Artist/Place/Time – Amser/Parth/Tyst


Giving space to better thinking…

A new partnership for the arts and the environment 

Arts Council of Wales has teamed up with Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water to create a three year artist in residency programme for aspiring and leading artists at the company’s flagship Elan Valley estate in Powys.

This partnership, which is unique in the UK, will highlight not only the heritage and historic significance of this unique location, but will also celebrate and increase its current relevance to local communities and contemporary Welsh culture. Although initially for three years, the partnership could develop into a long term relationship which would be built up around how artists work and think and how they interact with the natural environment around them.

Located close to the imposing dam at the southerly end of Pen-y-Garreg reservoir, a small two-storey cottage (pictured above) has been renovated and provides the current accommodation and operating environment for this exclusive artist–led pilot project.  It is aimed at developing artists’ practice across media and ways of working whilst raising the profile of the beautiful Elan Valley estate and over time interaction with visitors.

In an initial phase of the project, the Arts Council and Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water have invited artists to help research possibilities for the longer term base of an artists’ retreat and residency project in this off the beaten track reach of the Elan Valley Estate. Providing such access to this unique location is an innovative way of helping artists reflect on their current work, develop new projects and be inspired by the environs of the Elan Valley.

Artists will be encouraged to record their thoughts and experiences in written, audio, visual form or by some other means they deem appropriate.  Whatever the outcome, the intention is to use their materials to help shape future ideas around Elan Valley. The findings of the artists will be left, rather like in an explorers’ cabin, where other occupants that follow may find points of contact that prove interesting or inspiring.

David Alston, Arts Director, Arts Council of Wales said:  “The pilot programme’s purpose is to engage artists in a first instance, to gather ideas, materials and information. The collected experience and information is to be used as part of the definition process to help shape the programme‘s longer term future. The pilot is hopefully a mutually beneficial exchange. It assists artists in their continuing creative practice, offering them time and unparalleled access in an extraordinary locality. In return, it asks for a contribution of thought, a consideration of ideas stimulated here and in some shape or form, a passing on of information, of how an artist experienced this place.”

A visit to Elan Valley never fails to delight and inspire. Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water and the Elan Valley Trust are the custodians of a beautiful area stretching 72 square miles with historic landscapes and thriving wildlife. The dams and reservoirs, the working legacy of remarkable Victorian engineering, add to the captivating and ever changing scenery, and this is the raw material that artists have to work from.

Ed Parsons, Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water Area Lands Manager at Elan Valley added:  “The Elan Valley, as it exists today, is a powerful metaphor for human intervention in the natural environment. It is against this backdrop that Elan Valley offers a very rich and culturally charged landscape for artists to explore  and research – making it the perfect location for work such as this. We are very much looking forward to taking part in this adventure.”

Y LLE GORAU I FEDDWYL YN GLIRIACH… PARTNERIAETH NEWYDD I’R CELFDDYDAU A’R AMGYLCHEDD

Mae Cyngor Celfyddydau Cymru wedi mynd yn bartner â Dŵr Cymru i greu rhaglen breswyl tair blynedd i artistiaid y dyfodol a rhai ar y brig ar ystâd arobryn y cwmni yng Nghwm Elan ym Mhowys.

Bydd y bartneriaeth unigryw hon ym Mhrydain yn amlygu treftadaeth ac arwyddocâd hanesyddol y lleoliad gwych hwn a bydd yn dathlu a chynyddu ei berthnasedd cyfredol i’r cymunedau lleol a diwylliant cyfoes Cymru. Ar y cychwyn mae’r bartneriaeth ar gyfer tair blynedd, ond byddai’n gallu datblygu yn berthynas hir dymor a allai gael ei hadeiladu o gwmpas sut mae artistiaid yn gweithio a meddwl a rhyngweithio gyda’r amgylchedd naturiol o’u hamgylch.

Mae bwthyn deulawr bach sydd wedi’i adnewyddu yn agos at yr argae trawiadol ym mhen deheuol cronfa ddŵr Penygarreg. Y bwthyn hwn fydd y llety a’r gweithle cyfredol ar gyfer y prosiect peilot arbennig dan arweiniad artistiaid. Y nod yw datblygu ymarfer artistiaid ar draws y cyfryngau a ffyrdd o weithio a chodi proffil ystâd Cwm Elan sydd mor brydferth a, thros amser, ryngweithio gydag ymwelwyr.

Yng ngham cychwynnol y prosiect, mae Cyngor Celfyddydau Cymru a Dŵr Cymru wedi gwahodd artistiaid i gynorthwyo’r ymchwil i’r posibiliadau ar gyfer sefydlu yn y tymor hwy encil i artistiaid a phrosiect preswyl yn y lle anghysbell hwn yn Ystâd Cwm Elan. Mae darparu’r fath fynediad i’r lleoliad unigryw hwn yn ffordd arloesol o gynorthwyo artistiaid i fyfyrio ar eu gwaith cyfredol, datblygu prosiectau newydd a chael eu hysbrydoli gan brydferthwch Cwm Elan.

Caiff artistiaid eu hannog i gofnodi eu meddyliau a’u profiadau’n ysgrifenedig, ar ffurf awdio neu’n weledol neu drwy ffyrdd priodol eraill yn ôl eu dewis. Ni waeth beth a fydd y canlyniad, y bwriad yw defnyddio eu deunyddiau i gynorthwyo’r broses o ffurfio syniadau o amgylch Cwm Elan. Gadewir canfyddiadau’r artistiaid yn y bwthyn i’w darganfod gan eraill megis cytiau’r fforwyr cynnar. Wedyn bydd y rhai sy’n dilyn yn eu camre yn gallu gweld pwyntiau cyswllt sy’n eu difyrru, eu diddori a’u hysbrydoli.

Meddai David Alston, Cyfarwyddwr y Celfyddydau, Cyngor Celfyddydau Cymru: “Nod y peilot yw ymgysylltu ag artistiaid yn y lle cyntaf i gasglu syniadau, deunyddiau a gwybodaeth. Mae’r casgliad o brofiad a gwybodaeth yn cael ei ddefnyddio’n rhan o’r broses ddiffinio a siapio dyfodol y rhaglen yn y tymor hwy.

“Gobeithio y bydd y peilot yn gyfnewidfa a fydd o fudd cilyddol. Mae’n gymorth i artistiaid yn eu hymarfer creadigol parhaus gan gynnig iddynt amser a mynediad dirwystr i leoliad o harddwch anhygoel. Yn gyfnewid, mae’n gofyn am gyfraniad ac ystyriaeth o syniadau a symbylwyd yma a throsglwyddo ar ryw lun y wybodaeth am brofiad yr artist o’r lle.”

Mae ymweliad â Chwm Elan bob amser yn rhyfeddu ac ysbrydoli dyn. Dŵr Cymru ac Ymddiriedolaeth Cwm Elan yw ceidwaid yr ardal hardd hon 72 o filltiroedd sgwâr gyda thirwedd hanesyddol a bywyd gwyllt byrlymus. Mae’r argaeau a’r cronfeydd dŵr sy’n waddol campau peirianyddol Fictorianaidd yn ychwanegu at y dirwedd gyfnewidiol a dyma’r deunydd crai sydd gan yr artistiaid i sbardun eu gwaith.

Roedd Ed Parsons, Rheolwr Tiroedd Rhanbarthol Dŵr Cymru yng Nghwm Elan wedi ychwanegu: “Mae Cwm Elan fel y mae ar hyn o bryd yn darlunio’n rymus ymyrraeth ddynol yn y byd naturiol. Yn erbyn y cefndir hwn mae Cwm Elan yn cynnig tirwedd gyfoethog a chyforiog o ystyron diwydiannol i artistiaid ei harchwilio a’i hymchwilio sy’n gwneud y lleoliad yn berffaith ar gyfer y fath waith. Edrychwn ymlaen yn arw at gymryd rhan yn yr antur fawr hon.”


Pam mae perfeddion gwlad yn apelio i gymaint heddiw?

Chris Coppock

“It remains a sobering fact that even in the age of global communications and the Internet, civilisation continues to depend on a few inches of topsoil for its very existence. The activity in and around that soil provides the material to sustain life and the environment to give it meaning.”

Cafodd y darn hwn o ddyfyniad mwy swmpus gan Graham Harvey yn The Killing of the Countryside (Vintage Books, 1997) ei ddefnyddio mewn rhagair i bapur trafod, Investing in Rural Creativity: New Rural Arts Strategy, mewn ymateb i Strategaeth Wledig DEFRA, 2004. Er mai cynaliadwyedd gwledig yw prif fyrdwn y dyfyniad a ysgrifennwyd gan olygydd straeon amaethyddol cyfres The Archers ar BBC Radio 4, mae’r sylw cryno bachog hwn fel petai’n cyfeirio’n benodol at yr hollt neu’r ddeuoliaeth wledig/trefol gyfoes – a’r ffaith bod eu rhyngddibyniaeth ddiwylliannol yn dirywio.

Byddwn i’n dadlau fod y rhwyg rhwng y profiadau gwledig go iawn a’r canfyddiadau gwledig yn arbennig o amlwg wrth drafod egwyddorion arweiniol arferion celfyddyd gyfoes, sydd oherwydd demograffeg poblogaeth yn fetropolitanaidd iawn ei natur. Yn y DU, mae llu o asiantaethau’n ymroi i hyrwyddo arferion celf weledol feirniadol a strategaethau diwylliannol sy’n trin a thrafod gwleidyddiaeth a lleoliadau gwledig – gyda’r Littoral Arts Trust a Grizedale Arts yn ddwy enghraifft amlwg. Yn fy mhrofiad i, fodd bynnag, dyw’r sefyllfa yng Nghymru heb ei datblygu cymaint, yn enwedig o safbwynt ideolegol amlwg a phenodol.

Ond yma yng Nghymru, fel yng ngweddill Prydain, mae cefn gwlad wastad wedi bod yn rhan o ddynodydd diwylliannol – y syniad o ‘Gymru lân, Gymru lonydd’ – a’r meddylfryd Seisnig-Prydeinig gyda’i ‘green and pleasant land’. Meddyliwch am Farming Today, cyfres radio ddyddiol hirhoedlog Radio 4, ac ystyriwch y posibilrwydd o Heavy Industry Today neu Coal Mining Today…

Law yn llaw â’r ymdeimlad cyffredinol hwn o hunaniaeth arbennig, mae elfen – anorfod siŵr o fod a hollbresennol – o Geidwadaeth, sy’n seiliedig ar economi wedi ei sefydlu ar amaethyddiaeth a thwristiaeth; perthynas symbiotig wedi’i seilio ar y syniad mai’r ffordd orau o sicrhau ffyniant gwledig yw trwy barhau ag arferion gwaith ‘traddodiadol’ ar y tir a gwrthsefyll grym diwydianeiddio a datblygu ar bob cyfrif.

Yn y cyd-destun hwn, dyw’r elfen wladaidd fugeiliol hon a’r ymdeimlad gorbenodol o’r amgylchedd gwledig â’i holl gysylltiadau bwrgeisaidd a’i nodweddion ceidwadol, erioed wedi eistedd yn gyfforddus â gwerthoedd yr artist gweledol cyfoes metropolitanaidd sydd am fynd i’r afael â mympwyon cymdeithas o safbwynt mwy dyrchafedig a llai dethol. Ac, mae’n rhaid dweud, artist sy’n cael ei yrru fwyfwy gan wobrau gwerth chweil a hud rhyngwladoliaeth ac sy’n troi ei drwyn ar unrhyw beth sy’n cael ei ystyried yn ‘blwyfol’ neu’n ‘wladaidd’: cyflwr meddwl y mae rhaglen greadigol Cwm Elan, APTElan, gyda’i gyfarwyddyd o ROI GOFOD I FEDDWL GWELL yn gorfod ei wyrdroi.

Er gwaetha’r sefyllfa eithaf diflas o ddiwylliant byd celf hollbresennol sy’n hollti barn ac wedi’i ddatgysylltu’n ddeallusol o’r ddynameg gyfoethog sy’n llywio meddylfryd rhanbarthol a’r naws ac ymdeimlad o le, byddai’r Realpolitik yn awgrymu bod Cymru yn dod i gysylltiad â symbioteg rhyngweithio gwledig/ trefol i raddau mwy helaeth ac mewn modd mwy diwylliannol ddiffiniedig na’i chymydog.

“Landscape creates nations, and nowhere is this truism truer than in Wales, Cymru. Almost everything about Wales has been decreed by its terrain; certainly if the countryside had been different the Welsh people as we know them would never have existed.”

Dyna eiriau Jan Morris mewn molawd angerddol a phryfoclyd i Gymru wledig yn ei llyfr The Matter of Wales a gyhoeddwyd ym 1987. Syniad rhamantaidd heb os sy’n awgrymu bod ysbryd cenedl wedi’i gryfhau gan rym yr amgylchedd naturiol i ddeffro’r brodorion.

Mae’r ddelwedd o’r Gymru wledig amaethyddol wedi serio gymaint yn y dychymyg nes ei bod hi’n hawdd gweld pam mae pobl o’r tu allan (a llawer oddi mewn i Gymru hefyd) wedi ei defnyddio’n ddilornus i greu delwedd ddigamsyniol o wlad fach blwyfol a hen ffasiwn sydd ar ei hôl hi’n dechnolegol. Ar sawl cyfri, er hynny, mae’n enghraifft o’r gwrthdaro sydd wedi bodoli o ran deall hunaniaeth y Cymry a datblygiad yr hunaniaeth honno ers dechreuadau’r Chwyldro Diwydiannol.

Y farn boblogaidd yw bod diwydianeiddio yn drobwynt pwysig o ran bywyd cymdeithasol a diwylliannol Cymru erbyn diwedd y bedwaredd ganrif ar bymtheg. Tra’r oedd y cadarnleoedd Cymraeg gwledig yn cynrychioli’r hen Gymru draddodiadol, roedd y cymoedd diwydiannol Saesneg yn arwydd o’r Gymru fodern.

Mae’r syniadau am Gymru a ddatblygodd wedyn yn awgrymu gwlad o ddau begwn: gwledig yn erbyn trefol, rhamantaidd yn erbyn rhyddieithol, hynafiaeth yn erbyn moderniaeth ac ati: a’r gwahaniaethau hyn yn mynd law yn llaw â’r tensiynau Cymraeg/di-Gymraeg.

Er hyn, mae Jan Morris â’i chariad tuag at yr elfen wledig fugeiliol, yn cyfleu maen prawf sydd, yn gam neu’n gymwys, yn cyfleu’r ymdeimlad o wahaniaeth a hynodrwydd y gellir ei herio, ond sydd hefyd yn cyfleu’r syniad o wlad â sylfeini daearyddol ac amgylcheddol digwestiwn.

Y gwir amdani yw mai gwlad fynyddig yw Cymru’n bennaf, gydag Eryri yn
y gogledd-orllewin, mynyddoedd Cambrian neu’r Elenydd yn y canolbarth, a Bannau Brycheiniog yn y de yn hawlio cymaint o dir o werth economaidd prin heblaw am ffermio mynydd a thwristiaeth hamdden.

O’i roi yn ei gyd-destun, 2,064,000 hectar yw arwynebedd tir Cymru gyfan. Dim ond 3% o’r arwynebedd tir hwnnw sy’n dir braenar ac yn cael ei ddefnyddio i dyfu cnydau, 73% yn laswellt a phorfa fras, 1% yn dir amaethyddol arall, 13% yn fforest a choetir, a 10% yn cael ei ddefnyddio fel datblygiad trefol.

Mae’r oruchafiaeth wledig yn amlwg iawn felly o gymharu â Lloegr. Mae cyfran uwch o boblogaeth Cymru’n byw mewn cymunedau bach: gyda bron i 20% yn byw mewn pentrefi â llai na 1,500 o bobl o gymharu â hanner hynny yn Lloegr. Ond efallai mai’r ffaith fwyaf diddorol er mwyn deall y gwahaniaethau demograffig yw ystyried cyfran ryfeddol y boblogaeth sy’n byw yn yr ardaloedd gwledig mwyaf gwasgaredig – 15% yng Nghymru o gymharu â dim ond 1.5% yn Lloegr.

Gan ystyried y cefndir amaethyddol hwn, lle mae bywyd cymharol unig a phwyslais ar drin y tir yn llywio bywydau, gwerthoedd a sentiment canran fawr o boblogaeth Cymru, mae’n hawdd gweld pa mor ganolog yw rôl y cae agored – y maes – wrth hwyluso, siapio a chynnig gofod deallusol ar gyfer cymaint o weithgareddau diwylliannol rhyngysylltiedig unigryw sy’n siapio ein cenedl.

Nid cyd-ddigwyddiad yw’r ffaith fod eisteddfodau teithiol yr Urdd a’r Genedlaethol, Eisteddfod Gydwladol Llangollen a Gŵyl y Gelli oll wedi ffynnu mewn lleoliadau lle mae naws am le a’r amgylchiadau lleol wrth galon y cyfan;
lle mae pellter a phellenigrwydd demograffig, seilwaith bregus, y tywydd a’r amgylchiadau anwadal, ac angerdd i sicrhau nad yw cefn gwlad yn eilbeth i’r dref a’r ddinas yn ymgorfforiad o ofod seicolegol nad yw’n fetropolitanaidd ac, i bob pwrpas, yn dathlu’r pethau ymylol dros y canolog.

Ar ei fwyaf goleuedig, mae’n oruchwyliaeth ddiwylliannol sy’n cydnabod
y teimlad o fod ar gyrion Ewrop, yn ffisegol ac yn emosiynol, ac yn cynnig fframwaith cyfeirio symbolaidd o fewn ei gylch dylanwad a chyfalaf deallusol ei hun.

Yn y cyd-destun hwn felly, mae pellter daearyddol Cwm Elan, ei dirwedd aruchel a’r cyfuniad unigryw o dreftadaeth ddiwydiannol a systemau rheoli adnoddau naturiol, yn cynnig y math o amgylchedd sy’n nodweddu’r fframwaith ideolegol hwn. Mae Cwm Elan fel Maes yn gynnig syml a chredadwy, ac yn gwbl addas dan yr amgylchiadau.

I ymhelaethu, byddwn i’n dadlau, felly, fod gan raglen breswyl gychwynnol APTElan – sy’n seiliedig ar ddatblygu, meddwl beirniadol ac ymestyn ffiniau cysyniadol a geirfa gwaith yr artist trwy ymgysylltu â’r amgylchedd uniongyrchol – boed yn gymdeithasol, daearyddol neu wleidyddol, neu gyfuniad ohonynt a llawer o ffactorau penodedig eraill sy’n amlwg yn niwylliant lle – gryn dipyn o rym diwylliannol.

Yn hyn o beth, mae’r llwyfan wedi’i osod ar gyfer gofod cyfoethog, llawn dychymyg sydd mewn cytgord llwyr â’r dirwedd sydd wedi’i thrin a’i braenaru i harneisio a gwasgaru sylwedd pwerus a chyntefig iawn, DŴR. Elfen sy’n rhan hollbwysig o’n bywydau ni, grym bywyd sy’n hanfodol i’n lles ac wedi llifo trwy’n dychymyg creadigol ers cyn cof. Ac felly, gyda dŵr fel ei brif symbol, mae Cwm Elan yn datblygu’n labordy i’r meddwl, wedi’i lywio gan gysylltiad â’i naws am le unigryw a’r amodau daearegol, tirffurfiol, hinsoddol ac amgylcheddol sy’n diffinio’r cwm.

Mae’r artistiaid preswyl sydd eisoes wedi cyfrannu at raglen beilot APTElan wedi ymateb yn frwd – trwy eu meysydd academaidd a chreadigol amlhaenog a’u ffyrdd unigryw eu hunain – i ysbryd y fenter.

Ond dim ond megis dechrau yw hyn. Mae Cwm Elan, gyda’i hanes diwylliannol cyfoethog sy’n cyfuno’r Chwyldro Diwydiannol a champweithiau peirianneg Oes Fictoria ac elfennau mwy cyfoes twristiaeth a hamdden, yn cynnig cefnlen ddiddorol a chyffrous i artistiaid a chynhyrchwyr creadigol feithrin syniadau ac ymchwil rhyngddisgyblaethol – ac yn ddelfrydol, yn eu helpu i lywio a herio polisi diwylliannol ar lefel strategol.

Bellach, mae gofod ffisegol a chysyniadol cadarn ar gael yng Nghymru sy’n cynnig model o ymgysylltu artistig; un sy’n cefnogi’r syniad o’r byd fel sffêr gydag unrhyw bwynt ar yr arwyneb hwnnw yn fan canol i bob pwrpas. A rhywle lle gall y ffiniau rhwng yr Ymylon a’r Canol ddod yn fwyfwy ystwyth a hyblyg, a’r siofinyddiaeth ddiwylliannol sy’n rhan o’r ddeuoliaeth honno – ac sy’n plagio’r byd celfyddydau gweledol cyfoes – berthyn i’r gorffennol, gyda lwc.

Curadur a chynghorydd celf annibynnol yw Chris Coppock. Ef yw Pennaeth Creadigol Arts & Minds ar hyn o bryd, rhaglen gelfyddydol ac adfywio wedi’i chanoli ar stadau tai cymdeithasol yn ardal

Blaenau Gwent.

Christopher Coppock

Just what is it that makes today’s backwoods so different, so appealing?

Chris Coppock

“It remains a sobering fact that even in the age of global communications and the Internet, civilisation continues to depend on a few inches of topsoil for its very existence. The activity in and around that soil provides the material to sustain life and the environment to give it meaning.”

This excerpt from a longer quote by Graham Harvey in The Killing of the Countryside (Vintage Books, 1997) was used to preface a discussion paper, Investing in Rural Creativity: New Rural Arts Strategy, in response to DEFRA’s Rural Strategy, 2004. While the broader sentiment of the unabridged quote was very much geared towards issues around rural sustainability, and came from the pen of an agricultural story editor for The Archers on BBC Radio 4 to boot, this pithy remark seems to cut to the chase in terms of the contemporary rural/urban dichotomy — and the steady erosion of their cultural interdependency.

This rupture between lived experience and perception of the rural is, I would argue, particularly marked when it comes to the guiding principles of much contemporary art practice, which by dint of population demographics is largely metropolitan in its orientation. There are a number of agencies in the UK that seek to promote critical visual art practices and cultural strategies that address issues around rural politics and place — with the Littoral Arts Trust and Grizedale Arts being two particularly good examples. In my experience however, the situation

in Wales is much less developed, certainly from a clearly defined ideological perspective.

But then in Wales, as in the wider UK, the countryside has always been an indelible cultural signifier in the British psyche and has been central to the abiding concept of ‘a green and pleasant land‘. Think Farming Today, the long running daily series on Radio 4, and then contemplate the possibility of Heavy Industry Today or Coal Mining Today…

Attendant to this overarching sense of identity has been a pervasive — and I suppose inevitable — Conservatism, based on an economy straddling agriculture and tourism; a symbiotic relationship which is predicated on the idea that rural prosperity is best sustained by maintaining ‘traditional’ working practices on the land and effectively resisting the onslaught of industrialisation and development.

In this context, this pastoral and over-determined sense of the rural environment, with all its bourgeois associations and conservative instincts, has perhaps never sat very comfortably with the values of the metropolitan contemporary visual artist wishing to confront the vagaries of society from a more exalted and less rarefied frame of reference. And, it has to be said, an artist who is becoming increasingly driven by the glittering prizes and seduction of internationalism and its disavowal of anything perceived to embrace the ‘parochial’ or ‘provincial’: a state of mind that the creative programme in the Elan Valley, APTElan, with its directive, GIVING SPACE TO BETTER THINKING is somewhat charged with disabusing.

Notwithstanding the rather depressing and polarised scenario of a predominant art world culture dislocated intellectually from the rich dynamics that drive regional sensibilities and a sense of place and locality, Realpolitik would suggest that Wales rubs up against the symbiotics of the rural/urban interface to a much greater, and culturally-defining, extent that its most immediate neighbour.

“Landscape creates nations, and nowhere is this truism truer than in Wales, Cymru. Almost everything about Wales has been decreed by its terrain; certainly if the countryside had been different the Welsh people as we know them would never have existed.”

So utters Jan Morris in a passionate and provocative paean to pastoral Wales in her 1987 book, The Matter of Wales. This is unequivocally a romantic mind-set suggesting that the spirit of a nation is buttressed by the power of the natural environment to ferment indigenous sensibilities.

This bucolic view of Wales has become indelible in the imagination as a defining national characteristic, and it is easy to see why the notion of Wales as an agrarian society has been used pejoratively by outsiders (and many from within) to cement an image of the country, which is parochial and technologically unsophisticated. In many respects though, it is paradigmatic of the tensions that have existed in terms of understanding Welsh identity and its construction since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

It is widely accepted that by the end of the nineteenth century industrialisation marked a key point of divergence in social and cultural life in Wales. Traditional Wales was deemed to be embodied in the largely Welsh-speaking rural hinterland and modern Wales seated in the geographically smaller English-speaking industrial Valleys.

The perceptions of Wales that subsequently developed suggested a nation heavy with binary opposites: rural verses industrial, romantic verses prosaic, antiquity verses modernity, etc.: with the polarities essentially aligned with the Welsh language/English language fissure.

Notwithstanding this Jan Morris, in her love of the pastoral, evokes a touchstone, which for better or worse captures a sense of difference and distinctiveness that may be contested, but which also captures a vision of a country that has persuasive topographical and environmental foundations.

The truth is that much of Wales is mountainous, with Snowdonia in the north west, the Cambrian Mountains in mid Wales, and the Brecon Beacons in the south carving up a disproportionate area of land that has little economic value beyond subsistence hill farming and leisure tourism.

To put this in perspective, the total land area of Wales is 2,064,000 hectares. Crops and fallow land account for 3% of the land area, grasses and rough grazing 73%, other agricultural land 1%, forest and woodland 13%, and urban development 10%.

Looked at in comparison to England, the rural imperative is brought into
sharp focus. A large share of the Welsh population lives in smaller settlements: nearly 20% live in villages of less than 1,500 persons compared to half that
figure in England. Perhaps most compelling in understanding the demographic dissimilarities is to consider the share of the population living in the sparsest rural areas – a staggering 15% in Wales compared to only 1.5 % in England.

Against this agrarian backdrop where relative isolation and a preoccupation with the land and its husbandry informs the lives, values and sentiment of a large percentage of the Welsh population, it is easy to see why the open space of the field – or in its Welsh incarnation the maes – plays such a pivotal role in facilitating, shaping and providing the intellectual space for a whole series of interconnected and nationally-defining cultural activities.

It is no coincidence that the Hay Festival, the peripatetic National and Urdd Eisteddfods and the International Eisteddfod at Llangollen – have all flourished in locations whose heart is driven by a sense of place and local circumstance; where demographic remoteness, fragile infrastructures, the unpredictable outdoors and a passion not to privilege the urban over the rural embodies a psychological space that is distinctly non-metropolitan and, in effect, a celebration of the periphery over the centre.

At its most enlightened, it is a cultural dispensation that acknowledges being on the margins of Europe, physically and emotionally, and offers an emblematic framework of reference with its own sphere of influence and intellectual capital.

Looked at in these terms, the Elan Valley’s geographical remoteness, sublime landscape and unique blend of industrial heritage and natural resource management systems, offers the kind of environment that typifies this ideological framework. In short, Elan Valley as Maes becomes a simple and credible proposition, and wholly appropriate given the prevailing circumstances.

By extension, the nascent residency programme, APTElan, which is predicated on

“develop[ing] critical thinking and extend[ing] the conceptual parameters and vocabulary of the artist’s work by engaging with the immediate environment – whether that be social, geographical or political, or a combination of these, and many other determining factors that foreground the culture of place” has, I would argue, a considerable degree of cultural traction.

In this regard the stage is set for a rich, imaginative space, attuned to a landscape cultivated to harness and disperse a powerful and primary substance, WATER. An element that plays such a crucial part in our lives, a life force that is fundamental to our well-being and which has flowed through our creative imagination from time immemorial. And so, with water as its primary motif, Elan Valley becomes a laboratory of the mind, driven by a connectivity to its unique sense of place and the geological, topographic, climatic and environmental conditions which define it.

The residency artists who have already been engaged in the APTElan pilot programme have responded enthusiastically — via their multi-faceted academic and creative disciplines and idiosyncratic ways — to the spirit of the enterprise.

But this is only the start. The Elan Valley, with its rich cultural history, straddling the Industrial Revolution and exemplary Victorian engineering with the more contemporary tropes of tourism and leisure, provides artists and creative producers with a compelling backdrop in which to ferment ideas and inter- disciplinary research — and ideally to help to inform and challenge cultural policy at a strategic level.

A potent physical and conceptual space now exists in Wales that offers up a new paradigm of artistic engagement; one that subscribes to the concept that as the world is a sphere any point on its surface is effectively in the middle. And, by association, where the boundaries between the Margins and the Centre can become malleable, and the cultural chauvinism that is embodied in that binary — and which haunts the contemporary visual arts — can become, wishful thinking perhaps, a thing of the past.

Chris Coppock is a curator and independent art consultant and is currently Creative Principal of Arts & Minds, an arts and regeneration programme centred on social housing neighbourhoods in Blaenau Gwent, South Wales.

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