New Welsh Review
Performance and Protest
Heike Roms re-visits the international performance art programme at the National Eisteddfod in 1977
From Left to Right: Heike Roms, John Chris Jones, Timothy Emlyn Jones, Andrew Knight.
In 1977 the Welsh Arts Council organised a
weeklong exhibition of international performance
art at the National Eisteddfod in Wrexham. The
event, entitled How the Past Perishes – How
the Future Becomes, was curated by Caroline
Tisdall, who was then art critic at The Guardian,
and Timothy Emlyn Jones, and organised for the
Arts Council by Andrew Knight. Exhibitors included a number of eminent international artists: Joseph Beuys, Mario and Merisa Merz, Jannis Kounellis, Patrick Ireland (i.e. Brian O’Doherty), Rose Finn-Kelcey, Tina Keane, Nigel Rolfe, John Chris Jones and Timothy Emlyn Jones. The week was structured in the form of ‘a journey through time and through the Celtic world, giving a new look to the Celtic inheritance… not by drawing and sculpture but by performing with the aim of stimulating discussion and discourse with the audience. We expect this to be one of the most exciting events in the cultural field in Wales during the last few years’ (National Eisteddfod Wrexham 1977, Official Programme).
The event left an important legacy for the history of performance art in Wales, but not in the way the organisers predicted. Its attempt to connect a radical art practice with local cultural concerns was not entirely successful. The popular press reacted in a predictable way, condemning the venture for its ‘shocking waste of public money’, and a small number of Welsh MPs used the negative press coverage to question the independence of the Arts Council in a future, potentially Assembly-led, Wales, less than two years before the first referendum of 1979. The occasion also became known for the (unofficial) interventions staged by locally-based Welsh artist Paul Davies (above), whose actions Welsh Not and Spiral Gag, created at the Eisteddfod, are widely regarded as ‘the inception of a self-conscious contemporary Welsh political art’ (S. Hourahane).
To mark the thirtieth anniversary of the event, Timothy Emlyn Jones, John Chris Jones and Andrew Knight met in Cardiff to discuss the legacy of the Wrexham Performance Art Pavilion with Heike Roms. [The piece that follows is an edited extract from the transcript of their conversation.]
Heike Roms: What surprised me when I was looking at the archives was that this wasn’t a Welsh Arts Council initiative to begin with. It was actually the Arts & Crafts Committee of the Eisteddfod who approached you, Andrew Knight, and asked you to organise an event of ‘Happenings’ at the Eisteddfod. Andrew, could you give us an insight into how this event came about?
Andrew Knight: I’d been at the Arts Council for just twelve months and I was a wonderfully naïve 25-year-old. Up until that point there was always an Arts & Crafts Pavilion, the content of which was determined by the local committee. And I’d only ever been to one Eisteddfod before that, in Aberteifi, Cardigan, which had been a mixed bag of good painting, bad painting, model making and flower arranging. Every year the Arts Council would go in and try and do something that would just be a little bit different, that would try and raise aspirations and standards, on a site which alternated between north and south Wales every year, at one of the biggest festivals in the UK. It took an enormous effort for this to happen, but the content was always determined by the local committee. I think it was somebody who was teaching at Wrexham College of Art who said, ‘We’d like to do performance art,’ and I probably didn’t realise why I was responding so enthusiastically at the time. But when I considered the opportunity a little further, it was clear to me that whoever was going to curate that programme needed to be very sympathetic to the situation in Wales but situated externally, someone who saw Welsh performance work in an international or European context rather than simply within a Welsh context. Caroline Tisdall, who was then art critic at The Guardian, and with whom I had done some work in London, seemed to me to be a very interesting person to engage in that dialogue. So it was very much in response to an idea that had come out of Wrexham.
Heike Roms: What do you think interested the Wrexham committee about performance? Did they ever articulate what they saw in performance that interested them in presenting it at the Eisteddfod?
Andrew Knight: Wrexham was one of those places that perhaps saw itself as a little bit on the edge of Wales; was Wrexham Wales or was it in Cheshire; was it responding to audiences from Liverpool and Manchester or was it dealing with Welsh audiences? And also of course you have a strong industrial history around Wrexham, both with the iron works and the coal-mining industry that was alive around Wrexham at the time, so it was a slightly different kind of
place, and that may well have helped inform some of the committee’s thinking.
Heike Roms: Also, with Caroline Tisdall came a different association, because she was a collaborator of Joseph Beuys: a documenter of his work, she’s published several books about Beuys and was also very engaged in the Free International University which is, I think, the connection with you two, Timothy and John Chris. How did that come about? How did the Free International University become involved? Because, in some documentation that I saw, the Eisteddfod performance art programme in 1977 was actually presented as an event hosted by the Free International University.
Andrew Knight: It came about partly because I’d worked with Beuys and a number of other German artists as an assistant on a show at the ICA, and in a sense the structure of that show partly informed the way in which we thought about the Eisteddfod. Caroline had had quite a strong influence on that show, for which she’d brought some of those German artists together. Beuys had spent several weeks working in London at the ICA, and I think it was just the whole flavour and atmosphere and that engagement with audiences in a slightly different way – the fact that you might express political issues either through quite obviously didactic graphic works, or you might do it through performance works, and the two could sit side by side and engage in that dialogue – I think that was probably quite a critical element.
Heike Roms: Timothy, how did you become
involved, do you remember? Because you acted almost
as a co-curator on the event.
Timothy Emlyn Jones: Caroline approached me and
asked if I’d like to be involved. I’d known her for about
ten years, and we’d both got involved with Beuys in
1973 at the Edinburgh Festival and had stayed in touch; I
came into contact with Beuys at the Free International
University on several occasions subsequently. Caroline
said she’d like me to be involved; she wanted an artist,
preferably a Welsh artist, involved. The Wrexham performance art programme was very much driven by the central concern and concept of the Free International University, by the idea of universal creativity.
Heike Roms: Can you say a little bit more about this concept for
those who may not be familiar with the initiative?
Timothy Emlyn Jones: Beuys was famous for the expression ‘everyone is an artist’. And he was very explicit, he said that he did not mean that everyone is a painter or a sculptor or anything of the kind, but that everyone has the potential to elevate their ordinary activity to the level of art through any medium whatsoever. This is the concept of social sculpture, and it was an idea that interested me strongly, and this was, if you like, the core of the planning and the thinking. One of the key things I think in performance art at the time was that it was essentially transgressive. It was interdisciplinary: it didn’t just cross boundaries, it diffused boundaries, and that made it a particular mode of thinking.
Heike Roms: And the way in which the programme was presented in the Eisteddfod literature was as a ‘journey through time’ – there was an allocation of certain days to the past, the present and the future. The past stood for Celtic Culture and also for the Industrial Heritage, and the present was post-industrial, is that right?
Timothy Emlyn Jones: We worked with that conceptual structure of past, present and future. I remember meeting frequently with Caroline at her house in Brixton or at mine and talking about how those ideas should take shape, and in some cases there was quite a close connection between what we wanted and what we got. Other times it was a bit of a compromise. I particularly remember one moment, with me holding forth on some particular idea about what I wanted to do and Caroline saying, ‘Tim, that’s your idea, you can’t invent artists, we can only show artists who exist and not your idea of what an artist should do.’ So it was fairly idealistic in some respects and we got a match which was fairly close in some places and much looser in others. The Chilean theatre company, for example, became involved because first of all they were a brilliant theatre group but also because they were Caroline’s next-door neighbours.
Andrew Knight: And they were political refugees at the time.
Timothy Emlyn Jones: They were. There was enormous sympathy for them on that basis.
Heike Roms: You said earlier, Andrew, that you wanted the event to be international and to involve artists from different backgrounds. Timothy and John Chris, you were the only Welsh artists involved in the event but neither of you were actually resident in Wales at the time. Was there any attempt to involve artists resident in Wales or was there really a sense that performance art wasn’t that developed in Wales and there weren’t really these artists around? Some names appear in the early papers, such as John Gingell and Rob Con and Marty St. James, who were either Welsh or living in Wales.
Timothy Emlyn Jones: We talked about a lot of people but it was the connection with the theme that was dominant. We weren’t being politically correct in terms of place of residence; we had an agenda. That agenda was essentially the idea of such a thing as Celtic identity in which creativity was dominant in a way that was not the case with other aspects of European culture. I think Beuys’ notion of Celtic identity as an alternative to mainstream European or international identity, and as being intrinsically creative, was the driving force. In retrospect I think that philosophy about creativity is somewhat naïve.
Andrew Knight: We touched earlier on that international aspect, the way magazines like Planet were taking the nationalist issue into a
wider national context, and at that time, if you look at the kind of work that Richard Demarco was facilitating in terms of his journeys, that was very much coming from a fine art or a visual arts perspective. It was again an attempt to internationalise that Celtic dimension.
Heike Roms: One piece which became one of the
most discussed events of the whole Eisteddfod week
was Nigel Rolfe’s performance Towers. Perhaps one of
you could talk us through what Nigel Rolfe did in this
Andrew Knight: Nigel very gradually made up this
tower to the accompaniment, if I remember rightly, of a
soundtrack: it was Irish pipe music played very slowly so
it was a very deep, tonal accumulation. Of course, the
tower eventually reaches this moment of instability: it gets
taller and taller, and eventually he takes a run at it –
because he’s very athletic, very physical – and knocks it
Timothy Emlyn Jones: He put on a motorcycle
helmet and knocked it down with his head.
Andrew Knight: But, the second time, he actually did
it outside the marquee and it attracted this enormous
really quite significant audience, which became quite
mesmerised, and at the same time I think we were
slightly concerned about where the tower was going to
fall. It also had some milk or unstable material on the
top of it and it toppled over and collapsed. This was in
the days before health and safety. And fortunately we all
escaped unscathed, but I think probably some people got splashed with the milk or whatever was on top of it. The interesting thing there was the press reaction afterwards, because this piece came shortly after the uproar the Tate had faced when they bought the Carl André Brick work, which of course actually is a very conventional piece of sculpture: it’s made of material, it occupies space. The eventual press furore produced headlines such as: ‘Irish man paid with Welsh taxpayers’ money to knock down wall of bricks with his head.’ And Nigel actually did produce a book subsequently – Send Three and Fourpence, We’re Going to a Dance – which simply traced the narrative of all the press headlines, and created what was almost a new work in itself.
Heike Roms: The ironic thing was he wasn’t Irish.
Andrew Knight: No, he wasn’t Irish, there were no bricks… and I suppose at the time you could say it was the British taxpayers’ money, albeit coming through the Welsh Arts Council.
Heike Roms: And there was, of course, much more to his piece
than just the knocking down of a tower. It was a reflection on the
Irish towers which had been destroyed by British occupation.
Timothy Emlyn Jones: Yes, Ireland has a huge number of fortified tower houses that had a particular place within the political and social structure of Ireland historically. And the British demolished practically all of them. Most of them are just ruins, and people often say it was not the British, it was the English – an important distinction.
Heike Roms: One of the most unusual performances of the week, I think, was put on by the Chilean mime company, who did a piece that looked at the impact of globalisation or commercialism, consumer society. You already mentioned that they were mainly chosen because they were Caroline’s neighbours…
Timothy Emlyn Jones: That was a factor…
Heike Roms: But there was more than that… this was also the
most popular of all the works, interestingly, during that week. The
audience responded very well to it, to its theatricality. What was
the thinking behind inviting this company and can you remember
anything about the work?
Timothy Emlyn Jones: Yes, it was because there was a political
dimension to it: it chimed well with the principle of creativity if not
that of Celticness, and, as you say, it was incredibly popular – in fact
the performance was repeated by popular demand. And the word went round the field that there was something you could take your children to and so families came in significant numbers and the place was packed.
Heike Roms: Why, do you think, did this performance work and
communicate to the audience in a way that the other works didn’t
Timothy Emlyn Jones: It was using the visual language of mime which of course is international. With contemporary art practices, you have to have quite extensive prior knowledge to be able to make sense of them, more so now than then, but with mime, the prior knowledge needed was much, much less. It was far less mediated, far less theorised work than most of what was presented.
Heike Roms: What was the reception like generally from people on the Eisteddfod field to this programme of events?
Andrew Knight: There was an element of bemusement, but there were some people who actually got quite engaged – I’m really struggling to remember in detail, but there are moments I recall when I thought that it was beginning to work in the way in which I wanted it to. At the time, for example, there was a marvellous county archivist in Gwynedd called Bryn Parry and we teamed him up for discussion with John Latham. It was very interesting, because Bryn’s knowledge of the slate-mining industry and the industries of north Wales was fantastic and he was also a bit of a maverick in his own world. And when you brought those two quite different worlds together and Bryn and John began to find common ground where they weren’t necessarily looking for it, the audience began to get engaged. It may only have been an audience of ten or fifteen people but I could sense then that the synergy was happening, and that links were being made; it was very exciting.
I don’t remember the general public’s response as being particularly antagonistic. It might have been bemused, but it was tolerant and accepting – that is why I was taken aback by the reaction that the press managed to generate after the event, because all of the critical press that came about happened after the programme had been on the middle of the Eisteddfod field for a week.
Heike Roms: The criticism is a very familiar one: it is
the usual idea that performance art is somehow wasteful
because it doesn’t produce anything at the end, so it’s an
‘artist wearing a crash helmet charging a wall with his
head’, so there’s that notion of expenditure that doesn’t
actually bring anything back. But maybe a much more serious critique was articulated by Paul Davies who was there throughout the week. I think it was a very creative week for him. He was actually working as a steward on the Eisteddfod field at the time and created a series of performances which related to and responded to what was happening in the performance art pavilion. Have you got any memories of the pieces that he did?
Andrew Knight: Paul Davies had immense respect for those artists who were there. In other words he didn’t hijack the event; he came and asked if it would be all right. He as an artist had that respect for the other artists and talked about what he wanted to do and discussed it with Caroline. And that was fine, that was accommodating it, so it was within the spirit of the event if you like, it was annexed to it.
Heike Roms: I’m sure many of you are familiar with the pieces he showed. This is the image of his Welsh Not that I have myself used. Here is Paul Davies, the artist, holding up the railway sleeper with the WN, the Welsh Not, engraved on it. And the blackboard propped up next to him explains the history of the Welsh Not. There’s a lady to the side there, the Eisteddfod visitor looking on, and opposite Paul Davies is Mario Merz, the Italian artist, who actually intervened in this performance towards the end of the week. Have you got any recollection of that intervention?
Andrew Knight: The other point to make is that Paul Davies wasn’t just holding the sleeper up, he was holding it up for a length of time and it required immense physical effort and mental discipline actually to stand there holding up that Welsh Not. And I think actually an immense moral courage to do it in that situation – what doesn’t necessarily come across in the photographs is that it could be just one moment, but it’s not – that’s one moment within a period of maybe an hour or two hours. I can’t remember much, but what I do remember is the immense physical demand that it put on Paul Davies to carry out that work.
Timothy Emlyn Jones: It wasn’t a fixed duration; he just held it until he couldn’t hold it anymore and then it fell to the ground.
Heike Roms: Paul Davies himself described that moment in an interview he did with Ivor Davies: he talked about Mario Merz at that point coming up to him and actually taking the railway sleeper off him. He recalled what a significant moment that was for him because there was a suggestion there that by relieving him of the railway sleeper that somehow Mario Merz was trying to relieve him of the impact of that historical situation and almost suggesting that art may have a way of relieving that kind of situation, which I think Paul Davies found very problematic.
Paul Davies later made the railway sleeper into a love spoon, and artist Ivor Davies later produced a painting which uses this particular love spoon as its motif. Paul Davies also made another piece, Spiral Gag, where he struggled out of a Union Jack – of course, 1977 was also the year of the Silver Jubilee. And in this piece I think he was holding a ceramic plaque with the words ‘aros mae’ on it, ‘it remains’. And then he struggled free from the Union Jack and put the ceramic plaque on the floor and then – by coincidence but quite significantly – a van drove over it and destroyed it. One of the things that he articulated later on was that in some ways he was very supportive of the performance art programme because it still, for him, appeared very radical in its approach, but he did say that he felt that the exhibition was very dislocated, out of place and out of context at the Eisteddfod. And there was a sense that there was a group of international artists coming in and not really engaging with the context in which they were placed. Do you think that’s fair criticism?
Timothy Emlyn Jones: I think it’s fair, to the extent that that’s true for all contemporary art practice. Art is often dislocated from its general cultural context – that was, I think, apparent, in that as curators we were looking for a populist context for work that was part of the agenda of performance art at that time – as I say, we aimed to cross boundaries and have boundaries dissolve. That dislocation is still evident in contemporary art practice. There is a similar kind of ridicule in the press now – artists are not widely understood. The whole issue of accessibility in art remains a major issue. For me, a way of engaging with that issue has been by seeing parallels between the process of meaning within artistic production and the process of meaning within the educational production. For me, the way in which art enquires into a new understanding of the world is very much the parallel of the way in which education can be transformative. Art at its best, at its most important, is transformative too. It’s difficult – how do you make art with which large numbers of people can engage, without at the same time transgressing boundaries? It is easier to make art by staying within barriers and make a lot of money out of it, as many people do – but that is not a concept of art in which I wish to participate. Whilst deeply fashionable at present, that is a position which the Wrexham project stood against.
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