I went on my first Study Visit to Diffusion, Cardiff International Festival of Photography on 31 May 2013 under the tutorage of Jesse Alexander who had secured the help of one of the exhibition staff thus making our visits to the individual exhibitions very informative and run smoothly. The visit took place on what was essentially the last day of the festival so some exhibits had closed but there was still a lot to see, aided considerably by SatNav.
Whilst I have visited a number of art galleries and photography exhibitions, mainly to see specific exhibitions that interested me rather than explore art in the round, I found this to be a full-on experience with a very broad spectrum of images and ideas. Some of what I saw resonated, others got me thinking and then there were some that completely baffled me. I have to say at the outset that I have never considered myself to be “of the arts”, so to speak, and I determined to approach this visit with an open mind being at the beginning of a journey of discovery. What I saw and felt is told as it was for me at the event and with further reflection and no doubt there will be some who will immediately reach for that well known label – so be it.
We began the day at Ffotogallery, Turner House, Penarth and viewed Edgar Martin’s Time Machine project, aptly named as some of the images reminded me of some of the early sets of Dr Who. The project was undertaken in 2010/2011 in a number of hydro-electric power plants in Portugal, many of which were constructed in the period 1950-1970 when there was a good deal more optimism than now and the grandeur and technical challenges of such projects was an overt display of that optimism. I was really taken by this work, maybe something to do with my engineering background; it also awakened many memories from my youth of going into work with my father in various sugar factories in the West Indies and seeing similar scenes (somewhat smaller) in the power generating facilities. Clearly Martin is a man of great detail and I would imagine he spent much time in deciding both on what to shoot to best tell the story and then the execution. All the shots of the cavernous interiors with their almost cathedral-like construction had been enlarged in sympathy with the subject; in simplistic terms big object/big space equals corresponding big picture, which worked for me. There was also a broad spectrum of subjects, massive spaces, generating equipment and control panels through basic individual hand tools to crude but well crafted display boards; he was obviously intent on recording the full gamut of equipment. However, it was notable that there is a complete lack of the human form, desks with no chairs, softened in one image by the fact that someone had painted an outdoor scene on the wall in a generating room and in one of the large hall images of a Christmas decoration appeared to be projected on the wall. Some of the framing really brought things to life, floating frames made switch panels seem almost real; this says something about the impact of how you display the image. One particularly striking image was that of a stairwell which completely toppled my internal gyros; my immediate thought was I was looking along a tunnel, then looking down a shaft when in fact it was taken looking up a stairwell (fantastic use of perspective), discernible by the railings – I’d better not sit any psychometric tests in the near future! My final comment on the exhibition is the fact that, tucked away in a corner, is a small print completely out of character with the rest of the images; it is a landscape which, I guess, seeks to put the whole into context but it did seem a bit bizarre that it was so small and tucked away in a corner, almost as if it is irrelevant.
The next venue was Chapter and Maurizio Anzeri’s “But it’s not late, it’s only dark” and I did find it quite “dark”. I’m still trying to get my head around the title so the starting point for me is somewhat vague, even given the handout at the start of the tour which gives some insight into his thoughts about the human body! The collection of “photo-sculptural” pieces are like nothing I have seen before; old photographs onto which he has embroidered patterns. There was quite a mixture of images/sculptures, call them what you will, and what struck me was the absence of colour in most and the almost sinister character of the majority of the images, especially those where he had highlighted parts of the pictures such as eyes, mouths and teeth; this contrasted with some very intricate embroidery. Some of the images had been mounted in steel frames which, in turn, formed part of what I took to be steel sculptures. All of this then seemed at odds with two pieces made of synthetic hair hanging from the ceiling and draped over mirrors on the floor, right at the other end of the Rockwell hardness scale, so to speak. I’m afraid this student left feeling somewhat depressed and wondering just what effect on his audience he was seeking.
A quick visit to “Borth” by Gideon Koppel followed. This is a 55 minute film made in the “wild west Wales town of Borth”. There is no doubt that, at times, you felt you were actually there, aided by the almost deafening soundtrack. For a while I was held by the scenes of the multicoloured houses, in various state of repair, being battered by the elements and imagining living there; I also wondered how he went about actually making the film. The film appeared to be shots of the waterfront houses taken from the beach as he moved along it the bit that I watched was very much more of the same; suffice to say I did not stay for the whole film.
We then went to the “Wait and See” exhibition by f&d cartier. Arranging varying sizes of unexposed black and white photosensitive paper on the walls of a room and watching the outcome, albeit over a relatively long time, would never have struck me as something to exhibit; more something I would expect to see in the lab of some large photographic paper manufacturer and that was my instant reaction on walking into the room. It was interesting to see that, although it was black and white paper, when exposed to light it developed colour. Listening to the remarks within the group, most were about this phenomenon and it generated discussion. So if the aim was to make people reflect upon the unexpected outcome of what was developing before them, then I guess it hits the mark. Even with some reflection I am still having difficulty with the whole concept and don’t fully understand the totality of the description “…..a subtle interplay with space and light…..”, the light, yes, but the space element has me puzzled unless it is something to do with how the light reflects within the space and the effect that has on the transformation of the individual pieces of paper. Looking at the postcards we were given I would have said here is a piece of abstract art; perhaps I should have stood back in the room and viewed the arrangements from a different perspective.
Next it was off to the Tramshed. What a fantastic space, instantly related to the environment, a large old tram workshop with lots of fascinating pieces of its old life still in place. The exhibition, “The Valleys Re-Presented” was a wonderful collection of pictures of life in the south Wales’ Valleys by a number of eminent photographers all of which, I thought, captured the moment superbly over a wide spectrum of people and their working and social life. It was also interesting to see the various ways the images were displayed ranging from a film presented on a large monitor through backlighting, traditionally framed and pasted on tall structures of painted chipboard, all of which seemed to enhance the image being displayed; as with Edgar Martin’s images, it brought home to me that how you present the image can have a real effect on the impact created when viewing it. I throughly enjoyed this exhibition; it was in a similar vein to a TV programme I saw of David Suchet replicating images taken by his grandfather, James Jarche.
A short drive to another unlikely venue, g39. I fully expected to walk into the building and find a flat pack furniture factory! This building housed “Barnraising and Bunkers”, described as “a wide examination of the flagship spaces for art contrasted with the often isolated and separated means of art production; the studio.”. I have to admit that I was somewhat taken aback by what was on view when first entering, not what I expected from the title at all. However, the overview we were given did go some way towards providing an explanation of the thinking behind the exhibits, particularly the Barnraising element inspired by the community spirit of the Mennonites as I had come across this while living in Belize; this put the work by Jonathan Powell into context but I was unsure as to whether he was depicting our building planning being somewhat haphazard. I could also relate to the project by Richard Powell looking at how people create their own paths and shortcuts; pictures of unplanned paths trodden by people seeking to get round obstacles or make short cuts to their destination which says much about human nature. I also liked the work of Abigail Reynolds and her portrayal of what we are doing to the land. The exhibit by Dan Griffiths was an intriguing use of video but standing watching a multitude of display screens simultaneously showing footage of street scenes shot from a skateboard was somewhat disorientating; I found myself wanting to concentrate on one screen but constantly distracted by the other screens, I’m not sure what impact is being sought. Moving on to the metal fabrication by Angharad Jones; a somewhat unexpected use, from my perspective, of everyday items used in the control of access to spaces. The street vendor trolley stacked with a variety of plastic items by Geraint Evans stopped me in my tracks; as I sit here writing this I am still trying to fathom this one out and I think this will be long running for me. Similarly, I found the black cloth structure suspended from the roof, the work of Rich White, difficult to understand. In retrospect g39 was probably a good place to end the day as it certainly left a lasting impression and I went away with quite a jumble of thoughts about some aspects of “art”.
This was a very enjoyable and informative day, on the one hand looking at photography and other art from a different perspective and, on the other, having the opportunity to meet and talk to other OCA students and Jesse. I have come away somewhat surprised at the impact the experience has had on me; heavens forbid, I have actually been talking about the works I saw and questioning their meaning (yes, g39 in particular) – this is not engineering, could the Right Brain be coming into play after all, perhaps using Mind Maps does help develop creativity! Having talked about this experience with my better half who is much more into what I still call “the pink and fluffy stuff” I have had a book put in front of me, The Artist’s Way – dare I open it! Anyway we are off to the Fox Talbot Museum to see “Arrangements in Black and Grey”.
My thanks to Jesse Alexander for guiding us through the day and all the other students for their exchange of ideas and good-humoured banter which lifted me when I thought I was losing the plot. Also thanks to the staff at Diffusion who helped to make it an informative and memorable event.
Cameron, J. (1995) The Artist’s Way: a course in discovering and recovering your creative self. London. Pan Books