A Forensic Poetry – Iwan Bala’s Field Notes

Ar Waith - In Process -  Iwan Bala,  2011It’s not often that charcoal and ink are used in anatomy, but Iwan Bala‘s exhibition, Field Notes – Noddiau Maes at Oriel Myrddin in Carmarthen show how this can be done.

Collaborating with poet Menna Elfyn, Bala has set about the many tissue layers of Wales, Etymolog - Etymology - Iwan Bala, 2011peeling them back to expose meanings; double meanings; family names; place names; story; history and the multiple senses of place that go with the territory of understanding what it is to live in Wales.

In the accompanying catalogue (a modest £7.50), Menna Elfyn relates the simple story of a woman, about to be displaced by the M.O.D’s clearance of Epynt to create a firing range. She asks if she can take her front door with her. Emblem of home and a family’s historical continuum.

It’s easy to dismiss work so rooted in place as parochial or somehow not quite in the broader canon of contemporary practice. But I’d argue that this work, while Wales-specific in its content, is equally universal. Anywhere in the World where there has been displacement, disturbance, threat; where language is the last bastion of memory and identity; where the future is conceived in the past – that’s where this work belongs.

I’ve written about whether the welshness of an artist is important here but it’s all in the context. Had Bala and Elfyn been from somewhere else, drawing/painting and writing about Wales, the work would be a colder, more subjective response and the real poetics of this careful dissection would be missing. Here the handwritten notes, the earth colours and lyrical maps seem to come straight from the heart, via the brain pathways of analysis, memory and personal response and directly down to the hand and onto the page.

Mapiau - Maps - Iwan Bala, 2011Along with the dissection, Bala goes beyond his examination of place to lay out the seeds of a broader manifesto for artists and poets – roles and responsibilities that would flummox any Human Resources director, but make perfect sense.

The show continues until 18 February 2012. I strongly recommend that you have a look for yourselves and, while you’re at it, buy the catalogue from the shop-that-saved-my-Christmas.

There’s a Culture Colony video that’s a record of the presentations at the opening of Field Notes, given by yr Athro M. Wynn Thomas and Dr. Menna Elfyn who also reads one of her poems. Both speakers use Welsh and English, translating as they go.

Geiriau Doeth - Wise Words - Iwan Bala, 2011Catraeth - Iwan Bala, 2011 Enwi Llefydd - Naming Places -  Iwan Bala, 2011 Psalm -  Iwan Bala, 2011

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How Dumb Are We? Kim Howells and Dougal

Penrhiwllythau by Paul Emmanuel

I did O level Maths at school, but I’d never set myself up as a mathematician for the purposes of punditry, so why did the Western Mail feel the need to ask Kim Howells, a politician who once went to art school, for a response to the winner of the Welsh Artist of the Year? And to do so by looking at Paul Emmanuel‘s winning work online.

That’s it. The final straw. I am so fed up with the way that the (admittedly tiny, circa 32,000) readership of the self-styled Newspaper of Wales are treated like unintelligent morons and that contemporary art is regularly denigrated, dismissed and misrepresented. It makes Wales look stupid and backward-looking and can’t, I am sure, do much to make the case for Wales as a lively, critically-engaged nation to which big companies would want to re-locate.

Of course my comments were taken out of context in the WM piece as, I suspect, were the quotes from Howells. I am sure that he would have been careful not to juxtapose his criticisms of the Turner Prize judges with a reference to my colleagues and I as the judging panel of the WAotY competition this year, as we’re skating towards libel here. Now, we didn’t all sit down and decide to come up with something controversial, to be seen as being ‘avant garde’ (a term that I don’t believe has been seriously used for many decades). We chose works that reflected current practice in Wales and rewarded artists at the top of their game in their areas of expertise. Paul Emmanuel was an obvious choice for winner. He’s taken seriously by those who really know about art and has carved himself an international reputation with his exhibitions in Taiwan, amongst other places. At home he’s been shown at the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery , the opening show of the Mostyn and had a stunning solo show at Oriel Myrddin

I’m just back from Venice and the 54th Biennale of Art. There, even tiny, economically challenged nations take contemporary art seriously and present it as such to appreciative audiences. They know it’s important to present a forward-looking face and to champion their artists and the arts in general. Isn’t it about time we did the same?

You can make up your own mind about the Welsh Artist of the Year competition by seeing it in the flesh at St Davids Hall until 06 August 2011.