Melissa Hinkin is an Exhibitions Officer and a freelance producer based in Cardiff. Having worked on four Artes Mundi exhibitions as well as on several freelance projects, Melissa’s curatorial interests gravitate towards artists that embrace socially-engaged, site-responsive and performance-based practices forged at the intersection of feminist critique of science and technology. We caught up with Melissa at her quirky flat in Canton and had an interesting conversation about her formative journey, her role at Artes Mundi, her curatorial interests and the contemporary art scene in Cardiff. Later on, she took us along her daily walking commute to the National Museum, where she gave us a most knowledgeable tour of Artes Mundi 8.
Melissa, can you tell us a bit about your background?
I was born in Shrewsbury, the birthplace of the naturalist Charles Darwin, and grew up in rural mid Powys. I studied sculpture at Wimbledon College of Art for three years and moved back to mid Wales after graduating. I was employed briefly as a foundry technician for a number of years before developing a career in curatorial practice, gaining invigilation experience as a gallery assistant and then curatorial experience with Folkestone Triennial, Oriel Davies Gallery and Grizedale Arts before gaining a post as Exhibitions Officer at Artes Mundi.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
I spent my childhood helping my parents grow fruit and vegetable in the garden, splitting logs for firewood and working on my uncle’s farm collecting and stacking fresh hay bales after the harvest. I particularly enjoyed dredging local streams with my bare hands to make small clay pots, not really knowing what I was doing! Rural living was physically hard, but there was a lot of freedom.
I spent a lot of my childhood walking across open grassland and navigating through densely wooded forests. I would often go for country walks with my Nain (Grandmother in Welsh). On one such walk when I was about 5 years old my Nain asked me to climb to the top of a hill and asked me to describe what I could see. As I reached the summit all I could observe was an uninterrupted chain of hills and mountains surrounding us. I thought we were at the centre of the world; it was a truly magical and awe-inspiring moment.
What about your first memory related to art?
Creativity has always been woven into my life from early childhood. I was a shy but passionate child and would sit transfixed for hours entranced by drawing and painting. I was a daydreamer and easily distracted at school and would sit transfixed looking at the classroom walls or outside the window. Art was my escape; but it also helped me express myself and developed my voice. Whilst I can’t remember the artwork that I made or the artists that inspired me around this time, I do remember the joy that art gave me ‒ this excitement hasn’t left!
What is your take on contemporary art? What do you think it should achieve?
I was recently given a copy of Albert Camus’ essay “Create Dangerously” by a close theatre producer and friend of mine. In the text the French philosopher proclaimed that “Art, in a sense, is a revolt against everything fleeting and unfinished in the world… the freest art and the most rebellious will therefore be the most classical.” I believe like Camus that art unites, that whilst we can never escape common misery artists can speak up for those who cannot do so, at extreme risk ‒ only there lies the freedom of art. With this in mind, I am for all art that challenges and confronts societal norms; art that questions and instigates experimentation and supports creative rebellion.
Tell us about your role as Exhibitions Officer at Artes Mundi. What attracted you to working for this particular arts organisation?
I was attracted to and intrigued by Artes Mundi’s focus on contemporary visual artists that engaged with the ‘human condition, social reality and lived experience’, even though I wasn’t entirely sure what these terms meant at the time! I saw the role as an opportunity to develop my curatorial experience and support some incredible international artists including Phil Collins, Tania Bruguera and Teresa Margolles during the Artes Mundi 5 exhibition. I was also excited to live and work in Cardiff and to be a part of a wider arts network and community in South Wales.
As Exhibitions Officer I am responsible for a wide range of different tasks including coordinating the artist short-listing processes, organising international artist studio visits and managing the production and presentation of artworks in the exhibition. I also develop a series of exhibition tours, workshops, conferences and a host of many other smaller tasks! Whilst my role is incredibly creative it also involves a lot of problem solving, strategic planning and coordination.
How would you describe Artes Mundi’s voice in relation to other international arts organisations?
I like to think that Artes Mundi embodies and embraces a range of different voices. Perhaps ‘values’ rather than ‘voice’ is a different way of looking at how the organisation is different from other international arts organisations.
Artes Mundi’s mission and focus is to bring exceptional and challenging international artists to Wales, and to generate opportunities for individuals and local communities to engage creatively with current urgent issues. Some of the artists I have worked with have explored pertinent themes such as structures of power and governance, globalisation and consumerism, urbanisation and food production alongside deeply personal issues of grief, loss and anxieties about the future. For Artes Mundi, great art encompasses the social, political, spiritual, emotional and psychological ‒ all aspects of what it means to be human. It has the capacity not only to reflect our human condition but also to transform it.
Artes Mundi places the ‘The Human Condition’ at the centre of its activities – a phrase developed by the 20th century political philosopher and theorist Hannah Arendt. She states that “Action, the only activity that goes on directly between men… corresponds to the human condition of plurality, to the fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world.” For Arendt, action is a public category, a practice that corresponds to our plurality as distinct individuals.
What is a challenging part of your job that viewers might not see when they are walking through the Artes Mundi biennial exhibition?
The most banal yet seemingly critical elements of my role are planning and administration and keeping up with all the paperwork! Glamorous and exciting it is not, however it is vital for any large-scale exhibition. Over the two year cycle of any Artes Mundi exhibition and prize I have to carefully plan and manage documents including visa applications, artists contracts, loan agreements, artwork insurance, object entry forms, exhibitions budgets, condition reports, risk assessments, installation/de-installation schedules, shipment documents (import documents & customs forms), contractor/supplier invoices, artists’ travel documents, and many more I care not to list. Compiling this register alone is making me feel quite stressed!
Out of all the art projects and exhibitions that you’ve worked on, what have been the most successful or rewarding for you and why?
I’ve worked on four Artes Mundi exhibitions (Artes Mundi 5, 6, 7 & 8) and a number of supporting commissions, workshops, events and performances. In 2018, I curated a new site-specific performance piece “The Sky in a Room” by the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, co-commissioned with National Museum Cardiff. I worked closely with Ragnar, his studio team and museum staff to develop the performance that comprised a series of organists performing Gino Paoli’s 1959 hit song “Il Cielo In Una Stanza” (The Sky in a Room) on the museum’s 1774 Sir Watkins Williams Wynn organ. All throughout the day, across the five-week duration of the performance, the organist sang the famous Italian love song over and over again. The lyrics of this song recall the power of love to disappear walls into forests and ceilings into sky.
It was an incredible privilege to work alongside Ragnar and his team and on such an incredibly popular exhibition; however, the most rewarding element of the experience was observing audiences during the performance. I would watch people transfixed by the melody of the music, from young children to the elderly, the music sparking both joy and sorrow. One visitor commented that the performance was “the most beautiful, unexpected experience I’ve had. The room, the voice and the atmosphere is tear-jerking and stunning.”
What are some of the pressing matters art institutions, such as Artes Mundi, are faced with today?
Funding. Public art institutions are competing against each other for dwindling pots of money from trusts, foundations and local authorities resulting in cuts to programming, staff loses and public gallery closures across the art sector.
How would you define your freelance practice and curatorial interests?
I’ve been involved in several freelance projects over the years including supporting Artsadmin and the artist Phoebe Davies in producing Influences Nail Salon in Johannesburg, South Africa in collaboration with young women from The Sibikwa Arts Centre as part of the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children. The young women researched the social and political issues and developed a new series of nail designs depicting South African women of influence which were then applied for free in exchange for conversation and dialogue from the visiting public in a purpose built nail bar. Recently I collaborated with the curator Jess Mathews on The Rejoinders, a research network between Wales and India, exploring collaborative process, the visual arts and ‘in-between’ spaces funded by the India/Wales programme as part of the UK-India Year of Culture supported by the British Council and Wales Arts International. The Rejoinders was an investigative, experimental curatorial project with a dual aspect research group at its heart that formed creative and critical collaborators with diverse practices and aligned through an interest in exchange. We developed an interactive website, coordinated residencies and developed exhibitions in collaboration with g39, Cardiff and CONA Foundation, Mumbai.
I feel I’m still discovering and developing my own curatorial voice and practice and now feel more confident to undertake more research and develop my own curatorial projects. I have an interest in artists that embrace socially-engaged, site-responsive and performance-based practices at the intersection of feminist critique of science and technology and am currently reading Sadie Plant’s book Zeros and ones, which offers an alternative feminist account of the history and nature of digital technology, and Judy Wajcman’s 1991 publication “Feminism confronts technology”.
Who are some of the inspirational people in your field that you follow and what do you admire about their approach?
I’m completely infatuated with the artist Suzanne Lacy and feel she is one of the most important public artists working today. I first came across her seminal work, “The Crystal Quilt”, a few years ago. On 10 May 1987 in Minneapolis, 430 women over the age of 60 gathered to share their views on growing older. The resulting performance was broadcast live on television and attended by over 3,000 people. The result of this performance now exists in the form of a video, documentary, quilt, photographs and sound piece, combining the original elements of performance, activism and broadcast (now owned and currently on display at Tate Modern). Over the last several decades Lacy had staged through her community work large-scale public art projects involving hundreds of people exploring women’s lives as well as race, ethnicity, aging, economic disparities and violence. She is also and incredible organiser, writer and theorist dedicated to civic dialogue and highlighting art’s social and political potential.
What are three questions you don’t have an answer for?
Can art alone effect societal change?
Can you see a time when Feminism isn’t needed?
What’s at the centre of a black hole?
And finally, when you think about the future of contemporary art in Wales, what are you most excited about and why?
I’m really excited about Gentle/Radical. This grassroots cultural organisation provides a platform for radical thinking, creative practice and social change in Cardiff and beyond. I’ve been to their imagination forums, screenings and events and invited them to lead on an exhibition tour of Artes Mundi 8. Rabab Ghazoul’s focus on social practice, social justice, grassroots change and community renewal has brought local community members, policy makers and creative practitioners together to critically debate subjects including oppression and white privilege, decolonising the museum sector and the role of the imagination in painting visions for emancipated futures. They will be launching a website soon and opening a space in the Wyndham Street Centre (former Wyndham Street Diner) in Riverside in the next few months. Join in and take part in these important dialogues.
Lumin are an arts collective and independent publisher interested in the deconstruction, deinstitutionalisation and grassroots dissemination of the arts. Sadia was a recent bursary holder at Artes Mundi and I had the pleasure of working with her over the last few months. Check out Lumin Radio – I love it!
Set up in 2017 by Hanan Issa and Durre Shahwar, this open mic series was set up predominantly but not exclusively to promote Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) writers and voices in Wales. A safe space for local creatives to share spoken word, poetry and prose with the aim to challenge, explore, de-construct or even parody any topic with respect and open-mindedness. Check out their Facebook page for up and coming open mic nights at the Tramshed, Grangetown.
Working across live performance, video and installation, Ashill’s work focuses on the theatricality in the everyday whilst sharing fragments of autobiography, observations on people, history and site, creating striking works including a performance inspired by Cliff Richard’s 1996 portrayal of Wuthering Heights’ ‘Heathcliff’. Kathryn has several solo and group shows in Cardiff and Swansea in the Autumn including g39, Glynn Vivian Gallery and Elysium. Check out her website for more details.
Thank you, Melissa for the wonderful Artes Mundi tour and great conversation.