The Abacus Rooms: Contemporary Art, Creative Space & Business Cards

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The Abacus is a unique gallery in Cardiff. Formerly the city’s bus office building, it has been transformed into a contemporary exhibition space. I was staggered to hear it’s only a baby, having opened in the summer.  

That seems to be fitting however, given the focus on young and talented artists. Those with work on display are rarely beyond their early twenties.

‘Are You Lost Yet Two’ (AYLYT) is currently showing. Here’s the first, in case you missed it.  It’s a new Cardiff based zine (and yes, I embarrassed myself asking what a ‘zyne’ was..) which focusses on ‘pass-it-on’ creativity. 

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Throughout the exhibit there’s a heavy sense of caution towards an increasingly digital world, which makes The Abacus a perfect venue. Amid the ambient noise of electric screwdrivers and hammers, there’s a real juxtaposition between the large old display windows and artsy living room feel. AYLYT has an equal dichotomy – it’s extremely contemporary but against ‘progession’ into an age of Retweets.  


I thought this passion for physical creativity was brilliantly captured by – of all things – the artists’s business cards. Heather Kirk had one remaining origami swan in her swinging basket, with the card wrapped along the tail.  

Naturally, no AYLYT visit would be complete without spending some time in the ‘Zine Library’. It’s immediately as you enter The Abacus, beside the book swap.

There’s some extremely political work, such as Daryl Cullen’s Join The Army, and the clip below shows just how much work goes into a zine.  

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Needless to say, the issues of social media was never far from centre stage. David Kerr’s ‘Facebook After Google Plus’ (above, right) had some especially poignant images. Do we have any idea what’s behind the door, or is the (ironically physical) Facebook message enough?

It’s difficult to box exactly what The Abacus is. I didn’t have space in this post to mention the poetry and guitars. But it’s certainly artistic and new and therefore central to Cardiff’s contemporary scene.


gallery/ten – A Life Line to Visual Arts In Cardiff

I had been meaning to visit gallery/ten for weeks before Bob Gelsthorpe gave me the final push.

Outside Artes Mundi, I have heard many point to Gallery Ten as their favourite visual arts outlet in Cardiff. Granted, most of this community long for the day when it’s a more hotly contested field.

It was also about time I ventured into a contemporary commercial operation.

IMG_0647Amid the wrapping of purchased pieces and general organisation, owner and curator Cat Gardiner was more than happy to have an impromptu conversation. Her warmth creates a very inviting atmosphere, balancing the minimalist surroundings.

The main message Cat shared is that while Cardiff may not have many platforms – as Bob alluded to – the visual arts scene has evolved tremendously over the past five years. And with this dynamism has come growth. I got the impression gallery/ten would gladly expand its cosy red brick walls if possible!

IMG_0657Fortunately I was able to see the final day of ‘Choose Your Masque” by Jon Oakes before the winter exhibition begins.

IMG_0652Developing themes of disguise, self-confidence and heroism, this series considers whether individuals enjoy ‘the game of identity’.

The various interviewees donning super hero masks made me smile. Many of these pieces are inspired by Oakes’ own encounters and his interest in physiognomy (the assessment of a person’s based on their appearance, namely the face).

Oakes also uses images from the news and transforms them into a wry social commentary – who is ‘the interview’ with a spider man mask? My favourite aspect of The Masque series is, as the title suggests, the fact we choose our own.

IMG_0651The commercial surprise of my lunchtime visit was that ‘pants’ (above) had yet to sell – perhaps that’s changed over the past few hours.

If you want to see the best of Welsh visual artists – with limited depictions of Pembrokeshire landscapes or sheep – then be grateful for gallery/ten.

jon oakes choose your masques by gallery/ten

Artes Mundi 6 – Now Over Three Venues!

The UK’s biggest art prize, Artes Mundi, is back in Cardiff. The biennial competition showcases some of the world’s most eclectic contemporary artists. There is no overarching theme but the international mix of work is held together by a concern to “directly engage with people’s lives and with what it means to be human”.

I checked their website before going and was a little indecisive after reading that the prize has spread across the city. After ten years establishing itself as a leading art exhibition, the entries are showing across The National Museum Cardiff, Chapter (in the Canton/Pontcanna area) and Ffotogallery in Penarth!

If you too are undecided on where to start, click on the lilac ‘art palette’ icons above and get a taster for what’s on offer. Interestingly, a gallery guard at The National Museum told me that despite no overarching prize theme, they have broadly split the venues by three themes. For example, Chapter has a lot of childhood and passage of time work (such as Sharon Lockhart and ‘lunch break’) whereas Ffotogallery exhibits some feminist concerns (namely Sanja Ivekovic’s ‘The Disobedient’/Donkey Toys).

Although that helped my ‘need-to-categorize’ nature, I think it’s too disparate a show to be thrown into three boxes. Hence I’ve suggested on the map above that you walk to Penarth via the pier and also see the Aasobe Design Studios at The Norwegian Design Studios (queue yellow pin point). Likewise it made me think about ‘the human condition’. Plus I’ve included a link to a rather good write-up….

Back to Artes Mundi, I focused on the National Museum this weekend. It’s probably the most engaging exhibit I’ve ever been to. And I mean physically engaging.

Renzo Marten’s Institute For Human Activities (IHA), self portraits made by Congolese plantation workers

Renzo Marten has said that ‘poverty is Africa’s biggest export’. He set up the IHA in 2012 to  begin ‘a gentrification programme’ on a settlement near a former Unilever plantation in the Democratic Republic of Congo.The pieces above are produced by the same material that has been supplying Unilever for over one hundred years. Needless to say, the room smells like the (Unilever) products we buy, usually without thinking about where they came from.

Renata Lucas, Falha (Failure)

Lucas’ installation is a critical take on how built environments determine our actions. You are able to pick up the pieces of plywood and reconfigure them to shape the room as you please. Approach with caution…some people found them a little heavier than anticipated. But the gallery guard was delighted to see interaction – the installation doesn’t work if everyone remains passive.

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I’ve put a picture of my favourite on Instagram – Carlos Bunga’s ‘Exodus’. It includes a remarkable corridor – made out of cardboard and packing tape – on an architectural scale. From a distance it looks like an industrial structure within The Museum but on closer inspection, is clearly something very temporary. I understood Bunga’s message about temporary and permanent, past and present; but needed the handout to realise it’s about migration and nomads. I guess the title ‘Exodus’ was a pointer.

What three words would you use to describe your experience? I’d say: makes you think.

Do You Like The Matt Cook Sculpture Trail?

Cook’s Trail is in a part of Butetown I may never have otherwise visited. This seems to be a large part of the art itself – The Dock Feeder Canal is close to the Millennium Stadium but feels like a different city.

For a start, the only other life I encountered was two swans.

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Autumn is the perfect time for the trail. Although large abstract works, they rely upon the wind and water to create sound and movement. In the second picture above, you can just make out the red horseshoe (arms, wings?) of one piece. They rather bizarrely blend into their surroundings – the bold leaves probably help.

Beyond the colours however, their flowing shape and subtle movement seems at home with the Canal. Although I like the wheelbarrow piece below (again, very appropriate for the time of year) It obviously doesn’t have the physical movement of the clip above. With the front wheel sinking into the concrete however, it still feels in motion.

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I waited around to meet some residents and ask their opinion. Whether positive or neutral (only one was negative) everyone smiled before answering. I’m not sure what Cook would make of that but I think they will be missed when the Trail ends next week.

Do you agree? I look forward to any comments or tweets!

O:4W and On Record: Robert Bidder

I went to see the Outcasting: Fourth Wall (O:4W) commissions this afternoon at the Panopticon venue.

The work which most struck me was Alison Crocetta’s moving image installation ‘On Poppies’.

The gallery assistant said I should reflect on the cultural significance of the poppy within historic and contemporary contexts. Filled with thoughts of The First World War Centenary and Afghanistan opiate trade, I walked through curtains into a blackened out room with one large screen angled in the middle. One side had the clip above and the other was a taken from a poppy field.

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It seemed especially poignant given the UK hand over of Camp Bastion to Afghan forces last month, as well as Paul Cummins’ Tower of London poppy garden.

I understood Crocetta’s message that the poppy has a place in some of the most difficult passages in human history and the ponderous music was effective. The old hand slowly making commemorative poppies hinted to the cultural role it plays in British consciousness and reconciliation, whereas the windswept field highlighted contemporary struggles.

For a total change of pace I then went to ‘On Record’ in the Morgan Arcade to see Robert Bidder perform.


I truly had no idea what to expect other than knowing it was a contemporary performance to celebrate vinyl and the emotions of editing mix-tape. Clearly I had no wars or centenaries to help contextualise.

From a short piece of theatre called ‘Dickhead Buildings’ to some spoken observations with projected images, Robert successfully fused a self-deprecating humour into his show. He very much seems interested by the mundane or irrelevant and this set the stage for my highlight of the day: a karaoke art song about household dust.


I gather the editing process can be a painstaking one but Robert got laughs rather than sympathy. His vocal performance and purposefully out of sync coordination with the blaring white projector made for the perfect tonic to Crocetta. That’s not to say dust has less gravitas than a poppy – as Robert said, we cannot destroy it, we can only push it around.

Historic Cardiff Is Contemporary

A few months ago I had never been to Wales, let alone Cardiff.

With Cardiff Contemporary ongoing, I arrived at a fantastic time. The Festival forces you to ‘experience’ the city and think about its spaces rather than merely become accustomed to it.

I have always loved art despite not being very knowledgeable. My studies more involved history books than brushes. So it was a pleasant surprise when I visited the ‘Stute, the festival’s social centre. Echoing the Miners’ Institutes which historically formed the heart of old mining communities, it is both meeting place and public space. Plus, it’s filled with history books….

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I met co-ordinator Becca Thomas and her lovely team. As a novice, I had to ask: what is the difference between ‘visual’ art and ‘contemporary’? They seemed pleased I had asked. The public often seemed frightened by the word contemporary when it essentially just means new. It is not exclusively art which is visual but rather work which is new and open to interpretation. This is represented by the history books.

I liked the simple argument and it encouraged my blog title ‘New Art Cardiff’.

Based in St David’s House, Wood Street, the Council has heavily backed the operation. Directly opposite the bus and central train station, it is a prominent focus point for Cardiff’s communities of artists, designers and architects.

Cardiff Contemporary ends in just nine days but these communities are going no where. I want ‘New Art Cardiff’ to engage their conversation over the coming months and track the most interesting developments ahead – even if it’s bad news, namely funding cuts.

I am grateful the city has such a strong contingent of contemporary artists – I’m discovering a much richer Cardiff thanks to them.