Glyn Davies Marshall began to develop his practice in the 1980s whilst studying Fine Art at Wakefield College, and likewise at Coventry University; a process that then saw a natural migration towards performance-based work. Glyn’s performance work often requires years to gestate, with an intention on the part of the artist to see each of his work’s concepts through to a cathartic climax. Glyn has developed a task-based approach to performance art. Through these ‘tasks’ we witness the artist come to terms with both the work and the context in which it is created, frequently challenging the orthodoxy of his environment.
This essay concerns the trilogy of works carried out by Glyn in 2006 at the Toronto Free Gallery as part of Fado’s IDea series, and presented in the context of the 7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art.
Glyn Davies-Marshall was born in West Yorkshire in the late 1960s, and is every bit the embodiment of the post-nuclear latter part of the middle 20th Century. Having missed the Cultural Revolution boat of the ’60s, Glyn has to many become a fixed position of no global (yet immense personal) repute. With no one cultural persuasion holding dominion over Glyn, his work is indoctrinated with a quest to dig for certain foundations – as an agnostic may seek to do so when in the process of attempting to anchor down the notion of God.
As Glyn begins his first work of the week, Palomino, we are privy to the artist clutching at a sizable Union Jack for a period of no less than 10 minutes. Pouting folk music fills the small room and Glyn assumes the role of ringmaster for the often ceremonial work: the endeavour of which appears to be to crudely yet meticulously carve the shape of his country from the sod on which he stands. This burgeoning stance appears tenuously representative of the perceived stoicisms of the English. We later hear the parodied voice of a local radio DJ, who assumes he is addressing a cool demographic of New York or Los Angels as opposed to the actual Yorkshire listeners. Here we see Glyn’s work flirt with both that which he loves of England and that which he finds laughable.
Glyn’s thesis stems back to the 1980s and the begining of his practice. It could be argued that the superficial nature of much British ’80s pop culture – seen by Glyn as something of an historical flux – has given him the opportunity to abandon any particular niche of sorts and exploit the plasticity, fervour, and confusion offered by the period., accompanied by a love/hate relationship towards it. In favour of any fixed position within the art world, popular culture, or tradition, Glyn exhibits a unique and subtle eccentricity that sets him quietly aside from the throng. This is particularly evident inGlyn’s relationship with has with his audience, often glancing at audience members and welcoming interaction in a far from structured fashion.
The aforementioned, sought-after foundations come to take on literal form as they are explored in the work. It is here that Glyn’s obligation to approach the grand narratives rudely ignored by postmodernism becomes apparent. We do witness a smattering of that which may be tentatively eyed by the Postmodernist, Liberal or the Humanist opposed with that which may make the ascetic bilious. Perhaps I am jumping the gun somewhat, although in my defence, Shane appears to be shooting at the artist’s feet! Yet this cruel game appears to hand Glyn both momentum and focus.
Truly original and abstract expression became a tall order within the English cultural landscape circa 1980. Somewhat cruelly born an individual, Glyn would shoulder the damning prospect of carving originality in such frantic times with a vigour that would, in the words of Kerouac, ‘Scare the Whore of Babylon let alone me’ (Big Sur 1962). Then swathed in uniform white paint, and now dressed in expensive denim, the artist’s changing attire reveals his works’ roving pervasiveness. In the twenty years since its inception, the work, its context – in relationship with others, with family and with scene – has seen a massive shift. Yet its bones remain. As Glyn presses his face into the gallery wall and recounts lost drunken conversations with his father, a ghostly halo is created inside the gallery.
Given Glyn’s nod towards England’s forgotten working class, we must address the notion of the ‘left’ that seems to underpin the work. In order to bypass stigma the artist clearly has little intent of raking over, we shall look past aggressive socialism and focus on the rudimentary rattlings of the artist’s early years. Neither Yorkshire nor his own idiosyncrasies are the flagrant narratives they appear to be; rather, the words we hear spoken by Glyn have hung heavy for decades. They are words that I am somehow able to hear myself, and that trigger similar ghosts to those held dear by the artist and his audience alike. The tears that roll down the face of many patrons on the evening of Palominos’ presentation are testament enough.
Here we witness further avoidance of ‘raking over’ class-related issues and/or geographical warbling; rather, a bead is drawn to probe the intrinsic, and occasionally spiritual. In Glyn’s work, we see an esoteric approach to a depth not reached by the discussions that have become (some) of the hallmarks of post modernism. Although Glyn’s own brand of Punk rock will undoubtedly afford us discussion on some such hallmarks, we shall vgilantly steer clear of some of the more defeatist traits that punctuate the theory of the past two decades.
The artist’s young palette was customarily and unavoidably indoctrinated with an England blinded by its own simplicity, a simplicity that lay dormant within earlier works. Of late, this simple beast has stirred, and appears to have become the monolith of his practice in general. The simplicity in revolution, in its shortcomings and small successes equally, and ultimately simplicity in defeat – all very much a part of the social and political landscapes of Glyn’s formative years – allow for a fortunate platform from which to work. We see Glyn resolute to make physical commitments to his space. The painstaking creation of the tiny objects that eventually litter the space appears to be yet another tip of the cap to working with his raw material in the basest of fashions.
Glyn’s use of irony, social hallmarks and signifiers in no way suggests that he treats his subject matter with any level of disdain, and to some this may negate my suggestion that Glyn’s focus is not the various stigmas so quickly attached to the North of England. Rather, Glyn endeavours to turn the concept of surface-level social realism and/or socio/politically minded artistic activity inside out. He does so through the reliving of childhood’s sensation overload, building and layering.
The finite nature of current political landscapes, cultural identities and class dynamics is now far too complicated an issue to broach without seeming painfully naïve and somewhat latently misanthropic. However, there is a direct correlation between the socio/political indifference evident in current climes, and the somewhat indifferent response that contemporary art is met with by not just the majority, but often by its own patriots. To quote Floridian punks Against Me, “Maybe there’s something wrong with the audience”. It is clear where the origins of an indifferent audience lie and we may begin to contextualise.
Glyn commented recently that at times eyebrows have been raised and concerned questions asked around his usage of the Union Jack in his work. If indifference is a crime for the audiences that Glyn has been responsible for over the years, and we are attempting to avoid (a) spineless liberalism that has been bastardised within the confines of its own rule book, and (b) smash-it-up anarchism; we are at every turn left in an increasingly sticky situation. As Chomsky (1969) identifies in his early essay ‘Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship’, conformism and resulting passivity often negate free institutions; this is a theory that resonates well within arts communities. It would seem that a very definite layer of indifference is bred through what can almost appear to be layered conformism, passivity and eventual tolerance of art, but also of the dissent which harbours only acceptable (or at least ‘played out’) levels of assertiveness. If we look at Joe Strummer’s infamous assertion that “Rock n Roll does not change anything”, we are privy to how this indifference occurs at almost every level. This cycle of indifference is systematic to the core. But what of a dormant (to the mainstream) yet flourishing underground art culture? Could the term ‘Underground’ be yet another cog within this system of indifference in support of the status quo?
The issue here is that although Glyn’s stage is primed and most certainly ready for an evening’s work, a large demographic of his audience have become deaf to his braying. Who and where are the audience? The second piece of the festival, No 33 appears to work most of all for those willing to endure its six-hour duration, in which Glyn builds items later to be destroyed in one of his dramas involving airplane crash or cowboy invasion. Toys and items once thought precious by the audience are smashed indiscriminately under hammers, horseshoes and feet, and a sense loss is felt as Glyn clearly detaches any sentiment from these items.
The trail left behind in the wake of Glyn’s work is viewed by the artist himself as surplus, as something that no longer contains meaning; a husk if you will. Yet for the viewer, it is the artist’s very own contribution to our image of the North of England and its gradual decline from tradition. It is the action of creating this sometimes valuable mess that holds stock. At the end of the performance, Glyn allows the audience to sift through the remains of his work if they so choose; this willingness to pass up these performance artefacts (which they most certainly are, just in the way that a diary, videotape or any kind of documentation is) is an exercise in benevolence on the part of the artist that is seldom seen within the mainstream, ‘socially conscious’ culture.
Of late, I have witnessed Glyn begin to buy into mainstream tradition quite unashamedly in his personal life, and we continue to see this in the work as he waves the Union Jack, plays, and sports an England football shirt. So where does the line exist between football and urinating into a wash basin (two activities I have witnessed him engage with this month alone)? Each is representative of a harkening back to childhood, and each is an attack on his own adulthood: one bound by tradition, and the other an attempt to disenfranchise such. Art and football appear to co-exist relatively harmoniously where Glyn is concerned.
In most publicly visible examples of recent socially conscious art, music and film, there appears to be a certain trendy abuse of sentiment. This is a pity, as it appears to play into the hands of the very source of the problem, and eventually becomes nothing more than novelty. The fringe of the art world bears this albatross as we continue to tolerate the cycle of indifference and allow it to deepen.
The tabloid media and popular culture that Ardorno once rightly predicted would stifle the voice of the public also uses sentimental devices to evoke a feeling of worth in its recipients. It’s ownership and public faces exist comfortably and sleep easy in an alternate reality that pays little attention to the cause it may have casually reported on that morning. Whilst one tabloid newspaper affords a half-page spread to the suffering bought to the lives of the South African fruit pickers, another falls afoul of torrid self-generated sensationalism. Although a hugely significant story is being reported, this kind of sentiment can only ever be superficial to a nation of people constantly disillusioned by the very form of media touting it. Glyn appears to sidestep this trough, his focus much more aligned with folklore than with today’s popular topic.
Yet again the art world mirrors this in that much of what has come to pass simply washes over the heads of an audience that has ‘seen it all before’ and been ‘shocked’ into submission by a banal controversy that is really of no use to anyone wishing to pass comment productively on a world in the throes of conflict. This is not to suggest that much contemporary work’s content is invalid; rather, it is the stage from which the work projects and its social position that have become problematic.
Although postmodernism has afforded the art world an invaluable source of flexibility, pluralism and mobility, it has also in many senses (and unfortunately so) left the notion of reality a laughing stock. As with Baudrillard’s theories on simulacra and simulation, contemporary culture struggles beneath the fact that much of its hallmarks are merely imitations of imitations. This results in the dissipation of the actual or the artefact, ultimately shedding light onto constant bastardisations of what some once considered sacred. Paradoxically, it is this that lies at the heart of Glyn’s work. His current practice deals with the endeavour to keep alive the words of his mother and father and the script of his homeland. This manifests physically during the work: sign posts are constructed bearing the familiar words of home, and later Glyn hangs off of them.
The climactic and certainly the most moving display from Glyn during the Toronto trilogy comes at the end of his final work, The Wichita Man Is on the Line, which sees Glyn weeping into the silence of a disconnected telephone line having staged a conversation with several family members, some of them deceased. The audience are left somewhat subdued and bound to the room as this cathartic and deeply personal experience unfolds in front of them.
If post modernism has allowed us to question the reality of what is presented before us, then the lowering of expectations, tolerance of casual dissent/ sentiment alike, and the watering down of the very principles it advocates, has become the albatross of any art that has something to say. Glyn has found himself in an art world that questions his righteousness, as well as a mainstream that is indifferent to his shouting, as they have been bored so frequently by the half-hearted attempts of people we know as celebrities rather than as the social commentators they claim or aspire to be. Yet there is light at the end of the tunnel.
‘There was a general feeling [?] everywhere you looked of reaching back into the past and searching for a lost England that was somehow a better and simpler place to live’ Vic Reeves ‘Me:Moir’ 2006
The iconic image that I hold of Glyn’s North of England, his upbringing, and the black-and-white celluloid image that informs this opinion, is indeed the dreaded postmodern condition at work once again. My understanding of Glyn’s past is one pieced together by sitcoms, the retelling of the experiences of others, and an overriding collective of clichés, whereas Glyn’s is every bit a part of him as my views are a part of me. However, never have I felt as close to Yorkshire than during this week’s trilogy of works whilst watching Glyn wrestle with the place that he so often loves to hate.
This act of giving something of his version of Yorkshire along with the performance surplus previously mentioned intercepts any threat of the work becoming shrouded in propaganda or symbolism. We see the artist’s attempt to find middle ground between America’s old West and his homeland. The overriding title of Glyn’s work for the past ten years has been Somewhere between Wakefield and Wichita. It seems no coincidence that the old West Glyn creates in the gallery this week is methodically hammered at and demolished throughout the work whereas the signposts of home remain. If the images, tools, or debris left behind are in no way sacred or even salvageable to the artist, then they are disenfranchised from forming any sense of measured or calculated symbolic order. Glyn does not hold great store in the setting of his work, yet he is captivated by its scale. This reveals that it is the living breathing Yorkshire inside of him alone that drives the work, as opposed to the acquisition of a certain aesthetic and/or relationship to space, artistic position or uniform. There is no identifiable assertion of agenda ready to leave the work tarred with stigma.
Glyn has been identified as possessing a certain benevolent disposition that contradicts the icy postmodern glare and scoff of which simulation appears to be such a profound bass line. He has also managed to sidestep the assumption that America is the cultural playmaker for an emulative British society. Glyn’s young life was heavily influenced by a thriving British culture in the throes of reclaiming its identity and proud parochial through rock music, film and performance art alike. This has enabled him to operate at a healthy distance from Americanisation and has allowed for a playful retelling of the old American West (an old West that he appears to draw close with one hand yet push away with the other). Songs of the Johnny Cash and Rock Island Line ilk also intercept some of the work’s darker and more intense moments. What we see is far more playful and childlike than emulative, reassuring us that Glyn has quietly ebbed from another of postmodernism’s most beloved dogmas whilst making some attempts to exploit its revolving door nature. In this we see the postmodern condition of simulation used most effectively, if only in witnessing Glyn’s confidence in referring to him self as a ‘True Cowboy’.
Glyn’s work of late is characterised by a quest to stumble upon a forgotten simplicity by relinquishing control of the materials it leaves behind, offering the audience the option of both physically exiting the space and taking what meaning (along with what items) they will from it; if any at all.
Glyn appears to construct an agenda that draws on both his values, and ideologies in order to de-centre not necessarily the corporate, the pop, and the mainstream, but the average, the middle-of-the-road and the easily come by liberality of much contemporary culture. Glyn in this sense becomes the workhorse, the pit pony and the catalyst for this to take place. By his own admission, Glyn has of late borne the desire to probe a Yorkshire omitted beneath layers of sickly portrayal and what Glyn refers to as the ‘awfully patronising’ social realism movies of the 1990s. These movies are a constant source of umbrage with Glyn, as he finds that they serve no purpose other than to exploit and elaborate various modes that contribute to the fabric of his childhood and of his deeply personal work. The cheap laugh.
It must be nice sometimes not to have […] ever been trained to look at life any differently to what we’re actually and fundamentally bought up to be. We go to university and people spend three years teaching us a way of looking at the world, to the point of no return sometimes. I feel that it must be really lovely to have all this uncertainty, anger, passion and stress, simply bypassed; if only by doing the normal thing that everyday people do.
—Glyn Davies Marshall ‘Stafford College’ July 2006.
As Glyn points out, there is an identifiable longing for peace within the personal sphere, yet this stands in opposition to many of the feverish (publicly accessible) displays of the past two decades. Where guttural screams in white art spaces are concerned Glyn is at home, yet this is a far cry from the traditions of home and the gentle words of his father. It is important to consider towards what ends Glyn does endeavour whilst generating his work. Surely there is more than simple catharsis at work here? Where does one turn if after twenty years the purpose served has been to simply facilitate the very vacuum from which he now ebbs?
On numerous occasions I have witnessed Glyn formulating his work as it is in progress, his eyes scanning the space in anticipation for whatever item of wood, masonry or prop will next become part of the landscape currently occupied by him and his audience. Those items that go unused are left as evidence of plans we will never see put in spin.
If the purpose of Glyn’s role within an arts community is the striving for a ‘withering away’ of any sense of elitism or ‘art clique’, then we may begin to see the ends that Glyn strives to make us aware of. It would seem that a model of initially happening upon the paradoxical nature of art that seeks to probe, map and resolve conflict, exploiting it through execution, and finally lynching it from the comfort of his own hick-ass ways, is taking place. This occurs through a gentle discussion of that which has contributed to the man Glyn is toady.
The ends are no more steadfast than the scaffolding supporting them.. Glyn is seen to work towards objectives subject to constant fluctuation, given their track record. The doctrine etched into him by his arts education and the involvement in many of its institutions has caused a reaction against itself. Now it would seem he seeks to probe and hold the hand of the very world that pushed him towards this scene in the first place.
If there is a post script to this text, it is that I have attempted to afford myself the rather aloof opportunity of avoiding an ever-impending ‘cast die’, allowing for a flexible rule book that is malleable enough to compliment this ever shifting work. This method sits on the fence as it attempts to address the issues presented by the middle roads of both mainstream and counterculture alike, and the common ground they share in Glyn’s work. The not-so-elusive English eccentric is now upon us once again with his most recent trilogy of works, and Glyn has offered me the opportunity to shout for him a way that he is hesitant to do so himself. I am more than happy to oblige my good friend in doing just so.