Dave Ball: Searching for the Welsh Landscape

Claire Pickard
New Welsh Review, issue 113, Winter 2016

This exhibition explores the concept of “Welshness” through a personal hunt for the “archetypal Welsh mountain”. The questions it raises are serious, but Ball manages to avoid the sometimes fraught nature of the search for national identity by deploying a humour that reveals what can be the absurd nature of such quests if taken to extremes.

The exhibition is structured around a series of 60 pencil drawings, accompanied by short texts (plus videos and photographs), that chart Ball’s walks through five mountainous areas of the country. Whereas the drawings possess an almost map-like clarity – they seek to render the landscape as impersonally as possible, and even include the ordnance survey reference within their format – the texts are deeply and intentionally subjective. They aim to capture ‘the process of walking’ itself, in all its physicality, exhilaration – and tedium. Through their fragmentary and disconnected nature, they also record the changing and complex nature of Ball’s engagement with his search for a truly Welsh topography. Ball starts out recording his, not entirely serious, aspiration to achieve a Caspar David Friedrich-like sublimity in his experience of the landscape. By the end of his journey, we see him documenting the fact that he is observing this landscape whilst sitting on a crisp packet in the rain enduring ‘one of the more miserable lunch-breaks’ of his life.

Yet, despite the pathos of this arc, the viewer has the feeling that Ball would probably prefer the crisp packet picnic to the Friedrich-like experience of the sublime. Although the apparent purpose of the project is the search for an ‘archetypal’ landscape, what Ball’s journey reveals most strongly is his objections to all attempts to claim the landscape and impose meaning upon it. He rejects equally his own compulsion to look at the Owain Glyndwr monument on one mountain and the comically related battle for the honour of possessing ‘the highest tree in the UK,’ enacted on another. When Ball finally observes what could be his ‘archetypal’ view – ‘This was Wales; this was the perfect environment...,’ he is saved from imposing this interpretation by the environment itself. The scene is fittingly enveloped in fog before Ball can capture it in a photograph.

Ball’s ambivalence towards his search is expressed in his video piece, Hill Walking, which records his attempt to walk up Fan-y-Big in the Brecon Beacons without actually looking at the mountain. Another video work, Arms Reaching, Smiling Sweetly – the title is taken from the lyrics to Green, Green Grass of Home – shows the artist sculpting the hill near his childhood village from memory. Both pieces explore the connection between what we see and what we impose, forcing us to question the way we project ourselves onto the landscapes in which we live.

At the close of Ball’s journey, he returns to the area remembered in Arms Reaching, Smiling Sweetly. Capturing the emotions that can be roused by places in which we once lived, but have long since left, Ball feels that the area is simultaneously both ‘familiar’ and ‘meaningless’ to him. Such a location provides the perfect conclusion for a project which has been dominated by the tension between observation and interpretation. Ball imagines himself arriving at a village green with an oak, beneath which he can shelter. Inevitably, this fails to materialise. The weather is also, again inevitably, disappointing. Ball regrets this as better conditions could have provided the perfect ‘majestic moment,’ as he was confronted with his ‘home.’ Yet, in keeping with the tone of the exhibition as a whole, Ball accepts such a disappointment in tones of low-key resignation, concluding simply, ‘But, um –, but it wasn’t.’ The journey ends with Ball never having achieved his Friedrich-like moment, but also with the viewer feeling that this does not really matter. Ball’s failure to locate his ‘archetypal’ mountain reveals instead the richness of his own inherently personal experience of his homeland.

Claire Pickard is a regular contributor to New Welsh Review.

Article also published online at www.newwelshreview.com.