The 6th edition of Artes Mundi opened in Cardiff on Friday, with a larger scope and an expanded shortlist of 10 international artists. The prize has extended out from its previous base in the National Museum too, and now includes the venues Ffotogallery and Chapter Arts Centre.

This is new director Karen MacKinnon’s first prize and she is keen for the focus to be on the artists’ work rather than the £40,000 prize. “The work in the exhibition was second to the prize,” she says. “I wanted to shift attention to the exhibition.”

The artists have presented a diverse selection of work that spans generations and cultures. While there is no set curatorial theme, all the works engage directly with people’s lives, exploring what it means to be human and dealing with social and cultural issues with empathy.

The idea of collaboration and working together feature prominently in the two shows at Ffotogallery, with Ragnar Kjartansson (Iceland) and Sanja Iveković (Croatia) occupying the same gallery space.

Kjartansson’s The Visitors (2013) surrounds the viewer in a unique experience. Filmed in a bohemian house in upstate New York, there is a sense of melancholy as nine cameras show Kjartansson and a group of musicians singing a song together, all in separate rooms. In Ivekovic’s work, magazine adverts are re-appropriated, replacing the branding with the formal charges and names of young female anti-fascist militants from World War II.

Similar questions of authority are asked in Karen Mirza and Brad Butler’s The Museum of Non Participation at Chapter Arts Centre. The museum is a device to probe and challenge the current condition of political involvement. An exam room is set out with a neon sign stating ‘You are the prime minister’. While this at first seems to be an invitation to take up the fantasy role, it is soon revealed that the statement is in fact from a scholarship test taken at Eton College.

Also at Chapter, Sharon Lockhart presents EXIT, a film from her Lunch Break­ (2008) project, an intimate portrayal of 42 workers taking their midday break in a corridor stretching the length of the Bath Iron Works shipyard in Maine, USA. The scenes present a moment of respite for the workers in their day, as they get time to talk, read or eat; in EXIT, we see workers leaving the shipyard throughout the week.

Architectural intervention

Cardiff’s National Museum hosts the work of four Artes Mundi artists. Portugal’s Carlos Bunga has transformed the gallery space with an architectural intervention that creates a large cardboard corridor down the middle of the room, suspending all space’s histories and architectural details in the material.

Renata Lucas’ Falha (Failure) also plays with the gallery space. The Brazilian artist has placed a collection of hinged sheets of plywood on the floor, inviting the visitor to move them and reconfigure the space. This sense of play transforms our expectations of the room.

For A complicated relationship between heaven and earth, or when we believe, Theaster Gates (USA) has arranged a series of found objects including a church slate roof and a Masonic bucking goat on a track. Featuring artefacts from many countries and cultures, Gates shows how people use objects to represent their ‘higher selves’, challenging the Eurocentric view of Christianity.

In contrast, Israeli artist Omer Fast’s layered film tells the story of a couple going to pick up their army son from Afghanistan. But as the film plays out, all is not what it seems and the truth unravels as fact and fiction become almost unrecognisable.

Western exploitation

Renzo Martins and the Institute for Human Activities has work across two venues. At the National Museum there are a series of African statues made out of chocolate, while Chapter is showing a documentary, Enjoy Poverty, where the artist places himself at the centre of the action. The works explore Western exploitation of Africa’s biggest export – its poverty.

This year’s Artes Mundi includes work that engages with varied topics spanning religion, work and the global effect of poverty. Thanks in part to its cross-venue nature, but also by virtue of it opening during this year’s Cardiff Contemporary festival, it feels more embedded in the city and better placed to bridge the boundaries between artist and audience.

The winner of Artes Mundi 6 will be announced on 22 January 2015 – still plenty of time, then, for the focus to remain on the exhibition before all eyes are on the £40,000 prize.

Artes Mundi 6 Exhibition and Prize continues at National Museum Cardiff, Chapter and Ffotogallery until 22 February 2015.

More on

Cardiff Contemporary: big ambitions need long-term commitments – Independent curator and former Artes Mundi director Ben Borthwick argues that there is much to be done in Cardiff and the rest of Wales if Cardiff Contemporary is to fulfil its potential

CORRECTION: This article has been amended to include that the Sharon Lockhart film showing at Chapter is titled EXIT.