'The Lure of the Local'
Helen Booth, Strings, 2014
Our Associate in Wales, Alicia Miller, reports from venues in West Wales where she's delighted to discover interesting projects by local artists
For a long time, it seemed that arts organisations had to choose either to focus on the local or the international – to do both was seen as rather problematic. Increasingly it felt, more often than not, that they were moving their focus away from the local and towards the international. It feels like attitudes towards the value of local and international profiles have changed a lot in the last five years or so and the polarity between them has really broken down.
Supporting local artists and their activities is now seen as integral to cultivating a vibrant creative milieu that make communities better places to live in. There is perceived value in creating opportunities for artists living in their locale, opportunities that make staying local a viable career choice.
In Wales, the local is especially important, I think, because of the widely rural context. When it's hard to get to somewhere else, it's better to make where you are more interesting and build its quality of place. Where I am based, in West Wales, I am constantly impressed by the programming at Theatre Mwldan and the Small World Theatre in Cardigan. Both brilliantly manage programmes that balance the local and international with unselfconscious ease – consistency of quality is key here.
I recently saw a lovely show of Helen Booth's at Oriel Mwldan. Helen is an artist based in Ceredigion. Her work varies in medium – drawing, painting, print, sculpture and installation – but it is consistent in its interests: an engagement with materials made evident by gestural markings and a play of textures as if testing whatever she is working with. She talks about paper especially, 'abusing' it by touching and tearing, crumpling and creasing. There is something primal in it, a need to understand the essential qualities of matter and its relationship to light.
The visual arts programme at Theatre Mwldan has upped its game in the last year. It is collaborating with Oriel Davies in Newtown, which has been providing curatorial advice on its visual arts programming. It has also secured a gallery co-ordinator, Isobel Smathers, to oversee its exhibitions. Isobel is also being trained and mentored by Amanda Farr and Alex Boyd-Jones at Oriel Davies. It's an innovative example of how organisations can support each other's professional development, nurture local talent and raise the bar of excellence across Wales.
Alice Briggs, an artist and the curator at the Ceredigion Museum, is also working to enliven the local whilst ensuring that history always remains contemporary. The Ceredigion Museum in Aberystwyth has taken over a neighbouring shop front. The Off-Site space aims to promote collections, art and communities, using the visibility of the shop front to engage new incidental audiences in artists' thinking.
Louise Short has the first of these exhibitions. In Mycophilia, she explores the rich array of fungi in Ceredigion, one of the most diverse and plentiful in the UK, in walks through the Welsh countryside. Her practice has long explored the natural world and this exhibition reflects both a psychological and existential engagement with it. Her casts of fungi which explode across a dark blue wall, at the back of the space, are traces of the actual organism, many with the fungi's flesh still delicately caught in it. From a distance, it looks like a strange constellation of the night sky, an allusion that links the micro and macro of our world in a steady continuum.
Mushrooms are one of those organisms that have a place in the darker parts of our imagination where things that are essential and base dwell. The exhibition itself will grow and multiply through its run – different mushrooms will populate the liminal spaces of the gallery and a series of spore prints will grow from mushrooms placed in a cabinet of glasses. Short is interested in the push and pull between domesticity and nature. The spores imprint themselves upon paper, leaving delicate and detailed records of their presence – a reminder of nature's power to repossess the constructs of our human world.
Alice Forward's exhibition Swarm Society will follow Mycophilia, opening on June 12. The two are collaborators and work together frequently. Swarm Society also considers our relationship to the natural world, inviting us to contemplate whether 'we need look no further for the wild world than in ourselves'?
In the wilds of West Wales, it's an apt question.
Alicia Miller, May 2014
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