At Cardiff’s Oriel Canfas, Ben Woolhead visits a mixed-media exhibition celebrating a decade since the 870-mile Wales Coast Path launched – and finds it to hold evocative delight on a par with the route itself.
The Wales Coast Path turned 10 last year, and to mark the occasion an exhibition at Cardiff’s Oriel Canfas has brought together 18 artists – including painters, writers, photographers and sculptors – whose work sings a collective hymn to our craggy coastline and sandy, sea-lapped shores.
It was the prospect of seeing Robert Law’s photographs up close that really reeled me in. The Coast Path is all about enjoying the journey rather than fixating on the final destination, and in that respect Law’s contribution is entirely fitting: four images from his Holyhead – Sea Change? series that invite the viewer to stop and observe a seaside town that is all too often overlooked, merely a staging post to pass through en route to somewhere else. The pictures are muted in colour and apparently mundane in subject matter – until you digest Jon Gower’s insightful accompanying text and suddenly start to see much more. Photography is above all the art of noticing, and together Law and Gower encourage us to pay closer attention to our surroundings, inspiring reflection and firing the imagination.
On my visit, the exhibition’s affable curator Anthony Evans descends from his studio above the gallery to enthuse about this collaboration between photographer and writer, hinting at how art can change our relationship with the world and mediate what we see. So it is that he has found himself looking at places on the Welsh coast through the lens of Kyffin Williams’ work, and his own painting of Pwll Deri in Pembrokeshire – all vibrant blues and greens – is more impressionistic than strictly realistic, not so much a visual representation of the location itself as of Dewi Emrys’ poem about it.
The artworks on display are evocative not just of place but also of memory. Evans’ painting instantly transports me back to a few days spent in the clifftop youth hostel there, perched on the edge of the world, soaking in the spectacular sunsets and listening to the cries of the young seal pups on the rocks of the sheltered coves far below. It’s no coincidence that Evans and I are soon trading recollections: mine of impenetrable seafret at Abermawr, a sweltering summer walk from Abereiddi to Abercastle via the picturesque and post-industrial Porthgain, and the alien landscape of Splott Beach; Evans’ of sleeping on the sand at Tenby in a homemade Clint Eastwood-inspired poncho, being taken to the spot on the Llŷn Peninsula where his friend (and current Archdruid of the Gorsedd) Myrddin ap Dafydd proposed to his wife, and falling face down in the mud on the Gwent Levels while on a research mission.
It would be remiss not to mention the pieces that aren’t within frames on the gallery walls: Nia Bennett’s stylised depiction of the impossibly beautiful cove at Cwm-yr-Eglwys, for instance, crafted out of a slab of finest Welsh slate; or Su Roberts’ sculptures, made using alabaster fallen from the cliffs at Penarth, so subtle that you wonder whether they’ve actually felt the shaping influence of a human hand at all or merely been found sea-smoothed on the beach and put straight on a pedestal. Arguably the most affecting contribution to the exhibition is Mae Hi’n Galw (She/It Is Calling), a short film made by Roberts and her husband Madoc, which simply but effectively captures the coast’s lure through mesmeric footage of breaking waves and the sounds of circling seabirds.
Tucked away in a corner, Marian Delyth’s photo of a discarded blue facemask lying in the surf like a synthetic parody of a mermaid’s purse potentially strikes a more discordant note. Like Mike Perry’s recent Land/Sea exhibition at Oriel y Parc in St David’s, Delyth’s image reminds us of our damaging impact on the natural environment – of plastic and sewage in the sea, and perhaps also of the threat of manmade climate change to a coastline that is already shrinking through erosion every year.
But there is, I think, a less troubling reading of the photo: that the seaside is somewhere that we can be metaphorically unmasked, somewhere we can feel free, somewhere we can escape to and seek solace, even – or perhaps especially – amid the tribulations and horrors of the past few years. Given that proximity to “blue space” has been proven to have not only physical benefits but also “a psychologically restorative effect”, walking the Coast Path can work wonders for both body and mind. This exhibition has temporarily created an invigorating little haven in the heart of the city, celebrating our enduring connection to the coast.
The Coastal Path is at Oriel Canfas until Sat 15 Apr. Admission: free. Info: here
words BEN WOOLHEAD
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