Memento

These days the word memento, meaning a souvenir, or reminder, is most usually followed by the word mori, which means ‘of death.’ In Art the memento mori is most often presented in the form of a skull but also an hour-glass, a scythe-bearing skeleton, a candle-stick holding a broken candle and, for obvious reasons, the owl and even the bat, have been used to represent oblivion, Thanatos and the finality of what Shakespeare called ‘corruption and dim night.’ All of which seems appropriate to mention in connection with work so substantially concerned with death in various aspects and in which different elements of nostalgia hover,  even if they are not overt. But the Memento exhibition was free from the customary ‘Art’ trappings of nostalgia and such clichés as bleached ‘ectoplasmic’ photographs, such as those to which Dylan Thomas refers in “Under Milk Wood”, as the “yellow, dicky-bird watching pictures of the dead”, are notable only for their absence.


It was Henry James who referred to death, well his own anyway, as “the distinguished thing”.  And In his blimpish poem “Recessional” (“For the Fallen”), the first World War poet Laurence Binyon refers to death in conventional sugary imperialistic terms:


With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,

England mourns for her dead across the sea.....

Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal

Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres...

There is music in the midst of desolation

And a glory that shines upon our tears.


I’ve often wondered what my Welsh great-grandparents made of this rosy glow picture of the killing fields of Flanders and its reservation of sorrow and glory in Death (note the capital) to the imperial English. How august and royal did my great uncles think it - Lee Adams (killed in Belgium less than a week after WWI began), William Adams (killed in France in the last week before it ended) and Richard (who also died in 1918, when HMS Monmouth was sunk, with the loss of all nine hundred hands, in the Battle of Coronel, off the coast of Chile, the worst naval defeat of the British fleet to that date)? I doubt dulce et decorum est pro patria mori was at the forefront of their thoughts. 


Death, it seems, is as much-encloyed with inaccurate metaphor as it is with rhetoric and hyperbole. But its realities have, in our society at least, been rather varnished over.  The sonorities surrounding death are an intrinsic part of the varnishing and its depiction and imagery have been major contributants to poetry. Death has sown a rich prose harvest too: take two books, both cornerstones of the English language: the King James, ‘Authorised Version’ of the Bible and the earlier Book of Common Prayer, of which the ‘Order for the Burial of the Dead’, almost unchanged since the first prayer book of King Edward VI, is the super star of liturgical texts. This hugely familiar service is certainly one of the most reasonant parts of the liturgy and contains some of its most brilliant images. Largely due to its evocative power, to this day it remains the most un-mauled part of the (now more Disney than divine) Anglican liturgy. Despite having been quoted to death, it never pales:


I shall rise out of the earth in the last day, and shall be covered again with my skin, and shall see God in my flesh…

We brought nothing into this world, neither may we carry anything out of this world…

Man that is born of woman, hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery: he cometh up and is cut down like a flower; he flieth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.


But, let’s face it, what it represents a substantial whitewash job, if a necessarily therapeutic one, in which the squalid, painful and frequently grotesque, realities of the Grim Reaper are wrapped about with such poetics that they have about as much correspondence with reality as an Andrex toilet paper advertisement has with defecation.


Speaking as one who is now much nearer death than birth, one with more obituarised friends than quick ones and one with more direct experiences of death than our homogenised society generally admits, I can unequivocally assert that it’s substantially all lies: death is deeply romanticised and has had an undeservedly good press.


Memento

Remember study it well: in such little baths were live bodies bathed but bodies died too.

(and, of course we’re dealing with the type of people who, had they actually been allowed decent baths and bathrooms, “would only have kept coal in them”!)


Memento

the coroner who conducted the inquest on the death of David Garner’s father and who pronounced that he had suffered “Death by Industrial Disease” (which clearly glosses over reality rather more even than the Prayer Book).


Memento

Remember that now rather more than then, no response other than anger can be engendered by this verdict’s anodyne condescension and blandness? And I have a gut feeling that it was not innocent blandness either but blandness deliberate and blandness cynical.


Memento

Remember that this verdict, if nothing else, should persuade us of the importance of sensitivity and the properly nuanced use of language and how an airy insouciant word, spoken with the confidence of the master class, can marginalise criticism and literally succeed in burying the truth.

Memento


Remember how very much has been buried and certainly ‘Death by Industry’ might well serve as a general descriptor. For example, when will we hear in full the true story of the causes of the many, many thousands affected by illnesses resulting from pollution and industrial blight in South Wales – and the full dimension of their deaths – deaths as a result of industrial accidents certainly, some preventable and some not. And the existence here of particularly rich and vicious cocktails, of metallurgical chemicals, and even the physical dangers attendant in landscapes of unfilled mineshafts, unfenced ponds and unsafe canals – not only is the truth concerning all this yet to be fully told but, even today, although its legacy seems as much the death of communities as of individuals, it still is being grimly reaped.


Memento

Remember of course, that we know most about those who were maimed and killed in the mines and in heavy industry. Take the Senghennydd disaster, where four hundred and thirty nine men died in 1913: that was but the tip of the iceberg; many more men died year on year, in individual accidents. Leaving aside the sonorities of “Death By Industry”, in reality such cloaking enabled concealment on a vast scale of the true costs of these industries Other of these industries’ by-products were equally grim and such things as the hideous, and preventable, “Aberfan Disaster” was but one of the most dramatic of these. Spina bifida , what was called “mongolism” – Down’s Syndrome now, cleft palates and hare lips, idiocy and more... were surely not - by their very incidence – just coincidental?  No, all were by-products of greed and cruel and exploitative industrial processes and profits, harvested by those who took care to settle themselves far away from the source of their wealth, or rapidly escaped as soon as its effects became apparent. Poor atmosphere, poor accommodation, polluted land and polluted people – land rape and people rape: that is the reality behind a phrase such as “Death by Industrial Disease”.


But back to the hugely resonant baths and more significantly, the empty boots, in David Garner’s installation History Lesson (what price for coal?) I do not find them “melodramatic”, as has been suggested, rather a graphic depiction of reality.  David Garner’s message is pretty much “in yer face”, with little ambiguity: the medium is literally (most of) his message and if we are at all sensitive, with appropriate historical knowledge and knowledge of the distortions of history, we can read his meaning plain. But there is also something more elusive and more akin to poetry and the imaginings and although the audience has to work much harder here, the work remains – direct and accessible. Clearly there will be those who, by virtue of their personal histories and cultural backgrounds, will empathise with aspects of these works more than others, their message is transcendent and deeply humanistic – well beyond politics – and for most viewers extremely poignant.


Memento

Remember that many will feel that Mr. Garner Senior had a “very good innings” but even to say that is more (“Death by Industrial Disease”) euphemism. Three score years and ten notwithstanding, he lived to the ripe age of eighty-seven; no mean feat you might think for a former miner of the time.  But this ignores the fact that it is not his longevity which is at issue but the manner of his death and the quality of his life. And what is also at issue is the casualness, the routineness of the dismissal of that life and of many like it.


Memento

Remember those of you who, through the art of his son, have seen inside his lungs and I invite you to compare and contrast two situations (the difference between which so exercises David Garner the younger),

those of the late Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother and Her Majesty’s contemporary Mr. Garner Senior.


Man that is borne of woman, hath a short time to live and is full of misery;

We bring nothing into this world, neither may we carry anything out of this world. (Says the Service for the Burial of the Dead, in the Common Prayer Book).


The Queen, the sometime Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and daughter of the Earl and Countess of Strathmore (whose family derived considerable income from the mining activities and the sufferings of folk in their County Durham fiefdom) may have brought nothing into this world but (to paraphrase Iris Murdoch), there was a hell of a lot waiting for her when she arrived. Whatever her particular misery may have been, it was elusive and doubtless well, comprehensively and expensively attended to.  Somewhat of a contrast with that of the senior Mr. Garner, whose misery might have consisted of pneumoconiosis, or silicosis, or any other ‘sis’, among a euphonic plethora of mine-related possibilities, on the high road to “Death by Industrial Disease”.


Memento

Remember that other of Death’s much-proclaimed attributes as of the “Great Leveller”, which may well be its eventual outcome, who knows, but meanwhile, what egalitarian alternatives are offered, among them: a protracted and painful death by pneumoconiosis, or a more cosseted one, by ennui and gin & tonic!


As part of our literature in Wales, we have Gwerin y Graith, the literature of the suffering folk or, slightly more poetically, the ‘Literature of the Scars of the People’. It is embedded, in culture and consciousness.  But what of the visual tradition and how are these scars conveyed in Visual Art? Who is conveying the reality behind the romanticised ‘dignity in labour’ picturesque workers of Josef Herman and similarly in the ‘industrial’ landscapes of Ernest Zobole and many others? The subject of mining in Art has been a significant – and probably over-explored, groove.  In general the miner has been depicted as species of ‘noble savage’ and the day to day realities of mining have on the whole been appreciated and depicted for their formal qualities, rather than in any spirit of social criticism.  Even an image of a mining disaster (Maurice Barnes’ Disaster at Six Bells Colliery, for example) is melodramatic, even decorative, rather than a realistic depiction of a horrible event.  One can think of numbers of images, by John Petts, Evan Walters, Herman, John Elwyn, Will Roberts, Jack Crabtree and numerous others, who really did little to depict the reality and got no closer than – here are a lot of jolly dirty workers, with (I’m sure) noble souls!  Documentary photographers did a bit better but even in the case of film it is debateable.  None of them though, did anything sufficiently biting in their criticism to predict, or prevent, such things as Aberfan, or any of the myriad lesser, more personal, disasters. In Art the reality of the sheer, barely mitigated, horror of industrial South Wales has been better conveyed by artists working in predominantly non-representational modes, for neither impasto daubing, documentary photography, nor the yellow dicky bird watching photos, quite do it.  The exhausted cinders from the hearth and the school text book in Garner’s History Lesson do and, to understand the true nature of obscenity, we have to regard the implications of the presence of the book in the installation I want to be a coal miner. Now, maybe somebody might like to argue this point but I find it difficult to credit that anyone ever, given any degree of choice, has actually wanted, to be a coal miner?  In a culture whose mantra has been ‘anything but the mine’, can anything be more offensive than the manipulation suggested by this book: the homogenisation, sanitisation and blandness of a stylised, hygenised, tidied up Festival of Britain world, with nothing of its realities being shown?  It seems to me the equivalent of all the other white feather-like scams and the cynicism represented by the phrase “Industrial Disease” equally shrouded an obscenity of obfuscation and brainwashing!


Memento

Remember truth will out and usually out itself has done so in Garner’s vacant boots; the coke from the hearth, before which the miner (who probably kept coal in his bath, my dear!) was actually bathed.  But there is also the agonising poignancy of the closed back door, the stretcher, the bandaged white coal pick – bandaged body surrogate, like a broken body borne, dragged up by winding gear from the stygian darkness and emerging from its cage but not into any kind of light.


Memento

Remember we badly need to remember, Wales, like most rapidly modernising countries, needs reminding and certainly from time-to-time needs a memento mori, such as David Garner’s exhibition and in particular his ’Welsh’ works. We may, most of us have no direct experience of grief-stricken, poverty stricken families, maybe even rendered homeless – when their bread-winner was broken, or dead, rendered useless “by industry”. Do we need art and art house cinemas to open our eyes to the fact that such situations continue? In an ethos of increasingly trivial materialism, we are in danger of losing our past, in our culture more than most.  And that past has profound implications for our present.  We need mementos to spur us to vote and to spur us as to what we ought to vote.  In each generation we need to bear in mind the suffering folk, those who have enabled the enjoyment of out latter-day frivolities.  We must remember too, though the media conspire to make us not, remember that there are those continuing to suffer from the legacy which this exhibition so brilliantly described.


Memento

Remember truth and beauty are very big words.  We are sophisticated people and so know that shit and squalor, properly managed, can make great art and be beautiful.  In Memento Mori we have a conjunction of elements which are not conventionally beautiful but convey great truths, so in that alone they become beautiful.  That they succeed in moving us is of course beautiful too.  It is a cliché but a truth nevertheless that it is the fundamental responsibility of artists to reinvent Art in each generation developing aesthetic vocabularies appropriately responsive to their worlds, places and time, in order that the worlds and times and places may be changed thereby.

In Memento David Garner succeeded in communicating a message that whilst pulsating with history, resonates profoundly in the present. In it he largely focussed his native patch although then, as now, his artistic and political concerns are far more wide-reaching. Typically, he did so allusively and with considerable humour, indeed more effectively than mere words ever can.

The question may be asked why David Garner has not received greater conventional recognition; my answer is encapsulated in observations made above but may be synthesised in two words: politics and Wales.


Hugh Adams

© 2013

*This text is an edited version of an unpublished lecture given to coincide with Memento, an exhibition of works by of David Garner and Sara Rees at the G39 Gallery, Cardiff in October 2002. I decided on a revision more centred on the former’s contribution, upon re-visiting David Garner’s work more than ten years later, in preparation for writing an essay to coincide with his imminent exhibition Shift at Newport Museum and Art Gallery. Many of the observations I have previously made about his work (for example in my book Imaging Wales - contemporary art in context) remain true but despite the consistency of his concerns and the undoubted socio-political commitment still evident in his work, I feel it has reached a much higher and more profound level. I do not think that the critic John Molyneaux exaggerated when he said... “I would say that it is among the most powerful, most necessary i.e. best, art being produced in Britain”.

………………………………………………………………………………………

Hugh Adams has written extensively on the arts and cultural matters for over thirty years. He is a frequent contributor to conferences and symposia concerning the visual arts, art education and cultural matters both here and abroad and has represented Britain in a number of international initiatives. He has also contributed tomany publications internationally, including Art and Artists, The Guardian, Modern Painters, O Independente, Artforum, Raw Vision, Art Monthly, Studio International and Flash Art / Heute Kunst.