The native returns

Huw David Jones welcomes the first showing in Wales of John Cale’s Dark Days at Swansea’s National Waterfront Museum

When the Arts Council of Wales announced that John Cale was going to represent Wales at the 2009 Venice Biennale of Art, it raised a few eyebrows. While no-one could doubt the former Velvet Underground instrumentalist’s credentials as a pioneer of rock music and avant-garde performance, it seemed questionable as to why the selection committee had opted for an LA-based musician over an artist who had plied his or her trade in Wales.

However, many naysayers were silenced when at an old brewery on the Venetian island of Giudecca Cale delivered an extraordinarily powerful audio-video installation, which dealt with the artist’s personal and often painful memories of his childhood in Wales.  After visiting Australia and Germany, Welsh audiences finally have an opportunity to view the work at the National Waterfront Museum as part of the Swansea Festival of Music and the Arts.

Dyddiau Du/Dark Days is a 46 minute film projected onto five separate screens. It starts slowly with Cale playing an upright piano alone in what looks like a school classroom, before moving to the snow-capped mountains of north Wales, where the artist is seen clambering through piles of broken slate in the abandoned Dinorwic Quarry. As he struggles to reach the summit, words from what sounds like a psychological report (but in fact come from a self-penned poem called Dreaming in Vertigo) are heard ringing in the his ears.

The film then focuses on Cale’s childhood home in the village of Garnant in the Amman Valley. The house is abandoned; the walls and carpets have been stripped bare. The nearby Black Mountains can occasionally be glimpsed through windows in the background, as daylight begins to  illuminate the empty rooms. In the distance the sound of birdsong can be heard. Yet the scene is dark and foreboding, like a horror film.

Cale has spoken in the past about how, having been raised only speaking Welsh, he was unable to communicate with his English father until the age of seven, when he started school. His relationship with his grandmother was particularly fraught (she held him responsible for his mother’s cancer). Cale’s biographer, Tim Mitchell, records two incidents when he was molested as a boy, once by a priest. The trauma of these events, which permeate the brooding mood of the film, are eventually brought home in the final, shocking scene, where the artist is shown blindfolded and bound, undergoing a kind of water-torture.

Cale’s picture of the Amman Valley sits in a long tradition of visual responses to the people and landscape of the western anthracite coalfield. In the 1940s and 1950s, the Polish artist Josef Herman settled in nearby Ystradgynlais, where he visualised the warmth and humanity of the miners and their families. Cale, who was growing up around the same time, brings this romantic portrayal of the mining community into question by exposing the darker side of life in the Valleys. Nevertheless, both artists share an essentially expressionist style of image-making in the sense that their work is about their feelings for a people and place.

Of course, Cale found a means of escape from his tormentors through music. Having discovered a talent for piano, he left Wales to study music at the University of London, before emigrating to the USA, thanks to the help and influence of composer Aaron Copland. There he became a founder member of the Velvet Underground, and later went on to work with figures such as Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Nick Drake and Brian Eno. Cale’s musical influences are a key element of his film, and several new songs are included as part of the work.

Yet there are problems with Dyddiau Du/Dark Days. The film is incredibly slow at times and will struggle to keep audiences engaged for the full 46 minutes. The screens are obscured from some angles by a pillar which stands right in the middle of the exhibition room. The work would have been better shown at the nearby Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, not least because the gallery is currently showing the Josef Herman’s Miner’s Crouching, the mural he made for the 1951 Festival of Britain. It would invite an interesting comparison about how Wales (and the western Valleys in particular) is represented on an international stage.

Nevertheless, Dyddiau Du/Dark Days deserves to be seen as an accomplished piece of work. It is a painful journey, but one which tells some honest home-truths about Welsh life.

Dyddiau Du/Dark Days can be seen the National Waterfront Museum Swansea until 7 November, 2010. During 2011 it will be shown at the National Museum Cardiff.

Huw David Jones is an intern with the IWA

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