Secular Reliquaries

  


Fear of politics and narrative has haunted much art in Britain since the didactic Victorian art with a moral. The Pre-Raphaelites, for instance, wove 'inventions' (symbols) into their innocent-looking surfaces. In contrast to some nineteenth century art we have a lot of instant art, sound bite, dada with no comment or dissent, touches of 'irony', misjudgements and misunderstandings of Marcel Duchamp. The work of David Garner is unlike all this. It asks questions, which is more interesting and embarrassing than evasive answers from the powers that be, even to the point of being censored by those who laud it. In recent years the worst and even the best of British art, has been politically conformist.  Perhaps there has always been censorship. And permission for self-censorship is its liberal form. Like all the world's channels the BBC News is censored - the chaos in Libya in the summer of 2012, ill health by users of nuclear waste war-heads in Iraq, being some recent examples. In authoritarian eras the German revue theatre and cabaret inventively disguised political criticism and revolutionary ideals in songs and performances. Coincidentally perhaps, this has added to a longstanding love of mystery, the misunderstood, the unknown, the unknowable, and the time it takes to understand what is not at first understood. It is with these attitudes and in this way that Garner’s work needs to be regarded and penetrated.


Garner's work is not exactly narrative, allegory, a programmed set of symbols, nor a complete manifesto. Yet it may be all of these at various levels. With a greater concern for detail in their appearance than most conceptual art pieces, the works embody complex thoughts crystallized into simple scenes. These sculptural poems, made of everyday things from within living memory, conceal or half-reveal their intricate significance. As one spectator remarked:


“It's not in-your-face, from the artist. They're not clever clever intricate: they ARE intricate -- and allusive and elusive -- but they gravely invite the viewer to read and explore them.”


Artists often enter one of the large centres of capital and production, like London. There they are available for the wealthy resident clients or those passing through. They may catch the eye for a time, varying from one exhibition, to a decade or more. This is often through a gallery, with a slight risk of being manoeuvred into a style for commercial success, or into more extrovert forms with a hope of attracting big collectors. However, Garner has remained in his place of origin, and from Wales he has perceived social, political and economic events in his home country as well as expressing international dramas and dilemmas. He sees the works in Future Tense as a series of individual installation pieces which are suggestive of, and enquire into, the consequences and implications of globalization- particularly on minority cultures. The works are evocative and visually witty, often with punning titles; they touch on key political issues including social class, education, language and homelessness.


One of Garner’s most original works is Last Punch of the Clock. It is far from being a decorative sculpture, nevertheless it has surfaces which provoke the memory. Manufactured in the 1950s, the clock and cardholder are encased in a metal which is painted and fired with a particular blue-grey metallic mineral alloy. This hardened coating, familiar on mid twentieth-century office equipment, usually peels only at the edge like a thin skin. The installation suggests a fossilized factory entrance. A receipt-file spike with all the clocking-in cards of a long working life stands at the same height as Garner’s late father. All the clippings from the cards are in a glass jar and there is a metal file for receiving cards.


Garner’s installations are the fulfilment of a long personal performance. Manufacturing clocking-in cards, clipping and blemishing each one, took a long time. Keeping and bottling clippings, like preserved fruit, is neat. Together these components form a celebration of a working life.


High structures of accumulated materials are ingenious pillars of an unknown history. They display the anonymous repetition of ephemeral leaves which once meant something. Bankers’ Draft, a humorous comment on a continuing financial crisis, has other monoliths of paper. Complete runs of the Financial Times, tied together, form four piles as a plinth supporting a glass bell jar of tumbleweed with a museum artefact label. It is dated ‘England c. early 21st century,’ together with the Latin Salsola tragus, which is so suggestive of desolation, blown away like a banker’s draft.


Throughout the work technical brilliance is present, mostly unseen. Care and thought is in each move. Its precedence is in the rural consciousness of tool-making which has persisted from the early stone age to the pre-urban working-class world. Farmers would make their own scythes, sickles and farm implements all over Wales before they were manufactured in Birmingham. They had all been differently formed, having been tailor-made into the shapes which traditionally suited different Welsh areas. Collective traditional skills, the art of handmade objects, as well as the importance of reuse and recycling is manifested in Handmade, no sweat. In this, a rag rug made from worn out clothing and domestic fabrics made by a women’s group in Pontypool, and  hand-knitted garments to be handed down the generations, were made by Garner’s late mother. These take up a personal position within the framework of a traditional Central Asian yurt. The hub or shagrak or wooden lattice crown is handed down from father to son in the manner of nomadic peoples- minorities now threatened by the shadow of the centralized Chinese State, Western obsolescence, mass production, exploitation of labour and other effects of globalization.


Garner’s way of doing things is an unprescribed procedure and all it suggests and conceals may be invisible. It is like the ordinance of a secular reliquary. A portion of the True Cross would be enshrined in a metal holder or in a small portable altar in the Middle Ages. Relics were believed to possess power but gradually their veneration became unfashionable. Nevertheless, their aesthetic powers remain, to impress even the most cynical. There, in the wrought object, is this intervention, instrumentality -- the quality and condition of being. The familiarity of Garner’s deliberately found objects have this. After very careful consideration, looking far and wide, I am convinced that Garner’s work, from the very beginning of his career, shows him to be one of the few, one of the most important artists in Britain.


Ivor Davies has exhibited widely. He was central to the 1966 DIAS Destruction in Art Symposium, and as a defender of Welsh culture with the radical Beca movement. Some history of art at Lausanne was followed by his doctoral thesis on revolutionary Russian art for Edinburgh University, where he lectured on Modernism and was the first curator of the Talbot Rice Art Centre. Recent publications include The Age of the Vanguards (2002) and the Introduction to a forthcoming dictionary of artists in Wales. President of the Royal Cambrian Academy, among awards he values his 2002 National Eisteddfod gold medal.