Case Study: Searching for the Welsh Landscape

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 from November 2016 to January 2017 exploring the problematic notion that national identity subsists in the landscape of a particular region.

The idea for the project was originally conceived during a three-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 Wales). The aim was to use my own first hand encounters with the landscape as a means to trigger an investigation into a set of notions including belonging, place, and national identity. A production grant from the Arts Council of Wales supported the realisation of the works.

Notes on process

During the residency I 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 became the first strategic move in the project: what had emerged as a quite undeliberate, intuitive activity was formalised and rationalised as a search for a “perfect, archetypal Welsh hill”.

This search, as later became clear, was informed and shaped by two major influences. Firstly, cultural depictions of the Welsh landscape: for example, as it has appeared in paintings over the last 300 years, particularly in the romantic period, and in subsequent representations falling under its sphere of influence. A certain image of “Welshness” has been pinned down and attributed to particular land formations, features and usages, a process which, once established, becomes naturalised and uncritically accepted. Manifestations of this can be seen today in depictions of Welsh landscape in cinema, in amateur photography, and in the work of celebrated Welsh landscape painters such as Kyffin Williams.

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 evidently could not be dismissed purely as a constructed fiction. But those moments were nevertheless fleeting and intermittent, with much of my time being spent underwhelmed, disappointed, distracted or bored.

The secondly main influence was autobiographical. Autobiographical elements are rarely the focus in my work, and when they do appear, their role is to support or delineate other subject matters or enable other generative processes. Specific autobiographical narratives are incorporated factually, but are 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 throughout as a vehicle that could be used to pursue more general questions of the relation between landscape and nationality. “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.

What perhaps only emerged as a theme later in the project was 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. The plan for the project had been to visit five distinct hilly regions in Wales; to help draw out that autobiographical narrative, I therefore opted to leave until last the visit to my home area.

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, were also valuable. The overall aim was to account for a range of different kinds of experiences, aside from those more conventionally associated with encounters with sublime scenery, or with one’s “homeland”. A considerable amount of research was undertaken into the geology, history, and culture of Wales, but the intention of the working process put into play was to steer clear of discursive approaches to the subject matter at hand. Although framed by critical questions about the nature of the relationship between landscape and national identity, the process sought to operate at a level outside of coherent discourse, which, most importantly in the context of this research, meant incorporating tactical absurdity.

Description of works

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

1.   A series of 60 drawings and texts, The Mountains of Wales are the Mountains of Wales is 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 absurd: it was intended to be objectively unanswerable and comically overreaching in its formulation. Despite this, the premise itself was specific, intelligible, and apparently coherent in what it sought to achieve; it also mimicked the character of a critical intellectual enquiry. 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 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 taken during the walks. 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 intention was for the authority granted by the museum presentation and the naturalistic style of the drawings to be destabilised by the capriciousness of the texts.

2.   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, closing my eyes.

3.   The video An Artist in Search of an Epiphany stages the tension between what might be termed “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 in front of the scenery reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich’s much reproduced 1818 painting Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. Accompanying the imagery is a voiceover soundtrack relaying my stream of consciousness. These interior thoughts, although scripted, recorded and edited for the video, were essentially based on genuine trains of thought that had occurred during the walks, and shaped by what was in front of me. At times appreciative and engaged (following the “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 array of other, more everyday and banal experiences; the bulk of the thoughts do not behave according to conventionally authorised narratives of landscape appreciation. The stream of consciousness presented is therefore both authentic (as an accurate representation of actual experience) and improper (in its failure to adhere to a certain romantic or nationalistic landscape tradition).

4.   The final work Arms Reaching, Smiling Sweetly consists 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. The intention was 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 title is taken from the lyrics of the Curly Putnam song Green, Green Grass of Home, and reflects this 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.

General intentions

The project as a whole then could be described as an attempt to address the failure of culturally clichéd forms of representation to account for the reality and complexity of actual encounters with particular landscapes. The works are in this sense self-reflexive in that they employ familiar languages of artistic communication (naturalistic drawings, museum texts, lens-based imagery, narrative videos), only to then incorporate additional elements or perform strategic acts that disrupt their own imparting of meaning. By refusing to deliver their promised content, the artworks problematise their own capacity for (straightforwardly) meaningful communication. Consequently, there is a move away from over-simplified manifestations of romantic or nationalistic relationships with the landscape; what is presented is instead rendered ambiguous, erratic, contradictory, banal, or nonsensical.

For example, the imagery in the video An Artist in Search of an Epiphany echoes a tendency in contemporary television travel and nature documentaries to rely on what has been termed “landscape porn”; in this case, however, the sense of gratuitous pleasure afforded by the imagery is undermined by the dissenting soundtrack. Or again, 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 equally disruptive. Their presumed authority is destabilised by 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 is continuously relativised by the lack of certainty and the high degree of subjectivity in its delivery.

Part of the strategy of avoiding the conveyance of predetermined meaning was manifested in the choice of landscapes visited. Although certain recognised touristic areas were included in the survey, the approach in those cases was typically more critical than celebratory. Whilst areas such as Snowdonia are undeniably impressive, there is also a sense that, due to the their carefully controlled and managed status as designated tourist destinations, the experience of visiting them has become sanitised and risk-free – and, crucially, already overloaded with meaning. Less popular landscapes such as that of the post-industrial valleys in South Wales often proved more rewarding. A stand-out walk was that undertaken between Tredegar and Merthyr Tydfil. The towns themselves are typical of a region characterised by high levels of unemployment and poverty, poor education and health, and lack of population diversity. However the surrounding landscape, consisting of a sequence of north-south running glacial valleys – 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 between the Rhymney and the Taff valleys up over the high moorland of the Merthyr Common brought with it contradictory impressions of urban deprivation, industrial blight, and hostility to outsiders, followed by a surprisingly serene and seemingly untouched natural environment imbued with a sense of wilderness. Any attempt to account for this experience as a coherent whole, particularly regarding its relationship with “Welshness”, is bound to be conflicted. The “meaning” of any representation of it therefore retains an unresolved, partial, and indeterminate quality.

Tactical employment of absurdity

To conclude, the precise nature of the absurdity utilised 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 response to 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 precise moment where tactical absurdity is understood to have been employed. The first was to frame the activity of walking through the landscape as a “search for the perfect Welsh hill”; the second, made later during the process of video editing, was to undermine a series of composed landscape shots by combining them with a spoken soundtrack expressing ideas contradictory to the notion of sublime reflection; the third, made spontaneously during a walk, was to formalise the activity of “climbing a hill whilst not looking at it”:

1.   The particular character of the absurdity employed in the first decision-making moment recalls Emma Cocker’s reading of the Sisyphean act of absurdly adhering to an arbitrary rule. In this case the rule was introduced on the basis of an initial, weakly-felt conviction that an archetypal hill might indeed exist; considered as such, the premise of the work is logical and coherent, and frames the looser activity of walking through the landscape as an investigative search. However, what immediately undermines the premise is the concomitant awareness that the search is futile: at no stage is there ever a realistic expectation that a “perfect Welsh hill” will be found. Yet, absurdly, the search continues, exhaustively – and, in terms of its irresolution, exhaustingly.

Cocker, in her essay Over and Over, Again and Again, uses Sisyphus as a metaphor to explore ‘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). For her, this represents a critical move away from an alignment of absurdity with alienation and isolation towards ‘a sense of ambivalence or indifference;’ it is, she continues, ‘possible to imagine the Sisyphean task inhabited, if only momentarily, as a site of humour, ridiculousness, or … even joy or happiness’ (p.272). The absurd moment of decision-making in the development of The Mountains of Wales are the Mountains of Wales introduces what Cocker calls 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’ (p.272).

2.   The second decision-making moment occurred as a result of a formal concern that the video footage shot in Snowdonia required an additional element to generate the desired tension. The decision to undermine the images of the artist engaged in sublime reflection with a contradictory voiceover soundtrack at a certain level resembles the mechanism of a joke. Paolo Virno, in his essay Jokes and Innovative Action: For a Logic of Change, offers an account of the transformative power of the joke, utilising Aristotle’s concept of endoxa as the opinions and beliefs shared by a community. Endoxa ‘are not facts; they are linguistic customs. More precisely, they are linguistic customs so embedded as to constitute the implicit presupposition of every type of reasoning’ (2008, p.94). Clichéd statements – and, by extension, clichéd behaviours and visual representations – dealing with the relationship between national identity and landscape would seem to fit this definition. Embedded in a whole host of cultural forms, they have become sufficiently naturalised as to require the disruptive mechanism of humour to un-embed them, and to render them un-reasonable. According to Virno, the ‘point of honour’ of the joke ‘lies in illustrating the questionable nature of the opinions lying beneath discourses and actions. In order to hit its target, the joke pushes one single belief to the limit, to the point of extracting absurd and ridiculous consequences from it’ (p.94).

Jokes diverge from consensual ways of thinking and speaking – which is why, for Virno, the words that they use ‘seem always insufficient’ (p.97); a resolved sense is perceived to be lacking due to what Virno terms the ‘grammar of a form of life’ having been transformed (p.94). A new and unforeseen ‘oblique’ path is opened up (p.97) – which, in the case of An Artist in Search of an Epiphany, serves to divest the “archetypal” sublime image of its customary signification and legibility. To the extent that the addition of a “misbehaving” interior monologue to the video functions as a joke-like incongruity, such a mechanism has the effect of unfixing the consensually determined meaning of a representation of the artist within a sublime landscape, and rendering it malleable. Or as Virno puts it: ‘the joke, in its role as a diagram of innovative action … posits explicitly the theme of the contingence of all situations’ (p.97).

Moreover, the decision to introduce an absurd disjunction between image and sound into the video has the effect of pulling apart the semiotic (sign) from the semantic (discourse). Whilst signs – sentences, in the case of the verbal joke – convey meaning according general grammatical rules, discourse requires particular applications to produce sense. Discourse, in other words, rests upon endoxa: its sense is based on habitual understandings of texts, behaviours and images. In Virno’s analysis, jokes exploit discrepancies ‘between the semiotic system and the universe of discourse’ by employing ambiguous language that operates on both levels simultaneously (p.106). Similarly, the video could be said to “mean” according to a general rule (through its employment of clichéd or archetypal imagery), but as a particular case (in which a specific and contradictory soundtrack has been imposed) make “sense” on a different plane altogether.

3.   The decision to formalise the activity of “not looking at the hill whilst climbing it” has the effect of rendering the activity nonsensical. In the sense that the project as a whole poses a critical question about the relationship between the landscape and national identity, this particular activity would appear to serve no useful function at all: it certainly does not provide an articulate answer. Neither can it particularly be said to initiate any discursive engagement with the subject-matter, nor generate any discernable “knowledge” about it. The activity fails, both in terms of its literal goal (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 is, however, possible to recuperate this failure by holding it up as a value in itself, which Cocker does via her notion of ‘non-teleological performativity’. 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 stated goals, but the assumptions on which the goals are based that are rendered inadequate. The decision to perform an action that inevitably fails to deliver on its discursive (and indeed literal) promise renders that promise problematic. It is precisely this moment of introducing tactical absurdity that exposes the critical discourse around landscape and nationhood as uncertain and unresolved, even contingent. The counter-intuitively productive effects described by Cocker of deliberately and repeatedly carrying out a Sisyphean act of failure, are precisely those effected by the deliberate introduction of absurdity. Failure – like tactical absurdity – only “fails” according to those ‘habitually unspoken and yet tacitly enforced values.’

So where do these three instances of the employment of tactical absurdity leave the foundational critical question of the project? Having introduced them into the process of its development, and having subsequently allowed individual works to unfold according to its logic, is it now possible to answer the question of whether there is a connection between the landscape and a sense of national identity? Speaking personally, the only conclusion I can confidently say I have reached on this matter is that I don’t know. There is a connection, and there isn’t a connection: it both makes sense and doesn’t make sense to make this connection.

The employment of tactical absurdity in Searching for the Welsh Landscape enabled a coherent body of work of a particular character to be realised. The value of that work, however, did not lie in its ability to articulate any critical position on the subject matter at hand. Though the work might (at times) give the impression that it articulates a meaning that is legible, the “sense” of what it appears to be saying remains, as Virno has it, “insufficient” – for it is built upon a plain of sense that has not yet been determined through habitual usage. Tactical absurdity must, therefore, remain resistant to instrumentalisation as a critical tool; any attempt to “read” determinate argumentation into the work that it engenders is to retreat back into the world of discursivity that the very introduction of absurdity attempts to escape. As Claire Pickard put it in her review of Searching for the Welsh Landscape: ‘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). Absurdity is, and must remain, meaningless.

Works cited:

Cocker, Emma (2010) ‘Over and Over, Again and Again,’ in J Hirsh & IL Wallace (eds.) ‘Contemporary Art And Classical Myth,’ Surrey, Ashgate Publishing.

Pickard, Claire (2016) ‘Dave Ball: Searching for the Welsh Landscape,’ New Welsh Review, issue 113, Winter.

Virno, Paolo (2008) ‘Jokes and Innovative Action: For a Logic of Change,’ in ‘Multitude: Between Innovation and Negation,’ Los Angeles, Semiotext(e).

Text originally written as part of PhD research, 2017