Responding to Responses: The Lure of the Archive
On March 4th, I was fortunate to attend a Photography Symposium at the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery in Swansea. The event was a delve into the exhibition The Moon and a Smile, as well as an exploration of the concept, "The Archive." According to the exhibition guide, The Moon and a Smile, commissioned by the Glynn Vivian, is comprised of work by nine international artists who were given the task of responding to a period in 1840s and 1850s Swansea, when the Dillwyn Llewelyn family were making and collecting photographs. The images from the archive which influenced the artists' responses are also displayed in the exhibit when possible. They are borrowed from the National Museum Wales in Cardiff, and The National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. In addition to studying the archive, the artists also visited Penllergare, the estate inherited by John Dillwyn Llewelyn from his grandfather.
The symposium opened with a short history of the connections between Wales and Cornwall presented by Dr. Paul Cabuts, the director of the Institute of Photography at Falmouth University and authority on Welsh Photography. His lecture was brief, but served to outline the established wealthy family and copper industry ties from Cornwall to Swansea.
Following Dr. Cabuts, Dr. Helen Westgeest of Leiden University spoke about "the Archive" in its historical context, referring to the ideas and work of Okwui Enwezor, Charles Merewether, Jacques Derrida, Akram Zaatari, David Harvey, and Hal Foster. She explained two common views of the archive: one being very traditional; historical documents and records, and the other being an open discussion; or a response/interpretation of one view at one particular time.
Within this second view, Dr. Westgeest selected snippets from the artists' proposals, finding the common threads of time, place, and subject, and making comparisons between the Dillwyn Llewelyn images, and the intentions of the artists. Following her presentation, the artists spoke explaining their techniques and their thoughts in response to the archive. The work on display is varied in concept, technique, and medium. It is a joy to experience, and also striking in the gamut of political nature of the pieces. I found this variety particularly interesting and would have liked to hear Dr. Westgeet's thoughts on this nature of the politics in relation to the role of archives and galleries as educational tools. The greatest contrast I saw conceptually within the work was the degree of politics presented in the pieces and artist presentations. The group of nine were, loosely categorizing, split in half with some of the artists being very clear about the politically charged nature of their work, and others less concerned with that aspect of the archive.
Anna Fox's work, for example, is quite literal in response to place settings of images within the archive. Made from photographic composites, her images are a collection of pieces, and each final piece becomes a mini archive of is particular photo shoot. Focusing on the narrative of a landscape and experiences, she is concerned with memory and time inherent in an event, and how this is represented photographically. This results in an almost Cubist-like method for making work from different moments over a period of time to create a full scene representing her impression of a place or event. Astrid Kruse Jensen was unfortunately not in attendance, but the exhibition guide makes clear her interest in the interpreting the stillness in photos of the Llewelyn girls and comparing it with the contrived landscape of Penllergare which has since had a transformative history of growing wild, and then being tamed once again. Her work has an emotive romantic feel to it, which seems to contemplate what previously unrecorded moments would have been like in this landscape. Neeta Madahar and Melanie Rose created a series of images of orchids in response to research about John Dillwyn Llewelyn's botanical studies. They were captivated by the ruins of Llewelyn's Orchid House and correspondence records in which he admits to having "Orchidomania" a term which the duo found to sound very contemporary for its time. While their concept may appear simple, their work is not. The team has conducted extensive research about Llewelyn's orchid collection and have compiled a list of over 40 types he would have grown, finding threads of botanical drawings and photographs by some of Llewelyn girls as well. Along with their research, they push the notion of the photographic medium, inspired by the cliché verre process, but using jpeg files off the internet, and printing from digital negatives with the assistance of Rob Sara. Sophy Rickett presented photographs and poetry in response to Thereza Dillwyn Llewelyn's diary entries. She described herself as "elbowing" her way into the archive as opposed to gently viewing it. Visiting some of the places Thereza did, and making work exploring the relationship between the landscape and photography. There is an interesting juxtaposition at play through time, comparing the writing of these two women who visited the same places, having very different experiences. As a whole, this work questions the limitations of the archive as well as photography, and brings to light the unseen history of the image as well as some of the challenges inherent to photography as a story telling medium.
Helen Sear's work was for me the tipping point to the other end of the spectrum of these artists. She responds to the landscape of Penllergare and to the archive, but also considers the context of the archive and its inherent social issues during the time of its creation as well as its role presently. In her film "Moments of Capture" she makes a nod, to the industrial working class of Wales, which the Dillwyn Llewelyn collection largely ignores, as well as making the viewer aware of the controlled, curated nature of the archive. The motifs of the stag, and heron appear repeatedly, as does the young woman holding the stag's antlers to her head. They have all been captured, objectified as Dillwyn Llewelyn's specimens were; as his daughters posing for portrait were. Sear's work recognizes this and presents it in a way that brings these issues of the past forward to modern times, also connecting at the advances in technology and industry to the landscape. In contrast, the work of Greta Alfaro is overtly political in nature. Her response in this instance rejects the use of a lens, condemning it as selective and unrealistic. She displays four slate slabs engraved with quotes from Frederick Engels' text published in 1845, The Condition of the Working Class in England, which criticized the wealthy for ignoring the plight of industrial workers. The slate slabs do not only reference the industry of Wales, but also remind one of grave stones, resulting in a simple, but powerful message. In her presentation, Alfaro was critical of photography and image consumption today. She challenged the notions of capitalism, and reminded the audience that the world we live in today is the product of the world depicted in the archive; excessive and wasteful.
Patricia Ziad had a simillar interpretation as Alfaro in that she responded to the archive by artistically creating the opposite of what she found when researching. Looking at the history of Swansea in the 20th century, she found the garish folly of the Dillwyn Llewelyn family isolated to their class, surrounded by the grit of industry of the coal mines and copper smelting in Swansea. She contrasted the flower prints of Mary Dillwyn Llewelyn with her own interpretation of an industrial flower, "with petals of metal, glass, or wood." The results were photographic images of her unique abstractions of ink on glass plates which attempt to reproduce the laborious process of the industrial work force. For her series "For the Ash: Yr Onnen" Sharon Morris displays photographic work in the form of framed images, scrolls, and books along with poetry in Welsh and English. The poetry draws from the Pembrokeshire landscape, current environmental issues, and includes themes from the Mabinogion. Morris is critical of neo-liberal capitalism and was clear about this in her readings of poetry and presentation of her work. She asked the audience "Who sees? Who is enlightened? Who is witness?" and threads the theme of "visibility" through her work. She, like Alfaro, lectures that the present day is the consequence of the time of the archive, and that the archive omitting the industrial aspect of Dillwyn Llewelyn's world is problematic. Morris currently has an artist residency at the Glyn Vivian gallery and will speak about her practice on March, 24th 2017.
After the insights from the artists, there were presentations about the Dillwyn Llewelyn family archive made by the Kate Best, Bronwen Colquhoun, and Mark Etheridge. This was a great introduction of the archive for those who were not familiar with it, and brought to our attention some of the questions surrounding the archive, as well as the National Museum's intentions to expand. The archive consists of letters, photographs, and other documents from primarily the 1840s through the 1860s. Some of the archive is publicly owned, while some of it is privately owned. It is a vast collection and has been used previously, which has lead these professionals to reflect on what is included in the archive, how it has evolved to include the work of other artists, and how its broad nature can be both fascinating and problematic in defining the limitations. This discussion transitioned into the lecture of the final speaker for the day, Dr. David Campany. He discussed the fallacies of the archive, opening his presentation with questions, wondering if photographs will exceed the purposes they are given. And reminded the audience that it is people who assign meanings to images. "Photographs do not carry meanings the way a truck carries coal." A point which serves as a grounding for those of us who find ourselves lost amongst the vast archive. Campany followed with, "Archivists are the guardians of potential meaning."
A good portion of his following lecture dealt with the biographies of photographs as physical objects, and how this provenance was one potential source of meaning. He used his studies of Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp's "View from an Aeroplane" a.k.a. "Dust Breeding," as an example of a photograph carrying meaning through its biography. His exhibition "a Handful of Dust" is reflective of this thinking and blurs the lines of scholar, historian, curator, and image maker. I found Dr. Campany's speech served as a reminder to fight the seductive "lure of the archive," and feel that he addressed the artists' responses to the John Dillwyn Llewellyn collection in a manner which recognizes how deeply current affairs, specifically political climate, affect the artists' relationship with their work and perception of the archive. As he said, "If we're interested in the archive it's because we're interested in 'the now'," the only real possible lens through which to view the past. To conclude The Lure of the Archive symposium was an attempt to better understand the unmanageable, grandiose archive which so often seduces those who work with it. What appeared to have started as artistic response by nine artists, takes on new life through different contexts which span over a sizeable length of human history. The Moon and a Smile will be on display at the Glynn Vivian Gallery in Swansea until April 23rd, 2017, I highly recommend making the effort to experience it in person.
The Moon and a Smile Exhibition Guide printed by Glynn Vivian Art Gallery