Writing on the wall

Posted by Ed Douglas on 02/11/2012
The slate: playground or art gallery? Photo: Alex Messenger.

Graffiti art in the Dinorwig slate quarries by London artist Jack Murray has reignited the debate about what can and can't be done to rock faces in the name of art. Ed Douglas explores the issues.

When artist Jack Murray, founding member of in-vogue London-based graffiti collective ATG, painted an image on the Sidings in the Dinorwig quarries above Llanberis, the response from climbers was immediate. Some were enraged, some were anxious that Murray’s action might imperil a delicate access situation – and some wondered what the fuss was all about.

A forum thread about Murray’s graffiti on UKClimbing showed just how intensely climbers felt about the issue. And it echoed the controversy generated in late July by the Stanza Stones project, a collaboration that saw verses by Simon Armitage chiselled by artist Pip Hall into boulders at Ilkley, as part of the Cultural Olympiad.

The debate about Murray focussed on what constitutes a natural landscape and how free artists should be to create their work. One commentator wrote: “An incongruous and gigantic grey hole blasted out of the side of a mountain in the middle of a beautiful green valley makes this venue a magnet for people to express and create, whether that’s by creating climbs, graffiti or shit Hollywood films.”

And as the BMC’s Elfyn Jones points out, the Dinorwig quarries were a source of creative inspiration even before they closed in 1969. “Quarrymen would hold mini-eisteddfodau, a form of cultural talent show, in their caban, or canteens, producing both poetry and art.

In the 1980s, he says, they provided the perfect backdrop for the eighties climbing scene in Llanberis, a mountain cut to the bone waiting to be explored by unemployed ‘slateheads’ testing the limits of their minds and bodies.

Climbers dubbed one quarry ‘Dali’s Hole’ in homage to the surrealist artist Salvador Dali. The ghostly shapes of dead trees in its flooded base would surely have appealed to him.

The routes of artist John Redhead and writer Paul Pritchard epitomised an era of psychological exploration, performed in a post-industrial landscape at a time of industrial collapse. If they were allowed their statement, why isn’t Jack Murray?

“Let’s not forget that people throughout history have been applying artwork on to rock faces,” he wrote in reply to comments on UKClimbing. “Cavemen painted on them. Aztecs and Incas painted and carved into them and the list goes on. I’m not saying that people of my cultural generation will be as relevant as tribes of people in the past who have painted on to rock faces, but who is to say?”

Other artists have also used the quarries as a location for their work, often to great acclaim. In 2004 Andy Parkin created artworks in the Llanberis quarries for LLAMFF – the Llanberis adventure film festival. Ray Wood has spent decades photographing the quarries.

But, as Jones points out, “all of this is an example of climbers and artists working with the industrial remains and demonstrating a respect towards the whole culture and community that created these incredible landscapes – and the 362 quarrymen who lost their lives here.”

In recent years, hundreds of new routes, many at a more amenable and accessible grade, have prompted a resurgence of interest in the slate quarries. An excellent new guidebook by Simon Panton documents not just the climbing but the rich history and the background to the slate-climbing scene.

Yet the increase in interest has not been without its problems, says Elfyn Jones. “The owners, First Hydro, have become concerned about liability and their health and safety obligations towards climbers. The access issues at the now partially de-bolted Dali’s Hole have been well documented.”

He adds: “Intense and sensitive negotiations between the BMC, local climbers and the owners seems to have protected access to the most popular areas for the time being. But the access situation is still very fragile.”

Jack Murray has, he says, given up on a plan to return and paint a 20ft mural in another part of the quarries, after the feelings of the owners and local climbers became clear. But the debate about what is and isn’t tolerable in quarries is sure to continue.

“Our worry,” says BMC access and conservation policy officer Dr Cath Flitcroft, “is that rock faces are starting to be seen by some as blank canvases to express their personal artistic vision with no consideration for the impact this has on the meaning of a place – or the impact their actions will have on access and the potential damage to the rock face that removal of artwork may cause.”

Given that society has become more tolerant of graffiti, perhaps we need to reconsider how we view quarries in the first place. Very few landscapes in Britain are untouched by human influence. So rather than seeing quarries as nature urbanised, perhaps we should consider them to be nature in re-hab – and let them heal rather than reinterpret them with urban art forms.



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Anonymous User
06/11/2012
Because access in the slate isn't already enough of an issue. :/
Anonymous User
06/11/2012
"Given that society has become more tolerant of Graffiti...."
Just because we cant do anything about it as individuals does not mean we like it, and how tolerant would you be if it was done over your house or car?
Anonymous User
06/11/2012
I am a pretty good artist but don't have what it takes to get myself into the public arena so it gets shoved under the bed for someone else to discover when I have turned my toes up. The problem with graffiti is that it is done by wannabe artists (like me) but they do not have the decency to do the same and are more determined to get their work into the public arena anyway they can. In most case the work is crap which goes a long way towards explaining why they wouldn't make it in the art world - so instead of retaining any dignity they would rather try and shock you with their product. Making it our fault if we do not like or appreciate their work. It is on private property and we know who did this so charges should be brought against them otherwise we are giving way, once again, to an unwanted minority faction.
Anonymous User
09/11/2012
Are the BMC going to arrange for the Graffiti to be sand blasted / removed? This would imo send out a clear message.....

Ian Lloyd-Jones
Anonymous User
17/11/2012
i amazed that the pristine faces are being used in this way. although it is an industrisal site.it has been left this way for 60 years, Many young boys i knew from the local area,started work in the quarries. and were very proud of thier work. Please sop this graffiti
Anonymous User
17/11/2012
Someone, ho enjoys climbing & art, also Graffiti art, my worries are that we should be looking at the natural art of the quarries,they change with the light also the weather, No one need to constantly look after them, were paint brush, aerosol paint will need looking after all the time,other wise they deteriorate & look all full & then some has to clean up. So do we need art on a canvas that already done.Come on!!!
Mark Symonds
Anonymous User
18/11/2012
graffiti is urban art - let it stay there
Anonymous User
18/11/2012
I believe that Murray should have done his artist research. Artists from an early age in school are taught how ti research projects properly and why research is important. It seems the graffiti was done as a spuur of the moment work. With no planning of ideas, no planning of including the surrounding environment in the idea and no planning on where the art was going to go. It was just done. I agre with Dr Cath Flitcroft.
Hopefully Murray's project and the mass of people that have been upset about it will not go unnoticed in the art industry. Thus people will become more aware of the environments they are in and will respect other people's views regarding artwork in places like the slate quarry. Personally before I plan artwork I ask permission from all involved in the place or the material. What effect my art would have on natyre and so so. I personally want my art to be appreciated. As mentioned before photography has been done in environments such as the quarry but photography does not change or distyrm the outdoors neither its enthusiasts.
Regards.
Anonymous User
18/11/2012
The question is, is this art? There is a tendency in recent years to accept large installations in public places as being art as opposed to them being self-publicising ego-work. Banksy, Antony Gormley et al are classic examples. Gormley is a particular culprit in this way. His sculpture installations on Morecambe Bay and in the Austria alps are not art and have little aesthetic value; they can be best viewed as intellectual environmental vandalism, made worse by their permanency. Banksy's work, while maybe talented, is lazy art, as is most graffiti. Altogether their work is intrusive. BMC should act to remove and prevent what is happening.

Anonymous User
18/11/2012
This is a serious issue. I recently returned to a longtime favourite spot in the remoter parts of the Brecon Beacons. There's delightful cliff where a watercourse runs into it a rightangles and disappears underground. Many times I have camped there alone. But this time, I was appalled to find the silouette of a hand chiselled into the limestone with a circle of red paint outlining it. Since then I have seen the same image on a cliff by a roadside, next to a nature reserve. What these (self-important) artists fail to understand is that our natural environment is incredibly precious. To make any sort of human intervention on the wilderness is to SUBURBANISE it. That is, to make it into a part of the human-built environment, whether it's to lay a stone footpath, place a cairn, erect a sign, or make an artwork on it.

Artists need to be reminded that two of Britain's most famous landscape artists: Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy, have always made short-lived work, out of natural materials that quickly disappeared (such as leaves or ice). Or if they weren't short-lived, they would remove the work after they had taken their photographs. Both show respect for the environment.

I used to be an artist who made installations in outdoor spaces. It does give you a buzz to make a high-impact visual statement that will impact on other other people. But that doesn't justify spoiling our precious wilderness by suburbanising it for years to come.
Anonymous User
19/11/2012
For goodness sake..haven't climbers suffered enough antagonism and objection to their pursuit of the sport they love in the past to enable them to be more supportive of others who want to fulfil themselves (and in this case provide somethng for others)
What's the problem with using a place that has already been massively interfered with for human gain.
May brighten the depressing place up a bit. Stop being so selfish climbers. The planet isn't here just for your benefit.
Anonymous User
19/11/2012
Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long have not always removed their work from the environment on completion as a previous comment suggests.
However, they are now old "accepted" artists who have created some amazing work which, on the whole most people like.
I have however heard Andy Goldsworthy being verbally harassed as he worked on his snowball project by someone who didn't like what he was doing.
So is it really all about whether we approve of the end result, in which case who is going to make the decision if the art work is acceptable or not?

The access issue can not really be an acceptable argument against the artists,as maybe the fact that many climbers are accessing the quarries puts access under threat for the artists, photographers, walkers, musicians etc who would like access to the quarries and surely have as much right to it!
Anonymous User
19/11/2012
Will this person be prosecuted for vandalism? I hope so. In fact I think he MUST be prosecuted and that the BMC should rally the other outdoor groups to push for such action. In the meantime we all ought to register our sadness at such a willful act on the artists website. But instead of lambasting him with outrage it would be better in my opinion to prick his conscience, as I hope I achieved with my post below:

I am not an art aficionado so my saying that I like your art might not count for much but being a graphic designer perhaps you will allow that I can at least appreciate colour and design when I see it.

There is, however, a place for everything and in my opinion a slate quarry in Wales isn't one of them. What you have done adds nothing and will not be seen as art but labelled for what it is – an act of vandalism and arrogance that shows your lack of appreciation for the stark beauty of the landscape that is in its own way a mightily impressive piece of art in itself.

It is true that the quarry is the result of a massive act of vandalism in the name of progress. But there is no value on any level in compounding the vandalism that has already been done with yet more, albeit of a different kind.

I hope for all of us who love the countryside that you reconsider your proposed return visit. Carrying out your wish will only serve to demean your art and your stature within the artistic community. Rather than take the city to the countryside would it not be more challenging to do the reverse? Or perhaps that is beyond you?

Man is the master of his concrete, steel and glass domain and strives to make his vain impression with which to overawe those who inhabit such places. Nature does not set out to impress yet has the ability to humble those who visit the true wonders of this world, whether they be Welsh quarries or the majestic megaliths of the Himalaya.
Anonymous User
20/11/2012
The Quarries are a work of art in themselves, a tribute to the men who worked and died there.
The routes (most of them...) are a work of art, an expression of how climbers respond to their environment.
The art is...art(?)...and just like us climbers, this artist has chosen the quarries as his canvas.

It has the potential to make delicate access worse, but should we be the only ones to enjoy the quarry?
Anonymous User
27/11/2012
As someone who has grown up strongly aware of the ethics involved in climbing and other outdoor activities, along with a deep passion for hip hop/urban culture and art, I can see arguments on both sides.

I understand the respect aspect with regards to the history of the quarry and it's workers but I ask, having put personal feelings for graffiti art to one side, is this any less respectful than climbing the slate? Do we know that the artist wasn't thinking directly of the history involved when painting the piece, possibly gaining inspiration from painting in an area with a history of mixed use, that has touched so many peoples lives in so many different ways?

Perhaps he was even drawing comparisons between graffiti and climbing, after all there are many parallels. Both involve the issue of access, the desire to explore and conquer one's surroundings and the utilisation of walls, that we do not own, for our enjoyment and self-expression. Where a climber conquers a new route or first ascent, a graffiti artist paints on a previously untouched, hard to reach wall.

Finally ask yourselves this, would a graffiti artist object to a climber, climbing a wall with a history of graffiti use?
Anonymous User
27/11/2012
Graffiti without permission is vandalism and should be treated as such. Art in the countryside is completely acceptable with permission if it can be removed without a trace at any point by the artist or an agreed 3rd party such as the local council.

Caveman paintings are a gift but cannot be compared to graffiti because we live in a different time and context. If history decides the artwork has value then technology and documentation will preserve it. If the artwork requires a site specific location, make it temporary, document it and remove it.

If the only reason for the graffiti/artwork besides its aesthetics are to emphasis freedom of expression, move on, this point has been made thousands of times already and it will not have any value in the art world.

I think its amazing that an old building in disrepair that was built only a 100 years ago can be given a national heritage status and not be touched when a place like Almscliffe that has been formed over (I guess) millions of years can be hacked up at will.
Anonymous User
30/11/2012
you want to see graffiti ? then visit Prague... A beautiful city covered in the stuff, I wont be going back there again,
Zigzag

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