(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.
(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.
(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.”
(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.
(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.