A visit to a small municipal gallery in a city that I have been linked with for a large part of my life, namely Bangor, North Wales, presented a mixed experience for me this past week, which ties in with some of my reading about cultures of taste and social hierarchies, as well as bringing me back in touch with elements of my life that have been pushed into the background over more recent years, with less time spent in my home country. One side of this experience was powerfully uplifting; the other, less comfortable, almost like an instrument out of a tune in an ensemble.
In fact, on arrival, music was the first thing I heard; I climbed the stairs to the exhibition with the sound of a woodwind section playing Sibelius’ Finlandia. A group of musicians had been invited to play in the gallery, surrounded by John Meirion Morris’ mystical, totemic, otherworldly pieces. Even beyond the music of oboes, clarinets and bassoons, the solidity of the wood and metal resonated with the notes of very different worlds, as if listening, receiving. The profoundly northern spirit of Sibelius’ music and the richness of the woodwind sound was a very apt choice.
Added to this was the language, the bilingual Welsh and English environment. It is heartening to see that a small country with its minority language and culture has spaces and creative activity that overlap the globalised mainstream, while retaining and communicating the essence of a place, from its ancient roots to its ongoing adaptation and identity. Conversely, Morris’ work is universal, echoing ancient African, Viking and Greek sculpture, pointing to the common ground between all peoples and eras. In alcoves, these were also several figurative bronze busts of literary and political figures from Wales’ past; each bringing to mind decades of social, political and environmental change, driven by ideals and scholarship. Perhaps they are anachronisms in this more cynical age, but nevertheless serve as cultural anchors.
Figure 1: ‘Lleu’, Within, by John Meirion Morris at Amgueddfa ac Oriel, Gwynedd/Gwynedd Museum and Art Gallery (STORIEL), Bangor, North Wales (image author’s own, December 2017)
Within by John Meirion Morris is an exploration of art as a spiritual, even religious experience. Morris claims that the roots of both art and religion lie deep within our subconscious. He describes his creative process as initially visionary, but ultimately as an arduous process of realising his vision in sculptural form, until the moment when the piece suddenly resonates with its own independent life.
Figure 2: ‘Presenoldeb’ [Presence], Within, by John Meirion Morris at STORIEL (image author’s own, December 2017)
Figure 3: ‘Golau’ [Light], Within, by John Meirion Morris at STORIEL (image author’s own, December 2017)
This small venue also houses a permanent museum collection, which encompasses some objects from the Roman camp, Segontium in nearby Caernarfon, as well as furniture, costumes and other items illustrating something of the social and cultural history of Gwynedd. Welsh oak dressers, woollen shawls, spinning wheels, handmade Welsh dolls… so powerfully symbolic for anyone who grows up in Wales and has spent any time in the smaller, more rural areas, where it often feels that little has changed over the centuries. If it is possible for something of the thoughts and feelings of a community to be absorbed by stone, wood, bricks and mortar, then this what I feel on visiting certain places in Wales. It could simply be familiarity, or associations with my own past, but it is still an important component of my life, which I intend to draw upon as a source of future visual exploration.
Figure 4: Traditional Welsh oak dresser, pewter and earthenware, Permanent Museum Collection, STORIEL (image author’s own, December 2017)
Figure 5: Traditional Welsh textiles, hat and doll, Permanent Museum Collection, STORIEL (image author’s own, December 2017)
Less heartening was perhaps a gallery of work for sale, linked with an initiative to enable ‘ordinary members of the public’ to collect original works of art. In itself, this is a proactive and commendable idea, creating a new kind of art marketplace. However, how far will this go towards really developing the creative arts in society? Or promoting authentic cultural activity? Despite the attractive compositions in the series of small paintings on show, I felt that they were rather thin. In fact, they were neither one thing nor the other: not pushed towards excellence as the expensive consumer good that they were being presented as, or breaking onto the level of artistic ground that would give them a legitimate passport into that kind of exhibition space. This was not to do with the talent of the artist or the subject matter, but rather an underlying perception of what a piece can or maybe ‘should’ achieve, regardless of the reasons for making it. They were a series of missed opportunities, illustrating some kind of lack of commitment. It made me cringe that they were being presented as a ‘chance to own original art’. If someone wants to do that, I believe that there are better options out there, even in the museum craft shop. Nevertheless, my visit to STORIEL in Bangor was inspiring and constructive. I began collecting images and ideas for my next project and even my doubts and questions will be interesting to explore further.
Morris, J.M. (n.d.) The Inner Kingdom (or the subconscious) as a source of art and religion [museum brochure, trans. Thomas, G.]. http://www.johnmeirionmorris.org