Eisteddfod 2014: National Open Exhibition

I have a declaration of interest to make. In January of this year, the artist John Abell and I were walking home from a night out when upon looking through a fence into a building site I spotted a long, thin piece of medium density fibreboard. It had smaller protruding sections and was probably the offcut of a new kitchen unit. This might not excite many people, but a found seven-foot piece of MDF is enough to excite John so much you could hang a flag from his erection. I climbed over the fence and slid it through to him, and we carried it home, gaining many a bemused look from people just as drunk as us, stopping only to change arms when it got too heavy. The MDF, that is. Not John’s erection.

This piece of MDF eventually became the woodcut block of John’s print O Arglwydd, Dyma Gamwedd, which is now on display as part of the open art exhibition at this year’s National Eisteddfod in Llanelli. It was made as a tribute to Newport’s Chartists Mural, which was destroyed last year despite much public opposition. The title alludes to the last words of Dic Penderyn, wrongly hung outside Cardiff Market for his (non-existent) part as a gang-leader in the Merthyr Rising of 1831 at the age of twenty-three. It roughly translates as ‘Oh God, here is a travesty’.

The original Chartist slogan could not be used, and not just because it isn’t as evocative (‘Political power our means, social happiness our end’). In what has been deemed a controversial move by some, including last year’s Gold Medal award winner Josephine Sowden, the Eisteddfod has decided to enforce and highlight the rule that ‘any original words incorporated in the artwork (including sound and video) must be in Welsh.’

I think this is a good thing. There aren’t many places outside of Gwynedd where you can have that total Cymraeg experience any more. As it happens, when comparing the original Chartist slogan with the final words of Dic Penderyn, the decision to highlight the rule was to the benefit of this print.

I hope you can understand why I felt compelled to make a declaration of interest. Despite (and not because of) my small involvement in this piece, I think that O Arglwydd, Dyma Gamwedd is a fantastic piece of work. Detailing the many establishment putdowns of the people of Wales during the industrial revolution, it serves as a timely reminder that every freedom the common man now enjoys in our day and age once had to be fiercely fought for.

I do, however, have to draw attention to the mounting of this picture. The picture is framed, giving it an institutionalised feel. It would have been far better had it been made into a Japanese-type scroll and hung from the top, as the artist has done many times before, which would have added to its anti-establishment ethic. On the wall opposite this print, for example, are Jade Fisher’s notable series of six gouache on tin paintings (which immediately bring to mind the naïve Ethiopian paintings on permanent display at the British Museum), which are mounted as they are, without the need for a frame.

This is Jade Fisher’s first time showing at the Eisteddfod, and she is not alone in this position. Of the forty-four exhibitors selected from over 300 entries, eighteen have never shown at the Eisteddfod before. David Alston, the Arts Director of the Arts Council of Wales, showed himself to be ever the gatekeeper with his statement in the Lle Celf programme notes, in describing this situation as ‘the mix of the well-established on the Welsh scene with the wannabes’.

What this belittling of the talent pool by an immensely powerful figure in Welsh art fails to take into account is that it means that the quality of the Tony Goble Award was particularly strong this year. This is the prize given to an artist exhibiting for the first time. It had many potential winners, including the two artists already mentioned. The eventual winner was Seren Morgan Jones for her painting Pregethwr, a portrait of a woman preacher. Methodism has a long tradition in Wales. It goes right back to the founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley, making his first visit over our side of the Severn in 1739. He later granted the first licences for women to preach in 1761 (in your face, Anglicanism). Jones’ noble intention is to paint women back into the history of Wales. Pregethwr is an authentic historical re-imagining with a contemporary feel and is undoubtedly a deserved winner.

The main winner this year was Sean Edwards for his video Maelfa. Shot entirely within a dilapidated ’70s shopping centre in the Llanedeyrn area of Cardiff, the video consists of a number of continuous sequences moving from left to right, detailing the shopping quarter of the complex. The shots vary from being extremely close up to quite wide-angled. Sometimes you see things you recognise, such as birds in the pet shop or packets of dehydrated peas in the grocers. Edwards makes great use of reflections in the shop windows, where often you can catch a glimpse of people, beds and other shops. At the beginning of the video we are told by council planning quotes about the optimistic intentions for the design, but the original plan was never fully realised. The reflections seem to mirror this and serve as a timely reminder.

As a piece, it does feel the most like an en vogue work of contemporary art in the exhibition, which is probably why Edwards is represented by both the Limoncello in London and the Tanya Leighton Gallery in Berlin. But whether you like it as a work of art or not comes down to one thing. Despite the smooth camera action and clear direction, it depends on if you can appreciate the aesthetics on offer within a typical old-fashioned British shopping centre. As an idea, I can’t say that I find it particularly interesting. A twenty-eight minute video of the same idea portrayed over and over again seems like a bit of overkill. If you consider the mimetic nature of art, you’ll soon find that it’s the kind of video work that you will have seen a million times before. At best you might appreciate the space in the film and the passing of time. At worst you can’t help but feel that this is another artist who makes work solely for other artists.

Maelfa is shot in a working class area. Contemporary art, for the most part, is a middle class interest. This is no better witnessed in the price of Edwards’ other piece in the show, an untitled giclee print on sale for £4000, which looks like the illegitimate lovechild of a game of Jenga and a shed. When putting Maelfa into the same context, it feels overly voyeuristic. Cue your best David Attenborough voice. And here we have the Welsh urban prole in its natural habitat.

If I’m honest with you, I find the work to be as pedestrian as the pace of the camera tracking. It is impossible to feel anything but indifferent to such a piece of work when it is so purposely devoid of humanity. Especially when it is making a negative social statement with its very existence, when no such statement was meant to be made in the first place. As a result it feels like the kind of flawed humdrum work you would expect to see at a good degree show. But Maelfa won the Gold Medal for fine art at the 2014 Eisteddfod. It has been elevated to the highest standards of cultural recognition in Wales. I doubt I’ll be the only one to disagree with the judges.

Another Sean who has video work at this year’s exhibition is Sean Vicary with his piece Murmuration. The three minute-long video depicts the breeding cycle of an exquisitely crafted steampunk bird. It’s one of those great animations that you might have happened upon when channel hopping and coming across Channel 4 at 2.30am in 1998. Unlike Maelfa, which has no soundtrack, Vicary has worked alongside the composer Richard Lewis, who seems to have perfected the iconic music of the third level boss from any ’80s computer game. If you don’t know what I’m on about then evidently your childhood wasn’t as good as mine. Murmuration could very easily have won the Josef Herman Award (the ‘People’s Choice’), had Mai Thomas not won it for her immersive sculpture I Mewn Ac Allan O’r Rhwydi (in and out of the nets).

Indeed, I can imagine it would have been tough for the judges this year, and having the public vote on the Josef Herman Award must have been somewhat of a relief in not having to make another choice after deliberating over a total of five prizes. In a radio interview with Nicola Heywood Thomas on the BBC Radio Wales Arts Show last week, former Gold Medal winner Iwan Bala mentioned that the work at Y Lle Celf often has up-and-down years. This was most definitely an up kind of year. Of the exhibitors who weren’t awarded anything, it seems ludicrous to me that David Garner left empty handed, including without the Gold Medal itself. Here is one of Wales’ most important artists, a previous winner at the 2009 Eisteddfod of the Ivor Davies Award, which is given for conveying ‘the spirit of activism in the struggle for language, culture and politics’. He’s an artist with something to say about Wales and its place in the world. This is the man who had the privilege of having the final show at the Newport Art Gallery last year. His piece at this year’s show, a sculpture titled From the Sublime to the Ridiculous, is a gold-plated tannoy speaker wrapped in a sheep’s fleece, nonchalantly left on an armchair. On the back of this armchair hangs a discarded tracksuit top. Rhys Iorwerth, the winner of the Bardic Chair at the 2011 Wrecsam Eisteddfod, recites ‘Clawdd Terfyn’, his prize-winning awdl from the tannoy speaker.

It’s a great match. Anyone who has seen Iorwerth perform will know that he has a very dry sense of humour. He would appreciate this pairing. To win the Bardic Chair is a massive achievement: if the judges in any particular year don’t deem the entries good enough they can withhold the prize, which is exactly what happened last year. This is always greeted as a disappointing yet respected decision. I’d go as far as saying that the integrity of the chair, and as a result the language itself, depends on it.

This is no better reflected than in Garner’s piece. At once the vulnerability of the language, being played from an old-fashioned tannoy speaker, is placed in direct opposition with its future, a young educated man and his sophisticated poetic vision. If any piece was worthy of a prize at this year’s Eisteddfod then it was this one.

 original illustration by Dean Lewis