Chapter Arts Centre, facilitated by Art Fund, currently have an Art Happens crowdfunding campaign running. It asks for £18,000 to restore and transport a 1972 sculpture by English artist Garth Evans from Leicestershire back to Cardiff where it was originally displayed for 6 months.
The campaign is titled, ‘Save Our Sculpture’. The descriptions ask for the public’s help to ‘bring it back to Wales’. The sculpture ‘evokes the image of a mine’ and is ‘black as coal’, done by an artist with family connections to mining in Wales (although this detail hasn’t really been elaborated on much). The artwork is apparently ‘hidden, neglected and unseen’ where it is currently on display. It needs ‘rescuing’.
This linguistic framing is one of the many aspects that are deeply uncomfortable about this campaign, let alone its crowdfunding format used by an established and well-funded arts centre (in the context of Wales’ arts institutions). What exactly needs saving by us, by this contemporary art institution? Beyond the physical ‘neglected’ artwork, we can assume from the campaign’s language that memory and history need saving, rescuing, reacquiring.
This language comes at an uncomfortable time in Wales’ present history; a nation that is simultaneously a proponent of British imperialism and colonisation, yet speaks most openly today about its own ‘cultural colonisation’ by the English. Creepy stuff considering Wales’ acts of colonisation involved slavery, abuse, uprooting and othering – in addition to cultural erasure. Yet Wales’ own ‘cultural erasure’ is one of the most common and most funded ‘themes’ in its contemporary art scene. There are immediate erasures that remain unaddressed, such as the hidden truths about Penrhyn castle and artworks in the National Museum (both of which owe the majority of their current tour to slave money), or the gentrification of Tiger Bay, or the demise of Butetown Arts – they are far more ‘hidden, neglected and unseen’. If some of these histories were ‘rescued’, it would actually go beyond reviving memories and might even move towards important reparations.
But more importantly, these moments in Wales’ history are far more present, and still insist today. It’s not to say that the £18,000 should be better spent on a different topic than miners; rather, it’s to say that in the context of Wales and its ‘contemporary’ arts scene’s priorities, it’s all a bit uncomfortable when you examine what Chapter Arts Centre (and those contemporary organisations that have supported it via social media such as G39, Artes Mundi, National Museum Wales, and Literature Wales) chooses to ‘save’ and what it chooses to ignore.
Last summer at Chapter Art Car Bootique, an annual fair, my DIY arts collective and publisher set up a stall where we made erasure poetry with people. It wasn’t sophisticated stuff, but it was engaging and all we could afford at a time when we had to sell our belongings on eBay to fund our art, bills and pay rent. Next to our stall, towering over it in such an empty monolithic, was G39’s contribution. It was the re-displaying of an artwork from a few years ago as part of a wider project they were doing on re-exhibiting old works. It was a giant roadside sign-in which members of the public were invited to text messages that would be displayed on it. This linked to the fair’s theme of ‘Fake News’. It felt old and non-contemporary because it was completely absent spiritually, empathetically and politically. I’m reminded of this now, because I feel small in the same way, for the same reasons.
The ‘Save Our Sculpture’ campaign video states that in 1972, the artist, with his identity concealed, recorded the public’s reaction to his sculpture placed in the urban landscape of the city centre. Next, the deputy director of Chapter, Hannah Firth, appears in the video, and says that once the campaign is successful and the sculpture is restored, it ‘will return here and the public’s comments will again be recorded.’
‘We’ll be able to find out what a whole new generation has to say about it.’ Her words here sum up the campaign’s absences of thought. ‘Return’, ‘again’, return again to ‘a new generation’. Has it ever belonged to the new generation? What does the new generation want returning exactly? Has it ever been returned once, let alone again? What happens when it returns again, can you return things back to history?
The absences of thought are standard in Western ideals of history, memory and art. It is documenting, recording, exhibiting, restoring, preserving; applied to both physical objects like artworks, monuments and buildings as well as written archival materials. These Western ideals are inherently in the colonial tradition; they are not ‘as enlightening as a kind of actualised-memory’ but instead only ever static remembrance with no present or transcendent implications. The language used in Chapter’s campaign and the premise itself is completely telling of their lack of understanding when it comes to creating a ‘new chapter in history. They only have to look at their social media responses to know they haven’t thought this through beyond their appeals to traditionalism and memorialisation. Almost every comment on Chapter’s ‘Save Our Sculpture’ Facebook, YouTube and Twitter posts are negative, with people questioning its importance to new generations, its shoehorned and seemingly co-opted link to miners and the entitled plea for £18,000 on something so immovably preservationist.
The ‘new generation’ is moving rapidly away from viewing history, memory and art within Western discourse. The rejection of white cube galleries in metropolitan cities across the West shows this, the call to give back stolen artworks shows this, the increased platforming of minority artists shows this, the return to intuitive and ancestral art instead of academic white conceptualism shows this. But Cardiff’s contemporary art scene, along with many others in the UK, does not understand this.
‘Save Our Sculpture’ appeals to nationalism through its language and tenuous links to the miners. Within the context of the present, and considering the Art Fund’s initiative is called Art Happens, it is unwilling to come out of the past, or at least even contextualise the sculpture to the present. Instead, it chooses to ‘restore’, ‘preserve’ and ‘repeat’ what happened in 1972. This is inactive traditionalism, and the ‘new generation’ want works that deconstruct, reflect the present, and can live on as ‘actualised memory’. Ask them to respond to the miners rather than appreciating a past response, or better, ask them what they’re compelled to make works on instead. There are so many exciting, contemporary and radical artists in Wales right now. And the ones with the most active, present ideas are often those that are low-income, part of marginalised groups and have no formal art training or the connections that come with it. For Wales’ art scene to become contemporary, the ‘contemporary art centres’ must support & invest in new research, artworks and projects from the ‘new generation’ itself.