A range of art – temporary or permanent – now populate many of our heritage sites, including Welsh castles. I applaud these efforts to experiment with new media to populate these well-visited spaces in their own right as art (i.e. it needn’t be anything more than art in these spaces to be welcome and effective in my view), and also in order that locals and regular visitors get to experience different dimensions of these spaces (since I believe these monuments should not be regarded as permanent and fixed but should be replenished and adapted regularly in ways that needn’t suit everyone’s taste). Yes, there is also the hope that these art might communicate to visitors themes, processes and events in a site or monument’s history to visitors. A diversity of media in response to different spaces and environments by different artists is a valuable approach.
I witnessed this recently at Kidwelly Castle, Carmarthenshire. I have recently discussed the commemoration of Gwenllian at Kidwelly and my experience of taking an autistic child there. Commissioned by Cadw and themed ‘Revealing Histories’, Sculpture Cymru (8 artists living and working in Wales) created art within the castle to celebrate the town’s 900th anniversary. Helpfully (since this doesn’t often happen), there was a pamphlet for sale in the Cadw shop that explained the art.
Ffion Reynolds (Cadw’s Heritage and Arts Manager) states in her Foreword to the Revealing Histories pamphlet that the aim is to reveal stories in a ‘visual and inspiring way, opening up symbolic and imaginative dimensions.’
The problem is, like most modern art, these installations are laden with the pretentious claim that art ‘reveals’ something intrinsic to the place that only the unique gaze and skill of the artistic can reveal. As you might anticipate, dear reader, I think this is as bogus as the idea that only through a heritage board can sites’ and monuments’ stories be effectively conveyed. Sites don’t ‘store’ memories and heritage professionals and artists are not the only ones who can tell their stories. While memory can inhere within and around them, they cannot be held and fixed within material culture only to be revealed by the chosen few.
Now the Kidwelly artists are said to be responding to the history of the site. What this really means I guess is that the story is fixed and therefore it is already decided upon. The artists were ‘given’ a story, or series of stories, to be found only in the Cadw offical guidebook.
In my view, art responding to an official history is at best a waste of time. At worst, it can be a sick valorisation of nationalist and elite visions of the past. Instead, if art is to do anything in heritage sites and monuments, it should be to be simply beautiful and striking and memorable. If it is to do more, it must be surely to foster critical questioning and new narratives, different perspectives and perhaps even emotive engagements impossible through other media.
This is linked to a second bogus implication: that art is needed to populate space to reveal it. Otherwise the space is empty of meaning and memory. This is problematic, since I feel there is a lot to be said for the power of empty spaces to provoke social memories. In fact, the walls of the castle are exactly what drive the story and the materials and spaces work in tandem, rather than in opposition.
Addressing New Stories
Now, I am not actually aiming criticism at the art itself, only at how it is framed and the assertions regarding what the art is supposed to be doing at Kidwelly. In fact, in my view, the Sculpture Cymru pieces challenge such ideas in various ways, and is therefore rather successful, even if I personally struggle to appreciate them as art. Some are connected to particular stories and moments in the castle’s history, but others focus on fostering our imagination to connection with unknown stories. Others focus attention to the materials and the relationship between the castle and the wider landscape. In all these ways, I think these sculptures go beyond responding to an official history. Three examples suffice.
Antonia Spowers’ Castle Stones is effective for me because it draws on the castle’s architecture itself and its scientific analysis for understanding the story of the site’s construction and rebuilding. It uses samples of stones from the castle – Sutton Stone, Arenite sandstone and Pennant sandstone – are sectioned and viewed under a microscope under polarised light and printed. The pamphlet includes descriptions of the stone by Jana Horak of the National Museum of Wales.
When the space is populated, it is with human figures that we find the most powerful connections to the past. The sense of a ghostly presence is found in The Princess by Mandy Lane is grotesque and disturbing: a headless kneeling body evoking the story of Princess Gwenllian and her failed attempt to siege the castle. Her posture is intended to signify mourning for her lost son, her position as ‘looking out over Kidwelly still on guard to protect the castle’ doesn’t quite work for me, since this is counter to her story.
Fragmented Figures by Alison Lochhead is particularly powerful because they populate spaces always inaccessible spaces to visitors in the gatehouse and give a sense, through their fired materials, of partial and partible people from the past. Her theme is tied to memory; the experiences of ‘horrors, fears and struggles’ of so many who lived and engaged with the castle over the centuries. Her focus on fragments, rather than wholeness, is important too, since she emphasises the piecing together of memories to make collective senses of the past.
In conclusion, I still think there is an argument for the power of empty space. However, I also feel that this can be a hollow argument if taken to extremes, and heritage and art are removed from these spaces completely with an aspiration of creating a timeless ruin. Populating these spaces with art helps to reveal the stories in the stones and the stories that inhabit the spaces between the stones.
It is important to note that there was further art at Kidwelly that doesn’t seem to be part of the Revealing Histories exhibition, including a striking stag and throne graffitied with memorial inscriptions, including ‘Gwenllian RIP’.