Photography: Courtesy of Bluecoat

Sean Edwards: Undo Things Done

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  • Sadia Pineda Hameed: The Song of My Life
Bluecoat

Before I had the chance to see Undo Things Done, I could hear it – an elderly voice retracing a childhood spent in a Northern Irish Catholic children’s home, cleaning houses for a living and other autobiographical notes collaged with her former husband’s job assessment forms, racing news and written extracts about home and loss. The elderly voice is SEAN EDWARDS’s mother, Lily, whose voice featured in her son’s 2019 Wales in Venice Biennale exhibition. Broadcasting live every day at 2pm from her Cardiff home, Lily Edwards’ voice would travel over 1,000 miles to reach Venice’s deconsecrated Santa Maria Ausiliatrice, a 20th century convent-turned-community-centre. Now re-edited as a BBC Radio 4 studio recording titled Refrain (2020), her voice has found a new home in Edwards’ touring Undo Things Done: an exploration into place, class, politics and what we inherit—both from our parents and where we grew up.

As sections of Refrain are played throughout the five-hour gallery day, Lily can often be heard reciting a peculiar linguistic filler, ‘un un un’, as if in a deep prayer. Appearing in the first two letters of the exhibition’s title itself, the repetition and recycling of motifs are central to Undo Things Done, it seems, and I was fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the 2020 Turner Prize winner as he appeared via Zoom to inspect the work in time for the opening day. The ‘un’s aren’t just a way of giving Lily space to breathe during the radio play, he told me, but an onomatopoeic nod to his childhood responsibilities as a bell-ringing altar boy. A mosaic of his early political, religious, and familial memories, the exhibition pieces together seemingly unrelated objects to create a shared visual language to which many of us can relate; one revolving around class consciousness, community and personal histories – about not expecting much from not much at all.

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The gathering of Edwards’ fragmented personal histories can be seen in in Parallel with the past (2020), a series of framed images arranged horizontally across two of the gallery’s walls. The frames include collages of a childhood communion, images of his estranged father’s Welsh valley steel town, hand-written betting slips and the pattern of a 1980s Manchester United shirt (the only gift Edwards remembers from his father). With severe flooding in Venice damaging the original sculpture, the collages have been digitally scanned and now hang vertically to resemble film rolls cut into strips, with subtle allusions to nostalgia, displacement and loss. Meanwhile, on a mounted television, further suggestions of domestic gambling are made in DOMS (2019), a digitally transferred 16mm film cut into two short cycles where hands sharply rearrange dominos as if caught between two conflicting memories.

Behind the mounted television, Edwards’ work takes on a more politicised energy in Newspaper Confessional (2019). Here, repeated sequences of ‘un’s are carved across a red-framed hardboard folding screen, referencing both Edwards’ Catholic upbringing and his shaming of the gossip-for-profit culture of tabloid journalism. The italicised ‘un’ is of course taken from The S*n’s masthead, a paper banned in Edwards’ childhood home just as in the city where the screen now stands somewhat awkwardly. This exploration into shame and the much greater power that the popular press once enjoyed in swaying the UK electorate before the advent of social media is further suggested in Free School Meals (2019), a similarly red-framed newsprint poster whose words are set in the unmistakable upper-case tabloid font. Referring to the artist’s own experiences of receiving free school dinners and having to queue in a visibly separate line, the poster is a strikingly simple work and one that has taken on renewed significance today.

Edwards’ inherited political and religious experiences are then combined in the three brightly coloured hand-made traditional Welsh quilts, each designed by Edwards and quilted by Karen Cocksedge and Samantha Jones. Made with cotton poplin, cotton sateen and carded wool, they hang from custom aluminium brackets and are imbued with Catholic symbolism and repeated geometric patterns. Look closer and you will pick out both ‘un’s and another familiar typographic reference – the ‘M’ taken from the Daily Mirror, the preferred newspaper of Edwards’ trade union grandparents. Edwards’ quilts were the result of a period of research at Cardiff’s St Fagans National Museum of History, whose large collection of these types of quilts feature prominently in the working-class chronology of Wales, particularly in maternal spaces.

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In seeking to develop this inquiry into matrilineal storytelling, Edwards invited Cardiff-based artist and writer Sadia Pineda Hameed to feature alongside Undo Things Done. On display in Gallery One’s intimate media space, Hameed’s new 10-minute The Song of My Life (2020) is a dreamy and nostalgic take on karaoke, with text appearing as lyrics for a duet using the song of the same name by Nora Aunor. Hameed’s 8mm film features beachscapes, illuminated flowers and waves shimmering with light, with the alternating ‘lyrics’ exploring themes of familial trauma and how collectivised memories pass – both spoken and unspoken, between parent and child. Likewise, in Nails (or inheriting absence) (2019), the enlarged close-ups of Edwards’ nails bitten down to the quick – a practice borrowed from his mother – highlights the role that Edwards’ maternal upbringing has played in his bodily rituals.

But it is through interpreting Edwards’ upbringing on a council estate in Llanedeyrn where Undo Things Done finds its most resonant focal point. Built in the 1970s on the edges of Cardiff, the estate – typical of the many post-war social housing developments of the time – attempted to provide for all its residents’ needs. This included a pub, a police station, a library and the Maelfa Shopping Centre. But, in striving to contain one community on the outskirts of Cardiff, it proved both utopian in design and socially divisive in practice.

Like so many of the 1970s retail and housing experiments in our own towns and cities, both the architectural forms and the civic aspirations that Edwards’ childhood estate represented gradually succumbed to time. In Llanedeyrn (2019), various perspectives of the estate are revealed in dozens of black-and-white images from the artist’s book stuck to the gallery’s floor, while in Gallery Three, the 24-minute silent film Maelfa (2010) takes us through the estate’s partially derelict shopping centre as it stood in 2010 with the threat of demolition looming large.

And it is perhaps here, as Lily’s voice provides a fragmented accompaniment over the course of the day, where Sean Edwards’ pieces across both galleries come together. Undo Things Donethe words taken from a statement of regret from his late father – is a powerful study of lives lived at the margins, of the unheroic and of the unassuming. Of disappearing communities and their fragmented memories, and of the ambitious but flawed social projects that are inherited by generation after generation.

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