It was the day after the opening of my solo exhibition at Aberystwyth Arts Centre, when, still buzzing with excitement, I returned to the gallery intending to photograph the show. It was already well into the afternoon – a Saturday in November – and, judging by the number of people milling round the gallery as I strode in with my camera, the exhibition seemed to have already been receiving a good number of visitors. This was reassuring, and helped assuage my doubts about whether the Arts Centre would prove too remote to attract sufficient visitors. One of the gallery assistants recognised me and came over to ask if I’d heard the news about the visitor who’d taken offence at one of my works. At first I was puzzled; the only negative responses I’d been anticipating were expressions of confusion or boredom, or perhaps that the work was superficial, not funny, or simply “stupid”. But as soon as the name “Cwm” was mentioned, I immediately understood where the issue lay.
Cwm is a former mining village in Ebbw Vale, one of the famous Valleys that range across the South-Wales coalfield. I had encountered the village during a walk undertaken as part of my survey of Welsh hills; though acknowledged for the importance of its industrial heritage, it is not a region frequented by tourists, and, as such, there are few conventional points of entry into appreciating it. My walk took me initially along the top of the long ridge that separates the valley from the next one; from this high vantage-point Cwm could be seen stretched out along the flat valley-bottom, its characteristic rows of terraced housing minutely glinting in the sun, surrounded by a vast arena of steep green valley sides. I then descended down onto the valley floor, the majesty of the hilltop views giving way to fly-tips, shabby warehouse buildings, and finally the village of Cwm itself. I walked the entire length of the village, before finally climbing back up the opposite hillside onto the next ridge. I had planned this walk hoping to embrace its contradictions; I knew the area to be poor, with high unemployment, low educational attainment and poor health, blighted by the scars of industry, still struggling to revive itself after the demise of the coal mines. But I also knew that the geological setting was unique and rich, the landscape spectacular, rewarding, with moments of genuine beauty. This was Wales in all its complexity.
Looking through the messages written in the gallery’s comments book, I was immediately drawn to one visitor’s admission that they were ‘truly upset’ about my characterisation of Cwm ‘and its people.’ And another, ‘brought up on a council estate,’ who ‘took great objection.’ A third, more coolly written, stated simply: ‘Inspirational drawings. The comments for Cwm do not take into consideration the economic hardship suffered in the valleys.’
The drawings and comments in question are part of The Mountains of Wales are the Mountains of Wales, a work consisting of 60 pairs of drawings and texts based on an intentionally absurd search for a single, archetypal hill that would perfectly sum up Welsh national identity. Each drawing depicts a single hill encountered on one of my walks around Wales, presented in the style of an architect’s proposal for an imagined “perfect Welsh hill” brief; the accompanying texts transcribe verbal recollections of the process of walking, focussing on banal anecdotes or stuttering and inarticulate attempts at description. The particular text that had caused the offence was hung alongside a drawing of a relatively minor unnamed hill that juts out behind a row of terraced houses in Cwm. The text (in full) reads:
I’d seen Cwm from high up, when I’d had these amazing, spectacular views of the Ebbw valley – really, from that distance it looked sensational. But here I was in Cwm, and it had a lot of very–, um, you know, council estate-type people: you know, teenage mothers, very cheap prams, and, er, tracksuit bottoms, and a man standing outside the off-licence with dirty trousers drinking a can of lager.
Given that part of my intention in juxtaposing the texts with the drawings was to undermine the authority of both, it did not surprise me that the work would be met with some resistance. Indeed, many of the visitors to the exhibition displayed an open allegiance to a somewhat conservative understanding of art. What troubled me about the nature of the offence taken here, however, was that it had not arisen out of any kind of aesthetic difficulty with the work, but rather, that it seemed to be based on a presumption that the work contained within it a determinate and legible meaning. The text was being read as an expression of a meaningfully articulated opinion, which had been interpreted in this case as the artist’s damning judgement on Cwm. The meaning of the drawing hung alongside it had also been presumed to be legible – positively interpreted in this case, the sentiments behind it striking the viewer as ‘inspirational.’
The truth was though, that the work sought to be legible neither positively nor negatively; it did not seek to articulate any position. There was no discursive meaning to be found. All of the works in the exhibition were infused with nonsensical logic, contradictory ideas, circular argumentation, tautology, incongruous juxtapositions, inconclusiveness, and textual descriptions of encounters with slugs. The project was addressing the question of the relationship between landscape and national identity absurdly – in effect, situating itself categorically outside the realm of coherently meaningful argumentation. In this sense at least, it was meaningless.
‘Why must you assume everything is meaningful?’ I wanted to ask my absent offendees, ‘Why can’t you just let things be absurd?’ But I didn’t ask them that; I didn’t, because I wasn’t really convinced that absurdity was meaningless. It certainly had an association with meaninglessness, a relationship to it – that much was obvious. But I’d already begun to suspect that the nature of that relationship, and, conversely, the relationship between absurdity and meaning was a lot more complex and a lot less binary than I’d first imagined.