UNDO THINGS DONE with its shouty sloganic caps proclaiming loudly from the exhibition literature, speaks simultaneously of artistic pursuits and commercial marketing campaigns, leaving us referentially hanging between high art and the high street. Functional austerity. That’s the first thing that comes to mind on entering the Santa Maria Ausiliatrice. Sean Edwards’ sculptures in the main body of this deconsecrated church (now education centre), initially appear formal enough to make it seem a little underdressed as host. But, as with everything he makes, quotidian and autobiographical details slowly reveal themselves, offering narrative entry points into many imaginable conversations around class, cultural values and identity.
Religiosity remains, possibly as a result of reaching peak Catholitecture after several days in Venice, on the fringes of the encounter. Save for the fact of being inside a living painting from a bygone era of church patronage. For everything that might be noted on the condition report for this place (and much of the surrounding architecture) – from its vaulted flaky ceilings, to the ornate chequer-board marble floors and grand mouldings framing frescoes – renders any visitor the activating component in an oddly perfunctory period drama.
But here, the ordinariness, the everyday qualities distinctly missing from the ‘artworld Olympics’ in opening week, have been purposely managed. This centuries-old house of worship has been thoughtfully reconsidered as test site for a select group of sculptural signifiers, in various media. Designed to resonate at a personal level, the impact of each will likely vary in accordance with when, where and how you grew up. The audio element of this presentation, however, provides enough contextual glue to bind all who witness it – together with Edwards’ prop-like cues – firmly in the moment.
The artist has developed a visual vernacular over the years gleaned from objects and materials of significance to him, often referencing his growing-up years in Wales. The set of municipally framed backing-board screens separating those who enter from the exhibition itself are as evocative of leisure centres as the homes of the leisure classes. They allow peep-hole glimpses of the main space through a series of lasered-out forms. It takes a little time to mentally locate the precise curvilinearity of them, owing to the way they become abstracted in repeat. The graphic, slanty ‘un’, which once you recognise it as two characters is reminiscent of handwriting practice, has been taken directly from the Sun newspaper’s logo. The paper was banned from Edwards' family home owing to its political affiliations.
Once into the belly of the building, tall slivers of MDF appear propped against a metal armature like elegant arcs of material that have been gathered for possibly architectural purposes, or a school sports day. They bring to mind old-world house-construction and tool-making techniques, as much as art ingredients we are used to seeing arranged in multiple for aesthetic impact. My guess is they were once whole boards coated one-side with imagery and then cut to specification. It’s not possible to say of exactly what, but there are fragments of text and image clues available: a repeat houndstooth motif; colourways synonymous with 1970s photography; a fragment of a medical prescription. Images and video footage online* reveal something of the process, including illustrations and newspaper stories photographed post saw-up, such as one from the Mirror about the death of snooker player Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins.
Images courtesy of Sean Edwards and Tanya Leighton, Berlin
Perhaps the most succinct series of works – in terms of its subtle mash-up of very different cultural metaphors – is a one-room installation of large coloured quilts. They may hang together as if fashionable, covetable washing on a line, yet once again bring into play the formal strategies of other modes of expression; in this case modernist textiles and vexilla. Edwards called on a team of Welsh quilters he has worked with before to create his designs in fabric. Sun-type symbols, grids of squares and triangles, and the ubiquitous ‘uns’ combine to create 3-D drawings that associatively straddle the worlds of craft, art and home furnishing, while evoking the hopes and aspirations of both families and the producers of political signage, through time.
In a smaller ante room, adjacent to a video of dominos clacking, a poster reads ‘FREE SCHOOL DINNERS’ and immediately we are taken worlds away from the situation. If you’ve ever felt the gut-twist of being a recipient, this prompt will likely trigger an equally strong response. The sensation is both amplified and verified by uncomfortably large photographs of fingers, nails bitten down to the quick, in a neighbouring space. Poverty connects all who experience it, but as Edwards reminds, there are national, local characteristics to the way it manifests itself as a societal issue; shape an individual’s sense of status and entitlement.
If a political drum is being banged here it’s quietly and with personal investment, but it’s hard to look at these images and not think about the barriers to social mobility in our, once again, highly visible class system. Especially as the country tips perilously on the edge of Brexit and the socio-economic gap between citizens widens. These are indeed ‘interesting’, or just even-more-terrible, times, depending on where you view them from.
Just before 2pm, when the audio broadcast of ‘Refrain’ is due to start (as it will every day for the duration of the exhibition), Edwards comes into the space and parks himself on a bench. It's a radio play sensitively sutured together from the artist’s backstory and read by his mother live from her council flat in Cardiff (with the support of National Theatre Wales). He appears pensive and, while I would like to introduce myself and share some thoughts, the idea seems wholly inappropriate. I wonder if he’s literally living the rub he aptly describes: of being from one place and now of another – omnipresent, if possibly only semi-materialised, in both.
Edwards’ elderly, wonderfully game mother narrates from the script and none of us appear to know quite what to do with ourselves. As if we’re trespassing on a key family moment. But as her northern Irish tones ring out and around this pocket of Venice, the curious facts, moments of poetry, harsh realities and humour implicate all in the situation.
“What can I say that would be equal to the occasion? God does not owe us anything and he [Edwards] knows this because, because of a photograph he found. He remembers a damp basement flat. There was a yellow budgie. We weren’t here long before moving to a council flat in the sky. When his sister was born, we moved into the home that I have lived in for 30 years. The longest I have remained at any address. We drive past it now and its new residents do not keep it clean … he remembers we used to clean it with Ajax … unununununun”.
As the decaying vestiges of the building are sonically rinsed in evidence of other histories, the works become active players in the mix, with the capacity to reveal much more about the machinations behind their making than the sum of their material parts. The site and its contents can at times be reimagined as elements of erstwhile narratives: the possibility of this space having been penitently scrubbed in its past lives; the ‘uns’ laser cut from the screens softly enunciated back into the spaces they’ve left.
All the data here, if you’re willing to divine it from the structural whole, leads one back to life as it is lived rather than social issues under investigation. The biennale is attractively littered with minimally styled installations about the nature of experiencing art, as well as gritty political displays, on every scale, which communicate affecting stories of human life in flux as felt around the globe. Edwards’ mode of presentation sits somewhere between the two, initially appearing as an exercise in material restraint and yet yielding much in the way of socially resonant details and local particulars. A form of local, narratively speaking, often missing from art production in general, and culturally specific enough in the rarefied environs of this event for him to have marked out a place here all of his own.
Funded by the Arts Council of Wales and curated by the Bluecoat’s head of programme, Marie-Anne McQuay, UNDO THINGS DONE will be at Santa Maria Ausiliatrice, Castello until 24 November and is free to visit. Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-6pm (Closed Mondays). 'Refrain', a live radio play, is performed at 2pm every day. The exhibition will tour back to the UK in the spring of 2020, appearing at Tŷ Pawb, Wrexham (a lead partner in the project along with National Theatre Wales), before moving on to Bluecoat, Liverpool (project partner) next winter.
Photos: © Jamie Woodley, Sean Edwards and Tanya Leighton, Berlin unless otherwise stated.