To coincide with the Swansea Festival of Music and the Arts, Locws International has commissioned a new series of temporary public artworks, including a commemorative walk around the city’s World War Two bomb sites. Featuring contributions by Tine Bech, Jackie Chettur, Rebecca Spooner and Simon Whitehead, the project entitled Art Across The City aims to ‘reflect the people, culture, heritage and landscape of Swansea’.
Now, all this sounds very good on paper. And it is very much in keeping with recent trends in contemporary Welsh art. Ever since artist Iwan Bala invented the term ‘custodial aesthetics’ a decade ago to describe art that reflects the collective memory of a people and place, Wales-based artists have been keen to make work that is relevant to their local community. Yet, in the case of Art Across The City, these noble conceptual ideas are not substantiated by the actual content of the work. Put bluntly, there’s nothing much to see.
Take Tine Bech’s contribution, Swansea Buoys Reconnect (main picture). It is described in the exhibition catalogue as a ‘bold and colourful sculpture’ inspired by ‘the history and memories of the local community’ in St Thomas and Port Tennant, where the Danish artist ran a series of community workshops. The artwork itself – a kind of spider’s web of coloured buoys which float on the River Tawe beside SA1’s landmark Sail Bridge – is certainly bold and colourful. Yet, how it reflects ‘the history and memories of the local community’, I’m not quite sure. It did not seem to grab the attention of the call-centre workers and IT specialists whom I watched returning from their lunch-break to the new offices in the SA1 waterfront development. The artwork simply looks feeble. Swansea Buoys Reconnect? Not quite.
Rebecca Spooner’s film-based installation, The birds the grass the trees the lake, at the Dylan Thomas Centre is equally underwhelming. Projected on to prints by the Welsh Neo-Romantic Ceri Richards, it features a series of looping scenes shot in Super 8 film of Cwmdonkin park, the setting for Dylan Thomas’s lyrical poem, The Hunchback in the Park. Yet, the work is so poorly displayed, tucked away at the back of the museum, it hardly warrants a visit.
The biggest letdown, though, was Simon Whitehead’s work, Walking Between Craters. I’ve been a fan of Whitehead’s performance-based work for a while so when I heard about his proposal to mark the 70th anniversary of the Swansea Blitz with two audio-walks through city’s World War Two bomb sites, I was really excited. It seemed like a thoughtful way of getting the public to see the landscape through the eyes of the people who survived the three nights of terror which devastated the town in February 1941.
However, on a practical level the project simply doesn’t work. Visitors on the city centre walk are excepted to climb to the top of three NCP car parks, where they call a mobile number to hear a recorded message by pensioners who recall the Swansea Blitz. There are no signs to indicate where in the car park one is meant to stand and look; the sound quality of the recordings is so poor you can hardly make out what is being said; and it costs over a pound per message. Some will not mind paying £10 to hear all ten recorded messages but I am not one of them. And I suspect many in Swansea, who have already subsidised this project through their council tax, feel the same too. Why couldn’t these recordings, which clearly have important historical value, be made available to download as a free podcast?
Whitehead’s other audio-walk on Kilvey Hill, which was firebombed during the Blitz, is a slightly more interesting journey, if only because it opens up stunning panoramas across the city. The purpose of the walk, which is to identify bomb craters, will clearly interest schools and local history groups. But at the same time it would have been interesting to see a more creative input from the artist himself. As it stands this is a fine history project but a poor artwork.
Jackie Chettur’s series of 3D photographic images inspired by the epic voyages of the Swansea ‘Cape Horners’, which brought copper ore back from Chile in the late-1800s, is the only one of the four artworks which has a strong visual appeal. Seen through eight heavy, ironclad telescopes, it fits well into its surroundings on a balcony at the National Waterfront Museum overlooking the South Dock. It is a shame the other artists couldn’t have followed up their thoughtful conceptual ideas with something equally interesting to look at.
Art Across The City continues in Swansea until October 31st, 2010. Maps and guides are available from the ‘Locws Hub’ at the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea.