on all fours. Occasionally he screeches and, jumping up, runs at the camera, arms and crutches flailing about in the air. The man is an actor called Peter Elliot who has played the part of an ape many times before in Hollywood films. But here, without costume, it is an unsettling reminder of our origins, that we are close cousins.

’On Leaving and Arriving’ is one of a series of international projects that have been organised by g39, bringing international contemporary artists to Wales and increasing the recognition of contemporary artists from here on a worldwide platform. The project continues a season at g39 focusing on ideas of migration and integration and Wales’ relationship with the world.