Aled Simons has produced a captivating range of images which draw on multiple histories and past lives.
A recurring feature throughout Aled Simons’s creative output is the idea of the cyclical. His work seems to endlessly turn back on itself, forming a web in which everything feeds into one another, each project somehow flowing into the next. These form what is, in essence, a creative existence. As artist, he operates from two directions which, on the surface, could scarcely be more different: from light-hearted screen-printing and producing artwork for record label Ten Thousand Yen under the working name Bingo Boutique, to the current project for which he was recently awarded Welsh Mixed Media Artist of the Year.
Yet these opposites are intrinsically linked as, it appears, is everything Simons creates. Hailing from the village of Nelson near Caerphilly, Aled arrived in Swansea in order to study Art Foundation, and has remained faithful to that uniquely ugly, lovely, up and down town since. And indeed, it has begun to pay him back for his patience, affording him and his art collective, Supersaurus, a studio space at its creative heart. And from the freedom allowed him by this space came The Arrangement.
The Arrangement is a series of collages which combine two distinct images, often drawn from second-hand books, to form a transfixing array of landscapes. Many exude an apocalyptic, portentous quality which belies the material itself, formed as they are from urban or relatable landscapes with skies washed with the vivid colours of close-up flowers and plants. It’s a remarkably powerful image, and one which lends itself to concepts of environmentalism and a clash between the urban and the rural. Simons, however, is quick to dismiss such resonances, insisting “I’ve tried to steer away from direct relevances to things such as environmental issues and all that malarkey, that’s not really what it’s about.”
Focus is, rather, on a meeting of histories, and the idea that each image brings with it a series of memories through its ownership. So as well as creating intriguing and beautiful landscapes – placing natural rock formations at the heart of an industrial dockyard, thrusting angular high rise buildings into the midst of the countryside, having a hill littered with the corpses of battered cars merging with an idyllic rustic scene, or a village placed beneath the ornate roof of a cave – one is reminded of the context of these images, of those who once read and touched those pages, and of what they may have meant to them.
The entire collection glows with the warmth and familiarity of the old book. You cannot help but create assumptions about individual images, as well as meditating on the composition as a whole. What’s more, associations between eras are unavoidable, different images rich with the hallmarks of their respective times, so as well as admiring railway line meandering into beach scene, one sees the industrial revolution coming face to face with the garish 80s.
So Crack and Aled had a chat, Welshman to Welshman. The best kind.
So what is the concept behind your series of collages, The Arrangement?
It’s a multi-layered idea. An important part is collecting and surrounding myself with all these old books and various other sources of that kind of material – the aspect of having all those sources around me and having to physically search through them. I’ve always had this mentality of gathering and collecting things, from collecting vinyl, to picking up all sorts of pieces from charity shops, to this.
What’s the physical process of putting them together?
I’m always rooting through charity shops or getting given stuff, so that part takes care of itself. It’s not just a matter of tearing out a page from one of those books and things working; I’ll find images which I find interesting and cut them out and sit with it for a few weeks until something comes along, and I’ll try to always have two or three of those images on the go.
So what kind of books have you taken images from? Any memorable ones?
I’ve got a brilliant, massive German book that’s just called Deutschland, and a lot of the architectural images from this series came from that. And background-wise I had a load of ornamental gardening books. I think adding the flower images are where it all really started to work; it began to develop an almost apocalyptic quality. I think one of the most resonant aspects from using these books is the idea that they’ve all been touched and have lived with people in the past; they have a history already attributed to them. So when you then combine them with another history it creates a kind of universal history, or memory, or memory of a dream … it’s taking a mass of difference sources and essentially different people or memories and bringing them together to be viewed as a whole.
As well as the clash between timeframes and history, there’s also a tension between the industrial and the pastoral evident in a lot of the pieces. Is that something you were conscious of?
I wouldn’t necessarily say so, although I’d say that an attempt at contrast is a definite. I wouldn’t put man-made images together, and similarly with combining black and white with colour. There’s no real conceptual reason behind that, just trying to create that contrast. It just gives each one that bit more impact, and allows it to sit within its own compositional choice. I’d say that was more aesthetic than theoretical.
And how have you been showing the pieces for exhibition?
I’ve occasionally shown them as projections, which puts them on a far larger scale and the effect is totally different, because in fact each one is only around four or five inches high. It’s mounted on a thick card, so it’s almost got a quality of a postcard, which I think has a resonance in itself – one of connections between people and maybe travel, but within time; pasts, presents and futures. The first one was put together of 30- odd pieces in a frame, closely spaced but floating off the board in a box frame, sort of semi-preserved, not so much framed as boxed-up. That’s not necessarily standard, but that’s how the first one was presented for the Welsh Artist of the Year.
Yes, you were awarded Welsh Mixed Media Artist of the Year – that must have been an honour?
Yeah, I wasn’t expecting it all, because the ‘Mixed Media’ category didn’t exist at the time, so I figured there wasn’t much chance – the only thing I would have been up for was the main one! What I really love about the Welsh Artist of the Year awards is that there’s always a big Swansea representation there. This year, the student award went to a girl who’s studying in Swansea, the photography award went to a friend of ours who’s German but is based in Swansea, and this year’s overall winner was from the Swansea Valley. Also, going back Owen Griffiths, Fern Thomas and Adele Vye, who I work alongside as part of a collective, Supersaurus, all won in various categories in 2009, so it provides a good notch up for our combined CV.
That suggests that Swansea is quite a creative place to be at the moment?
Definitely. As a group we get asked this a lot; about Swansea and how it compares to places like Cardiff and Bristol. I think Swansea just feels quite grass rootsy, in a sense. There’s the main gallery, the Glyn Vivian, which is essentially an international arts space, but there are lots of other little offshoots going on and everyone is very supportive of each other. There’s no, sort of, posturing. It feels very truthful.
And as you mentioned you’re involved with the collective, Supersaurus. What’s the history of that?
That’s a group of us who met on our Foundation year in Swansea. We all did our various degrees, the others went to Oxford Brookes and I stayed in Swansea. And then almost 10 years later we found ourselves back together. There are a lot of empty shops and buildings in the city, and through a local contractor working on developing the area in an artistic sense we were lucky enough to get offered a building to take on as a studio at an amazingly low rate. That gave us a chance to reconvene in a new space,
10 years after we were in a studio together as students. Since then we’ve done artist in residence schemes and opened the space out to people; one of the first people we had in to do a project was our art tutor from the Foundation course, which was a nice sense of full circle. But it’s been an incredible resource. I don’t think I would have been able to focus so well without that kind of studio environment, surrounded by the right people.
There’s a pretty remarkable project that you’re involved in called Vetch Veg, where the site of the old Swansea City stadium is being turned into an allotment area. Is that being treated as an art project?
That’s totally an art project, but I can’t claim much credit for it, it’s Owen Griffiths’s practice. I’m essentially his right-hand man on that, adding a bit of muscle as much as anything. It’s an insanely exciting project and I’m spending a lot of time on it at the moment. It’s an amazing thing for Swansea and it’s something Owen’s spoken about doing for quite a while, so it’s great that it’s kicking off and that the community are so behind it.
Back to the arrangement. The images are accompanied by a series of haikus. What was the idea there?
That’s work I do to kind of inform those ideas. They’re more prevalent on the blog, which I am very much treating as an outlet for the project.
The written word is something that you’ve employed in the past with your Bingo Boutique stuff – do you see it as something that sits well alongside your art?
I don’t think of it as essential, and it sits comfortably without it. I think it focuses my mind as much as anything, clarifies where the meanings are sitting for me. A haiku is a form where it’s all about what the reader takes from it, and I treat them in the same way as the collages, this idea of grasping images and placing them together to create a whole. To a point a haiku by its nature has be semi-unreadable. So I think it frames the other work in a sense. Whereas the Bingo Boutique stuff – well, that’s just arsing about really.
Do you see any common strains throughout the two types of work, or are they two very separate facets of your personality?
That’s interesting … in a visual sense, it’s very difficult to link the two. But obviously you can’t say there’s no relationship there, cause it’s me creating them.
A lot of people will recognise the distinctive artwork you did for the Ten Thousand Yen label’s initial run of screen-printed records. Is it something you’ll be continuing to work on for future releases?
The screen-printing’s finished now. That was just for the first series of records. That was the most screen-printing I’ve ever done: each release was 700 hand screens with front and back, and that’s a series of five. So yeah, I did 3,500 prints! So the boys have kindly turned to commercial printing for the upcoming releases! There might be some more further down the line, but hopefully not any time soon cause my wrists are still hurting. It was really great to work on them, those first five really were a labour of love from everyone involved with the label.
And you have a solo exhibition at the Mission Gallery in Swansea coming up, right?
That opens on Friday, January 13th and it’s called Shipwreck. There will be some of the pieces from The Arrangement on a slide show, but for the main gallery space in a similar collected vein, it’s going to be found and assembled sculptural objects, so the whole space will be filled with old doors and things creating a corridor and multiple spaces within the gallery. I’m essentially trying to create the feeling of the landscapes from the collages, but you can walk through it and physically experience it.
You seem to be juggling so many different projects artistically; what do you get up to away from your art work?
Well, in a way it relates to the collecting aspect of the current project, but like I said, I’ve been collecting vinyl for years. I put on a night in Swansea called the Gas Station Bop where I play a lot of 50s and 60s good old rock ‘n’ roll and scuzzy garage which gets churned out on a monthly basis. I’ve even started keeping a comb in my back pocket. Plus I play in a band, I suppose you’d call it, called Barrie Hole’s Hitlist Presents …, and we play 80s covers on a load of old keyboards. But again, I see that as conceptually linked to the art work, although I don’t know if anyone else does, and I very much doubt Tim (John, bandmate) does. I mean, obviously it’s funny and it’s a joke and I know that. But I always like this idea that if all trace of the 80s had been dismantled by some freak tsunami or something, then me and Tim would be standing on the shore after the catastrophe, collecting any instruments that we could find and approximating to the best of our ability what the 80s sounded like to the next generation. We aired Pump Up the Jam the other night for the first time, actually. It was shocking.
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Words: Geraint Davies