What is Art? What is an Artist?

Artes Mundi – I recently visited the exhibition Artes Mundi 5 at the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff and following our tour of the show, left the museum in a state of excitement, confusion, frustration and disappointment!

Despite my mixed emotions about the art works on display, I would still recommend going to see the show so that you can make up your own mind. I cannot show my own photos on line but works by Sheela Gowda, Darius Mikšys and Miriam Bäckström can be seen here.

My excitement was over the work of Teresa Margolles and Sheela Gowda. My confusion was over the so called tapestry of Miriam Bäckström. My frustration was over the “curation” (!) of Darius Mikšys and my disappointment was over the “documentary” (!) by Apolonija Sustersic. So I left with very mixed emotions.

I see curation as curation and documentary as documentary, not art as such. Tapestry I understand to be a weft faced weave made up of a discontinuous weft which covers the warp threads, hence weft faced (and no, I haven’t taken that from a dictionary). I am a tapestry weaver and know what tapestry weaving is and it is not this thing made/woven by a computer!

Time for a rant – Suffice it to say that, when we stood on the steps of the museum on our way out and I was asked what I thought, I was speechless and flabbergasted. The reason being, primarily, this “tapestry”. There was nothing wrong with the imagery – indeed, it was one of the most visually striking pieces in the exhibition and the development of the design for the piece, using mirrors, was fascinating. However, to then have this made into a woven tapestry by sending the design off to Belgium to allow a computer to spend a month interpreting the design and then 24 hours weaving it, suggests, no, shouts out to me, that the artist has no understanding of or sympathy for the medium. The image was interesting but the work of art could have been so much more.

Ending my rant – as a tapestry weaver, I do not want the public being led to believe that this is tapestry weaving. It may be relatively cheap to weave a tapestry in this way, but doing it with understanding is invaluable!

Later that evening my wife read to me a section of the book she is currently reading – House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. The passage below (page 420 in the paperback edition from Transworld publishers) is not shown here in the context of the book and is not the full section either but I feel the statement pertinent to the context of our visit to the museum.

“There are seven incarnations (and six correlates) necessary to becoming an artist: 1. Explorer (Courage)  2. Surveyor (Vision)  3. Miner (Strength)  4. Refiner (Patience)  5. Designer (Intelligence)  6. Maker (Experience)  7. Artist.  ¶ First, you must leave the safety of your home and go into the dangers of the world, whether to an actual territory or some unexamined aspect of the psyche. This is what is meant by ‘Explorer’.  ¶ Next, you must have the vision to recognize your destination once you arrive there. Note that a destination may sometimes also be the journey. This is what is meant by ‘Surveyor’.   ¶ Third, you must be strong enough to dig up facts, follow veins of history, unearth telling details. This is what is meant by ‘Miner’.  ¶ Fourth, you must have the patience to winnow and process your material into something rare. This may take months or even years. And this is what is meant by ‘Refiner’.  ¶ Fifth, you must use your intellect to conceive of your material as something meaning more than its origins. This is what is meant by ‘Designer’. ¶  Sixth, you must fashion a work independent of everything that has gone before it including yourself. This is accomplished through experience and is what is meant by ‘Maker’ . . .”

There’s more but I’ll leave it at that. You can always buy the book!

Posted in art, Events and tagged , , , , , , , .


  1. Interesting! I’m also a weaver, so the weave pedant in me was also saying that its a jacquard not a discontinuous weft tapestry BUT in recent times the term has become widely used to describe jacquard artworks, so maybe I have to let it go! Ignoring the definition issues, I can’t tell how pleased I was to see a major woven work in contemporary art exhibition – we need more recognition of the discipline in this way. Also from speaking to one of the exhibition guards, he said Backstrom work was the most praised by visitors…..

    • Time heals all wounds and although this still sticks in my craw a bit, I also agree that to see it in such a major show can only do good in the long term. They certainly placed it well in the exhibition too as it has a lot of impact and is, perhaps, the most visually accessible. I think, when the gallery attendant told me the design had been sent off for interpretation by a computer, it was the fact that it had been sent and not taken. I certainly don’t have an issue with computers (working with them so much myself) or, for that matter with jacquard, but I do get concerned with the distance between designer and manufacturer. Btw, I love the look of your work on your website. Any chance I could call in to Model House some time for a chat?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.