Friday, 14 January 2011

Jonah and the Whale

The Truck Studio in the Pyrenees: Redhead Collection

From my exhibition in Bangor, ‘Of Mothers, Angst and the Black Light’, I made contact with Maurice Cooke, art historian, collector and lecturer at Bangor University. He came to see me when I was recovering from a virus and commissioned a work for his collection. He owned a hideout in the woods down from Fachwen that could just be glimpsed from Pete’s Eats across Llyn Padarn. I helped him move out of the house when it became too much to maintain. This final outpost was situated at the end of a descending, winding track that skirted between old quarries, spoil hills, and babbling streams doing their talking amongst ancient oak woodland.

It drove by Steve Andy’s makeshift settlement clinging to the edge of a spoil heap. It looks like a post apocalyptic, survival film set! Congealed onto the hill of slate are scrap vans, machinery, bits of caravans and tarpaulins and corrugated steel and squealing pigs. Steve was found one day stuck and smashed up under a dumper truck on his land after it had overturned. Gabbut, a sidelined creature and namer of The Indian Face on Cloggy, happened to be the angel passing by! Andy was in so much pain he pleaded with Gabbut to smash him over the head with a nearby brick! Gabbut, with brick in hand, said he couldn’t regulate the strength between knocking him out and killing him, so ran up the hill to call emergency services. I don’t think the same Steve emerged from hospital after the intensive care, blood transfusions, rehabilitation and therapy brought him back to fix the dumper! 

I felt that more than his blood had drained out of him. Or perhaps that somebody else’s sketchy blueprint had found a new home in him? He still odd-jobs around the mud trenches, scrap and chickens and mayhem that will still remain a functioning, friendly base-camp when a more ordered society crumples in its wake. This ‘third world’ recycling chaos oozes all kind of unguents that challenge nature and blisters out from the neat, Upper Fachwenian’s enclosures. It sends out a warning vibe, ‘beware, different kinds of creatures lurk here’.

Maurice gave me a triptych of paintings by Michael Cullimore on the theme of Jonah and the Whale, for helping him move his belongings out.

The new owners were friends and immediate neighbours of Talywaenydd. Within a short time they had problems due to the severe isolation. Their promise of a middle class, idyllic location turned sour with the logistical strain associated with this final outpost. I windsurfed one day across Lake Padarn to the far shore beneath their house, knocked on the door and presented Margaret with a box of Milk Tray, because the lady likes…! Within a short time they moved out to more social and pastoral premises at Penmon on Anglesey.

Eric Maddern, the new owner had arrived from Australia. He told me he learnt the didgeridoo from the aboriginals. He was a storyteller and musician and set about creating the Cae Mabon centre. He had a vision of traditional low impact buildings and roundhouses that would create the setting of a post modern, pagan, tribal, Celtic honouring of nature and beauty. Cae Mabon means ‘field of Mabon’ in Welsh, and refers to Mabon a character from Y Mabinogion. On the shores of Lake Padarn, are the shamanistic principals of ancestors and healing once again flourishing in a ceremonial setting? Perhaps. There was a little unrest within the villages when the local paper published a letter that warned of ‘witches’ and pagan rituals up in the hills. This witch-hunt wanted their children protected from this evil unknown! I replied saying the alternative centre was following Celtic traditions in which the local Welsh communities should embrace and be proud of. I said there was more to fear wandering around Tescos on shopping days!

Barry Biscuit lived in a caravan on his land. He was very skeptical on the vision and authenticity of Cae Mabon. He would often become ill through close contact with these alternative city ‘fuckwits’ seeking the way of weird. He would feel the land becoming sick with their problems and illnesses. He blamed Eric and egos and ignorance for a ‘bad energy’ that had descended upon the land. Barry told me of a ‘men’s group’ that had decided to perform a circumcision on a member who had sexual problems. Apparently the deed was done and the foreskin seasoned and cooked and shared out for all to eat as a conclusion to the group’s ritual of transcendence! If there was ever an aboriginal presence at Cae Mabon, it came with custard creams, not seasoned foreskins!

I often thought of Cullimore’s paintings and God’s chosen task for Jonah to preach to the inhabitants of Nineveh to get their ‘evil’ act together. I am always interested, and sceptical of a man’s chosen task of offering meaning and hope to mankind. Is it an inspiring gift or a money-spinning hoax that preys on the sidelines of the modern world’s problems? But it is difficult to fault a man bringing the Mabinogi legends are prose stories back into the damaged earth of nether Fachwen. Difficult to criticise the storytelling drifting over the forest fires that draws upon pre-Christian Celtic mythology, folklore, culture and language of Wales. The tales of Arthur! Tales of the Grail! It is interesting to connect these twelve century tales of a highly developed oral and written Welsh narrative tradition to problems of the day. Contemplation and the nourishment of the imagination are important for self-understanding and tolerance.

As regards the three Jonah paintings, I gave one to George Smith to somehow lose and one to Martin Crook. Martin over painted his when he couldn’t afford a new canvas! The third blocked a hole in a doorway and disintegrated. Michael has since become recognized as one of Britain’s most significant contemporary artists, seeing occult correspondences between landscape and people. His shape-shifting experiments dwell on growth and decay, death and re-birth. And such is the state of play as regards ‘art’ in the hills around Llanberis!

My work has always been hanging on a precarious perch. I don’t think that art can ever replace life and I keep my scalpel sharp for the day to day probing. So living here my work reflected and drew inspiration from not only interacting with the hills but their very culture. Lately, my work was more concerned with confronting and provoking over issues of this very identity. Digging a bit deeper than the sublime, picture postcard landscape. A bit more than paying to see a museum remnant from corporate oppression donning his dusty flat-cap and cutting slates into heart shapes for tourists! Again, ice creams and a range of souvenirs.

The Devil Seeks a Shoulder: Redhead Collection

My last publication Soft Explosive hard Embrace is community and culture based. The multimedia exhibition of the same name premiered at the Electric Mountain, Llanberis. Never had the community witnessed a portrayal of its history in anything but a patronizing and historical way. Here was music gleaned and scraped from the industrial nightmare on their doorstep. Here were sketches of quarrymen, not proud with their daily ‘bargain’ but proud of their fat cocks during tea ceremonies! Here were symbols and Gods from a global perspective.

The local councillors wanted the exhibition removed as it caused offence. A councillor had reported in the press that a paragraph from the poem was offensive to the girls of Deiniolen and the sketches obscene! I don’t think he liked the fact that Deiniolen was where the quarrymen’s prostitutes buttered and ‘jammed’ their bread - even though there is no mention of such. A nerve had been struck! Deliver us! Ebenezer Chapel and slate, the chosen ‘stone of love’ a constant reminder of God’s presence in the brothels!

This is the passage that caused offence…

“Kokopelli too, parched on the desert rock, another dirty bastard
Playing his flute and spreading his seed.
The hunchback with a patina erection, searching, searching.
On every level, stalking every incline, down every hole.
In Deiniolen every night converting young girls into single young
Mothers with prams.
A busy post office gyrating with giro and parked pram.
cervix's dilating all along the street.
The single street with the cloud on top.
The single mothers with clouds on top.
The dilating cervix.
The opening wound.
The enlarging of the hole.
More machines - more compression.
More contraction - more pipes, more power, more men!

from - soft explosive hard embrace.

I had the single young mums from Deiniolen knocking on my door for an explanation - what right have I got to say such things - what right have I got to put this exhibition on? Outsider! I chose to have the dialogue and took this angry gaggle of mums to the exhibition to show me what they found offensive. They spent hours reading the poetry and looking at the sketches and hearing the soundtrack from recorded sounds in the quarries. They found no offence, only poetry and images and strange but familiar sounds. They laughed and read their way through the exhibition because they don’t have the macho hangups and scars of a life destroying the mountain! The arrogance and audacity of the male councillor to imply that the girls of Deiniolen would be offended! Dickhead!

From the women’s perspective my enquiries proved that the quarries brought them pain, misery and death. It also brought pain and misery to a photographer friend whom I commissioned to take the photographs. I came to see him at my old studio at Talywaenydd where he was living, to see him in floods of tears, smashing his Hasselblad camera against a stone wall. His rage had reduced the camera to a thousand shards of glass and mashed up metal and plastic. His hands were torn and bloodied as he collapsed, a mess of a man gone to a dark place. His sensitivity, his intelligence, his creativity a destructive mix that shone in brilliance upon that rarity of esteem that deemed himself worthy. I understand- I understand the need to destroy the product of one’s vision as if the creativity may be serious enough to be abusively pretentious! When you touch these hills deeply all attempts at expression can seem frivolous and pointless. They are! One is!

The exhibition, based on the book, was in some ways an anti-vision of Snowdonia, a poetic saga. A land split between the hill of Snowdon, tourists and a range of souvenirs and the great, grey holes of Dinorwig slate quarry, which is other side of the valley to the National Park. It explores the fascinating perversity of destruction and the legacy of disassociation with the land. The Welsh heroes, bards and poets are flung into a dark cauldron, a worldly-broth of mythocentricity, religions, cults and symbols - ‘brewing-up’ with the lads in the garret, the demand to cap roofs and the business of a paid job. It attempts to reflect the misery and joy of an indigenous population, the proud brethren, manipulated by the greed and avarice of a few, the English, whose profits plundered the belly of Elidir Fawr. Elidir Fawr, with its flank of slate is one of the mountains holding Nant Peris vice-tight.

Before slate was the copper and other minerals whose extraction poisoned the streams. It used to be sacred land. There are always the needs and wants of a changing society, and the mining, the digging and the groping are linked to the avarice of the age. In the poem, the female form becomes pits and holes and cracks to excavate. But she is not passive! Money exchanges hands, and the dialogue with the land is lost. I think there are clues here and Mammon led the way. As I said, the way the land is changed changes the people.

“...Men also, and by his suggestion taught,
Ransack’d the Center, and with impious hands
Rifl’d the bowels of thir mother Earth
For treasures better hid. Soon had his crew
Op’nd into the hill a spacious wound...”

John Milton - Paradise Lost.

My probing seems like an intense thirst, establishing the energy for this forensic investigation...finding more clues along the way?

“...Out of that greed materialized the potential to utterly destroy the mountain during the plague of the industrial revolution...the epic stage that is the great, grey holes of men is universal...” 

The Curse of Religion: Redhead Collection

Nant could be anywhere. But how big can a hole get, and how depressed can a people become? And who pays...? As I said, she is not passive, just a bit fucked up that’s all. These veins in the land lead me on to veins of junk in flesh and heroin addiction.

“I was withdrawing...I was on the streets...I felt rough. I needed the drugs. And this fella came along and said, “Do you do anal sex?” I said, “No, not really, but I will, right.” So I was in the back of the van, like this right, and I bent over and I put it in the ‘normal vagina’, not in ‘that’...and said, “Oh, it’s in.” And i’m pretending that it’s killing me and I was saying, “Oh God, don’t hurt me.” And he really thought he was having anal sex! And he wasn’t! And I said, “Was that nice, was that a lot different?” And he said, “Oh, that was so much different.” I felt like saying, “You dickhead, it was the same hole!” 

from - Bottles in, Bottles Out.

So, I will continue to seek the pulse of this land. I feel it has something to do with the great, grey holes of the quarried mountain on the doorstep of Nant, and a man with a pick sticking into Mother earth. And the mountain was eaten and spat out onto the roofs of the world. And there is a payment! The Feminine Principal!

It is interesting to note that Chris Bonington’s sister resides down the pass! Hardly seen, she is one of the chimney folk. Forgotten and unknown by the established mountain heroes of the world, her survival with mental illness and utterly confused state of mind puts into perspective such facile achievements as climbing mountains. There is a truth in this lady that bares to the bone such idolatry. She attains her summit every second of every day with no logistical help! She stumbles on, muttering, reaching out, reaching out...with no doors to close and no keys to turn and no flag to place...Madness has a truth and it flourishes well here. Llanberis Pass is her ‘ward’ corridor. She had been kissed by a saint, a devil, a monster, the same, for another role entirely…

It was on the crags behind where she lives that lay another female entity, another female form and part of the landscape of Nant. The ghostly, emaciated torso of belly, neck, chin, nose and forehead are prominent in relief, arched, across a steep nubbin of granite hill. I could say she looks uncannily like my Mother looked on her deathbed – or like all Mothers look when turning to dust and stone. The gullies that drop down from her stone-slab are like a torn shroud that the wind has reduced to rags.

I admit I do have an animistic tendency in response to nature and this does affect my relationship to where I live. But do we not all feel a little of this? Feel a little of this when words fail to connect and an internal, more intense poetry creeps in? Is this not the tongue of some other animal, some force, some being, of some other breath? Something flicking its tail in the muddy waters? Some aboriginal presence asserting itself – within sniffing distance – all is not well!

Why do I feel so sick here? This is the rub. It’s not that I feel sick but more like being caged-in with a sick animal. A sick animal that I have introduced myself to, spent time with, allowed in? A sick animal that has found a new drinking partner. The landlord says, “Move on now, you’ve had enough sir!” I know how much I have climbed here but how much have I drunk? I think you can drink too much of the hill and that new land of hope and promise and vision cannot be held? What about stuff like this -

On the first night in the valley, we played on the swings in the playground watching the sunset over Mon Mam Cymru, the Mother of Wales. She swooped a scarlet-death blaze across the valley floor and onto the flanking, searing, dark gullies and scree. The florescence was like some Photoshop ‘dark tool’ effect. It was a divine experience. I was aware of a Cosmic unfolding in a true sacred space - the swings and slide positioned like surreal menhirs awaiting the music of the spheres! Prostrate among unseen influences, I thought this the most incredible situation for a playground. Over the years it became a desolate tip of rust and rag and left to the sheep to browse to the bone and shelter from the incessant wind and rain. Instead of a sanctuary it became inhospitable, a sewer in my mind. The earth-charge, the divine, had moved house and was somewhere else!

Can it be held...? Does one have to be nomadic to stay in touch...?

The Eleanors

Just down the road, the ruins of Dolbadarn Castle rears up from a stumpy outcrop on the shore of Llyn Peris. Built by Llewellyn ap Iorwerth as a guard post, it was of strategic importance as it blocked movement into the heart of Snowdonia. There has apparently been a garrison here since the sixth century. It was here that his grandson, Llywelyn ap Grufforth incarcerated his eldest brother Owain after fierce fratricidal fighting over rulership of Gwynedd. His other brother Dafydd became an enemy and joined opposing allegiances. A fourth brother was out of the loop. The Llywelyn’s war with the English concerned only Gwynedd and to this day the echos of conflict are apparent. 

Their more pastoral neighbours lived in relevant comfort with the Crown and Marcher lords. It was from here on the shores of Llyn Peris that the Dinorwic Power Scheme’s catheter tubing tore through the mountain of Elidir Fawr to its upper reservoir of Machllyn for the production of hydro electricity. Does the mountain also contain the new uba stronghold of corporate power under the guise of The National Grid? It was here that Turner sketched the amalgam aspects for his blockbuster painting of the castle. A collection of sublime elements produce the atmosphere, light and sense of place that saw Owain imprisoned here for twenty two years. It is to this painting, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1800 that he first added lines of verse –

“How awful is the silence of the waste,
Where nature lifts her mountains to the sky.
Majestic solitude, behold the tower
Where hopeless Owen, long imprison’d, pin’d,
And wrung his hands for liberty in vain.”

I relate to his famous quote – “If I could find anything blacker than black, I’d use it.” It is from here on the majestic ‘waste’ of slate that are The Rainbow Slabs that one of my first E7’s was climbed, Raped by Affection.

This small corner of the world that is Gwynedd, perhaps little more than a hill between fields, became dotted with markers separating the changing fortunes of ‘yours and mine’. These were the boundaries for opposing aggressors, invaders of the Norman Conquest, The Crown and troops of King Henry the third and The Barons, became the English versus the Welsh. There was no nationalism in the thirteenth century but only Gwynedd at war with itself, its identity, its Welsh neighbours and the quest for more land. The executive government for an independent Wales almost made it! As a few rocks remain on the hill between fields and the hand of ownership slips away from the tools of war does the tongue remain locked in the land and themselves? Is the tongue still locked in war?

It is interesting to note that the Normans were in fact descendants of the Vikings, known as the Northmen, who were allowed to settle and intermarry on the northern coast of France in an exchange for safeguarding against more Viking attacks.

The Baron’s War against Henry the third was led by Simon de Montfort, youngest son of Simon de Montfort, elected captain-general of the French forces in the Albigensian Crusade by his fellow nobles. This younger son played a major role in the reign of Henry. His father was present at the siege of Beziers in 1209 where twenty thousand Cathari and Catholics were massacred. Simon's part in the crusade had the full backing of his liege lord, the King of France, Philip Augustus. He became notorious and feared for his extreme cruelty, treachery and bad faith. He massacred whole towns, and for those who refused to give up their faith had their eyes gouged out and their noses, lips and ears cut off. His son, Simon de Montfort bore some allegiance to Llewellyn ap Gruffudd to whom his daughter, Eleanor married. Because of the Baron’s War and Simon’s leadership, it was the closest that Britain came to losing the monarchy. But we did gain a House of Commons!

Simon de Montfort himself married Eleanor, Henry the Third’s sister after an accusation of seduction! She was first married when she was only nine years old and widowed at sixteen. She was again widowed when Simon fought and died in a Baron’s war against the stronger army of Henry. He was recorded as saying, ‘Let us commend our souls to God, because our bodies are theirs.”

Henry also married an Eleanor, daughter of Raymond, Count of Provence. She is fourteen years old.

Eleanor, Llywelyn’s wife, becomes the first Lady of Snowdon but dies in childbirth giving birth to Gwenllion. She is carried across the Lavan Sands to be buried at Llanfaes on Anglesey opposite their home in Abergwyngregyn. Llewellyn is betrayed and murdered, mutilated, butchered and eventually decapitated. Dafydd is the first man to be savagely hung drawn and quartered! His sons incarcerated in Bristol and never released. Gwenllion is confined for life in a priory and is never allowed her freedom, her heritage or mother or father’s tongue. Wales is ‘cast to the ground’. But Edward the First’s victory over Gwynedd was not a disaster to all Welshmen!

These were once kids singing songs and playing on swings. Becoming older they would play hide and seek and ride on smaller horses. Carving their names in trees and stone, they would eventually hunt ‘twrch’ wild boar and wolves. These animals were hunted out seven hundred years ago, but their names in the hills remain. I can’t help wondering what other creature hides in the minds of some children at school here? From the singing and the playing and a feeling of ‘landlocked’ injustice with a hate in their tongue licked from the hill? The twrch are roaming and breeding again in parts of Britain.

Tongue in cheek.

 Sketch 2: Redhead Collection

As regards difficult communication one can talk of a Welsh tongued, chapel taught mountain people, hard, rugged and reticent and suspicious of ‘outsiders’. I think anyone not actually born here and with traceable ancestors buried in the hill, would be classed as an outsider. You must understand that this is a foreign land, a fact that most incomer’s forget! This has to be respected. Speaking Welsh of course is an issue if you don’t speak it. It’s always in your face. If you live here, it helps to speak the tongue! It is the first means of communication for most - and important in understanding the loss when translating into English. Having lived in the area for the past twenty five years means that I have Welsh friends, the common denominator being that they do not embrace the language as a cultural identity. The language is not an issue. Of interest is that they are all ‘outdoor’ type people. Their culture is the outdoors.

One friend, who was born in Colwyn Bay which is only twenty five miles away, frequented a local golf course for the first time. The attendant at the desk said to him that it was unusual for a non-Welsh person to play golf there. My friend said he was born in Colwyn Bay and went to school there. Does that not make him Welsh? The man returned that, as everyone knew, Colwyn Bay is not in Wales, meaning that a lot of English live there! This of course implies that the only true Welsh county is Gwynedd. This may be true! I understand and appreciate the need to protect this ‘foreign land’, but is it really under threat? If the language is spoken for reasons of threat and fear of incomers then what does that foster in the children? Perhaps Gwynedd is Wales, or rather the remains of an ancient culture that hasn’t grown up and found itself by integrating with a changing world. The Irish understand that speaking English doesn’t subdue their own language of Gaelic. Scotland is also culturally intact. There is still a culture in the hills here that continues to blame and resent. I believe it is cause for concern.

When you understand that actually there is no such thing as ‘indigenous’ here, you understand that we are all colonists! It is everyone’s duty to care for the land.

“Once we have departed from the soil, once the fertility of the imagination has departed from the fertility of the land, once we have plundered the source of nourishment and life and well being - once, in short, we have left what is sacred - our home - can there ever be a return?

from - Soft Explosive Hard Embrace.

My time here has been positive and fruitful and creative and I believe I have done much to reinforce a living bond with the land, surely something that is truly traditionally of Celtic origin. Poetic! I have not imposed myself on the land and the work voiced through climbing, performance, exhibitions and literature are informed from the land. The mountains have sustained me. The culture has not!

It is not surprising. I have never fitted easily under labels of Art and Climbing and feel I have never in reality served either of these bedfellows well or satisfactorily, and yet it seems that my whole life has been intensely preoccupied with the making and mugging of images from the land and the hills and somewhere else as if my life depended on it. Incuts and side-pulls are constants within the ever changing flux and re-invention of my work as an image maker.

Back In the eighties when I was most active as a climber, creating climbs like The Bells, The Bells, Raped by Affection and Margins of the Mind, the studio was as much a rockface and the rockface a studio. I called the commitment to these routes a kind of ‘field of savagery’ and related the ascents to a ceremonial act. I didn’t have to climb much, because of the intense, essential nature of the routes was sufficient to question and provoke and release the images dwelling within. Intent is the key. The climbing wasn’t the intent - the climbing was the action! The intent is the crux part of the formula which manifested itself back in the studio. This is process. The products on the wall always left me disinterested as if the essential energy that informed the work had dissipated and sloped off to find another recipient to work with!  The climbs were climbed and the paintings painted. The process is the wilderness and the product a zoo!

Yumino in Hogiau Pen Garret: Redhead Collection

John Redhead© 2011