la Biennale di Venezia

“Welsh slate is in me so the piece spoke strongly – I loved it”. This was my response when asked about “Dyddiau Du/ Dark Days” John Cale’s installation of sound recordings and film work documenting his performances revealing his chasm with cultural identity.

Cale has lived most of his life as an ex-pat and the installation bares his uneasy relationship with Welsh and other issues relating to communication appear central. Having been brought up as an ex-pat myself the slate material is the landscape that I know of North Wales and it is this grey matter that I want to seek out else where when making connections with place. Slate roofs across sky lines draw a distinctive mark. Grey (or is it blue?) slate is constantly used monumentally to symbolically relate to cultural identity. For instance, it is evidenced in the capital’s new Millennium Centre where escarpments of it are embedded as an iconic architectural feature. My parents covered parts of our home in England in it as if barricading against the elements!

Growing-up with endless stories of uncles and more who had worked in the quarries and other such anecdotes of hardship, suffering and death entrenches permanently in the roots of ones psyche. The sparse empty musky telling family house, where Cale grew-up, struck a chord. It looked like a bit of my grandmother’s (my nain as we say in the north) home, an aunty, a cousin and so forth. Yes I can identify that interior with the past and with my history. It torments yet strikes a needy nostalgic memory in the process. Heavy mass slate is everywhere if you look for it. All those hacked at stacked farm walls, cold floors, steep chapels and coal ashen fireplaces. And of course I can remember my nain’s outdoor loo with gaps in the slate roof tiles letting the only light in to the tiny room in the back yard. Yes, and doesn’t the grey look so much better when the harsh, glistening rain washes over it. There’s a whole ex Empire of exported slated tiles, writing tablets, gravestones and other heavy weighted objects. Nowadays the tourist industry thrives on lighter memorabilia such as table mats, fridge magnets and other souvenir clutter that we all contend with.

When I told my response there was a pause and then a sort of acceptance before an attack of … “well the last bit with him almost drowning in the water didn’t work did it!?”

Oh I disagree. I thought Cale hit the mark poignantly. The not over dramatic torture scene that looked like he was tied to a kind of sheep dipping device was a sharp contrast with the other scenes. It was emotive enough to express the performer’s personal sense of affliction. The pain connected to the flashbacks to his unwanted experiences from his childhood also linked to the earlier film reel. There Cale was watched relentlessly running up endless rigid, precipitous, grey, quarry steps asthma-breathless and exhausted against the misty rain. He was putting himself through a kind of penance for the burden he had carried with him all his life. As a small child an aunt had indirectly blamed him for his mother’s death. Consequently we see Cale mentally plead … “I didn’t do anything, I didn’t do anything …” repeatedly as he beat down onto each step as if it were his last.

Cale spoke only Welsh with his mother and grandmother until he learnt English at school. In fact only spoken Welsh was allowed in the home. So he was only able to speak to his father when he was aged around seven because his father couldn’t speak Welsh. As a rebellion maybe Cale left the Welsh language behind when he left his country and he still lives in America.

“While Cale was at Goldsmiths, he was introduced to John Cage’s seminal book Silence (1961), in which Cage wrote

‘There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear.

In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot …Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following

my death…”[1]

The embracing ringing bell sounding to a seeming crescendo in Dark Days was very present and practically meditative. Cathartic tones no doubt prompted in part by recalls of gesticulating ministerial voices preaching at him in the South Wales valleys’ Baptist churches that he knew. The sound piece is also reflections of Cale’s experiences of exploring the physiognomy of droning sound. He famously stated that he can hold a note for three hours as he did with his trademark viola playing in The Velvet Underground. He is a published poet from the 60s with influences from Dylan Thomas’ “in the troubled souls of his protagonists who inhabit landscapes ruled by tyranny, war and compromise”. Aside from influences on his prose the visual arts played into his work through the Surrealists, Duchamp and Picabia. “Cale suggested at the outset of the marking of this work, it ‘offers an occasion to address certain pernicious issues in my background that had lain dormant for so long.”

Cale’s grained; anguished facial expression in these performance pieces told of where part of his tormented life experiences, his dichotomy of national identity, had taken him. Cale gives us the tonnage, poundage and mass of Welsh slate and he gives us a core part of what it is to be truly connected with his personal history of place. At least that is my take on dark days and the work spoke to me personally with a lasting loaded impact.


[1] Bruce Haines, Curator Dark Days 2009 Dyddiau Du, Argraffwyd gan Aldgate Press, Llundain