BLOG Jack Pugh

NWR Issue 112

in solution

Until 3 December, David Barnes’ in solution will be exhibited at Ffotogallery, Penarth.

The title of David Barnes’ latest exhibition comes from Raymond Williams’ Marxism and Literature. In that book, Williams wonders about what he calls ‘structures of feeling’, ‘feeling out’ a sense of the social – as an antithesis to fixed ideology. Structures of feeling, says Williams, are social experiences ‘in solution’. He asks, how can culture be attuned to the ‘presence of the present’?

This question is central to Barnes, whose work is primarily in documenting ‘small nation’ communities, and family and identity, with a focus on South Wales. The exhibition brings up the question of how does one document a community ‘in solution’, a community fundamentally a work in progress? Photography seems an odd choice. Photographs have already been in solution, developed and literally ‘fixed’ to a singular moment in time. What comes before and after, we cannot say.

Why photography, then? In this latest exhibition, which follows Barnes' work from the past four years, he documents the various communities of South Wales – their nuances and quiet peculiarities. These are communities once defined by enterprises since gone from the region. Heavy industry has left in its wake a social and economic fallout, and the question of how people should now define themselves.

The images contained in Barnes’ exhibition play with the space between a proud industrial history and an unknown future, the fine line between a deep-rooted sense of identity and the despair of losing it. Take one image: a woman sits at a desk on the phone, surrounded by computer monitors and stacks of cardboard boxes, everything cast in unflattering fluorescent light. Is she setting up a business, or dismantling one? In other words, is there hope for the community, or just a sense of embarrassment over its past? What does the community hold on to?

In the mezzanine level of the gallery, ‘The Loyal Order of the Moose’ takes centre stage. It is a fraternal society, founded across the Atlantic in 1888. Until the 1970s, membership was restricted to white men ‘of sound mind and body’. A separate organisation exists for women. James J Davies, a steel worker and Republican Party politician, founded the first UK order in Treorchy. In many senses, ‘the Moose’ belongs in this community, and plays a central part in its history. Its inclusion in the exhibition perhaps conceals a yearning for an older form of community – patriarchal and blue blooded. I wonder, though, how such a thing can represent the future. If there is pride in ‘the Moose’, it is perhaps sadly misplaced. In the absence of words, a reliance on ritual and ceremony takes precedence.

A hopeful plaque is embossed up until the year 2075. On the far corner is an image bearing more than a passing resemblance to Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper (we are in the Upper Room after all), which if it were not staged, would be applauded for its serendipity. A final meal before some tragedy, or is it a new beginning? What Barnes is attempting to get across here is precisely what Williams calls ‘structures of feeling’. That is, society imagined as forming and formative, rather than fixed – ‘in solution’.

To document the above through photographs leaves open questions. There is a certain poised energy in each image, a sense in which anything could happen next. Yet not everything can happen at once. There is a foot firmly placed in the past, and a hand reaching towards the future. Perhaps the answer lies in asking the question, ‘Where is community located?’ in solution suggests it is found in the flash of a camera, and in the production of an image. This image, fixed as it is, suggests a community on the brink of something other – about to begin.

Jack Pugh is a Cardiff-based blogger and this summer carried out a work placement via Cardiff University at New Welsh Review.


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