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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.*
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.
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.
My camera has been up to it’s old tricks again. The ghost in the machine has been reordering the images I’ve collected of the Abbey and of my work in progress, I have no idea why it occasionally does it but I like the chance element of it.
I use making because it let’s me invoke a chance element in my work. I can combine control of materials with their chaos too – a piece of slate that breaks away and becomes two fragments of the original carving, or a big dent in an otherwise perfect sheet of metal. I respond to this and find value in their power to record process. I think these say much more about the history of materials, objects and place than the anonymity of high skill and crafts’ traditional quest for perfection and function.
When things go wrong in making and repair human fallibility is recorded. We have palpable evidence of interaction, just like the broken walls and bodged repairs in the Abbey dormitory.
When I returned after a busy Bank Holiday at the Abbey Roger told me that some of the work I had left around the site were missing so I went to investigate. I found that six pieces were missing from the original 16. A few more than I had anticipated, but then I had wanted to know the limitations before I started installing everything in the securer spaces and now I had a fairly good idea what I could get away with and how I can work here without having extensive pieces go walk abouts.
I began to look for evidence. Fearing destruction I looked for bits of broken wax or stone, coloured threads. Passing the South Transept I spotted the flash of white wax and discovered a carefully assembled collection of my objects: one piece had been taken apart and then grouped with another one of my pieces that was missing from the dormitory stairs. There was also a piece of ornate terracotta pottery here that was completely new. Strange. The total lost was now down to 4 pieces, but I had gained a new fragment too.
A long thread of blue silk tangled on the Chapter House floor confirmed that at least one of the whittled figurines left within the Sacristy has been unfurled and the small wax figure detached and I stand over it, wondering which piece they wanted: the stick or the figure? I find someone else has placed a clump of cut grass under one of the wax heads on the dormitory stairs. After photographing the evidence I return to the Summer House. Upon turning the corner I see that one of the other whittled figures has been stabbed into the ground by the fish pond intact. Apparently Roger thought I had moved it when he found it there on Saturday morning, I hadn’t but had originally planned to install them like this and in fact, in that spot. Pieces lost: 3, not too bad.
The pieces were intended to be temporary and whilst the research and idea development that led to them was extensive, the making of them was relatively quick. The process was not what made them precious, it was the ideas behind them and the reaction they received from viewers. If people interacted with them then this is just as valid a reaction. Of course, removing them all together is useless, unless I now receive ransom notes about them.
I hid my work and then someone else hid it from me, meddled with it and didn’t worry about handling it. Some of the future interventions here will be secured and some will not, I think we can be playful with this.
So last week’s main activity was casting my collection of objects in wax and this week I have mainly been carving Welsh stone on a rotary motor. I have been inspired by the “micro-architecture” behind the carved stone alter screens, niches and fonts which may have once inhabited Valle Crucis during it’s working life as an Abbey. Drilling into the stone and boring into it the silhouettes I have collected around the site has made me realise once again the mishmash of styles and craftsmanship here.
There’s two types of arched window, if not more, for a start but when you look much closer you realise that every subsequent repair or rebuild was a stamping of the then Abbot’s, or contractor’s, authorship and taste. Even much later ‘interventions’ by Cadw, such as the grills within the dormitory windows speak of the particular tastes and preferences of decision makers. (Clearly in this case someone has chosen to opt for the Gothic style arch rather than the rounded Romanesque, Medieval arch. Sorry, getting geeky now.)
My favourite inconsistency at present is the cylindrical chimney atop the later farm house fireplaces, it looks semi-industrial. The thing that interests me most in representing the Abbey to visitors today is the interpretation of the intended life of the building, as a communal place of worship and monastic life, and whether, the story of people across its entire history should be represented too? As someone who loves to kick function to the curb I am interested to explore the appropriated uses of the building.
Anyway, those are ideas which I will be exploring in the coming weeks.
There are currently 14 tiny pieces installed across Valle Crucis and frankly I was surprised by the vastness of the building against the minute details of my pieces when I installed them. This is probably a surprise to no-one else and clearly I needed to pull myself back from the jeweller’s bench and look around me once more. This realisation made me consider space more than I have previously and since I have walked around the Abbey with fresh eyes, noticing intimate spaces which force us to inspect inconsistencies and detailing; spaces with vast uniformity which invites the viewer to search for points of interest; and ornate detailing on a large scale. I know I can work with the first two types of spaces but I am really challenging the scale of my work to take on things like the Book Cupboard or Chapter House windows. I am want to take this challenge on regardless, but again, more on that later.