Austere & Ornamental

Expressing the Unknown

Chapter House 2

 

di·vin·i·ty (d-vn-t)
n. pl. di·vin·i·ties
1. The state or quality of being divine.
2. a. Divinity The godhead; God. Used with the.
b. A deity, such as a god or goddess.
3. Godlike character.
4. Theology.

This Saturday is the closing exhibition for the work I’ve made during my time at Valle Crucis, further information here. The work will also be onsite for it’s final installation on Wednesday 14th and Thursday 15th August, 10-5pm.  Next week I have the photographer coming in to capture the work before it is packed away, along with my studio which will be going back in boxes before it’s transportation back to Manchester. I am looking forward to reflecting and continuing to develop the ideas which I uncovered here back home. In the meantime I hope to see you this weekend, or next week.

Effigies and Figurative Depiction

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There is a piece of work onsite which invites visitors to leave their mark on three cast wax tablets with an attached scribing tool. I return to it once a week to see what marks and insignias have been added since the last time I saw it and I’ve been periodically replacing the tablets with blank canvases which always seem to stay blank until the first brave person breaks the barrier of hesitation, then they seem to quickly fill up. Of the various initials, names and symbols the tablets attract I have been particularly intrigued by the repeated smiley faces visitors leave and wonder what it is meant to communicate to future visitors.

Pair this with the numerous figurative depictions around the site, and the way in which humanity expresses itself through effigies across culture and history, and I wonder why it is so important for us to create these symbols of ourselves? If ornamentation is an expression of skill, taste and belief which outlives the individual maker or commissioner,  then what of the face, or in fact, any part of the human body? Are we creating a symbolic depiction of our civilisation as we know it? If decorative expression and ornamentation represent a particular point in history which we know to be fleeting then perhaps our effigies of humanity express a fear that our civilisation itself is also fleeting.

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Last week I held an evening tour of Valle Crucis as part of the Llangollen Fringe which attempted to reveal some of the interesting tales of humanity attached to the site, combining the historic with incidental stories from the present day. To culminate the evening I asked visitors to take a wax head and hide it somewhere around the Abbey so that their action and the legacy of the evening would outlive the residency. I have only been able to spot one so far so I’m pretty sure this interaction with the site will last well beyond it (and who knows how long beyond that).

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Wooden carving at Plas Newyd, Llangollen

Interpretation

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A bit quiet over here because I have been making and the things I’ve been mulling over whilst I make have been a bit more about the role of my work and how much we should really be revealing about the whys and hows behind the making.

All my decisions as to the way my work turns out respond to the information I’ve collected and my interpretation of it, but how important is it to pass this on to the viewer, and how much should be revealed? So far the interpretation on site has been fairly open ended and introduces a couple of key themes to give visitors a nod in the right direction. However, I am aware that I am producing artworks for a site where most visitors aren’t aware that there is an artist in residence until they arrive here and who, for the most part, don’t visit contemporary art exhibitions on a regular basis. Is it right to assume that some introduction to the ways in which an artist works needs to covered in the interpretation? Most visitors and local residents I met in the early months asked me if I was a painter or a student and then had to listen patiently whilst I described the intricacies of my practice. Fortunately for everyone, all that practice means I can now concisely describe my work (although don’t hold me to it.)

I had an interesting discussion last week about the different roles of Valle Crucis for visitors, from the hard core history buffs (you know who you are), to people visiting for a picnic in a picturesque spot, to people who find a kind of spiritual power in the site which overrides it’s literal history as an Abbey. It’s not all monks you know. The interpretation, the places function, is completely unique to the individual viewer and I suppose all interpretation can seek to do is to add value to our own perceptions.

From the art side a great website discussing this, with particular focus on unraveling  nonsense art speak, is Interpretation Matters. 

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Llangollen Fringe Festival is now underway and tomorrow, Thursday 25th, we’re holding an Open Evening event at Valle Crucis from 6pm. Details here, it would be great to meet you dear reader. If you can’t make it tomorrow the work I’ve produced so far will be out this Saturday and Sunday also, and then every Thursday until 8th August with the final exhibition on Saturday 10th August.

Direction

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In the Chapter House there are numerous mason marks. Arrows, cut into the stone with hammer and chisel, point in all directions, complimenting the sweeping lines of the vaulted ceiling or pointing awkwardly in the opposite direction.

The arrow stones were carved by one mason and they’re practically all different, I would hazard a guess that the stones without arrows on their exterior have an arrow carved somewhere about them, concealed above. It’s technically impressive and it also seems suitable that the mason’s mark was an arrow within a sea of arches reaching out and leaning over as you walk beneath them.

I’ve been thinking about the celebratory and dramatic movement of Gothic architecture, the sweeping shapes which draw the eye upwards and try to instill that sense of wonder and otherness.  Shapes which invite us to contemplate the unknown.

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I have been compiling images of imaginary objects on the residency Pinterest page, inspired by the objects and artefacts that have either been recorded or found around Valle Crucis. It’s mostly theoretical, and if history is a theory based on what’s recorded then funnily enough, Valle Crucis didn’t fair amazingly well after the Dissolution. There’s a lead dove at the National Museum, a chandelier at a church which may have come from Valle Crucis, the glass fragments collected and reused in the windows at Plas Newydd, and a couple of books; there was apparently an ivory diptych and a wooden cross. I am building up an imagined collection of forms and materials here and suggestions are very much welcome.

Mark Making and Reduction

 

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These chisel marks on the brickwork to the doorway have obviously been acquired from some of the fragments onsite and reused in this later repair. The chiseling must have taken off a minute amount of stone so that they sat flush with the wall but we are left with some very beautiful and evocative marks.  The original carving, the front of the original stone is now concealed and instead we are now left with the silhouette of the original stone carving against modern mortar.

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Spatial Awareness

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It is absolutely beautiful onsite now the sun is out. The moorhen chicks are now out and about and I have had to try keeping my eyes off the duck pond so I can get some work finished.

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I am working through the list of small, and somewhat larger, spaces I have eyed up for installing my work. I am combining my response to Valle Crucis’ craftsmanship and ornamentation with more specific explorations of these little spaces; mimicking the processes evident in this one area of the Abbey – anything from wrought iron fixtures, carved stonework to later repair work. The spaces have to be considered in three dimensions and I am really excited about kind of window spaces that can be viewed from several different levels and spaces, from the interior and exterior.

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I was drawing a small window on the dormitory stairs last week from below when I casually noticed a Celtic style memorial stone in the ceiling of the stairwell. I had never seen it before, despite walking under it numerous times, and it was only in spending time looking at an empty space that I ever would have perhaps spotted it. The tiny, seemingly inconsequential, details of the Abbey are what drew me here in the first place; in responding to them directly I can create a intimate visual dialogue between these usually missed aspects through the unusual appearance of contemporary artworks.

Object Lessons

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The open studios on Thursdays and each second Saturday of the month have come into their own now and more than ever, I am amazed by my (incidental) facilitating role for people’s stories about objects.

Object lessons mostly begin with a few comments here and there about my work, the found objects, and craftsmanship, and it then leads to people sharing all manner of stories about keepsakes, cultural artefacts, repairs, and interpretations.*

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Returning to collect a frame that I had left to set inside a window this week I discover a visitor has used it as a plinth for one of multiple casts left on the stairwell.

We all see power in objects, be it sentimental value or cultural worth, and we want to talk about them – I want to hear them. Each time I talk about these kind of objects with strangers, or friends, I feel as if I should do something with this information – the way it’s recounted is subjective and unique to each story teller: one object can mean an infinite number of things to different people.

I think of a museum full of artefacts which don’t come with information panels, or perhaps are accompanied by several interpretations for the viewer to pick from.

Needless to say, I have been collecting the stories of objects – jotting them down in my notebook and thinking about how I can weave this into some sort of response to the contemporary role of Valle Crucis and my place in it. More on that later.

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Objects aside. I spent a very pleasant 15 minutes roaming the grounds this week on the hunt for wild violets at the bequest of local textile artist Ticky Lowe. (Have now been informed that these are speedwells?) Ticky has created a deconstructed collection of wild flowers local to Llangollen for an exhibition at Plas Newydd, details here.

*Sometimes, I seem to end up talking to people/visitors about objects when I am not in my studio and I haven’t even mentioned my work yet, I don’t know how that happens. Must have it written on my face.