Shimon Attie's Portraits Of Aberfan At National Museum Cardiff

By Ben Miller | 05 December 2008
A picture of a female conductor, back to the camera, with her stick and gesticulating hand aloft

(Above) The Conductor. © Shimon Attie, The Attraction of Onlookers: Aberfan - an Anatomy of a Welsh Village

Exhibition preview - The Attraction of Onlookers: Aberfan - an Anatomy of a Welsh Village at National Museum Cardiff from December 6, 2008

In 2004, Shimon Attie was in his New York studio when the phone rang. “Someone with a very fast rate of speaking and an incomprehensible valleys accent asked me if I’d ever heard of Aberfan,” recalls the internationally-renowned visual artist, who confessed he hadn’t heard of the tiny South Wales village.

The caller was from BBC Wales, asking him to create a project aimed at helping the people of Aberfan move on from their traumatic past.

Perpetually recognised as the site of a coal tip disaster which claimed the lives of 116 children and 28 adults in 1966, the village has never fully reclaimed its privacy.

A picture of three choir men in red coats with their backs facing the camera

(Above) The Choir Men. © Shimon Attie, The Attraction of Onlookers: Aberfan - an Anatomy of a Welsh Village.

“They feel themselves to be in a fishbowl that the world has been looking in and upon for the last 40 years and they want to move beyond that,” says Attie, who moved to Aberfan for three months as part of “quasi-research trips.”

"We took it very step by step. The first time I visited I went with [BBC producer] Dai Williams, who grew up in Merthyr, three miles down the road. We basically said to them ‘if this makes sense it’ll be great, if it doesn’t we’ll go away.’ But they accepted me fully – it was pretty wonderful, actually."

The results are poignant portraits of life in Aberfan, with lifesize recreations of the villagers in their domestic situations rotating on an unseen stage in a five channel, high-definition video installation.

A picture of a schoolboy in a shirt and tie looking up

(Above) The High School Student. © Shimon Attie, The Attraction of Onlookers: Aberfan - an Anatomy of a Welsh Village.

“What I tried to do was to create an artwork that would show the village in a way that it’s never been seen before, because they’re sick and tired of only being connected to the disaster,” recalls Attie.

“I took as my working method ‘what does it take to make a welsh village? What’s iconic for every welsh village?’ And in fact it’s the personages of those villages. Every welsh village has a boxer, a fish and chip man, an ex coal miner and so on.”

A picture of a woman standing with a pair of gardening shears as her male partner sits in a chair to her left

(Above) The Gardeners. © Shimon Attie, The Attraction of Onlookers: Aberfan - an Anatomy of a Welsh Village

The villagers will get to see their performances at National Museum Cardiff when they attend the opening today (Friday December 5). Nicholas Thornton, Head of Modern and Contemporary Art at the museum, reckons they will be pleased with the depictions.

“First of all, it’s a very beautiful piece,” says Thornton, who sees the work as a masterpiece of art history, portraiture and old master paintings. “I think people will be really impressed and very moved by the pieces. On a visual level it’s just a really stunning piece of work and it links with the story of Aberfan on so many levels, so it’s very important in that way.”

From fishermen (“show me how you hold your fishing basket,”) to schoolboys, individuals were asked to “basically perform being themselves,” filmed holding static positions.

A picture of an immigrant shopkeeper robed in a white dress holding a bag of sweets next to a stand offering a selection of similar bags

(Above) The Immigrant Shopkeeper. © Shimon Attie, The Attraction of Onlookers: Aberfan - an Anatomy of a Welsh Village.

“I was trying to reflect a moving stillness – they’re holding still but they’re moving, which is part of what trauma does,” explains Attie. “We freeze but the forces of life keep moving.”

The exhibition runs until February 22, 2009. Watch a film clip from The Attraction of Onlookers below.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
  • Back to top
  • | Print this article
  • | Email this article
  • | Bookmark and Share
Museum Crush digest sign up ad
image
advertisement