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Artes Mundi Prize, National Museum of Art, Cardiff

  • @ZoePilger

Phil Collins was working in Jessops and studying for his MFA when he came upon the idea of turning customers' photos into art. These common-place images - of people getting married or getting drunk - possessed an unguarded intimacy, at once posed and trusting.

Not to be confused with the pop-star who shares his name, the Berlin-based British artist, who was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2006, has drawn on that early inspiration to create Free Fotolab (2009). In a darkened room, the viewer is invited into the private worlds of strangers from six countries. An image of an old man dying in a hospital bed is followed by a scene of deep winter. The slideshow clicks with soothing regularity, easing the sense that to look at these photos is an intrusive, even violent, act.

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Collins’ piece is one of the strongest in this excellent selection of international artists’ work. Chosen from over 750 nominations, the shortlist is composed, refreshingly, of five women and two men. Although less famous than the Turner Prize, the biannual Artes Mundi offers the largest financial sum in the UK: the winner will receive £40,000. For the first time this year, the submissions process has been completely open to the public – yet most names on the shortlist are already established. Now ten years old, the prize seeks art that engages with “social reality.”

Some of the artists have created work rooted in the local area of Cardiff, most notably Slovenian-born Apolonija Šuštersič, whose film Politics ‘In Space’ (2012) reflects on the controversial transformation of Tiger Bay into Mermaid Quay. Lithuanian artist Darius Mikšys has combined relics from Wales’ manufacturing past - a sign that warns against smoking down the mines and a crumbling seaman’s identity card - with a Welsh doll in traditional dress and a stunning Mali Morris painting. Miriam Backstrӧm (Sweden), Tania Bruguera (Cuba), and Sheela Gowda (India) are likewise worthy contenders.

Mexican artist Teresa Margolles’ installation evokes the rise of drug-related violence in Cuidad Juarez. The hacking and squelching sounds of an autopsy can be heard through head-phones; a white tiled floor on which an artist friend of hers was found murdered in 2004 is displayed intact. The crime remains unsolved so that the tiles bear a mute form of witness. Originally trained in forensic medicine, Margolles’ work is horrifying and brilliant; along with Collins, she would be a deserving winner.

6 Oct 2012 – 13 Jan 2013