The latest exhibition to occupy the first floor of the National Museum takes its inspiration from a poem, crafted by Allen Ginsberg during an LSD driven journey through the Black Mountains. The poem itself is a giddy but recognizable work. There is no doubt that the verses of Wales Visitation are ones which embrace the ancient landscape through a subverted lense of perception, and yet, the reality Ginsberg creates is one that will trigger the memory of anyone to have taken a walk through that same setting. The Welsh landscape, as inspiration, sets the tone for the gallery themes to come. Sadly though, the altered realities enjoyed in the verse, have little impact on the interpretations to come.
Wales Visitation certainly opens impressively. Visitors are unavoidably confronted by a giant projection of Ginsberg. This frantic, bearded face looms over the entry way, leaving those who enter in little doubt as to who has provided the initial inspiration for the overall exhibition. Opposite Ginsberg’s projected performance, are Thomas Jones’ The Bard, and Iolo Morganwg’s bardic alphabet. It all resonates with elements of Ginsberg’s poem and mention of bards, and connects the 1960s work with a historical Welsh narrative of poetic imaginings and bardic tradition. It serves as an effective juxtaposition and, for the National Museum, a reasonably innovative opening to an exhibition.
Sadly, from this point on, everything becomes terribly safe and common. While the inclusion of several offerings from Graham Sutherland certainly further the concept of the Welsh landscape inspiring artists, Sutherland’s very inclusion serves to undermine any sense of challenge that this exhibition might pose, put simply, we have been here before in this museum. Once more, Richard Long’s Blaenau Ffestiniog Circle is rolled out, just as it was when the contemporary art galleries were first opened three years ago. The same might be said of the ever wonderful Glory Glory by Laura Ford. This fantastical reimagining of traditional Welsh costume adds a sense of the macabre and the uncanny to the exhibition, but it is far from a new addition to these galleries.
Perhaps though it is not so much the familiarity of the works of art on show here, but the way in which they are displayed. Walking through the gallery, I kept asking myself ‘where is the LSD?’ Not wanting the National Museum to plunge headfirst into the inconceivable, I had at least hoped that the exhibition design would have challenged me as much as the collections. In the end, Wales Visitation becomes a harmless, standard exhibition. No chances are taken, nothing about the exhibit stands out as distinctive or, frankly, memorable. It’s a terrible shame, because when I first became aware of the concept, I wanted to be challenged, I wanted to be wowed. Ultimately, I wanted the National Museum Wales to show us that its approach to contemporary art displays could amount to something more than pattern match programmes. The collections allow for the memorable, but Wales Visitation becomes Wales Forgettable all too quickly.
A side grumble – there is a wonderful family guide available, complete with a miniature cartoon Ginsberg. It’s wonderful in its whimsy, but the guide seems most accessible (in terms of being physically obtainable for visitors) only when having worked through two-thirds of the exhibition. For many, by the time they find this brilliant little trail, they are almost at the end of the entire exhibit already – another disappointing oversight.