The past few weeks have offered up some exhibitions that unintentionally drew together a lot of disparate threads in the chaotic loom of my imagination.

It started with a trip to Swansea, to catch the very last day of Peter Finnemore’s show at the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, and the last week of Willie Doherty’s.

Two very different artists, one from West Wales, the other from Northern Ireland, whose work is rooted in their understanding of the place from which they come.

Finnemore’s show was a chance to showcase a collection of his work, purchased by the Glynn Vivian. It is immediately clear that there is a curatorial sympathy for his practice, played out in the imaginative and well-thought out “tree” of tiny dvd screens. Each showed different scenes from Finnemore’s garden in the Gwendraeth Valley. As birds flock and cluster around bird feeders all is so-far-so-good bucolic fantasy. Until Finnemore looms up into shot, clad in his trademark camouflage. The birds carry on feeding and there is an indescribable sense of sinister benevolence (even as I type it it sounds pretentious, but it’s really hard to define otherwise).

Into the main space to watch a loop of  films, all handled with the same subtle humour and some highly surreal moments – Finnemore as a camouflaged Elvis impersonator miming to Eve of Destruction by Barry McGuire (the link won’t take you to Finnemore but to YouTube), using a a giant sunflower as his mic. There are fires and explosions, sheds and greenhouses and the late great Myffin the cat. To go into much more detail would be unfair, as the show’s over. The point is that this is confident work that comes from a strong identification with place. As does Willie Doherty’s.

In the main galleries Willie Doherty‘s films Buried and Ghost Story are glossier than Finnemore’s. The shots are sumptious in Buried and, I suspect, more budget-greedy for the long tracking shot in Ghost Story, narrated by Stephen Rae. In the former we are in dark woodland, in that dense coniferous light that could be day or night. Smoke drifts from a near-dead fire; invertebrates ooze from bark like resin. Slowly the human traces come into focus: shell case, melted plastic, along with the memory of some of the dark deeds that occurred in the woodlands of   Northern Ireland’s bloodied past. It is difficult, as audience, not to overlay meaning on to the astonishingly beautiful and well-shot images.

Again, mean of me as the show finished on 14 February, but this is all by way of setting the scene, so bear with me please.

After a hurried lunch it was off up the Swansea Valley to Newtown and Oriel Davies. Although I’d been up and down the Swansea Valley before, this was the first time I’d done it all in one stretch – watching the Sleeping Giant heave into view at the head of the valley tinged with the colour of pale dried blood as the bracken turned in the late winter sun.

Across the Brecon Beacons, past the absurd German village on the army range near Sennybridge, devoid of all other human traces except for the green plastic porta-loos that modern soldiers require for their comfort. Little fishhooks of hiraeth (which translate from Welsh rather crudely as longing or yearning for home) tweak at my heart.

Missing my secret short cut, I can see the now dark Newtown twinkling below and arrive just in time to miss my next artist’s first howl on the roof of the gallery. Simon Whitehead‘s work, the culmination of some 15 years, is embodied in two core elements: Afield and Louphole. Whitehead’s approach is informed by his days as a dancer and a geographer and has incorporated many different ways of working but all refer back to the landscape and human habitation of and movement through it. This sounds dense and worthy but the results are far from it. He is a generous collaborator, inviting other artists and a wider public to engage with him as he re-examines ways of travelling through a landscape – sometimes by just slowing up the pace to that of a walking horse, or by strapping cameras to the chests of willing participants and asking them to describe their journey, as he does in Stalks.

Since a residency in Quebec, Whitehead has become interested in wolves – hunted to extinction here centuries ago – they were still present in Canada and their howls permeated his consciousness. Had I arrived in time I would have seen him on the stainless steel roof of Oriel Davies, giant galvanised megaphone in hand, howling to the populace of this town in Powys. Instead I’ll have to wait until 04 March (at 7pm if you’re in the neighbourhood).

Meanwhile, back in Cardiff, photographer Martin Parr has been documenting the traditional Saturday night out in working men’s clubs in South Wales. the results can be seen at Earlswood Social Club in Rumney and are well worth a visit. The project is part of public art agency Safle‘s collaborationwith St David’s Partnership – the organisation behind the new St David’s 2 development in Cardiff’s city centre. The launch night offered up bingo, a wonderful Elvis impersonator and I even managed to win the raffle (I’m easily pleased, me).

The show runs until 14 March so catch it if you can.


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