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Review: Silent Explosion: Ivor Davies and Destruction in Art

(March 01, 2016)

Review: Silent Explosion: Ivor Davies and Destruction in Art

Amgueddfa Genedlaethol Caerdydd - National Museum Cardiff
Runs to 20 March 2016

Ifor Davies - Yr Ysgrifen ar y Mur II
Yr Ysgrifen ar y Mur II, Ifor Davies

Quiet! - It's a Museum

Ivor Davies is, as one visitor was overheard to say, a "local lad". The artist and academic was born in Treharris, in November 1935. He went to school in Penarth, where he has returned to live. Silent Explosion: Ivor Davies and Destruction in Art is the largest exhibition dedicated to the work of a single contemporary artist ever held in Wales.


Ifor Davies - Anatomic Explosions dias 1966 Ifor Davies - Anatomic Explosions dias 1966 Ifor Davies - prelude to Anatomic Explosions
Ivor Davies - Anatomic  Explosions DIAS 1966 Anatomic Explosions - prelude

As one of Wales' leading artists, his work deserves to find a place in National Museum Cardiff's dedicated contemporary galleries. As his practice has developed and evolved through the last 80 years this retrospective also serves as a contemporary history exhibit of one artist and the mêlée and culture to which he has contributed.

Davies, known as Ifor Davies in Welsh language contexts, worked with the doctoral researcher Judit Bodor and the museum team throughout the process of creating this exhibition. The combination of access and understanding of academic needs has, unsurprisingly, led to seemingly comprehensive archival content. He was also given the opportunity of selecting works from the museum's collections to display alongside the main exhibition. I always relish the opportunity to see work not normally on display, and to see Davies as co-curator provides some insight into his enthusiasms. We see work by younger artists that comment on working life, and the work of fellow artists such as Iwan Bala who share his interests in language and activism. This space is adjacent to the beginning of the exhibition, showing his most recent work.

Gwobr Ifor Davies (The Ivor Davies Award), which he created, has been presented annually since 2003 at Y Lle Celf at the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Cymru, with the express aim of rewarding work that conveys the spirit of activism in the struggle for language, culture and politics. His active involvement with the award shows he is fully engaged with the current art scene. The exhibition allows us to travel backwards along his timeline, revealing that he has always been current in his practice.

Ifor Davies - Self Portrait, 1957
Self Portrait, Ivor Davies, 1957

Davies has taught at the Universities of Wales, Edinburgh and Lausanne, Switzerland, and was Head of Cultural Studies at Gwent College of Higher Education, from 1978 until his retirement in 1988. Although often described as Welsh-speaking, he is actually a polyglot; fluent in English, Welsh, French, German, Spanish, Italian, with some Russian, and some knowledge of Cantonese and Arabic.

Among many awards for his work, Davies won the Medal Aur (Gold Medal for fine art) at the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol 2002 in St Davids, Pembrokeshire, and he was further recognised in 2004 at the Casnewydd Eisteddfod, with his admission to the Gorsedd Beirdd Ynys Prydain (Gorsedd of Bards).

Like many who have lived through the marginalisation of the Welsh language, he seems to have a more profound understanding and enthusiasm for language, and how it is inextricably bound to its culture, than someone who was raised in a culture where their choice and use of language was unexamined.

Davies creates canvases with words in Welsh and English and he makes work about the political and personal use of the Welsh language. His work uses puns, e.g. Yr Ysgrifen ar y Mur II (the writing on the wall II), which is both literal - as the image shows graffiti - and defiant.

Ifor Davies - Death and Taxes, 2014
Death and Taxes, Ivor Davies, 2014

Davies' Yr Ysgrifen ar y Mur I: Dinistr Iaith a Chymuned (The writing on the wall I: destruction of language and community) is the assemblage work made from an inherited rifle and family bible, the Welsh text parted by the barrel of the firearm. This piece was previously shown here as part of an exhibition on Welsh protest art and is shown here alongside his other assemblage works such as the recent piece Death and Taxes. This mixed media work used tax records and files found decaying in a garage. The inevitability of death and taxes is a concept found in literature and comedy since the 1700s and I think this work comments on the neglect of considering either, and the action of nature on both, as both the tax records and our own lives quietly decay.


Ifor Davies - Disintergrating, 1956-57
Disintergrating, Ivor Davies, 1956-57

His practice has been wide ranging, and he pioneered the creative use of explosives in his art, using them as transformative moments within what could be described as happenings, performance art or theatrical events. Davies staged a series of these in Edinburgh, London, Bristol and Swansea between 1966 and 1968. The archives on display show all the ephemera of notes about funding and organisation that for any project managers or arts administrators are very familiar.

Ambitiously, the largest gallery has an attempt at a recreation of Adam on St Agnes Eve, including a 14 minute film that documents the earliest known performance art event staged in Wales; on the 21st January, 1968. It uses the film and elements, made and recreated from the original props and set. A model of the original performance space was fascinating, both from my A-level knowledge of drama and set design and my love of dioramas and models in museums. This, more than the larger work, brought the performance alive for me.

Ifor Davies and Gustav Metzger DIAS 1966
Ivor Davies and Gustav Metzger, DIAS 1966

Davies' wider contribution to the avant-garde, 'counter-culture' movement, in particular the landmark Destruction in Art Symposium (DIAS), London 1966, which featured figures such as Yoko Ono, is documented here. Davies collected over 350 documents including hand-written letters, drawings, newspaper articles and photographs, and these are all on display, shown like a storyboard along the long walls of the galleries. Films, such as Ivor Davies - Anatomic Explosions, 1966, document performance pieces. Thoughtfully, large leather sofas and earphones make the experience physically comfortable.

Shadow Piece, Yoko Ono and Ifor Davies 1966 Shadow Piece, Yoko Ono and Ifor Davies 1966
Shadow Piece, Yoko Ono  and Ifor Davies 1966

The exhibition closes with Davies' early works; he moved to Penarth and experienced the bombings there as a child in the Second World War. His untrained depictive drawings and more skilful sculptures of imagined environments are charming and engaging.

Ifor Davies - Outside the City, 1955
Outside the City, Ivor Davies, 1955

The exhibition, with its accompanying book, is an asset to academics and for the everyman to gain an understanding of an artist's practice and development. The added value that the museum exhibition gives to us, as contemporary art audiences, is that we see current work talking about our lives alongside work describing our recent history. 

By viewing this work we inevitably compare the works to our understanding of that contemporary history and see clearly the contribution art makes to our understanding of those times. This also illustrated to me that contemporary art is always a commentary, a reaction and a provocateur in the time in which we live. A good reason to both preserve art and continue to create it. The museum and Davies are together here, doing just that.

Jennifer Pearce, March 2016

All images courtesy Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales

Runs until 20 March 2016 at National Museum Cardiff
Open Tuesday to Sunday, 10 till 5, admission free
Further details:

Noddir gan Lywodraeth Cymru | Sponsored by Welsh Government

Silent Explosion is supported by the Colwinston Charitable Trust with additional support from The Henry Moore Foundation. The exhibition is co-curated by Judit Bodor, doctoral researcher at Aberystwyth University, supported by a Collaborative Doctoral Award funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council.

Events supporting this exhibition include workshops and seminars covering conservation, work in Welsh, performance art recollections and a Dementia friendly writing workshop.

Jennifer Pearce is the founder of Art Club and can be followed on Twitter

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