Thursday, 2 July 2009

Dark Days in Venice

I went to the 53rd Venice Biennale last month, a three day adventure. I hadn't been before. My primary objective was to attend the opening of the Welsh collateral event at the Ex Birreria (old brewery) on the island of Giudecca. John Cale (LEGEND!) is representing Wales this year with his film and sound installation piece Dyddiau Du/Dark Days. I went to see him speak in advance of the event in a tiny little theatre in west Wales - Ammanford Miners' Theatre.

I was really excited with what he might produce as a musician stepping into the visual art world, his pedigree teeters on the edge of sound art anyway - I was particularly grabbed by his intention to film and record ambient sounds in the house in which he was raised in Garnant.

Cale revealed a very difficult childhood and a fractious relationship with Wales and the Welsh language, and his intention to address these issues through an essentially cathartic mix of performance, film and sound in association with cinematographer Bevis Bowden. At the heart of this concept he discussed his mis-communication with his English speaking father. Unable to speak with him until he was seven years old due to the matriarchal edicts of his Welsh speaking grandmother - this formative trauma and his subsequent exile to America underpin the work.

I watched the piece Dark Days/Dyddiau Du twice and wanted so much to really fall in love with it. Having chewed it over I have to admit I haven't. There are some beautiful sections in the 45 minute work, some lovely sound, some exquisite images. It is sentimentally Welsh which I don't actually mind. My problem lies in its unremitting self indulgence.

I hoped the piece would open a dialogue about and for Wales around language and identity, but there is an inherent dichotomy in that position. The work addresses the condition of non communication weighed down by time, distorted and muted. It's a bit of a one way street. Cale exposes his own convoluted rage, processed, diverted and subverted, but, (and this is poignant when I think of it) he is once removed behind the glass of his fame and it is possible he hasn't considered the impact of the piece, the nature of the relationship with the viewer. Alternatively, perhaps one can detect just a ripple of mischief, an irresistible opportunity to settle a score. Cale proclaimed the wish to create a visceral piece, and in the process may well have eviscerated his own dark days, but in an act of personal catharsis to which we are asked to stand witness and endure. There is a curious numbness and lack of engagement for the viewer, and if that is his intention it is very successfully achieved but perhaps not successfully communicated.

The work exemplifies Cale’s skill with the condition of discomfort which is integral throughout the piece, successfully disorientating and unsettling the viewer. The fragmentation of the images through a series of floor standing screens have some validity in this respect. I watched the audience move uncomfortably in the space unsure where to place themselves, self conscious of their own presence and physicality. It seems over stated however, five screens seem excessive. The sense of dislocation veers towards arbitrariness which ultimately dilutes the experience.

The sound content is equally fragmented between environmental sound, music and experimental sound. The music is beautiful in parts, but distracting. I was most engaged when the environmental sound deepened the visual content, vehicles swishing past the empty, derelict house at the heart of the piece has an intense eeriness and tension. The hard breathing and clink of slate as Cale ascended the wintry mountain path in North Wales has a mesmeric quality.

The length of the work feels problematic in the Venice setting. With so much else to see and experience it is a very big ask of the audience to cross the Giudecca Canal, find the venue and stand in the darkened space with a demanding work for 45 minutes. It is probably entirely in keeping with Cale’s oeuvre and output and therefore simply what one would expect. In this sense there is integrity in his approach. It is uncompromising and uncompromised.

Most disappointingly I really dislike the ending of the piece. This is where I feel Cale's inexperience as a visual artist really shows; a totally unnecessary visual sledgehammer exploiting dubious resonances with torture techniques. I dislike the narrative construct topping and tailing the piece, it feels rather contrived and stagey. I wish also that he had resisted the temptation to claim a 'bardic' status. I feel it is an unfortunate trick of the ego to append the shaman/bard tag, a little bit of a post-Beuysian pretension.

I think I agree with a critic I chatted to about the piece after the first screening "It's the curate's egg - good in parts". The show runs until November, and will then tour in Wales. I am not Welsh born, I am already somewhat removed. There's some issues around the piece watching as a woman also, I felt rather cudgeled by a kind of outmoded machismo that really belongs to the tail end of Modernism.

Cale for Wales was a brave choice - it's feeling a little uncomfortable right now, let's see what further illuminations are brought to bear on John Cale's Dark Days....

Images: John Cale shakes hands with Minister for Heritage, Alun Ffred Jones, AM
No photography allowed inside the installation..

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