“An interesting practical consideration was the pace people pass through airports. There’s every chance they’ll be no longer than 30 seconds, so it had to be something that delivered quickly.”
S Mark Gubb is discussing his contribution to a series of new art commissions at Cardiff Airport. Like so many small local airports, the advent of cheap air travel has changed it dramatically. Ten years ago it looked like a taxi rank. Now, it’s a middle of the road, struggling municipal airport with poor transport links to the nearest principalities. Its latest ignominy was being voted the worst airport in the UK in a recent passenger satisfaction poll.
Even before its embarrassing accolade – and prior to it being bought by the Welsh government for £52million in March – First Minister of Wales Carwyn Jones was attempting to address these problems with the formation of the Cardiff Airport Taskforce. It’s aim? To offer travellers a warmer welcome, to look at ways of making the airport more popular, and to improve the all-round passenger experience – with the ultimate goal of attracting visitors and business to Wales.
One of the components of the wider activity recommended by the taskforce was to include the work of artists from Wales as a way of welcoming inbound passengers. Cardiff-based agency Golley Slater were charged with delivering the project, with assistance from Chapter Arts Centre. The selected artists were Gubb, Pete Fowler, Craig Wood, and Matt Needle.
Featuring artworks in the upgraded walkways and public areas of Arrivals, the brief was to ‘celebrate and promote Wales’ vibrant culture, heritage, landscape, products and businesses.’ Gubb’s work does this by fusing a lyric from the Welsh band Super Furry Animals with a line from Wales’ most famous son, Dylan Thomas, to create the phrase: ‘Wedi’r esgyniad ysgafn, pan ddaw’r wawr… After the soft ascent, when dawn breaks’. The text alludes to the moment when a plane breaks through the clouds to reveal a perpetually glorious sunny day, reinvigorating our excitement about the journey as we arrive at our destination.
“I was very keen to avoid the usual literal approach to this: croeso – welcome; diolch – thank you,” says Gubb. “It’s hopefully painting something visually poetic, while at the same time introducing people to the language. It’s also going to be wired up so that each word is illuminated in turn, to physically illustrate the translation.”
First impressions count
When Carwyn Jones got a preview of the new installations, he said the kind of thing you might expect a politician to say: “First impressions count. Cardiff Airport is a major gateway into Wales for air passengers and this new project will showcase a uniquely Welsh approach to business, culture, the arts, tourism and events.”
But while the whole thing has the kind of PR huff and puff that tends to come with airports, the works do add a feeling of the unknown and sense of curiosity to the passenger experience. Jon Horne, Chief Executive at Cardiff Airport, believes that “the customer journey has been greatly enhanced, making the arrival experience far more enjoyable. Passengers now experience an exciting welcome to Wales. Initial reactions have been hugely positive. People are not expecting it, but it makes everyone smile and gets everyone talking.”
Of the other commissions, Matt Needle’s Welcome Wall uses traditional Welsh cultural references with ultra-modern Welsh iconography, while Craig Wood’s wallpaper presents traditional iconography in a new way. Pete Fowler fuses his trademark psychedelic style with large, high-definition TV screens featuring members of the Welsh public greeting people.
Fowler’s banjo playing horned owls and other ingenious creations have graced public art projects, animations and the albums covers of Super Furry Animals. He hopes the airport commissions will give audiences “an idea of what Wales is about and what it has to offer to the visitor and potential businesses and investor.”
The Welsh Business Minister Edwina Hart, meanwhile, has been clear on the perceived economic benefits of the scheme. “This imaginative and creative project is part of our wider work to improve facilities and services at Cardiff Airport,” she said, “and it should make a big impact with our visitors as they arrive in Wales, as well as help promote tourism, business and the Welsh economy.”
The artworks were only unveiled earlier this summer and at this stage it’s hard to quantify what the real benefits might be in terms of economic growth. There are also questions to ask around how a project like this can not only promote cultural tourism, but also support it and the fragile arts infrastructure in the country.
For now, though, it’s safe to say that arriving in Wales by air just got a lot more interesting.