Identities: Timothy Emlyn Jones, John Chris Jones, and Andrew Knight interviewed by Heike Roms

22 February 2007, 6pm, Space Workshop, Cardiff School of Art and Design


‘This year, also, in collaboration with the Welsh Arts Council, we are presenting something that is completely new to the Eisteddfod field – Performing Arts. In the second pavilion we offer you a journey through time and through the Celtic world, giving a new look to the Celtic inheritance in a way which is not entirely traditional: there will be an exhibition of images and prints, and each day different artists will convey their message, not by drawing and sculpture but by performing with the aim of stimulating discussion and discourse with the audience. We expect this to be one of the most exciting events in the cultural field in Wales during the last few years.’ (National Eisteddfod Wrexham 1977–Official Programme )

In 1977 the Welsh Arts Council organised a week-long exhibition of international performance art at the Royal National Eisteddfod of Wales in Wrexham. The event, entitled How the Past Perishes – How the Future Becomes, was curated under the banner of the Free International University by Caroline Tisdall, then critic at the Guardian, and Timothy Emlyn Jones and organised for the WAC by Andrew Knight. Exhibitors involved Joseph Beuys, Mario and Merisa Merz, Jannis Kounellis, Brian O’Doherty/Patrick Ireland, Rose Finn-Kelcey, Tina Keane, Nigel Rolfe , John Chris Jones and Timothy Emlyn Jones, among others. The press reacted in a predictable way, condemning the venture for its ‘shocking waste of public money’, and questions were asked of the Welsh secretary. The occasion also became known for the (unofficial) interventions staged by locally based Welsh artist Paul Davies, whose Welsh Not and Spiral Gag actions created at the Eisteddfod are widely regarded as ‘the inception of a self-conscious contemporary Welsh political art’


Timothy Emlyn Jones is Dean of Burren College of Art. Originally a performance artist who has exhibited with Beuys, Brisley and Latham, his recent work has centred on performative drawing considered as a process of enquiry. He exhibits internationally and is represented in public collections in a number of countries. John Chris Jones has been a pioneer of system design and futures research. His book Design Methods is regarded as a standard reference tool for designers. His approach to writing and publication is deeply performative, often using chance methods of composition. In recent years he has explored writing on the world-wide-web ( Andrew Knight is a public art strategist and manager whose professional life centres around public engagement with contemporary culture in all its forms with a particular emphasis on the visual arts. He is a former chair of Public Art Forum and has worked for AIR and SPACE, the ICA, the Welsh Arts Council and in local authorities.

John Chris Jones, Timothy Emlyn Jones and Andrew Knight were in conversation about the international performance programme at the Wrexham Eisteddfod 1977.



HR: I would like to begin by asking Andrew to give us a brief insight into how this event came about. What surprised me when I was looking at the archives was that this wasn’t a Welsh Arts Council initiative to begin with. It was actually the Arts & Crafts Committee of the Eisteddfod who approached you and asked you to organise an event of ‘Happenings’

at the Eisteddfod.

AK: What slightly worries me, Heike, is that you have looked at files that I haven’t looked at for 30 years …

HR: I know it all !

AK: I had been at the Arts Council for just 12 months and I was a wonderful naïve 25 year old. Nowadays structures have developed to such an extent that the chance of getting a job at that age with actually very little experience would be very difficult. Suddenly I was in a position where I had access to resources and the chance to influence things, but in some ways with very little knowledge of Wales . I was dropped right into a very different culture. Up until that point there was always an Arts & Crafts Pavilion, the content of which was determined by the local committee. And I’d only ever been to one Eisteddfod before that, in Aberteifi (Cardigan)1, which had been a mixed bag of good painting, bad painting, model making and flower arranging. Every year the Arts Council would go in and try and do something that would just be a little bit different, that would try and raise aspirations and standards, on a site which alternated between north and south Wales every year, at one of the biggest festivals in the UK. It took an enormous effort for this to happen but the content was always determined by the local committee.
I think it was somebody2 who was teaching at Wrexham College of Art3 who said ‘We’d like to do performance art’, and I probably didn’t realise why I was responding so enthusiastically at the time. But when I considered the opportunity a little further, it was clear to me that whoever was going to curate that programme needed to be very sympathetic to the situation in Wales but situated externally someone who saw Welsh performance work in an international or European context rather than simply within a Welsh context. Caroline Tisdall, who was then art critic at The Guardian, and with  whom I had done some work in London, seemed to me to be a very interesting person to engage in that dialogue. So it was very much in response to an idea that had come out of Wrexham. The arts and crafts committee probably didn’

t quite realise what they were asking for at the time.

HR: According to the minutes of their meeting they were asking for ‘artists to operate in the field of happenings, environments, performance, film, living sculpture, conceptual etc’. And they also asked for ‘events or performances that could take the form of an involvement with the elements – air, water, fire, light, sound and earth’, which was an idea that was being carried forward to some extent…

AK: To be fair there was quite a lot of sophisticated thinking going on It’s connecting that thinking with the reality of what that actually meant in terms of both the range of artists and concepts you might deal with and putting that onto a site in Wrexham in the first week in August …

. Also, there had not been a particularly strong presence of performance work in Wales. In places like Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff, there was a very strong performative aspect to all of the work presented there but it was coming from a theatrical tradition rather than fine art.

HR: What do you think interested the Wrexham committee about performance? Did they ever articulate what they saw in performance that interested them in presenting it at the Eisteddfod?

AK: I don’t know, there were long committee meetings about the minutiae of what the event might contain, it’s very difficult to pull back that kind of thing. Wrexham was one of those places that perhaps saw itself a little bit on the edge of Wales: was Wrexham Wales or was it in Cheshire; was it responding to audiences from Liverpool and Manchester or was it dealing with Welsh audiences? And also of course you have a strong industrial history around Wrexham, both with the iron works and the coal-mining industry that was alive around Wrexham at the time, so it was a slightly different kind of place, and that may well have helped inform some of the committee’

s thinking.

HR: Also, with Caroline Tisdall came a different association, she was a collaborator of Joseph Beuys, a documenter of his work. She has published several books about Beuys and was also very engaged in the Free International University4 which is, I think, the connection with you two, Timothy and John Chris. How did that come about? How did the Free International University become involved? In some documentation that I saw, the Eisteddfod performance art programme in 1977 was actually presented as an event hosted by the Free International University.

AK: It came about partly because I had worked with Beuys and a number of other German artists as an assistant on a show at the ICA5, and in a sense the structure of that show partly informed the way in which we thought about the Eisteddfod. Caroline had had quite a strong influence on that show, for which she’d brought some of those German artists together. Beuys had spent several weeks working in London in the ICA, and I think it was just the whole flavour and atmosphere and that engagement with audiences in a slightly different way –the fact that you might express political issues either through quite obviously didactic graphic works, or you might do it through performance works, and the two could sit side by side and engage in that dialogue –

I think that was probably quite a critical element.

HR: Timothy, how did you become involved, do you remember? Because you acted as a co-curator on the event.

TEJ: Caroline approached me and asked me if I’d like to be involved. I’d known her for about ten years, and we’d both got involved with Beuys in 1973 at the Edinburgh Festival6 and had stayed in touch: I came into contact with Beuys at the Free International University on several occasions subsequently. Caroline said she’

d like me to be involved: she wanted an artist, preferably a Welsh artist, involved. The Wrexham performance art programme was very much driven by the central concern and concept of the Free International University, by the idea of universal creativity.

HR: Can you say a little bit more about this concept for those who may not be familiar with the initiative?

TEJ: Beuys was famous for the expression ‘everyone is an artist’. And he was very explicit, he said that he did not mean that everyone is a painter or a sculptor or anything of the kind, but that everyone has the potential to elevate their ordinary activity to the level of art through any medium whatsoever. This is the concept of ‘social sculpture’, and it was an idea that interested me strongly. This was, if you like, the core of the planning and the thinking, of the necessity of making the event connect to the place in which it took place. We wanted to explore the concepts of universal creativity through performance work which would be presented in a pretty unorthodox context. The idea of performance art being something that happens in galleries and performance spaces was not as firmly established then as it is now. One of the key things I think in performance art at the time was that it was essentially transgressive. It was interdisciplinary: it didn’

t just cross boundaries, it diffused boundaries, and that made it a particular mode of thinking.

HR: How involved was Beuys in the conceptualisation of the Wrexham event ? I read that at one point it was being considered that he might come to Wrexham to take part himself…

TEJ: He was doing his big Honeypump installation piece at Documenta, of which this was a part.7 The week following the Wrexham Eisteddfod, I went to Kassel and we had a session discussing what had happened in Wrexham. He took a strong personal interest in the event.. He didn’

t have a formal role in the planning but he had a fairly substantial input.

HR: And, John Chris, were you a member of the Free International University at the time? Was that how you became involved?

JCJ: I wouldn’

t say I was a member, I had been to one or two meetings in London and it seemed a liberating thing.

TEJ: The Free International University was modelled on the idea of a network, a kind of proto-internet without the digital facility. Yet it always had the Beuys stamp on it. There are a number of issues around one artist appropriating the work of other artists. It raises an interesting set of questions around intellectual property in any kind of collaborative activity.

HR: Some of the other artists involved in the Eisteddfod prodgramme felt a little ambivalent about it. I had a letter from Terence O’Malley, one of the artists, who wrote that ‘We were told we were now all members of the Free University. I was hoping to get a badge but we never did’


TEJ: There was never a badge but there was a rubber stamp.

HR: He never received his !

TEJ: Beuys was very playful with it. I remember he put the Free International University rubber stamp on request on several people’s passports and there’

s a friend of mine who had great difficulty going through the border from West Berlin to East Berlin with his.

HR: Could you talk more, Andrew, about your approach to the Eisteddfod event? What is really striking about this week is how highly curated it was, how detailed it was in its conceptual design. Each day followed a different theme and there was an overall theme that run through the entire week.

AK: I’m glad it looks like that from a distance because it didn’t feel like that at the time. The first thing was to identify what kind of space we needed on the Eisteddfod field for this event to happen in. We hired a marquee which sat outside the main Arts and Crafts Pavilion. The idea was that there would be changing exhibitions, opportunities for discussion and for performance, but that it could also accommodate other things happening, either by chance or by design. It was intensive because what was inside that space might have had to change within half a day or overnight, to meet the requests or the requirements of the individual artist. People who came into that space might have seen an exhibition that was related to one of the strands of thinking or a discussion going on at the same time. It was a working space. In retrospect it may have been a little alienating because there wasn’t an identity to the space that you could easily convey. It was also out of step with what else was happening around the Eisteddfod field. Also, here was somewhere on the ‘maes’

where other languages could be heard apart from Welsh or English, including Spanish and Italian, and this was sanctioned by the Arts Council .

HR: How did you deal with the language provision?

AK: We had translators on site so all the discussions were translated into Welsh …

some of the concepts they were being asked to translate were not necessarily easy to come up with on the spot.

HR: The way in which the programme was presented in the Eisteddfod literature was as a ‘journey through time’

–  there was an allocation of certain days to the past, the present and the future. The past stood for Celtic culture and also for the industrial heritage, and the present was defined as post-industrial, is that right?

TEJ: We worked with that conceptual structure of past, present and future. I remember meeting frequently with Caroline at her house in Brixton or at mine and talking about how those ideas should take shape, and in some cases there was quite a close connection between what we wanted and what we got. Other times it was a bit of a compromise. I particularly remember one moment, with me holding forth on some particular idea about what I wanted to do and Caroline saying, ‘Tim, that’s your idea, you can’t invent artists, we can only show artists who exist and not your idea of what an artist should do’. So it was fairly idealistic in some respects and we got a match which was fairly close in some places and much looser in others. The Chilean theatre company, for example, became involved because first of all they were a brilliant theatre group but also because they were Caroline’

s next door neighbours.

AK: And they were political refugees at the time.

TEJ: They were. There was an enormous sympathy for them on that basis.

HR: Looking at the list of presenters, there seemed to be a clear attempt to select artists who displayed in their work a sympathy for the issues that were being raised.

TEJ: They were all linked by a mutual concern with creativity, whether personal or more philosophic. And a stance against formalism, which was the dominant hegemony at the time. These were radical artists, who were all dissenters, non-conformists of one kind or another, united by the idea that creativity has a particular and distinctive place within human identity. That I think was the core of Beuys’

thinking about the Celtic.8

AK: There was a social and political agenda that determined the selection of those artists. There were other artists working in performance at the time, who were doing tremendous work but were not necessarily dealing with the same social and political issues.

HR: You said earlier, Andrew, that you wanted the event to be international and to involve artists from different backgrounds. Timothy and John Chris, you were the only Welsh artists involved in the event but neither of you were actually resident in Wales at the time. Was there any attempt to involve artists resident in Wales or was there really a sense that performance art wasn’t that developed in Wales there weren’

t really these artists around? Some names appear in the early papers, such as John Gingell and Rob Con and Marty St. James9, who were either Welsh or living in Wales.

TEJ: We talked about a lot of people but it was the connection with the theme that was dominant. We weren’t being politically correct in terms of place of residence; we had an agenda. That agenda was essentially the idea of such a thing as Celtic identity in which creativity was dominant in a way that was not the case with other aspects of European culture. I think Beuys’

notion of Celtic identity as an alternative to mainstream European or international identity, and as being intrinsically creative, was the driving force. In retrospect I think that philosophy about creativity is somewhat naïve.

AK: We touched earlier on that international aspect, the way magazines like Planet were taking the nationalist issue into a wider national context, and at that time, if you look at the kind of work that Richard Demarco was facilitating in terms of his journeys10, that was very much coming from a fine art or a visual arts perspective. It was again an attempt to internationalise that Celtic dimension.

JCJ: I was a little surprised to be invited. I had some connections with the Eisteddfod. I was born in Aberystwyth within sight of the National Library of Wales and I remember my parents taking me to the Eisteddfod at Machynlleth before the war in 1937 to hear Lloyd George speaking. And in 1952, in the Arts and Crafts Tent as it used to be known, I had two pieces of sculpture. I remember it as a very amateur sort of exhibition but I think Henry Moore was one of the judges. I think Caroline asked me  to be at Wrexham because I was semi-Welsh in her mind. She asked me to give one or two talks to the visiting artists from other European countries about what the Eisteddfod stood for and what the Welsh tradition of poetry and music was, 200,000 people coming together in a week for poetry and music is a unique festival. But during the Wrexham week Mario Merz seemed to burst that bubble. He said, ‘oh, they’re all bourgeois, they’re not really genuine artistic people’


TEJ: He saw men in dark suits with white shirts and women in smart dresses and said ‘look this is the bourgeoisie, you told me this was a working class event, an example of the creativity of the masses and central to national identity but look at them, you’d see these people in any opera house’

and I had to explain that a significant proportion of the people there were working class and had dressed up specially for the occasion. He finally accepted the point but he was taking a lot on trust and was still a bit circumspect.

HR: How did you prepare the artists for the event that is the Eisteddfod?

TEJ: I think they got a briefing on the concept and the structure of the event and why they had been chosen but there was a lot of trust. Can you remember briefings, Andrew ?

AK: Yeah, I think we did do a briefing about the Eisteddfod. I get nervous because you’ve obviously gone through the archive, Heike, and I don’t know what’s in the file. A certain amount of the work which the artists produced was actually in response to coming to the Eisteddfod and therefore what they had discovered themselves of the area was also important. It wasn’

t simply about bringing in already existing pieces of work and putting it into Wrexham, it was also about the artists responding to the situation – that was the nature of their practice in any case.

HR: Maybe we can go through the individual days of the week in Wrexham and see if you can remember anything about the different events that took place. Tim, yours was one of the first pieces that was presented on the Monday, the first day, according to the programme.

TEJ: The piece of work that I did at the Eisteddfod was called Wrecsam Triads, very much a processed, structural piece of work. It was based on the Triskele, the three pointed spiral, which is explored through a panel of drawings on the back wall and through me spending a period of time constructing one on the floor. The sequence had the potential to be infinite. I can remember Mario Merz standing in one location for the whole of its two hours and at the end he said, ‘you could have gone on for infinity, couldn’t you? – And if you had, I would have stayed with you.’ I was procedurally building a floor drawing with tape and chalk, exploring this infinite series of a Triskele spiral, connecting text with action and image. There was all this stuff in the press about the man who walked round a pole for an hour and a half, I remember asking Caroline, ‘Who was the man who walked round a pole?’ … She said, ‘You were, Tim.’

HR: There seems to be a strand that runs through your work which is a real interest in exploring creativity in education, and there is an element of that also in your presentation at Wrexham, where you ran a series of workshops around your performance, based on making triads.

TEJ: Yes, we made an exhibition of some pages from a book by George Bain, called Celtic Art, which was the first to explain those infinite geometric structures within Celtic Art, and I ran some children’

s workshops on exploring these structures.

HR: Another piece was shown that day which became on of the most discussed events of the whole Eisteddfod week – Nigel Rolfe’

s performance Towers. Perhaps one of you could talk us through what Nigel Rolfe did in this performance piece.

AK: Nigel very gradually made up this tower to the accompaniment, if I remember rightly, of a soundtrack: it was Irish pipe music played very slowly so it was a very deep, tonal accumulation. Of course, the tower eventually reaches this moment of instability; it gets taller and taller, and eventually he takes a run at it – because he‘s very athletic, very physical –

and knocks it down.

TEJ: He put on a motorcycle helmet and knocked it down with his head.

AK: But, the second time, he actually did it outside the marquee, and it attracted this enormous, really quite significant audience, which became quite mesmerised, and at the same time I think we were slightly concerned about where the tower was going to fall. It also had some milk or unstable material on the top of it and it toppled over and collapsed. This was in the days before health and safety. And fortunately we all escaped unscathed, but I think probably some people got splashed with the milk or whatever was on top of it. The interesting thing there was the press reaction afterwards, because this piece came shortly after the uproar the Tate had faced when they bought the Carl André brick work11, which of course actually is a very conventional piece of sculpture: it’s made of material, it occupies space. The eventual press furore produced headlines such as ‘Irish man paid with Welsh tax payers’ money to knock down wall of bricks with his head’.12 And Nigel actually did produce a book subsequently – Send Three and Fourpence, We’re Going to a Dance –

which simply traced the narrative of all the press headlines, and created what was almost a new work in itself.

HR: The ironic thing was he wasn’

t Irish.

AK: No, he wasn’t Irish, there were no bricks … and I suppose at the time you could say it was the British taxpayers’ money, albeit coming through the Welsh Arts Council. There was at the time a current affairs programme on BBC Wales. Kane on Friday, which was fronted by Vincent Kane, who was your intrepid and interrogator. They decided that given there was such a furore, it would be only fair to give a wider audience in Wales the chance to see what Nigel Rolfe had done at the Eisteddfod. A researcher from the programme rang me up and asked if Nigel would be prepared to come on the programme and redo his piece in the studio. I said, ‘I’m sure he would be delighted. But I think it’s perfectly reasonable that before we sort it out we clarify his professional relationship with the BBC. So are you quite happy to pay the same fee that we paid for him to come to Wales and do the piece?’ and they agreed. So, we were delighted, of course, that when Kane asked him the question, ‘How do you feel about having the Welsh Arts Council use tax payers’ money to have you knock down this piece of work?’, Nigel was able to reply, ‘Exactly the same way as I do using BBC licence payers’ money to knock it down’. It was a small triumph but one that I still savour!’

HR: And there was, of course, much more to his piece than just the knocking down of a tower. It was a reflection on the Irish towers which had been destroyed by British occupation.

TEJ: Yes, Ireland has a huge number of fortified tower houses that had a particular place within the political and social structure of Ireland historically. And the British demolished practically all of them. Most of them are just ruins now, and people often say it was not the British, it was the English – an important distinction. The metaphor of knocking down the tower stood for the destruction of Irish creativity by the English. The British behaviour in Ireland over many centuries was tyrannical to an extreme that is little understood. They set out to destroy the social structure and destroy the language. Huge numbers of Irish people were sent to the Caribbean, to the West Indies, as slaves. Nigel’s work was centred on an understanding of that regime, and there was a political dimension to the work that I think was largely lost on the audience. And that’

s ironic in a sense, that it was received in this particular way in Britain.

HR: To communicate those kinds of issues to the audience were there programme notes, were there handouts, were there discussions afterwards?

TEJ: There were discussions but I don’

t think they really dealt with any of the aspects in depth.

JCJ: I would say that a lot of this I’m hearing now for the first time. I didn’

t learn this at Wrexham.

AK: I think these were the days before curators had to interpret the art, to be quite honest.

TEJ: Actually, I think these were the days before curators …

AK: Yes, we were exhibition organisers.

JCJ: Are we improving on the memory of it?

HR: John Chris told me before we began our conversation that he couldn’

t remember that the tower was being knocked over at all.

JCJ: I remember Nigel Rolfe, I had many talks with him, particularly about his sound system and his recording which we just mentioned. It must be that my memory didn’t much like these towers, I didn’

t remember it until you mentioned it today.

HR: There was on the next day, the Wednesday, a series of other performances. One of the most unusual performances of the week, I think, was put on by the Chilean mime company, Teatro Chileno de Mimos, who did a piece that looked at the impact of commercialism and the consumer society: Remembering the World a Little Bit – Reflections of our Consumer Society. You already mentioned that they were mainly chosen because they were Caroline’s neighbours …

TEJ: That was a factor …

HR: But there was more than that …

this was also the most popular of all the works, interestingly, during that week. The audience responded very well to it, to its theatricality. What was the thinking behind inviting this company and can you remember anything about the work?

TEJ: It was invited because there was a political dimension to it, and it chimed well with the principle of creativity, if not that of Celticness. As you say it was incredibly popular and it was repeated by popular demand. Word went round the field that there was something you could take your children to and so families came in quite significant numbers.

HR: Why do you think this piece communicated to the audience in a way that the other works didn’

t manage to?

TEJ: It was using the visual language of mime which of course is international. With contemporary art practices, you have to have quite extensive prior knowledge to be able to make sense of them, more so now than then, but with mime, the prior knowledge needed was much, much less. It was far less mediated, far less theorised work than most of what was presented.

HR: On the same day there was another performance piece, made by Patrick Ireland (aka Brian Doherty) and based on the Ogham sign system, entitled Vowel Grid a Recreation of Language through the Ogham Sign System. Do any of you remember anything about that?

TEJ: I remember two pieces which he did. One he made indoors with a railway sleeper on trestles, in which he explored a double spiral. My memory of it is that, having set up this piece of wood on the trestles at a height of about three or four feet off the ground, he blindfolded himself, after giving an introductory speech, and jumped on one end of this piece of wood, then turned a spiral, reversed round, jumped a reverse spiral, to land at the other end of this piece of wood and then jumped off. This was a tremendously high risk because, whilst only three or four feet off the ground, had he fallen he could have hurt himself very seriously, and he was doing it blindfold. He was doing it from memory I think. After that he did a larger piece involving a number of other participants, essentially making on a large physical scale one of those distinctive geometric drawings that he is known for.

HR: It had a commentary which was spoken in Welsh by Ivor Davies [turns to Ivor Davies in the audience: ‘I don’t know if you remember anything about it, Ivor’– Ivor Davies: ‘No, not really’

.] Two people were walking around a grid that was laid out. I think they took steps along this grid, following the Ogham sign system. Ogham signs have different length strokes for different vowels, and I think performers made certain steps of varying lengths in order to symbolise these.

TEJ: The Ogham sign system was a Celtic appropriation of the Roman alphabet, in which there were certain numbers of letters or combinations of carvings in number and direction to codify the alphabet. There’s quite a number in Wales, there’

s a lot more of them in Ireland.

HR: This was later portrayed in the press as ‘two people walking around a chess board for two hours’. There was another piece shown that day which was also quite well received. Terry O’Malley’

s The Old Woman and the Budgie used masks. Does anybody remember anything about it?

TEJ: Not much.

HR: That’s interesting. As far as I can gather from the archive – and Terence O’Malley has also sent me the script of the work –

the artist was living in Leeds at the time. The performance was based on stories about regeneration, which was a big issue in Leeds, where houses were being evacuated and flattened in order to make room for new developments. He had a neighbour, an old lady, who had a budgie.. He created a poetic script around this old woman who was being forced from her house and performed it by himself with the help of two masks, one representing the old lady, and one representing the bird. His script was read in Welsh by actor Jon Ogwen.

AK: My excuse for not remembering is that we had a very small technical crew there. We were constantly changing exhibitions and sorting out people’

s requirements. We were also dealing with a certain kind of anarchic behaviour from some of the artists, which probably called on an enormous amount of diplomatic tact and physical skill at times, to keep everything running to something like a programme.

HR: He says in a letter to me that he felt he was coming from a different tradition of performance to the other artists. As a student at Leeds he had become influenced by the performance scene that was emerging there, which was inspired by political and popular theatre. His piece seemed to have been again more theatrical in his articulation and possibly reached the audience in very direct ways.

TEJ: I think my not remembering much about it is because I didn’t really engage with it, very much for that reason. I had reservations about the Chilean group but they went down very well with the audience and that was very pleasing. I didn’

t really see how it connected with the agenda of the event, and it seemed to be a stage show.

HR: There was also a performance by Tina Keane on that day, called Hopscotch Circles/ Spirals Crosses – How a Simple Children’

s Game Reflects Changing Symbolism and Socialisation, which was based on hopscotch and involving her daughter.

TEJ: She and her daughter played hopscotch and she talked through the process. I remember her talking the audience through some of the symbolism. I can’

t remember the content of what she said but she theorised hopscotch in a way that was really quite engrossing.

HR: On the Friday of the week13 there was the piece by the two artists that were probably the best known of all there, Mario Merz and Jannis Kounellis, simply called Environment. Marisa Merz, Mario Merz’

s wife, is often credited as a co-creator for this work. Was she there or part of this collaboration?

AK: She was knitting copper wire which was then placed in the space. I think Merz’s and Kounellis’s performance was a very eloquent piece. It was interesting how an artist like Jannis Kounellis could respond to the space and make the it work almost as though it was a gallery. Before he came he told us that all he wanted was a piano, a laser beam and a rose. This was about a month ahead of the event. To get hold of a laser beam at that time we had to write grovelling letters to the University of Cardiff, without even knowing what it was for. And then, maybe about a week before the Eisteddfod, Jannis announced that he needed somebody that could play Mack the Knife for 12 hours non-stop. There was the most fantastic exhibitions assistant at the Welsh Arts Council, a woman called Joy Goodfellow. And very little would ever phase Joy. Remarkably she managed to find a pianist, who I now understand had been a musician on the Black and White Minstrel Show14. About 24 hours before this piece was going to be installed Jannis told us he wanted 24 sacks filled with coal to surround the piano. All we had access to then was a temporary public telephone box on the Eisteddfod site. And the first week in August happened to be the week when the coal mines all took their annual holiday. And when the coal mines take their annual holiday so do the coal merchants. Joy came back with no coal but a bunch of coal sacks. Luckily the other thing the Arts Council were doing on the Eisteddfod site was an exhibition about the 18th century wrought ironsmiths, the Davies brothers, and we had a blacksmith on site who was demonstrating wrought iron. He fortunately had a ton of smithy’s nuts. Obviously on the Eisteddfod site  you also had thousands of black bags of rubbish. So at the end of one day we paid some boys something like five pence a sack to bring all the rubbish from the Eisteddfod field and fill the coal sacks, which were then topped with smithy’s nuts and placed around the piano. The rubbish collectors came the next day and couldn’t understand why there was no rubbish. I don’t know whether Jannis ever twigged but he was gentleman enough not to say anything because visually it looked like full coal sacks. And although we did enjoy good weather that week I don’t think it started to smell either. So we had this really very eloquent installation of this gentleman playing the piano, the laser beam focussed on the piano and Mario Merz swinging incense around, all these senses of energy contained in this fairly empty space. The photos don’t do it justice, it was quite magical. And of course at the end of the day the same boys, all of whom had been given a receipt for every five pence they received for every sack of rubbish, then had to take every bag of rubbish back. So the next day when the rubbish collectors came there was suddenly twice as much rubbish as there had been two days before. But that’s what you have to do to facilitate an artist’

s work sometimes.

TEJ: I thought it was a very striking piece. The laser was set a few metres off the floor horizontally, producing a red line, which at that time was pretty much unknown in the language of sculpture. And Mario stood next to it swinging the incense through it, so you could see the line through the cloud of smoke and the moment the cloud disappeared, the line disappeared. He did this for a long period of time.. Merz went on to do a lot of work subsequently with the same candy pink straight line that you get with neon and laser. My memory of the piano piece is slightly different from yours, Andrew. My memory is that he was being asked to play three pieces of music at a time and then have a short break, before starting again. The first two had to be tangos and the third one he could play whatever he liked. And Jannis was sitting right next to the guy. And after two brilliant tangos this other piece of music would start and Jannis would get up and start shouting at the pianist, ‘No, you’ve got to play a tango’ and the pianist said ‘but you asked me to play …’, and there was an argument and a resolution to the argument. Then the instruction came for the next piece ‘two tangos, third piece play what you like’, and then another intervention of the artist and so on. I don’

t think the pianist got the idea that the intervention and the argument was part of the work as opposed to him having made a mistake. It was very funny.

AK: I think some of the genesis of this piece happened a couple of nights earlier. I have vague memories of a very enjoyable evening in the local miners’ club with Jannis Kounellis and Mario Merz engaging in some healthy drunken debate with miners from around Wrexham. It was a really good working man’s club. I can’t remember who took us there but it was one of those great moments of having a group of rising international artists just enjoying themselves with miners from Wrexham.
There was another marvellous impromptu performance by Mario Merz after a rather liquid lunch in Wrexham. He came back on the Eisteddfod field and the tent was more or less empty because we were in the middle of a changeover. A dog walked into the tent and Mario suddenly started barking at the dog and the dog was barking back at him. And Mario barked again, and this became quite electric … for a number of reasons, actually, because at one moment the then chair of the Arts Council, Lady Anglesey, was striding across the field and we had to manhandle Mario Merz out of the back of the tent. The thought of her suddenly confronting this enormous, tall, drunken, barking Italian …

I think I would have lost my job over that one.

HR: It’s interesting how these stories take on a life of their own. In the letter from Terence O’

Malley Lady Anglesey becomes Her Royal Highness Princess Alexandria who apparently arrived in a black Rolls Royce with a royal ensign on the front. He also reckons that the explanation given to Her Highness was that this was an Italian ice cream salesman who had just wandered onto the site.

TEJ: It’s wonderful how memory works, isn’

t it?

HR: I would like to come to John Chris’

s contribution now, part of which was there throughout the Eisteddfod week. John Chris, could you talk us through what you did?

JCJ: Yes. I’d like to start with a demonstration and then explain it afterwards. My piece took the form of a book: Ancient Cultures in a Modern World – ten pages for contemplation, and suggestions too. It wasn’t really a performance, but you’

ll see that it had some performative aspects. The book was composed of white pages plus a few words.

[The following is presented by John Chris in the form of a spoken performance:]

diwylliannau hynafol yn y byd modern
ancient cultures in the modern world
ten pages for contemplation, and for suggestions too
english language version, not yet complete

page 1:
flemish, corsican, gaelic, welsh, irish, breton, romany, sorbian, galician, cherokee, basque, old english, lappish
and of course many others
what do they contribute to us all as people of the modern world?
page 2:
page 3:
Y llechen lân the clean slate
page 4:
y garreg ddi-nadd the uncarved block
page 5:
bydd llawer llwyth o indiaid yr amerig yn osgoi I ynganu enw dyn, yn enwedig yn ei bresenoldeb fe’i hystyriad yn rhy gysygredig i’w lefaru. many tribes of the american Indians avoid mentioning a man’s name,
especially in his presence.
page 6:
page 7:
the modern world appears as an entity only through words spoken or written
language survival
culture survival
preservation of wilderness
homogenization of life
the modern world
page 8:

s more to being welsh than speaking it
page 9:
the intricate abstracted and stylized art of the celtic people is quite different from the representational art that western europe as a whole adopted…
sharp wind, bare hill, hard to get shelter,
flooded ford, frozen lake,
man can stand on one stalk.
…the brief suggestive style of the early welsh poets reminds many readers of … oriental poetic traditions, best known to us in the haiku forms.
(S T Knight writing in monograph number one of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, Sydney University Press 1970, on the nature of early welsh poetry)
next page:
as almost empty pages
these pieces of paper
perhaps more
of the hidden value
of what is old
than they may do
if we write on them

HR: Thank you, John Chris. Can you talk a bit about the development of this project?

JCJ: It came about through what I call a simple chance process, using random numbers to determine what was going to come. I was invited to do an exhibit and I didn’t know what it was going to be. So my first move was to collect some books together about the topic which came to mind, which was ancient cultures. I took ancient cultures as a generalisation of Welsh culture. The international, rather than the parochial, aspect of Welsh culture seemed to me to be a nice thing to bring into the Eisteddfod. I was asking myself what do ancient cultures do which is of value which we do not value. And I got various books out, three or four or five or six, I don’t remember them all, and I started using a chance process. This was to identify a page in one book, then a line on that page, then a word or a series of words. The first one I did, I landed on a blank page, and I thought the process isn’t working, but I left it for a bit. I tried the next one, which I think was a Welsh book, and I landed on a Welsh phrase ,‘y llechen lân’, the clean slate. The next book I think was one about Native Americans, written by Marshall McLuhan’s daughter. And in it I came across the remark that a man’

s name should not be spoken in his presence, because it was too sacred to be spoken of. So I had the theme. These three or four chance processes gave me the idea and I continued to ten pages and decided that each one should become a page in a 10 page book. It was a 20 page book really, because they were repeated in both languages.

HR: But these pages were not meant to remain empty. The books were distributed during the Eisteddfod with the invitation  for people to fill them.

JCJ: The idea was that you could write on them if you wished, and you could respond in the spirit of how it had been done.

HR: And did people respond? Did they take up that invitation?

JCJ: They did. Not many, and some were rather hostile! Not many were in the spirit of ancient cultures! They were mainly in the spirit of ‘what is performance art and I don’t like it and how can I react against it?’

HR: You were invited to transform these books into a performative environment on the last day, on the Saturday?

JCJ: Not exactly. What happened on the Saturday was that Caroline told me it was my turn to make another exhibit besides the book which I wasn’t expecting, so working overnight I produced, with Tim’s help, a double spiral built with wood–

you enter in one way and you come out the other way anti-clockwise.

HR: This was a big physical exhibit.

JCJ: Each of these walls was the size of a door, and it occupied half the tent. We transformed the book so that pages of the book would appear on the walls as you went through, in the order that the blank pages were visible going in and the pages with writing on the way out. It was a performance by the audience really, walking through the spiral. A colleague of mine made a tape of the word dywyllianau, the word for cultures, as a continuous loop: dywyllianau dywyllianau dywyllianau dywyllianau dywyllianau. And people were invited to choose words that they heard by listening to it, English words or Welsh words.A lot of people heard all sorts of words, as they do in this kind of experiment.

HR: This ties in with what I understand your work to be interested in: in the notion of collective creativity, in getting people together in order to create, in involving audiences in the making of the work.

JCJ: I felt with this that they hadn’t grasped the context really. The people who responded, mainly, were puzzled by performance art. They couldn’

t think about ancient cultures, they could only think about being puzzled by performance art, or irritated by it or liking it and wanting to add something to it themselves, the wish to be an artist. But I think that performance art generally does produce this grating feeling in the spectators. I wonder how good that is, really. The sort of performance art I like tends more towards the theatrical and has more meaning within it and provides continuity as well as criticism.

HR: What was the reception like generally from people on the Eisteddfod field to this programme of events?

AK: There was an element of bemusement, but there were some people who actually got quite engaged – I’m really struggling to remember in detail, but there are moments I recall when I thought that it was beginning to work in the way in which I wanted it to. At the time, for example, there was a marvellous county archivist in Gwynedd called Bryn Parry and we teamed him up for discussion with John Latham15. It was very interesting, because Bryn’s knowledge of the slate-mining industry and the industries of north Wales was fantastic and he was also a bit of a maverick in his own world. And when you brought those two quite different worlds together and Bryn and John began to find common ground where they weren’t necessarily looking for it, the audience began to get engaged. It may only have been an audience of ten or fifteen people but I could sense then that the synergy was happening, and that links were being made; it was very exciting.
I don’t remember the general public’s response as being particularly antagonistic. It might have been bemused, but it was tolerant and accepting – that is why I was taken aback by the reaction that the press managed to generate after the event, because all of the critical press that came about happened after the programme had been on the middle of the Eisteddfod field for a week. The Welsh press were slightly caught off-guard because the fuss happened in the English press. I wonder if the Welsh press found itself thinking, how do we address this? If we follow the English line then why weren’t we doing our job during the week, so maybe we’

ll shift it and make it an overall criticism of the Welsh Arts Council, rather than tackle what was actually happening in the event.

HR: The criticism is a very familiar one: it is the usual idea that performance art is somehow wasteful because it doesn’t produce anything at the end, so it’s an ‘artist wearing a crash helmet charging a wall with his head’ or somebody producing ‘empty pages’. So there’s that notion of expenditure that doesn’

t actually bring anything back. But maybe a much more serious critique was articulated by Paul Davies who was there throughout the week. I think it was a very creative week for him. He was actually working as a steward on the Eisteddfod field at the time and created a series of performances which related to and responded to what was happening in the performance art pavilion. Have you got any memories of the pieces that he did?

AK: Paul Davies had immense respect for those artists who were there. In other words he didn’

t hijack the event: he came and asked if it would be all right. He as an artist had that respect for the other artists and talked about what he wanted to do and discussed it with Caroline. And that was fine, that was accommodating it, so it was within the spirit of the event if you like, it was annexed to it.

HR: I’m sure many of you are familiar with the pieces he showed. This is the image of his Welsh Not – here is Paul Davies, the artist, holding up the railway sleeper with the WN, the Welsh Not, engraved on it. And the blackboard propped up next to him explains the history of the Welsh Not.16 There’

s a lady to the side there, the Eisteddfod visitor looking on, and opposite Paul Davies is Mario Merz, who actually intervened in this performance toward at the end of the week. Have you got any recollection of that intervention.

AK: The other point to make is that Paul Davies wasn’t just holding the sleeper up, he was holding it up for a length of time and it required immense physical effort and mental discipline to stand there holding up that Welsh Not. And I think actually an immense moral courage to do it in that situation – what doesn’t necessarily come across in the photographs is that it could be just a moment but it’s not – that’s one moment within a period of maybe an hour or two hours. I can’

t remember much, but what I do remember is the immense physical demand that that it put on Paul to carry out that work.

TEJ: It wasn’t a fixed duration; he just held it until he couldn’

t hold it anymore and then it fell to the ground.

HR: Paul Davies himself described that moment in an interview he did with Ivor Davies17: he talked about Mario Merz at that point coming up to him and actually taking the railway sleeper off him. He recalled what a significant moment that was for him because there was a suggestion there that by relieving him of the railway sleeper somehow Mario Merz was trying to relieve him of the impact of that historical situation and almost suggesting that art may have a way of relieving that kind of situation, which I think Paul Davies found very problematic. He said in that interview that Andrew, you came up to him and apologised for Merz’ action.
Paul Davies later made the railway sleeper into a love spoon, He also made another piece at the Eisteddfod, Spiral Gag, where he struggled out of a Union Jack – of course, 1977 was also the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. And in this piece he was holding a ceramic plaque with the words ‘aros mae’ on it, ‘it remains’, referring to the enduring presence of Welsh culture. He struggled free from the Union Jack and put the plaque on the floor and then – by coincidence but quite significantly – a van drove over it and destroyed it, which Davies saw as a symbol for the Welsh situation. One of the things that he articulated later on was that in some ways he was very supportive of the performance art programme because it still, for him, appeared very radical in its approach, but he did say that he felt that the exhibition was very dislocated, out of place and out of context at the Eisteddfod. And there was a sense that there was a group of international artists coming in and not really engaging with the context in which they were placed. Do you think that’

s fair criticism?

TEJ: I think it’s fair, to the extent that that’s true for all contemporary art practice. Art is often dislocated from its general cultural context – that was, I think, apparent, in that as curators we were looking for a populist context for work that was part of the agenda of performance art at that time – as I say, we aimed to cross boundaries and have boundaries dissolved. That dislocation is still evident in contemporary art practice. There is a similar kind of ridicule in the press of artists now – contemporary art isn’t widely understood. The whole issue of accessibility in art remains a major issue. For me, a way of engaging with that issue has been by seeing parallels between the process of meaning within artistic production and the process of meaning within the educational production. For me, the way in which art enquires into a new understanding of the world is very much the parallel of the way in which education can be transformative. Art at its best, at its most important, can be transformative too. It’s difficult – how do you make art with which large numbers of people can engage, without at the same time transgressing boundaries? It is easier to make art by staying within barriers and make a lot of money out of it, as many people do –

but that is not a concept of art in which I wish to participate. Whilst deeply fashionable at present, that is a position which the Wrexham project stood against.

HR: Paul Davies’

s piece I believe was trying to transgress boundaries and also reach audiences very directly.

TEJ: If you know what the Welsh Not is it makes sense … of course he was working with an audience who would have that prior knowledge. Without it, it doesn’

t carry any of those connotations.

HR: Before we finish, has the event left any resonances for your work? Andrew, you’re now engaged in public art where you’

re constantly negotiating communities, expectations, audiences.

AK: I think the resonance for me is about collaborative working

HR: John Chris, has the work left any resonances in your work?

JCJ: Not really, I went on to do other things, some of them in Wales.18 I think I would have done them anyway. I’m very interested to hear so much about it this evening that I didn’

t pick up at the time. It was quite easy to miss performances, they only occurred for a short time and I think there were probably few people who saw a lot of it.

TEJ: It gave me a particular focus on identity through the idea of Welshness, which was important to me at the time.19

HR: John Chris, Timothy, Andrew, thank you very much for the conversation.

AK: I would like to thank Heike for doing such fantastic research. It is very interesting to have something you did thirty years ago brought back to you with a lot more factual information than I could have remembered. It has been really fascinating.

TEJ: I understand much more about it now than I did at the time.

HR: Thank you.


Extract from questions by the audience:



Ivor Davies. I think what people felt was that there was a transplanting of well-established artists into a context which ignored local artists like Paul Davies, for example, who were doing it anyway and doing things which were very significant. In this I’m not criticising the work you did, which was tremendous work. But it’

s very interesting that Mario Merz thought that the people at the Eisteddfod were the bourgeoisie because I think the impression that most people had was that Mario Merz relied on the bourgeoisie for his position. The Eisteddfod in Wrexham was important for me because it was the first time I saw Paul Davies in action and I think his performances were the most impressive and the most penetrating in every sense. He was doing it partly out of protest at being an artist living in Wrexham who was being ignored, but he succeeded in making a huge impression. I was determined thereafter to support him and write about him and join in what he was doing.

HR: It is interesting that it is Paul Davies’

work that has subsequently been spoken about most and perhaps become the best known of all the work presented at Wrexham.

AK: I think you can take that as a positive outcome of the event in as much as it was set up with a structure and a kind of philosophy of thinking that was expansive and accommodating. I can’

t imagine it would have been as easy for Paul to do this kind of work within the context of the traditional arts and crafts pavilion at that time.



Tamara Krikorian: I would like to go back to Mario Merz’ comment. It seems to me he was reading the Eisteddfod just on one level. It’

s not just that one event in August, but all the local and regional events leading up to it. This comes very much from the grassroots, from people who compete over a year to get to the Naitonal Eisteddfod. So he was only seeing it at a very superficial level.

TEJ: I think he had been told it was a proletarian event and he felt that what he was seeing contradicted that.

JCJ: What probably didn’

t register with him was that the winners of the two main poetry prizes were quite often working class people



Richard Morgan. I wonder if you could say something about the political fallout. Did your actions provoked some kind of crisis at that point?

AK: There were certain MPs who called for a debate on the Welsh Arts Council. You couldn’t actually debate the Arts Council in the House at that time. But the Welsh Grand Committee entered into a debate about culture in Wales and the political relationship to the Arts Council. I don’

t recall it having any significant impact on the Welsh Arts Council at the time. But you must bear in mind that at that time the Welsh and Scottish Arts Councils were still technically committees of the Arts Council of Great Britain

HR: An article appeared in the Western Mail about the debate in the Welsh Grand Committee in December of that year. Leo Abse, who was at the time the MP for Labour for Pontypool, is reported in this article as having said that ‘he abhorred the possibility of the Welsh Arts Council being cut off from their British parent and becoming accountable to the Assembly. There would be nothing more disastrous than the Arts being governed by untried, untested philistine Assembly men’.

Copyright © Timothy Emlyn Jones 2020