Yesterday afternoon students from the School of Art joined forces with staff from Ceredigion Museum and the people of Aberystwyth to help Janekta Platun, current artist in residence at Ceredigion Museum, create her site-specific installation.
We arrived at Borth beach at about 4pm to find a group of ladies in traditional Welsh dress, a camera crew, several buckets and spades and a team of helpers.
In a talk earlier this week, Janekta expressed her interest in responding to an area’s culture, society and natural environment through the transformative power of art. Yesterday’s piece was inspired by the history of Welsh hats. The black cone shape has become a symbol of Welsh culture, and yet very little is known about its origin, why it became so important to Welsh national dress in the 1830s, or why only 160 remain in existence today.
The idea was to recreate this notion of a fading cultural icon, making use of the natural surroundings. For every Welsh hat still in existence, a replica was built in sand on the planes of Borth beach. The women in Welsh dress worked hard, carrying and turning out these sandcastles as the tide eventually swept them away before them, their hard work and the icon of their culture becoming a distant memory.
Although it was cold and threatening to rain, the feeling of community spirit outshone. Many of us had never met before, but we were pitching together in a race against the tide, the Welsh hat as a symbol of hard-working women in Wales becoming ever more poignant.
By 7pm the tide was fast encroaching.
“Twenty more to go! Come on team!”
“You dig the sand, I’ll squash it down.”
“We need sturdy sandcastles please team”
We’d generated a good sense of community spirit, and it felt like such an achievement. I couldn’t help thinking, though, that that was just the way people worked a hundred years ago. They just got on with it. Why was that community spirit so unfamiliar to me? Why did I feel so deserving of a pat on the back?
All that was left to do was to stand and watch our installation dissipate. After three hours of work, it took just ten minutes for the land to fall back to how we found it. The movement of the waves back and forth echoed, quite beautifully, that push-and-pull between the charmingly effortless autonomy of the art we had made and the anxiety of our labour being ultimately futile.
And how different would it have been if we had chosen not to document our installation photographically? What if we’d turned up, made it, and left with no record to show for it?
“That would’ve been their life”, Janekta said. “No acknowledgement.”
Our relationship with the memory of ourselves continues to baffle me. Our desire for permanence and our desperation to collect physical, tangible memories has become an unnerving necessity. Are we now too frightened to embrace the ephemeral nature of our work, our existence, and our impact as a culture?