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Wheal Art Weekend: history and folk memory


The spectacular industrial ruins of South Wheal Frances were the setting for a public  event featuring 11 artists, 6 from the Level Two Artist’s Led Initiative and 5 invited participants. As project writer, I wanted to see how they would engage with a site that had recently been granted World Heritage status. Should site-specificity oblige the artists to explore the past and how would they navigate a path through the complex history and folk memory that surrounds such a place?

Artists Stacey Righton (right) and Sara Bowler used the rock itself as a catalyst for enquiry. Stacey worked on site smashing 5kg of copper ore on an iron “bucking plate” then sieved the pieces to grade them into granules of differing sizes. This repetitive process was an amalgamation of two ways in which copper and tin ore were treated, copper being smashed and separated by the Bal Maidens and tin stamped and graded. Like the Bal Maids, Stacey was highly visible, consciously absorbed in a process that wasn’t “productive”, yet had the trappings of a performance and demonstration alike.

A similar cycle of repetition featured in Sara Bowler’s piece Strange Flowerings. This multitude of sea pinks, 2000 woollen pompoms on copper coated wire stalks, was planted in the grass to form a swathe along the direction of the vast underground mineral seam called the Great Flat Lode. Thrift is known to indicate mineral deposits beneath the subsoil, so was appropriate for a deliberately reclaimed area that had been scarred by industrial processes. The plant as a symbolic marker of invisible or forgotten activities is significant in the light of one visitors' outrage. She complained at the invasion of this artificial presence on a site formerly so lush and green. She was reassured that the intervention was temporary and lushness would be restored after the weekend, but the story left me wondering about the poignancy of the erasure of the past over time.


The title of Alexis Stevens’ installation (below) both echoed these strange flowerings and encapsulated a constant forgetting.  Under the Thrift was qualified with the Basho haiku:

 “The summer grass is as if the warrior were a dream”  

Alexis had chosen the room at the end of the Miner’s “Dry” basing the elements of her piece on a scaled down version of one of the windows. Four large archways faced one another, the curvature of one dramatically broken. Grass and branches had begun to encroach from the thicket next door, creating an ideal theatre for her installation. Set at an obtuse angle to one another, these truncated vaults served to emphasize the architecture around them, so that the eye of the viewer travelled from grass to green turf, from wooden horizontal to stone vertical plane, bridging the gaps between and forming a more complete visual narrative.

An arch painted thrift-pink was one of the colour surprises of the site. Frequent fragments of artificial colour appeared like attempts to activate the stone ruins, yet were not always to be read as allusions to their industrial past. Alison Sharkey, for example disrupted the monumental stillness with her sound and video piece Balls. A screen placed in a niche at the end of the former Compressor Room showed a film of fluro yellow rubber balls being flung into the same space. As they careered from wall to wall and disappeared into the filthy water below, the randomness of their trajectories defied the insistent rhythm of their bounce.

In the Pumping Engine House Steven Paige had placed a mirror reflecting a circle of sky at the top of the stack. A sound recording played extracts from original news footage about the fateful stock market crash of 1985 that had decimated the Cornish tin industry. This babbled on regardless while the disc of daylight glinting behind iron bars told of the dream of a richer lode, greater investment, a better life.  

Images of migration, flight and freedom were explored by Kate Ogley and Stephanie Boon, against a backdrop of darker issues such as child labour in Boy Workings. Andy Whall used the architecture to experiment with movement from physical constriction to symbolic activity in his performance Arsenic Licker whilst the Quaylab artist Paul Chaney concentrated on activity in the micro-cosmos. Dressed as an Edwardian scientist he performed an exploration of the biodiversity of the site, the Notion of Inhuman Endeavour on a Site Renowned for Human Endeavour.

Wheal Art Weekend was never meant as a celebration of mining heritage. It’s coherence lay instead in its emphasis on the vulnerable and precarious aspects of that life. It combined spatial responses to the empty, fragmented buildings with exposure of the hidden stories that are overlooked by history.


Text Megan Wakefield        Pictures Miranda May        August 2006