Memento is a pensive exhibition that looks at the emotional residue caused by the loss of someone close. It profiles two of the most significant artists working in Wales at the moment, whose works contemplate the themes of grief, loss and memories. Sara Rees and David Garner examine the awkward truth that everyone and everything passes, a subject that is often difficult to talk about. Almost melodramatic in its presentation, the work takes the form of tableau and is a juxtaposition of elements, a poignant placing of objects that hold associations.
David Garner’s latest work is intensely personal, dealing with the recent death of his father. Like hundreds of other victims of the mining system, he was a casualty of the industrial heyday in Wales. The verdict of death was simply ‘Industrial Disease’. On the ground floor is an x-ray of his father’s chest and breathing mask to aid his breathing, with the mining jacket and coal that he worked for. The work is called Do not go gentle
, referring both to the fight to hold on to life and also the fight for recognition of the cause of death. Throughout Garner’s work runs a silent rage, and anger at the system and frustration at his father’s passing. He says, ‘I wanted my father to live more than his 87 years, I wanted him to live longer than the queen mother to prove that privilege and wealth are not important’. On the top floor Garner recreates a doorway and ash pathway leading to it. Entitled History Lesson (what price for coal?)
, it is reminiscent of the back gardens and sheds of valleys housing, and a particular era of tin baths and backyards. It is literally a threshold, a point of entrance or departure.
'Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light'
Sara Rees’ work also considers the territory of mourning, which has dominated her work for the past three years. Her work, Aurora
, is the first to be situated in the reopened cellar space at g39. Unlike the other spaces in the gallery, the cellar is far from a white cube. Through the intervention of hanging a chandelier in the centre of the room Rees has used this relic of the building’s past to create a space of mourning, where time, for the bereaved, ceases to exist. ‘Grief in our culture is a hidden space. The work of mourning must go on, silently and invisibly, beneath the currents of everyday life.’ The gentle glow of the bulbs and the smoky reflections in the weighted crystals give the space an atmosphere of heavy silence. Hanging beneath the coal of Garner’s work, the crystal chandelier is drawn closer to its inverted reflection in the objects on the cellar floor, and reminds us that that the dark cellar ceiling and the floor of the light-filled room above are one and the same.
Rees’ work on the first floor, entitled Description Of A Picture / Explosion Of A Memory
, deals with a kind of collective memory, a place where reminders of people or things passed linger in the air like overheard conversation. Rees has collected memories from people and transferred extracts of these on the walls of the gallery. ‘These processes of inscription – firstly by the author of the memory, then by the artist onto the wall, and then by the light each time it passes over the text – are an attempt to almost engrave memory, to set it in stone so as to preserve it against time.’ The personal imprint of individuals’ handwriting is apparent in the work, like different voices, although we never quite see the full picture because only a fragment of the memories are revealed to us at one time. ‘Current thought posits that memory is not, as was thought, a drawer in which things are put, but rather a series of pathways that if we tread repeatedly stay open. But if a memory is not visited for a while the pathway that leads to it becomes overgrown and eventually disappears. The memory still exists but we can no longer reach it.’
Both artists work in the areas of human existence that lie beyond the territory of reason, and the experiences that may cause us to cross that threshold – altered states of consciousness (physically, emotionally or spiritually induced) ecstasy, trauma, grief, love, madness. In such states we might find ourselves cast out of the world. In a society that hides death, silences madness and erases all signs of decay, such a position is abject. Yet perhaps here, beyond the hygienic order of things, we may also encounter the sublime.