Flourish is one of a series of exhibitions of new work from Wales that has come about through the work of Wales Arts International. WAI introduced two organisations, g39 in Cardiff, Wales, an artist run space that focuses on new work coming out of Wales and the Moravská Gallery in Brno, Czech Republic, who host to a large collection as well as changing contemporary exhibitions.
The resulting exhibition is co-curated by Anthony Shapland and Marek Pokorný and it attempts to look beyond the mere geographic links that are apparent in an exhibition like this. The curators focused on some of the strategies and methods that are distinct within the contemporary work coming out of Wales. The resulting show demonstrates a diverse and eclectic tendency, a distinct fondness for the absurd, for folly and for defiance, all from a standpoint on the perceived peripheries.
The following is the essay from the accompanying catalogue:
Flourish. To Flourish. A Flourish. To thrive and prosper or to gesture in an elaborate fashion. The exhibition is a collection of these gestures. The artists offer us new ways of looking, possibly the most important role for the artist in society. Often they are ridiculed, there gestures seen as ‘emperor’s new clothes’, only understood by those foolish enough to believe. Artists can often be seen as fops, the privileged few talking to the unsophisticated masses, the dandies with the upper hand. In the shifting contemporary art scene there is one thing that is constant, the gestures of artists, the posturing flourish that is contemporary work in a world that believes it could continue without it.
But these stands against the accepted order of things can offer a new clarity to situations, a glimmer of hope that lights the path to a place where things may not be better but they certainly can be different. Sometimes logical thought gets in the way. It breeds a complacency that shouldn’t exist in a world as fractured as ours. The binary logic of either / or depends on accepting proven knowledge. But when logic is out of the window nonsense reigns and makes a new kind of sense. A gesture is made against the way things are. B no longer follows A and the perpetrators are not anarchists but artists. Sometimes this makes viewers of contemporary art unsettled, hostile and unwilling to take any step that admits that, in this shaky world, absolutes are there to be doubted.
The artists in the show do not offer us an unmediated view of the world. They step in, mess things up a little, and step out. Their presence in the bigger scheme is conferred importance by the changes that they make to the things around them. It is not pointless, posturing or kind. It is fundamental and necessary, born out of curiosity and acts as a catalyst for change.
When these gestures happen in an unforgiving, harsh landscape, the follies of producing art stand in stark relief. Visual art has sometimes been perceived as an unnecessary flourish when it is contrasted with the toil and struggle of a nation, when it is pitted against unemployment or a lack of hospital beds. But it is this stand against the accepted order of things, often against logic, that vocalise some of the most potent, most interesting and necessary ideas of progress. A small nation like Wales, under threat from greater powers, has a tendency to play it safe. The suspicion of the New is ever-present but the tension that exists between the pull back of tradition and the pull forward of the future is an essential factor for its contemporary artists.
But an argument can be made that these kicks against the status quo have long had a hold in Wales. There seems to be a tradition of protest and groups or individuals that take the apparently impossible as a challenge, some of them more serious in nature, leading to fundamental changes. In the 1800s the ‘Rebecca Riots’ protested against the imposed toll charges on the roads in Wales. To find a way around the danger of being recognised during these attacks, which were then a hanging offence, farmers carried them out disguised in their wives’ clothes. A ridiculous but necessary strategy used to combat an unjust law.
A century later there is another marker of a distinct eccentric tendency for revolution in Wales. Over a 50-year period from the 1920s the architect Clough Williams Ellis decided that he would turn a desolate corner of Wales into the most beautiful Italianate town and created Portmeirion. This was not the totemic folly of a rich man with too much cash. This was a passion. He scaled down his favourite buildings from Europe and built replicas in a craggy spot in Wales. Why? He wanted to prove that there was more than one thing that could exist there, more than one way. The spot has been transformed forever, used in the 70s TV series The Prisoner
and now peopled by a mix of nerds and architecture lovers.
Equalling the conviction of Portmeirion’s stand against the harsh climate was a group called Club Artistic de Coiffeures, a society of Welsh hair stylists and salon owners who formed circa 1968. Their aim was to create new hairstyles suitable for the women of Wales but which would also be adopted across Europe. These hairdressing visionaries believed they were faced with one fundamental challenge – the Welsh weather. Our adverse climate of blustery winds, salty sea air and incessant rain wreaked havoc with your average Welsh head. In the autumn of 1968 they came up with an answer to this problem and christened it The Cariad. It was low at the front, with ringlets or kiss curls cascading down the sides. The low crown was brushed to give extra elevation. This, believed the eight founder members of Club Artistic de Coiffeures, would combat the severest of weather conditions. It was billed as ‘the first ever Welsh hairstyle’. (source: Anthony Brockway, Notes From The Margins Of Welsh Popular Culture
There are these pockets of odd genius, people employing the unlikely to combat the day-to-day all over Wales. They transform those places that are seen as the middle of nowhere into somewhere. Often when I hear of American follies, like the biggest rubber band ball in the world, or a giant frying pan I can picture them by the side of the road on the way to Newport or round the corner at Betws. On the hillside as you leave the Rhondda there are weird looking sculptures littering the hillside. They are the pursuit of one man who has been producing papier-mâché dinosaurs and placing them for years. They litter the majestic gateway into this, the biggest valley of South Wales, with their grinning poster paint smiles.
A folly is often seen as the whim of folk with more money than sense. A case of deciding that if something can be done, irrespective of use or affordability, then it should be done. The artists in this show point out that attempting the impossible or even the improbable can be taken by us all as a strategy of upsetting the status quo. The logic that says it should be ‘this’, not ‘that’, is foisted on those perceived to have little choice in the matter, because of a lack of money, as if will and free will (and therefore folly) is something only available to those with the time and cash to indulge it. Folly is a proletariat pursuit, or it should be. Do nothing or do something; fail because you tried or fail because you did nothing. Embracing failure might be one way of putting it. Shame-faced embarrassment at the pathetic nature of it all can be transformed. Why fail at the little things when you can attempt to do the bigger ones? Try alchemy instead of DIY.
Throughout Europe the continual fracture and displacement of people is a historical fact, and the question of national identity is an incredibly complex one to deal with. Equally complex are the responses and works of artists that choose either to embrace the issue or distance themselves from it. The position of nomad seems to be a desirable one for the contemporary artist whose idea of national identity is fore grounded or downplayed according to the exigencies of the moment. But perhaps uniquely in Wales it is the external perception of it being in the margins, part of the parochial regions or on the peripheries that has led to a greater preponderance with notions of identity. This is an identity crisis that ultimately may lend it greater confidence in the contemporary world. Wales is now an interesting hybrid nation with external influences being subsumed into the culture of Wales rather than the culture of Wales feeling under threat. We unite under the flag, decrying some of the preconceptions while reinforcing others, and being proud of them. It is surely a sign of confidence when prejudices become part of your armour.
In a show such as this where one geographical common thread already exists I hesitate to add others, the artists in the show all work in different ways. What there is in common is a desire for change. Do the little things
, one of the works is called, implying that the big things follow. The work is activist in its attempts to change things; some of the artists intervene like Robin Hoods or pirates. Other works echo with the ‘...because it was there’ folly of explorers. Elsewhere, artists attempt to transform the base into the magnificent, adding flourishes to an everyday world. From the margins you can often just look towards the centre but it is from here, on the periphery that you get a clearer view of the other places on the periphery. This is also true of logic. The further you are from the anchor of established fact, the closer you come to the mire of possibilities.
©Anthony Shapland 2005