Oriel Myrddin Gallery, Wales – Contemporary Art Exhibit with Environmental Focus

Ciara Healy
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Kidwelly Castle, Carmarthenshire, Wales

At some point in all our lives we have grappled with the assumption that there is a place for nature and a place for culture. One is located in the rolling hills of ladybird books and biscuit tin lids, the other in the smoggy sprawl of the city. But there is somewhere in-between. It is outside, on the edge, elsewhere, over there. Montaigne, Darwin, Maybey, Sinclair, Quinn and Shoard are some of the many who have championed the overlooked, rain-soaked edge lands of small, sometimes fragile communities in the periphery. Places where both ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ intersect, overlap and endure. artes fine arts magazine


Oriel Myrddin Gallery, Carmarthen

On this dull and windswept day on the edge of West Wales, Oriel Myrddin Gallery presents a show that opens us up to the fecundity of the margin, to the latent possibilities of attending more closely to Earth Life [1] in all its mildewed, abandoned and dynamic splendour.

On The Edge of the World is a selection of artworks drawn from the British Council Collection, London, and was originally assembled to commemorate and accompany Darwin Now, an international programme investigating evolutionary theory and Darwin’s influence on our society today.

Installed here in Carmarthen, the last large Welsh market town before the Irish Sea, this edited ensemble of artworks amplifies the periphery as a place of possibility, of beauty and of mystery.

Peripheral vision allows one to consider what would otherwise be ignored in the margin of sight. Darwin, like many of the artworks on show at Oriel Myrddin, examined the microscopic details along the edges of place in order to better understand the workings of the centre, and consequently, the whole.


Tania Kovats, Two hundred and eighty two (2009)

Curator Meg Anthony, in consultation with British Council curator Sarah Gillett, also adopts this approach. At the heart of the gallery a small, suspended wall partly divides the room, separating certain works on show, but not completely.

Leaning against this wall, Tania Kovats’s Two hundred and eighty two refers to the number of spindly hand drawn rings she sketched into a slice of oak tree, commemorating the endurance of nature as well as referring to the fossilized forest she discovered lying in the dust of a desert in Argentina.


Dalziel+Scullion, Scots (2007)

This line of grain from root to branch tip is extended across the gallery to Dalziel+Scullion’s Scots, Digger and Bhutan: three ‘studio portraits’ of tree barks that question the concept of ‘the environment’ – a term often misrepresented as something separate and outside of us. Warm purples, plums and Tibetan yellows seep through the rough surface of the bark, almost tangible but in reality, untouchable. Contained within a frame, the notion of place becomes merely a facet of the ‘real’ world. This is the residue of an industrial-age mind set, the consequences of which we are still coming to terms with. ‘Nature’ and ‘ecology’ then, as Dalziel+Scullion’s studio portraits show, separate the observer from that which is observed. We know it exists but we no longer seem to be a part of it. Just a few miles away, off the coast of Tresaith, another stone forest sleeps under the sea.


Tania Kovats, Voyage of the Beagle (2008)

Kovats’s hand drawn dust jacket of Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle also connects the periphery of here with the periphery of elsewhere. Like Darwin and Y Wladfa Gymreig, (The Welsh Colony) that settled in Argentina in 1865 along the coast of Chubut Province, Patagonia, this drawing is part of a series of attempts to capture and invoke the alien and unfamiliar landscapes of South America, on the edge of the New World.

More buckled, creased and battered books are included in Welsh-based artists Heather & Ivan Morison’s on-going body of work Wildflower Series. Five science fiction novels stuffed with the dried contents of a Welsh hedgerow are neatly presented under a glass display case like a collection of museum specimens. Here, the corpus of popular culture fuses with the corpse of nature creating a hybrid mixture of rational thought and romantic fantasy.


Alison Turnbull, Beds IV (2007)

Much of the work on this side of the suspended wall addresses the hierarchical relationship between nature and science. Alison Turnbull’s Beds I-IV is a pencilled vision of the ideals of the Enlightenment. Whilst not as violent as Francis Bacon’s desire to “bind Nature to man’s service and make her his slave,” [2] her quiet, neat drawings are reminiscent of Oliver Goldsmith’s concern that nature risks running riot in the absence of human intervention. [3]

On the other side of the wall, Anthony and Gillett selected artworks that seem to reflect Darwin’s break with orthodoxy and certainty, order and hierarchy. Rob Kesseler’s methodical and technological images of Bog Asphodel – seed and Field Penny Cress work within the liminal space of science, art and design. Hanging on either side of the suspended wall, next to Anya Gallaccio’s slowly decaying 800 Red Beauty Hybrid Gerbera, they create a delicate counterpoint of the visceral and the practical, bridging the pulse of life with the oozing mouldy rot of death.


Rob Kesseler, Bog Asphodel (2009)

Gallaccio’s installation of rotting gerbera flowers acknowledges our current predilection for living as if there were no abyss. Gerberas are the most disposable, mass produced, available all year round flowers of the 21st century. Decaying behind glass, they embody the consequences of ignoring our own fallibility. Whilst the flowers teeter on the edge of disappearance, Marc Quinn’s Untitled (garden portfolio) on the wall opposite, suspends death in time, creating a simulation of life that is in reality, an absence. His dark illuminations [4] of hundreds of exotic and unseasonal flowers preserved in frozen liquid silicone create an unsettling colourful paradise. Where once we saw colour in opposition to death, Quinn’s preserved plants realise the breathtakingly cruel truth that all living things in our care dwell in the “perpetual shadow of silent suffering and extinction.” [5]


Marc Quinn, Untitled (garden portfolio), 2004).

Much of the work on this side of the gallery attempts to transcend and re-write the hierarchical relationship between nature and science and all the binary opposites associated with it. Christine Borland’s delicate botanical print series The History of Plants According to Women, Children and Students refers to the common practice of employing, yet never crediting the women and children who hand-coloured the plates of botanical illustrations. These prints re-write their overlooked contribution back into the image as Borland credits the colourists, not the engravers on her plates.

Simon Starling’s Rescued Rhododendrons also challenges the orthodoxy of hierarchy by examining the admiration and subsequent demonization of the rhododendron plant. Originally introduced into British gardens from its indigenous Mediterranean landscape in 1756, it soon escaped into the wild and established itself as a strong force among the indigenous flora, suffocating native British woodlands. A feature in many picturesque images of the Scottish landscape, the rhododendron is now perceived as a major problem for landowners and conservationists. Relegated to the category of weed, Starling documented a journey in 2000 bringing a collection of exiled rhododendron plants back to their homeland.


Simon Sterling, 7 Rhododendron Ponticum Plants Rescued from Elrick Hill, Scotland (2000)

Questioning our abiding need to control the unruliness of natural growth continues in Michael Landy’s Nourishment portfolio of etchings, which take up the entire back wall of the gallery. The monumental positioning of these gentle etchings in the gallery space celebrates the prosaic attempts of the natural world to find a potential home and defend itself against those who see tidiness as a virtue. ‘Hounded with fork and weed killer’ [6] these small and hardy wildflowers, through which we as children often first encounter nature, cling to the edge lands of existence, outside of what Maybey calls the ‘official countryside.’ [7] Like 19th century poet, John Clare’s “bank with brambles overspread, [8] Landy’s detailed and elusive etchings of Creeping Buttercup, Shepard’s Purse and other weeds found in the cracks of pavements outside his London studio speak of survival, endurance and hope.


Boredomresearch (Vicky Isley & Paul Smith), Ornamental Bug Garden (2004)

The hope that the natural world could co-exist alongside us, rather than being irrevocably opposed by us, is epitomised in the tiny bell tinkle emanating from Ornamental Bug Garden by Boredomresearch (Vicky Isley & Paul Smith). This sound installation echoes and reverberates like the gong of a distant Buddhist temple all around the gallery. Because everything has matter in common, eventually.

These sounds give the show that sense of wholeness Darwin searched for, the deep, untroubled connectedness to the first fact of life – that we are all made of breath and earth. We are all part of a universe in constant play, of which the tangible form is only a part, a perception that we cannot fully comprehend if we root ourselves to a single viewpoint. So here in the periphery, On The Edge Of The World, it is possible to quietly untether ourselves momentarily, from that perception.

By Ciara Healy, Contributing Writer

Ciara Healy is a writer and Head of Critical and Contextual Studies at The School of Creative Arts, Coleg Sir Gar / University of Wales Trinity St. David.

See all the works in the exhibition at: http://collection.britishcouncil.org/whats_on/exhibition/11/15800/0/0



[1] Extract from Virginia Woolf Diary, 1919 (cited in Gwyn, R. Montaigne and the Acceptance of Uncertainty), New Welsh Review, Autumn 2011.

[2] Francis Bacon The Masculine Birth of Time 1602 (cited in Griffiths, J, [2000] A Sideways Look at Time, London: Flamingo.)

[3] Oliver Goldsmith, The Deserted Village, 1770.

[4] Biggs, I (2011) catalogue essay in Communion: Suze Adams & Anna Saunders, Bristol: UWE PLaCE Research Centre.

[5] Hickey, Dave (1997) Air Guitar, California: Art Issues. Press.

[6] Mabey, R, (1973) The Unnofficial Countryside, Dorset: Little Toller Books 130.

[7] Ibid.

[8] John Clare, Decay, 1832.


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