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Mordant, TestBed exhibition, Oriel Davies Gallery, Newtown - the New Welsh Review Blog

BLOG Ellen Bell

NWR Issue 107

Mordant, TestBed exhibition, Oriel Davies Gallery, Newtown

Mordant, TestBed exhibition, Oriel Davies Gallery, NewtownMordant is at Oriel Davies Gallery, 23 May – 11 July 2015

‘You be careful,’ says a bystander to Eliza Dolittle in Bernard Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’, ‘there’s a bloke here behind taking down every blessed word you’re saying.’

A notice had been placed on the Oriel Davies Gallery reception desk informing visitors that I would be there all week, recording and transcribing conversations that took place in the exhibition spaces, café and shop, as material for my upcoming TestBed gallery installation, MORDANT. It was a matter of ethics, after all. There was I, preparing to act as a spy, a sneak, a nosey-parker, a listener-in of private conversations. I, whose boundaries around personal privacy are absolutely non-negotiable. People needed to be warned.

Nevertheless, subterfuge, I knew would have to be employed. I’d asked for a chair. Placed in a corner, I’d said, so that I could pretend to be an invigilator. I brought my partner with me, the notion being that couples are generally less conspicuous. Ideally, I said to Alex Boyd Jones, Oriel Davies’ curator, I’d be invisible. The staff knew, of course. Careful, I heard one whisper to a colleague, inclining her head in my direction, all that’ll be in the papers next week.

So, what was I trying to do? My intention was to spend five days collecting overheard dialogues that I would then form into a written piece reflecting the Gallery’s spoken landscape. This text would be then pushed, letter-press style, into a fresh layer of plaster on the TestBed walls. (Mordant comes from the French for bite – the premise being that walls absorb what is said within their spaces.) I was intrigued to discover whether conversations held in an art space might be different to those held elsewhere. Might being in the presence of Art trigger something other?

I’ve always been interested in speech – not as a collector of idiom or dialect but rather in the way that words are manipulated within the interplay of conversation. So often we speak a kind of short-hand, particularly to our intimates – sentences are clipped, meanings unfinished, the sense being communicated through gesture, intonation and a kind of kinship or peer code. Transcribing, distilling and re-writing these, sometimes half-swallowed, utterances into something both authentic and evocative, has become my practice.

‘Method is the excellence of writing, and unconstraint the grace of conversation,’ wrote Samuel Johnson in The Adventurer on 28 August, 1753. And unconstrained conversation was exactly what I was looking for. But how was I going to capture it sitting in the corner of the white cube-esque cavern that is Gallery One?

Every time people walk into the galleries they lower their voices, I moaned to Alex. I know, she replied, it’s the acoustics. Or was it me, sitting there in potential judgement upon their possibly inappropriate responses? ‘Are you here to stop me touching?’ a man in grey dungarees, who had up until then been staring intently at a Craig Wood map-painting, asked me, his tongue firmly in his cheek. ‘Absolutely, I replied,’ proceeding to follow him round the space. An engaging discourse on Wales ensued, ending with him asking me if I knew that ‘Welsh’ in English meant foreigner. This is all very well, I thought, but I’m not meant to be the one generating the conversations.

The sun shone without exception every day of my residency and consequently visitors to the galleries were few and far between. There was a smattering of children with various guardians. One four-year-old dashed in with his grandfather and headed straight for the blacked-out room showing Wood’s projection, ‘Everything That The Dog Chewed Whilst We Were At Angus’ Funeral’, 2013. ‘What’s that?’ he asked. ‘What’s that? What’s that?’ ‘What do YOU think it is?’ his grandfather replied. ‘Dirty snake wee,’ he answered, giggling, before hurtling off into the Resource Centre. Five minutes later I heard his grandfather asking him if he wanted to go and find Granny. ‘But I haven’t finished my elephant,’ the boy replied. ‘Well, hurry up,’ the now exasperated carer said, ‘we don’t want to get a parking ticket.

I don’t really know what I’d expected. In the end I collected most of my material in Relish, the Gallery’s café. Clearly the hub of the Gallery and possibly Newtown itself, I watched the regulars come and go, craning to hear their intercourse over the intermittent clatter of trays, ping of the till, clashing of crockery and blare of the radio. What did they talk of? Some discussed illness, like the middle-aged woman remarking to her friend that it’s the worst thing you can do with people like Wally, or the man telling his companion how Betty had gone to another level and was shutting down slowly. Others talked of family members, such as the woman observing how he did try for a job in Morrisons but he couldn’t put the hours in, and her confidante replying, he’s better off at home then. Some couples did crosswords together while others sat in tense silence, like the daughter and her beatific elderly mother. The mother eventually blurted out, ‘Well, what DO you want me to do, stay in bed all day?’

One cannot listen so intently and fail to be moved by the traces of lives, some poignant, some funny, some downright bizarre (like the lady who remarked, ‘I was in gardening clothes and I think the boot was up,’ or the other that asked, ‘What can you do with a broken foot?’ before going on to say, ‘If I do turn up I will,’) that flutter, albeit briefly, into one’s consciousness.

Of the five thousand words I captured containing such narratives I whittled them down to just sixty-two – murdering your favourites, my partner calls it. Sixty-two words making up nine sentences. TestBed is a small space and I knew from the start that I didn’t want this to be merely an exercise in reading. Less is more, they say. Less is more.

Ellen Bell was artist-in-residence for a week early this summer at Oriel Davies Gallery, Newtown. She has exhibited widely across the UK. Last year she completed a MA in Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University and in 2011 completed a MA in Fine Art at Norwich School of Art & Design. She lives and works in Aberystwyth.

Mordant runs from 23 May until 11 July and is part of the TestBed programme for new and emergent work from Wales and the borders. This exhibition’s opening event is on Saturday 23 May, 6–8 pm. Oriel Davies Gallery

Ellen Bell is an artist and writer living in Aberystwyth.


previous blog: Poet Paul Farley in Aberystwyth – 29 April 2015
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