Arts: No place like home?

Cardiff is celebrating the opening of a new centre for the visual arts. It makes a virtue of being a regional exhibiting space, of being true to its local roots. But is that such a good idea?
Click to follow
I was looking forward to Fantasmic, the UK's "first hands-on interactive gallery exploring the fun and fascinating world of art and seeing", though it turned out I hadn't properly foreseen what those words would mean. Besides, it was only one of the attractions promised at the new Cardiff Centre for Visual Arts, which opened last weekend.

The taxi-man at the station hadn't heard of it, the name meant nothing to him, but this is perfectly normal. The past year or so has seen an upspringing of new arts centres around Britain, the first fruits of the National Lottery, though they are tactfully not mentioned on National Lottery Live.

I showed him a copy of the Centre's brochure, which had a cover-photo of the converted public library which houses it, a Victorian civic-type building which I now realise must be easily recognisable to anyone who knows Cardiff - for example a taxi-driver - since it is large, and stands prominently on the main shopping street, and is in fact only 200 yards from the station.

But the driver searched thoroughly through the brochure for some reference to the Centre's address, which was truly and oddly quite hard to find, and then we set off and arrived almost instantly. I pointed out that it was a short journey. He pointed out that I wouldn't have known the way. Saturday was the first day the Centre was open to the public, and there were people about handing out flyers advertising "Wales's largest gallery - the place to see!", plus face-painting for children, a pavement drawing competition, and street music.

Throughout July, there'd been local trailing in the form of an art treasure hunt, with the chance to locate eight works of art hidden in the Hayes area of Cardiff. And the Centre's distinctive logo has been around for months. It is a circle, half of which is a yellow "Smiley" badge, the other half the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa - a neat splice, and while it doesn't obviously communicate Wales or the sort of art the Centre will show, it does strongly communicate art and smiling

Art - it's never its own sufficient recommendation, is it? Nobody opens an art gallery with the proud boast that it will have plenty of art in it. It takes a good deal of coaxing and jollying to get people to feel they might be glad of a new visual art centre. But then, it's never entirely clear who new contemporary visual art centres are for.

It was clear enough, though, who Fantasmic was for. It wasn't the CD- Rom, screen-touching experience I'd been banking on. It was a low-tech visual-learning environment, aimed exclusively at the under-10s, and I thought it was excellent. But as for the two opening exhibitions at the Cardiff Centre for Visual Arts, I didn't particularly enjoy them.

In the ground floor gallery there's an installation by the New York artist Jessica Stockholder, who specialises in disruptive space-invasions with startling pile-ups of things. She hasn't been seen very much in Britain yet and probably counts as a catch.

The piece here is called With Wanton Heed and Giddy Cunning, Hedging Red & That's Not Funny. It doesn't - as Stockholder's work sometimes does - burst through any walls. It consists of a stretch of red woolly carpet, two Portakabins hung from the ceiling (with bungies strung taught between them and the walls), a cluster of trestle tables, over and under which are stood dozens of electric radiators, some of them on, and with neon strip-lights suspended, glaring, just above them; bright areas of paint spread over the walls, floor, and Portakabins, making room and installation kind of continuous.

One can see how this is meant to go: a dramatic baptiser for a new art space, which disorients without trying to disguise its previous use as a library; what's more, a work of nutty gaiety, that sorts well the jolly spirit of the opening. Actually, Stockholder's wackiness seems to me entirely pro forma, not to say lifeless (the sort of object-collage an advert would make if it wanted to fake up a contemporary art setting). Whether it was just what the gallery wanted one can't be sure: once such projects are commissioned it's very hard to back-track.

Downstairs in the basement gallery there is a group show called (and I don't understand why) Superstructure, with work by nine contemporary Welsh artists. This is the regional section, and most of the work makes some reference to Wales, or to the building itself. It was interesting to see a piece by veteran conceptualist Keith Arnatt again - celebrated in the Seventies for a sequence of photos in which he disappeared feet- first into the ground - though the thing here is pretty silly. It certainly doesn't prevent Superstructure from being an averagely boring contemporary group show. And I expect the regional brief is partly the cause of that.

So all in all, artwise, a trip to the Cardiff Centre for Visual Art can't be recommended just yet. It will of course have other shows. Next spring it will devote both galleries to Welsh wood-sculptor David Nash. Next autumn, it's one of the stops on the British Art Show 5's tour. On the other hand, if you live in the area, you may want to go anyway, out of local interest.

Ah, the local. They're strange institutions, these non-metropolitan contemporary art centres. Because contemporary art is itself so relentlessly metropolitan and cosmopolitan, and generally unplaced and limboid.

It is a world where nobody lives anywhere. In contemporary art publications, contributors are usually referred to as the "Berlin based critic", the "New York based curator", as if they were hardly ever at home, but always hopping continents between one gallery and another, to view work by the same roster of international artists in more or less interchangeable spaces.

The art itself is no less homeless, (for all that the cult of the "site- specific" and endless "artist-placements" try to hold this fact at bay). And its ideal home, the place it really lives, is the literal nowhere, the virtual space, of the art catalogue and the art magazine, to which actual exhibitions are mere entrees.

Well, this situation has its depressing aspects, but it is the situation. The core audience for modern and contemporary art is a deracinated class of metropolitan quasi-intellectuals, of which I'm glad to be a member. That's just the way it goes. That's why we have this art at all.

And so any attempt to localise it is likely to be a divided project. The gallery will work partly as a modern art depot which might be anywhere, and partly as something forging links to a particular place.

I'm not saying that people in Dundee or Birmingham or Cardiff don't get modern art in the way people in London do. Only that a metropolitan gallery can get on with it, without feeling obliged to simulate irrelevant roots, with attendant community love-bombing. Or feeling less obliged, anyway: but the communitarian spirit is so strong at the moment that even the new Tate Gallery of Modern Art at Bankside has to demonstrate, absurdly, some commitment to serving the people of Bow district.

Of course, a touch of localism can be nice. It takes the chill off contemporary art's limbo. It lets you feel it might somehow belong. But then, the pressures are so much more now. Art is increasingly obliged to justify itself as community service and education and a general helper and bringer together. It's time to stand up for rootlessness.

Centre for Visual Arts. Working Street, The Hayes, Cardiff. Closed Mondays. Current shows till 7 November. Entrance pounds 3.50. Children pounds 2.50. (02920 394040)