Case Study: Searching for the Welsh Landscape

1 Genesis

1.1 Overview of project

Searching for the Welsh Landscape is a series of interrelated works in various media developed for a solo exhibition at Aberystwyth Arts Centre that took place from November 2016 to January 2017 exploring the problematic notion that national identity subsists in the landscape of a particular region. The origins of the project lay in a 3-month residency undertaken at Aberystwyth Arts Centre in 2014, which was the first time I had spent any significant amount of time in Wales since my childhood (I was born and grew up in a village in the Swansea Valley). Those initial first hand encounters with the landscape that took place during the residency were later understood to have triggered an engagement with a set of notions including belonging, place, and national identity. A subsequent production grant from the Arts Council of Wales – which coincided with the beginning of the PhD – supported the development of those preliminary ideas through an extended series of visits to different parts of Wales, the production of a new body of work, and an eventual realisation of the project as a solo exhibition at Aberystwyth Arts Centre. This case study therefore allowed an initial testing out of an approach to a given (non-absurd) subject-matter developed and conceived of within the framework of this research as “tactically absurd”, presented publicly at one of Wales’s highest-profile institutions.

1.2 Context and development

During the residency I had embarked on a series of walks around the countryside surrounding Aberystwyth; initially, these were undertaken without any defined objectives, the intention being simply to see what would draw my attention, and to allow an unforced relationship with the landscape to develop. It quickly became clear, however, that what was colouring this experience was a certain sense of “attachment” I felt towards that landscape. I found I was becoming more specifically interested in the hills, and, initially without forethought, had begun a process of weighing up particular hills in terms of how “Welsh” they were. This would later become the first tactically absurd move in the project: an initially quite undeliberate and intuitive means of responding to a specific environment was formalised and rationalised as an intentionally absurd search for a “perfect, archetypal Welsh hill”.

Although it was not explicitly acknowledged until well into the project’s development, the search can now be understood as having been informed and shaped by two major influences. Firstly, representations of the Welsh landscape that have appeared in painting (and latterly, photography and cinema) over the last 300 years – particularly during the romantic period, as well as subsequent portrayals that have fallen under its sphere of influence. Thomas Jones’s 1774 painting The Bard (part of the collection of the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff) is emblematic: romantic in its incorporation of a dramatically lit sky and silhouetted tree branches, the work is ostensibly a history painting depicting a Welsh Bard dressed as a Celtic druid driven to a cliff edge by English invaders. Aside from the specific role the narrative plays in creating and reinforcing national identity, the painting’s action can be said to take place in a (now) instantly recognisable “Welsh landscape”, featuring dramatically shaped yet modestly scaled mountains, sheep-shorn grassy uplands punctuated by occasional exposed rocks, rolling farmland pastures falling away into the distance below, and a sense of remoteness from urban settlements. Paintings such as The Bard have led to a certain image of “Welshness” being pinned down and attributed to particular land formations, features and usages – a cumulative process which, once established, becomes naturalised and uncritically accepted, regardless of its actual correspondence to a historically or topographically specific land formation. Indeed, any appropriation of an environment as an index of cultural identity, as Pyrs Gruffudd, David T Herbert, and Angela Piccini point out in an essay on travel writing in Wales, is a necessarily transformative process of meaning-making:

[the] specific construction of landscape as subject, as artefact, marks a translation, informed by continuous processes of translation through time, of the experienced world into the considered world whereby our surroundings become subsumed within the contingent uses of things, meaningful only and always as translation. (2000, p.590)

In other words, those “Welsh landscapes” that appear in cinema, photography or painting are examples of landforms that, initially lacking in any inherent meaning, have become “translated” through a largely unseen and unacknowledged cumulative process of codification into meaningful and legible representations of “Welshness”. In cinema, John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941) (which was shot in a replica of an idealised Welsh valley town built in California), Christopher Monger’s The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain (1995), and, more recently, Matthew Warchus’s Pride (2014), all employ landscape imagery codified as “Welsh” to their own narrative, thematic, or emotional ends. Countless examples of such environmental codification can be seen, too, in amateur landscape photography, for example those included in the BBC website’s long running open submission feature Your Pictures in Wales. Celebrated landscape painters such as Kyffin Williams, too, can also be understood as producing and reproducing imagery of an environment codified as “Welsh”; whilst, more recently, conceptual artists such as Bedwyr Williams have responded to this tradition critically.

My own encounters with the landscape from the beginning betrayed an ambivalent relationship to this genealogy of representation. Standing on the top of a hill looking out at the magnificent sweeping vista of an appreciably “Welsh” landscape that lay before me, there were certainly moments when I felt moved by it. Intellectual critique was, at times, demonstrably being defeated by affective impact: the denotative power of landscape, that is, cannot in practice be dismissed solely as the result of an arbitrarily appended codification. But the moments where I was able to, in a sense, “read” the landscape as Welsh were nevertheless fleeting and intermittent, with much of my time also being spent underwhelmed, disappointed, distracted or bored. Crucially, however, a representational context was understood to have been in place, and it was the frequent failure of my own experiences to tally with those representative ideals that fostered a productive discrepancy – which ultimately enabled a subsequent development of work through the form of tactical absurdity identified as “inverting and subverting norms of social representation”.

The second main influence was autobiographical. Autobiographical elements are rarely the focus in my work, and when they are incorporated, it is to support or delineate other subject matters or enable other generative processes – their role as psychologically formative influences is generally of secondary interest. Specific autobiographical narratives are incorporated factually, but are typically treated with a sense of contingency, and even arbitrariness (X, Y or Z happened, but they might just as easily have happened differently). In the case of this project, my own Welsh background clearly propelled the project forward, but at the same time I avoided framing the work as being about me specifically. My own personal history – growing up in a former mining village in South Wales overlooked by a prominent hill – gave weight to what I was pursuing and coloured my experiences, but was conceived primarily as a vehicle that could be used to pursue more general questions of the relation between landscape and nationality, rather than as a topic of enquiry in itself. Since “putting myself into a situation” is a frequent working process in my artistic practice (the intention being to stage encounters with places, situations, or sets of cultural values from a subject-centred, but ultimately impersonal, vantage point), my own biographical connection with Wales was not initially conceived of as thematically significant. What did emerge later in the project, however, was an increasing awareness of the potency of the memory of that childhood hill. As the search drew on, it become clear that – alongside a generalised image of a “Welsh hill” forged through exposure to existing cultural representations – I was also being drawn to hills that in some way resembled the remembered hill of my childhood. Given that the plan had been to visit five distinct hilly regions in Wales, I opted, therefore, to leave until last the visit to my home area in order to help draw out that autobiographical narrative.

During the visits I undertook a series of long walks over hills and mountains, through valleys, villages, farmland – sometimes seeking out places of recognised interest, and sometimes seeking out “ordinariness” in places without any conventional appeal. The walks were planned according to what looked promising on a map, but were also open to spontaneous changes of plan. Reaching the summit of hills, for example, although interesting and rewarding, was never the sole objective; spending time on the side of a hill, being “overlooked” by a hill, even getting lost en route to a hill, also proved valuable. A range of different kinds of experiences were thus accounted for, beyond those more conventionally associated with encounters with sublime scenery, or with one’s “homeland”. Although a considerable amount of research was undertaken into the geology, history, and culture of Wales, the working processes put into play generally steered clear of any direct engagement with those preexisting discourses. Despite being framed by critical questions about the nature of the relationship between landscape and national identity, the approach was characterised by its wayward relationship with conventional forms of engagement with the landscape – whether scientific, cultural, leisure-based, or touristic – ultimately laying the grounds for a form of tactical absurdity categorised as “undermining the serious, the respected, and the authoritative”.

2 Description of works

The four main works in the exhibition Searching for the Welsh Landscape were as follows:

2.1 The Mountains of Wales are the Mountains of Wales

A series of 60 drawings and texts, The Mountains of Wales are the Mountains of Wales was the most direct realisation of the search to find a single archetypal hill that perfectly embodies the idea of “Wales”. From the outset the premise was understood to be logically absurd: it was intended to be objectively unanswerable and comically overreaching in its formulation. Despite this, the premise itself was designed to be specific, intelligible, and ostensibly coherent in what it sought to achieve; it also mimicked the character of a critical intellectual enquiry. The premise can, accordingly, be characterised as enacting a form of tactical absurdity defined as “faulty or illogical logic”. Needless to say, I did not believe that the hill existed, and was fully cognisant of the consequent futility of the search. The circularity of the work’s title reflects this, referencing the apparently paradoxical Zen dictum that holds that first one sees mountains and rivers as what they are, then, having begun the study of Zen, one gains the insight that they are not what they are – before finally, having reached the highest level of wisdom, one again sees them as what they are. The drawings are presented as if they are architectural blueprints developed in response to an imagined “Welsh mountain” brief, incorporating textual information on the elevation of the hill, its Ordnance Survey grid reference, and the time and date it was visited. The drawings are all A3-sized, and were produced in the studio based on extensive photographs (some 5,000 in total) taken during the thirty or so walks conducted around five different areas in Wales. In the exhibition they were all mounted and displayed in museum frames. Each drawing is accompanied by a short text, presented alongside the image in the form of a printed museum-style information label. The texts transcribe verbal recollections of the process of walking, describing erratic and inconsistent states of mind: a series of banal and fragmentary anecdotes, along with descriptions of humorous incidents or physical discomfort, take their place alongside stuttering and inarticulate attempts to describe the landscape, and reflections on the search itself. The authority granted by the museum presentation and the naturalistic style of the drawings is thus, in a form of tactical absurdity defined as “undermining the serious, the respected, and the authoritative”, destabilised by the capriciousness of the texts.

2.2 Hill Walking

Taking the form of a video-diary, Hill Walking charts my attempt to climb one of the highest peaks in the Brecon Beacons national park, Fan-y-Big, without looking at the mountain itself. The work developed spontaneously during an unplanned walk: a lack of Sunday bus services to the area I had been intending to survey meant that I was forced on that particular day to walk in the “wrong” area. Consequently, I had decided to focus on recording sound in the hilly uplands near where I was staying rather than taking photographs, which had been my customary activity. As the walk got underway and the visual beauty of the national park became more and more pronounced, I began to experience my self-imposed ban on looking as increasingly absurd. Having arisen through a contingent set of circumstances, the activity of earnestly trying not to look proved compelling enough to formalise as a conceptual premise for a performative work. Recorded intermittently as I approached and then ascended the hill, the video diary documents various strategies including walking backwards so as not to face the mountain ahead; looking at the floor as I walked; blocking the view ahead of me with my map; and, finally, in a denouement of sorts at the summit, closing my eyes. The ostensible premise of the work, more than merely illogical, gives rise to an absurdity characterised by a “complete absence of logic or sense”, which is cemented through the manifest failure of its implementation: the mountain backdrop I am attempting to “avoid looking at” is continuously and overwhelmingly present and visible throughout the video. The work, in this sense, also embodies a form of tactical absurdity characterised as “immediately discernible (comic) incongruity”. In addition, insofar as the activity of hill walking is understood to exist in social space, the work can be attributed with an absurdity defined as “breaching norms of social behaviour”.

2.3 An Artist in Search of an Epiphany

The video An Artist in Search of an Epiphany stages a tension between conventional and unconventional, or what might be described from the perspective of conventionality as “proper” and “improper”, responses to landscape. The work comprises a series of carefully composed scenes of often spectacular scenery shot over a five day period in Snowdonia; in each I can be seen walking into the picture and adopting a stance reminiscent of the protagonist in Caspar David Friedrich’s much reproduced 1818 painting Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. Accompanying the imagery is a voiceover soundtrack suggestive of my own stream of consciousness. Although scripted, recorded and edited for the video, the inner monologue was essentially based on genuine trains of thought that had occurred during the walks, shaped by what was in front of me. At times appreciative and engaged (following the customary or “proper” narrative of landscape appreciation), more often than not the thoughts become sceptical or distracted, or betray an erraticism and a lack of interest in what is at hand, frequently drifting off into entirely different realms of experience. The “moment” of romantic or nationalistic appreciation does occur, but only within a broader spectrum of other, more everyday and banal mental activity; the bulk of the thoughts do not belong within the framework of conventional landscape discourse. The stream of consciousness presented is both authentic (in that it faithfully represents mental activity as it is actually experienced during an encounter with an environment) and “improper” (in that it fails to conform to any anticipated romantic or nationalistic trains of thought). The work can therefore be observed as enacting a tactically absurd combination of “inverting and subverting norms of social representation” and “violating generic expectations (in art, or other cultural forms)”, as well as displaying an “undermining of the serious, the respected, and the authoritative” and an “immediately discernible (comic) incongruity”.

2.4 Arms Reaching, Smiling Sweetly

Finally, Arms Reaching, Smiling Sweetly is a work consisting of a large video projection showing the fashioning of a sculpture from a lump of clay, along with a series of seven clay sculptures displayed on makeshift plinths. The work is based on my repeated attempts to sculpt from memory the hill overlooking the village of my childhood. The installation is presented such that the viewer first encounters the video, which was projected in the exhibition large enough for the viewer to be dwarfed by its scale; this sense of impressiveness is then punctured by the diminutive clay sculptures – which are deliberately unspectacular, having been made quickly in unfired clay with little technical expertise and retaining something of the obsessive quality of the amateur model-railway enthusiast. Such a disjunction can thus be seen as introducing the form of tactical absurdity characterised as “immediately discernible (comic) incongruity”: the intention being to set up a contrast between the anticipated significance of the hill – which occupies a prominent position within the autobiographical narrative – and the reality of it being physically unremarkable and ultimately lacking in emotional resonance. The work’s title is taken from the lyrics of the Curly Putnam song Green, Green Grass of Home, and aims further to reinforce its sense of equivocality; made famous through a recording by Tom Jones, the song is popularly understood as a straightforwardly sentimental evocation of “home”, despite the lyrics describing the bittersweet wish of a man on death row to be returned to – and buried in – an oak meadow in his home town.

3 Use of tactical absurdity

3.1 General intentions

The project as a whole then was, in large part, developed as a means of addressing the failure of culturally clichéd forms of representation to account for the reality and complexity of actual encounters with particular landscapes. Consequently, the works attempted to move away from over-simplified manifestations of romantic or nationalistic relationships with the landscape, offering instead forms of representation that have been rendered ambiguous, erratic, contradictory, banal, or nonsensical: straightforwardly meaningful communication, in other words, was subjected to, and undermined by, a range of tactically absurd operations. The works are in this sense self-reflexive in that they employ familiar forms and languages of both visual art practice and cultural practice more generally (naturalistic drawings, museum texts, lens-based imagery, narrative videos), only to then incorporate additional elements or perform strategic acts that deliberately disrupt their own imparting of meaning; by refusing to deliver their promised content, the artworks aimed to problematise the capacity of the representational forms they adopt to communicate reliably, legibly, and, indeed, authentically.

Such employment of tactical absurdity as (critical) disruption can be seen in, for example, the video An Artist in Search of an Epiphany, whose use of imagery was intended to evoke a tendency in contemporary television travel and nature documentaries to rely on what has been termed “landscape porn”; unlike in those populist cultural forms, however, any sense of gratuitous pleasure afforded by the imagery in the video is purposefully undermined by its dissenting soundtrack. Similarly, the texts accompanying the drawings in The Mountains of Wales are the Mountains of Wales – although they employ the familiar aesthetic favoured by museums to impart objective information to the viewer about the selected image or object – are divested of their capacity for straightforward transmission of determinate meaning; their presumed authority, that is, is deliberately destabilised through the inclusion of hesitations, repetitions, and “um”s and “er”s, arising from their being very literal transcriptions of spoken recollections. Any concrete information or articulated opinion included in the texts, in other words, is continuously relativised by a lack of certainty and the high degree of subjectivity in their delivery. Such an outcome can be understood, again, as a specific implementation of a critically disruptive form of tactical absurdity.

The rationale behind the choice of specific locations visited during the project, in contrast, can be conceived of as a more positively disruptive form of tactically absurdity. Initially motivated by a desire simply to “avoid the conventional”, the itineraries later became strategically planned as a means of avoiding visiting sites where predeterminate legible meanings might impose themselves too strongly, and as a way of opening up the project to a certain inconsistency of experience. Although certain recognised touristic, historical, and culturally-significant areas were included in the survey, the approach in those cases is typically more circuitous than celebratory; Snowdonia National Park, for example, is an unquestionably rich and impressive natural environment, but there is also a sense that, due to its carefully controlled and managed status as a tourist destination (particularly at the more popular sites such as Snowdon itself), the experience of visiting it has become sanitised and risk-free – and, crucially, already saturated with prior meanings and expectations. Similarly, symbolic markers of Welsh nationalism such as the area around Nant-y-Moch reservoir in the Cambrian Mountains – where the celebrated Welsh freedom-fighter Owain Glyndwr is said to have led an uprising against the nation’s English oppressors in 1401 – were also judged to be too overloaded with discursive meaning; as too were sites of interest to art history such as the view from Llanberis of Dolbadarn Castle, famously painted by JMW Turner during a tour of Snowdonia in 1798-99. Less conventionally attractive landscapes such as that of the post-industrial valleys in South Wales often proved more fertile, and were, accordingly, granted significant space within the project as a whole.

A circular walk undertaken around Ebbw Vale – one of the famous sequence of north-south running glacial valleys that range across the South-Wales coalfield – is a stand-out example. Though acknowledged for the importance of its industrial heritage, the region is not frequented by tourists, and, as such, there are few conventional points of entry into appreciating it. The walk took me initially along the top of a long ridge that separates the valley from the next one; from this high vantage-point the former mining village of Cwm could be seen, its rows of terraced housing of stretched out along the flat valley-bottom, surrounded by steep green valley sides. Descending down onto the valley floor, the spectacular hilltop views gave way to fly-tips, shabby warehouse buildings, and finally Cwm itself. The walk was designed to embrace such contradictions; I knew the region to be poor, with high unemployment, low educational attainment and poor health, blighted by the scars of industry, and still struggling to revive itself after the demise of the coal mines. However, I was also familiar with the region’s unique geological setting, which has given rise to a landscape that, although in places still bearing the scars of the coal-mining industry, has in large part returned to a pre-industrial lushness and unspoilt natural beauty. The experience of walking around the area brought with it contrasting impressions of urban deprivation, industrial blight, and hostility to outsiders, paired up with frequent encounters with a surprisingly serene and seemingly untouched natural environment imbued with a sense of wilderness. Devised precisely in order to embrace such contradictions, the walk was particularly effective in this regard, successfully revealing an image of Wales in all its complexity.

Given that any attempt to account for such a multifaceted and contradictory set of encounters as a coherent whole, particularly in relation to a notion of “Welshness”, is bound to be conflicted, the motivation behind the decision to employ a (positively) disruptive form of tactical absurdity becomes clear. In essence, the project was premised on an assumption that the “meaning” of any form of representation of an irreducibly complex experience necessarily retains an unresolved, partial, and indeterminate quality; tactical absurdity, therefore, served as a highly appropriate mode of operation, given its own extraneous relationship with determinate meaning (see section 4.1 below for a discussion of the audience response to the work’s representation of Cwm).

3.2 Specific instances of implementation

The precise nature of the tactical absurdity employed in the Searching for the Welsh Landscape project will be examined in three specific instances. The unfolding of the individual works is understood as structured through a series of pivotal decision-making moments; as has been outlined above, these decisions were made in the context of an ongoing process of engaging with the question of whether there is such a thing as a “Welsh landscape”. Each of the three instances discussed constitutes a pivotal moment where a tactically absurd operation was understood to have been implemented. The first was to frame the activity of walking through the landscape as a “search for the perfect Welsh hill”; the second, occurring later during the process of video editing, was the decision to combine a series of composed landscape shots with a spoken soundtrack expressing ideas contradictory to the notion of appreciative reflection; the third instance, which occurred spontaneously during a walk, was the decision to formalise into a conceptual premise the activity of “climbing a hill whilst not looking at it”.

3.2.1 Pursuing an irrational premise

The particular character of the absurdity employed in the first decision-making moment – aligned above with the category of “faulty or illogical logic” – recalls Emma Cocker’s reading of the Sisyphean act of absurdly adhering to an arbitrary rule. Framing the act of walking through the Welsh landscape as a search for the perfect, archetypal Welsh hill, the directive in this case emerged out of a momentary speculation that such a hill might indeed exist; as has already been established, the work’s premise, considered on the basis of this view, remains logical and consistent, and initiates a plausible and rationally defensible investigative search. However, as is also noted above, what immediately undermines the validity of the premise is the concomitant awareness that the search is futile: at no stage beyond the initial moment of inception of the idea is there ever any realistic expectation that a “perfect Welsh hill” will be found. Based on a logically untenable premise, the “rule” that structures the activity is nonetheless adhered to; exhaustively, irresolvably – and absurdly – the search continues.

Cocker’s focus, in her essay Over and Over, Again and Again, is on examples of artistic practice that ‘play out according to a model of purposeless reiteration, through a form of non-teleological performativity, or in relentless obligation to a rule or order that seems absurd, arbitrary, or somehow undeclared’ (2010, p.286). The essay attempts to reimagine the Sisyphean metaphor according to a notion of absurdity characterised by ‘a sense of ambivalence or indifference,’ which makes it ‘possible to imagine the Sisyphean task inhabited, if only momentarily, as a site of humour, ridiculousness, or … even joy or happiness’ (ibid., p.272). Far from an activity of an alienated subject locked into an existentially hopeless and doomed pursuit of an ill-conceived goal, the Sisyphean search for the perfect Welsh hill can thus be understood as operating positively, deliberately irrational in its conception, yet ultimately still plausible and productive in its adherence to its own arbitrarily defined rule. The tactical absurdity introduced into the development of The Mountains of Wales are the Mountains of Wales lends the work a character of what Cocker refers to as a ‘critical inconsistency:’ the compulsion to act out a rationally indefensible premise as if it were rational embodies a ‘shifting of position between investment and indifference, seriousness and non-seriousness, gravity and levity’ (ibid.). Whilst the work retains traces of a critical attitude towards the notion that national identity can subsist within a landscape, the coherence of that critique is continually undermined by the arbitrariness and absurdity of the work’s own conceptual premise. Through the implementation of tactical absurdity, in other words, teleological critique becomes replaced by a performance of indeterminacy.

3.2.2 Destabilising the context

A second pivotal decision-making moment that brought a quality of absurdity into play – aligned above with the categories of “immediately discernible (comic) incongruity”, “inverting and subverting norms of social representation”, “violating generic expectations”, and “undermining the serious, the respected, and the authoritative” – occurred during the development of what would eventually become the video An Artist in Search of an Epiphany. The decision arose initially out of a formal concern that the video footage shot in Snowdonia would require an additional element to manufacture a sought-after tension, the intention being, as was noted above, to undermine the clichéd conventionality of the imagery (of an artist engaged in sublime reflection) with an unorthodox, ambiguous, and, at times, contradictory voiceover soundtrack. As a clash between different registers of meaning, the operation can be seen, therefore, to resemble the mechanism of a joke. Paolo Virno’s analysis of the transformative power of wordplay in his essay Jokes and Innovative Action: For a Logic of Change thus allows for a productive account of the operational absurdity at work in the video. Since jokes, for Virno, simultaneously draw upon and subvert certain linguistic customs, serving to highlight the function of those customs as implicit presuppositions that underpin the sense-making systems of a given community, the applicability of this analysis to clichéd forms of representation is clear. Those overly conventional utterances, behaviours and visualisations that form the raw material for the Searching for the Welsh Landscape project represent precisely the kind of orthodoxy that, in Virno’s view, supports, delimits, and even makes possible, a given discourse – in this case around the assumed relationship between landscape and national identity. Embedded in a whole host of cultural forms, this conventional discourse – what Virno refers to as a ‘grammar of a form of life’ – is understood to have become sufficiently naturalised as to require the disruptive mechanism of humour to un-embed it, and to render it un-reasonable (2008, p.155).

Jokes, by their nature, diverge from consensual ways of thinking and speaking – which is why the words that they use ‘seem always insufficient;’ a resolved sense is perceived to be lacking due to that orthodox grammar upon which they rest having been transformed (ibid., p.97). A new and unforeseen ‘oblique’ path is thus opened up (ibid.) – which, in the case of An Artist in Search of an Epiphany, serves to divest the familiarly sublime imagery of its customary signification and legibility, leaving in its wake an indeterminate and irresolvable juxtaposition of conflicting imagery and sound. To the extent that the addition of an unorthodox or “improper” voiceover to the video functions as a joke-like incongruity, such a mechanism has the effect of unfixing the consensually stabilised meaning of a representation of an artist within a sublime landscape, and rendering it malleable. Jokes, moreover, in Virno’s view, exploit discrepancies ‘between the semiotic system and the universe of discourse’ by employing ambiguous language that operates on both levels simultaneously: the semiotic (sign) is effectively decoupled from the semantic (discourse) (ibid., p.106). Whereas signs – words and sentences, in the case of verbal jokes – convey meaning according general grammatical rules, discourse requires particular (and conventional) contexts of usage to produce sense. The tactically absurd move in the video to introduce a disjunction between image and sound can be seen as analogous in its operation: the clichéd forms of visual representation it employs could be said to operate as a vocabulary that acquires meaning in accordance with a set of general, established rules (a recognisable and legible “grammar” of landscape), yet insofar as that imagery is deployed within a specific context (in juxtaposition with an unorthodox soundtrack, situated within a wider critical project), no stable discursive meanings are allowed to emerge, since no reliable conventions for usage are provided by the context. No discursive norms, that is, have (yet) been established for “making sense” of clichéd landscape imagery juxtaposed against a dissenting soundtrack. Like a verbal joke, the video plays on its ambiguity, employing imagery whose meaning is simultaneously determinate as sign (according to a grammar of landscape representation) and indeterminate as discourse (due to the unorthodox context of its deployment). For Virno, the joke ‘boldly emphasises, with impudence,’ that ‘unbridgeable distance’ between sign and discourse – and it is precisely because this distance must be continuously overlooked for ordinary, unambiguous communication to take place, that jokes are able, in Virno’s view, to reveal the contingency and transformability of a given form of life (ibid.). The decision to introduce a tactically absurd clash of conflicting imagery and soundtrack in the video, can therefore, by analogy, be viewed as an attempt to draw attention to, undermine, and destabilise the orthodox interpretative contexts for (clichéd) representations of the landscape.

3.2.3 Circumnavigating sense

Finally, the tactically absurd decision to formalise into a conceptual premise the activity of “not looking at the hill whilst climbing it” forms a third pivotal moment, aligned above with the categories of “complete absence of logic or sense”, “breaching of norms of social behaviour”, and “immediately discernible (comic) incongruity”. In the sense that the project as a whole poses a critical question about the relationship between landscape and national identity, this particular activity would appear to serve no useful function at all: it certainly does not provide an articulate answer. Nor can it particularly be said to initiate any discursive engagement with the subject-matter, and nor does it generate any discernible “knowledge” about it. The activity fails, both in terms of its own literal premise (whether intentional or not, it is clear from the video that the attempt not to look at the hill is unsuccessful), and in terms of the critical goal of the project as a whole; it fails, too, according to the expectations of hill-walking as a pastime, which is premised, at least in part, upon an appreciation of the surrounding landscape. It is, however, possible to reconceptualise this failure by holding it up as valuable in itself, which Cocker does in her Sisyphus essay via a notion of ‘non-teleological performativity’ (2010, p.265). Failure, she argues, is

a vague and unstable category that is used to determine all that is errant, deficient, or beyond the logic and limitations of a particular ideology or system. At one level, failure or error inversely reflect the drives and desires of the wider systems in which they (mal)function; their inadequacies give shape to habitually unspoken and yet tacitly enforced values, expectations and criteria for success by indicating the point at which an accepted line or limit has been breached (2010, p.283).

Hill Walking, then, could be seen as performing this inversion: it is no longer the activity that fails to adequately realise its ostensible goals, but the assumptions on which the goals are based that are rendered inadequate. Many of the assumptions that underpin the notion of critical artistic activity, for example, are brought to light – most pertinently, the requirement that it demands and fosters a discursive engagement with its subject matter. The decision – within what was conceived of from the outset as a “critical project” – to perform an action that inevitably fails to deliver on its discursive promise renders that promise problematic. It is precisely the implementation of tactical absurdity within the work that renders its own relationship with the critical discourse around landscape and nationhood with which it purports to engage uncertain and unresolved. The work, that is, intentionally fails to engage with its subject-matter on any straightforwardly meaningful or articulable level – steering clear of that basic form of discursive engagement generally demanded of critical artistic practice, the approach, in effect, operates extra-discursively. Yet this may not necessarily constitute a withdrawal from the issues at hand; for if, following Cocker’s analysis, stepping out of a discourse only constitutes a “failure” according to the very terms of the discourse it steps out of, then the act of walking up a hill without looking at it may – like the deliberate and repeated carrying out of a Sisyphean act of failure – simply be a means of shifting the terms of the debate.

4 Reflections

4.1 Holes in the safety-net of absurdity

Within days of the Searching for the Welsh Landscape exhibition opening at Aberystwyth Arts Centre a number of complaints had been received by the gallery from visitors relating specifically to a text that formed part of The Mountains of Wales are the Mountains of Wales. The text in question accompanied a drawing of an unnamed hill protruding out of the western ridge of the Ebbw valley, and read as follows:

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.

One visitor, evidently finding the portrayal offensive, claimed in the gallery’s comments book to be ‘truly upset’ about my characterisation of Cwm ‘and its people;’ another, ‘brought up on a council estate,’ apparently ‘took great objection;’ whilst a third, more dispassionate, stated simply: ‘[i]nspirational drawings. The comments for Cwm do not take into consideration the economic hardship suffered in the valleys.’ Given the teasingly provocative nature of some of the juxtapositions of drawings and texts in the work, it did not surprise me that it would be met with some resistance. The way in which the work was constructed meant that it did not lend itself to straightforward decipherment; misunderstandings were almost inevitable, particularly amongst an audience less familiar the aesthetic sleights of hand characteristic of a critical conceptual art practice. Criticisms of this nature, then, could and perhaps should have been written off as precisely that – naïve misunderstandings, failures to grasp the overall structure of the work, instances of an inability (perhaps even a refusal) to take into account the context in which individual elements were presented. My intention to, for example, point out the discrepancy between conventional artistic representations of Wales, and other, no more or less “accurate” or “objective”, portrayals had clearly been missed. Nevertheless, I did not feel able to dismiss the comments so lightly: they remained in my thoughts long afterwards, and seemed to raise some fundamental questions about the appropriateness and functionality of the tactically absurd approach employed by the work.

My initial response was to try to construct a theoretical argument about why the comments were misplaced in the context of a tactically absurd project. They appeared to be based, I reasoned, on an assumption that the work expressed a determinately critical point of view – which, in the case of the offending text, had been interpreted as an expression of the artist’s damning judgement on the inhabitants of the village of Cwm. The stance of the drawing hung alongside it, likewise, had been presumed to be legible – positively interpreted in this case, the sentiments behind it striking the viewer as ‘inspirational.’ Such readings, admittedly, pertain only to the work’s reception, and therefore remain in the realm of audience interpretation; artworks are, by their nature, open to different readings, and there seemed little to be gained in trying to close down this interpretative play or refute its conclusions, however mistaken they appeared to be. Rather, the issue seemed to go beyond particular (mis)readings, and speak instead of a larger failure to grasp the functionality of the work at a structural level. My prior conception of the operation of tactical absurdity within the work was based on an assumption that the work could not be read as articulating any determinate position. According to this understanding, The Mountains of Wales are the Mountains of Wales sought to be legible neither positively nor negatively: it was not formulated as an expression of any kind of meaningful opinion about any part of Wales. There was, simply, no discursive meaning to be read off the work. Moreover, in attempting to infuse all of the works in the exhibition with nonsensical logic, contradiction, circular argumentation, incongruous juxtapositions, and inconclusiveness, the project had attempted to address the question of the relationship between landscape and national identity absurdly – which meant, as a consequence, that it situated itself categorically outside the realm of coherently meaningful expression. My argument, in other words, rested on an assumption that no individual element of the work, taken at face value, could be read as anything else but “meaningless”.

This defence, however, rings somehow hollow. It appears to overlook the very resonant real-world content of the criticisms. Partly, no doubt, the reason I was so troubled by the comments had to do with my own personal relationship with the South Wales Valleys: I did, after all, grow up in a post-industrial valley community very similar to Ebbw Vale. There is something personally insulting about any such accusation of insensitivity or condescension towards what are, in effect, my “own people” (albeit a people that I long ago left behind in my own flight to university and the marked class transition that followed). If the comments represent a criticism of the perceived tendency amongst contemporary artists to manufacture voyeuristic representations of disenfranchised working-class lives for presentation within a predominantly middle-class artworld, then they are, potentially at least, entirely legitimate. Given, then, the quite explicit engagement with the socially and economically problematic aspects of some of the regions visited during the project, perhaps my theorisation of the “meaninglessness” of a tactically absurd approach is inadequate. Perhaps there are certain aspects of the project that are simply unable to be contained with the operation of absurdity as I had hitherto understood it. Similarly, the whole “going home” narrative – which became increasingly prominent as the project progressed – lent aspects of the project a character that seems only tangentially to have much connection with absurdity at all. There are resonances in the project that quite clearly communicate a straightforward engagement with the notion of an artist trying to make sense of his relation to his “home”, very little about which can be convincingly said to operate “outside the realm of coherently meaningful expression”. Arms Reaching, Smiling Sweetly, for example, although it employs elements of incongruous humour in its play with scale, together with a Sisyphean absurdity in its use of arbitrary repetition, can hardly be said to be fully accounted for through those attributes alone. The initially subconscious longing to find a hill that matches the one of my own childhood memory is articulated at times entirely unambiguously and frequently without irony or contradiction. The genuine psychological resonance of the “going home” narrative – as with the seriousness and weight of the engagement with social and economic deprivation in Wales – appears to resist full assimilation within the safety-net of absurdity.

Might it be concluded, then, that absurdity is only appropriate to subject-matters that are not truly “serious”; that it must inevitably fall short when the given topic of enquiry really matters? Or is it, rather, that the relationship between absurdity and meaning is more complex and lot less binary than had been assumed in my own account? Considered as a body of work, Searching for the Welsh Landscape in no way suffers from its apparent lack of “absurdity”; although there are no doubt aspects of the work that are weaker than others, the overall success or failure of the project does not, ultimately, depend on the extent to which it matches up to some theoretically defined understanding of absurdity. The works, rather, define their own terms of operation, and, given their origins in those series of pivotal moments described above where tactically absurdity was introduced, it is reasonable to assume that some sort of absurd functionality must be taking place, even if the degree or intensity with which it operates varies from work to work. Perhaps, then, a new understanding of what constitutes a tactically absurd engagement with a subject-matter – however serious – is required, which will be one of the tasks of the remaining case studies to articulate.

4.2 Positive disruption and the deleteriousness of certainty

As suggested in section 3.1 above, two distinct forms of absurd disruption – critical and positive – are identifiable within the Searching for the Welsh Landscape project, both of which correspond to a definition of absurdity as “that which is out of harmony with a given context”. One of the central aims of the project – to address the failure of culturally clichéd forms of representation to account for the reality and complexity of actual encounters with particular landscapes – was frequently implemented through a strategy of disruption. Considered as a critical undertaking, the disruptive approach was aimed at undermining the intelligibility of preexisting forms of representation, exposing clichés, destabilising the authority of artistic and cultural forms of communication, and problematising the presumed relationship between landscape and national identity. These procedures might be termed “deconstructive” in the sense that they take something that is initially perceived as coherent and stable, before progressively disputing, disarming, and dismantling its underlying assumptions, construction, and functionality. The overlaying of an often flippant interior monologue on shots of sublime landscape in An Artist in Search of an Epiphany, for example, casts into doubt the legitimacy of the sublime representation of the experience of landscape; likewise, the juxtaposition of deliberately uninformative museum texts with the drawings in The Mountains of Wales are the Mountains of Wales questions the authority of both. In both cases, the critical disruption results from a deployment of an element that is appreciably out of harmony with its context, thus accounting for its absurdity.

Positively understood, disruption can be seen as more than a mere act of deconstruction, becoming instead a productive tool capable of opening up spaces for the creation of potential new meanings. It is here that absurdity’s association with indeterminacy and not-knowing becomes key, and where the playful, open-ended ambiguities that feature throughout the Searching for the Welsh Landscape project become positive attributes. By dismantling the edifices of conventional and clichéd forms of landscape representation, the tactically absurd disruption enacted in the works effectively wipes the slate clean, giving rise to a profound uncertainty that, following Donald Barthelme, represents the very condition for creation (‘without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention’ (1997, p.12)). If, for example, in the face of the absurd juxtaposition of sublimity and flippancy in An Artist in Search of Epiphany, the viewer is unable to locate any straightforwardly comprehensible meaning, they are consequently in a much better position to attempt to create their own. Which is not to imply that the works adopt any sort of negligent or fatalistic “eye of the beholder” attitude towards their own capacity to generate meaning; their aim, on the contrary, is to be contextually precise in their operation, and fully in control of the choreography of the absurd clashes of meaning they perform. The critical point is to allow to the works to operate extra-discursively, to let them play out in the realm of the not-yet-known, and steer clear of the expectation that articulable meaning will eventually and necessarily coalesce. Meaning must be approached as a potential condition, rather than a sought-after goal – an understanding which, for Emma Cocker, goes ‘against the tide of certain teleological thought, which imagines progress as a one-way passage, the move from what is known towards the goal of knowing more and more’ (2013, p.127).

Such tactically absurd forms of disruption are positive precisely because they avoid what Martin Herbert describes as the ‘deleterious’ effects of certainty (2014, p.176). Part of the impetus behind the texts accompanying the drawings in The Mountains of Wales are the Mountains of Wales was, as was noted above, to account for a broader spectrum of experience associated with encounters with landscapes. Conventional representations of those encounters speak (and are received) with a certainty that overlooks ambiguities, failures, contradictions, moments of boredom, and chance meetings with slugs. This selectivity of experience is, in Paolo Virno’s terms, precisely due to the delimiting grammar of conventional discourse; when a drawing of a hill is absurdly disrupted by a text relating an anecdote about an encounter with a slug, that grammar is, as in a joke, exceeded, and a new and as yet unaccountable form of discourse is the result – which is precisely the positively productive effect of absurd disruption. Although the disruptive processes employed by the works in the Searching for the Welsh Landscape project might (at times) give the impression that they are articulating meanings that are straightforwardly legible, the “sense” of what they appear to be saying remains, in Virno’s words, “insufficient” – since, in his formulation, it is built upon a plain of sense that has not yet been determined through habitual usage. The tactically absurd disruption performed by the works thus renders them resistant to determinate and legible meaning; the works operate in a realm outside of those conventional (and delimiting) discourses of landscape and national identity to which they initially appear to belong. As Claire Pickard put it in her review of Searching for the Welsh Landscape, picking up on the project’s efforts to overcome the deleteriousness of certainty: ‘what Ball's journey reveals most strongly is his objections to all attempts to claim the landscape and impose meaning upon it’ (2016, para. 3).


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Text originally written as part of PhD research, 2018