Sean Edwards comes from what he calls a condition of ‘not expecting much’ growing up on the Llanedeyrn estate on the outskirts of Cardiff in the 1980s; in Undo Things Done, he translates his personal experience of that condition into a shared visual language. Edwards’ exhibition at Bluecoat in Liverpool (until 21 February 2021), obscures images of bodies, places, and found objects, reframing the edges of these things as the centre.
This is an exhibition with an immediate, commanding title displayed starkly in red on a banner outside the front of the gallery, but it is initially difficult to tell what needs to be undone. Upon entering the show, it felt sparse and disjointed – I wasn’t sure how to follow the title’s command. I was left with the task of figuring out what has been done, to whom, and what must be undone.
The middle of the floor in the largest room is covered with scattered photographs of corners of alleyways, bus stops and shop windows. Overlapping with each other, they are spread out underfoot. These photographs, constituting a piece titled ‘Llanedeyrn’ (2019) are images of Edwards’ native estate, with signs pointing to Maelfa, the nearby shopping centre and subject of his film ‘Mealfa’ (2011), also on show as part of this iteration of Undo Things Done, and available via Temple Bar Gallery online. This work sets up a fundamentally autobiographical and class-based grounding for the exhibition, although, as I stepped through the space, I found it easy to forget what was underneath me.
This act of forgetting prompted two intertwined readings. First, of moving past the places in which we grew up: as we create our own lives outside of the communities that raised us, we can forget about that foundation and support of where we came from. The second is a class-based reading: seeing glimpses of a Welsh working class setting under foot is arresting. The images hold the weight of the rest of a society that is literally trampling them. This exhibition was originally shown in the Santa Maria Ausiliatrice, a convent turned community space, for Wales in Venice 2019 and here in Liverpool’s oldest arts institution a comparable contrast is achieved, between a presumed arts audience and the inhabitants of the Llanedeyrn estate. For Edwards, this is his history, the place he grew up and a place he doesn’t occupy directly anymore. Talking to The Double Negative recently, Edwards detailed this ‘autobiographical position’ of the exhibition, ‘ an attempt to create a visual language around some of the things that I’ve been thinking of to do with growing up working class.’
The restaging of ‘Mealfa’ here furthers the biography of a liminal class experience (seen throughout the exhibition), delivering the audience to a living, moving image of where the artist comes from, while contrasting the dilapidated shops of a recession-era Cardiff estate with the ongoing regeneration of central Liverpool. The film, a series of slowly panning close-ups of views from within and of shopfronts, obscured by reflections in windows, soft focus and framing so tight that it becomes unclear what is on screen, is projected onto a massive screen. This is the only work shown in the smaller of the exhibition’s two rooms, bordered either side with tinted windows where passersby are visible. The contrast is almost eerie, with the dullness of this 1970s development and a dreary south Wales sky stark against throngs of shoppers in a contemporary city centre (exacerbated by the bustle of Christmas shopping at the time of writing). The placement of this work plays into Edwards’ concept of expectations, as I watch his ‘low expectation’ reality alongside the apparent aspiration of Liverpool’s central shopping district.
The film opens with text from a planning proposal suggesting the demolition and regeneration of Meafla, creating a sense that those in power were critical of the community depicted. The proposal (commissioned by Cardiff County Council in 2007), describes the Meafla shopping centre as ‘poorly defined, offering no sense of entry or sense of place’. Llanedeyrn was built in the post-war new town mould; a utopian vision of social housing where everything you could need is at your doorstep, where communities are supportive and self-sufficient. But is there another side to this? Can “no entry” also mean “no exit”? The film suggests this, as we are trapped in the corners of this place, suggesting a connection between the physical space and Edwards’ sense of ‘not expecting much,’ with no way out and no reason to look for one. As Edwards’ camera pans, objects in shop windows and people moving past come in and out of focus. A hyper-close-up view reframes the mundanity as something intriguing, as I try to figure out what is being shown on screen.
Edwards continues this obfuscation with more than architecture. One of the most striking things in the exhibition’s first room is a sequence of seven-foot tall prints of photographs of toes, entitled ‘Nails (or inheriting absence)’ (2020), with the viewer trapped between these oversized images and ‘Newspaper Confessional’ (2019) a custom-made confessional screen. Another work on show in this room is ‘DOMS’ (2019), whereby an old-fashioned television monitor in the centre of the space shows a looping clip of hands shuffling dominoes. Here, the extremities of bodies are brought into focus, offering a humanising contrast to the film. The way that close-ups and edges are depicted here could unfavourably compare to ‘Mealfa’; a cold encounter, with its glass, concrete and silence. However the facets of people shown here in a similar way add a warmth and grounding in bodily experience, connecting the people to the place. Edwards’ work is about the places in which communities actually exist, and is focussed more closely than social documentary, perhaps allowed for by Edwards’ own background within the community. The framing is so close that the context changes; the context of a toe is the foot, the context of a fragment of text in a window is the shop. Being so close to the subjects of the work draws the viewer’s focus down to the bodily specifics of the communities and people depicted, whilst also showing a more general, relatable idea of a person (most people have toes and hands). This serves as a reminder that when making work about systems like class and the discrepancies of geography, we’re also talking about the material lives of people.
The exhibition is airy, with each work presented isolated in a space of its own. The largest room is divided by the zig-zagging confessional screen that cuts across one side of it, blocking the side of the room with large windows and the door from the core of the exhibition. A gap in the screen creates a natural entrance, bordered by ‘Nails,’ which is angled so as to point the viewer to the centre of the space, where the scattered photographs of ‘Llanedeyrn’ lay. Past the screen, another work, ‘In Parallel With The Past’ (2020), becomes visible; a long horizontal piece mounted on the wall running to the left, it’s subject unclear as it first guides me back on myself, into the corner of the room. As I get closer, I notice that it is made up of a series of smaller frames, each featuring thin vertical strips of archival materials.
Created from images of repurposed parts of the (now destroyed) largest piece of the Venice iteration of this exhibition, this work contains memories of Edwards’ now deceased father. Parts of betting slips, disability assessments, and family photos, cut down and spread across picture frames over two walls of the gallery. Continuing the pattern of obscured biography, most of the content of this piece is almost unrecognisable, reduced to tiny grass-like blades, leaving fragments of colour and text, suggesting context but refusing to reveal it. By following this work into the corner of the room, I found myself behind ‘Nails,’ and was confronted with the supports of the steel frame holding up these huge prints, appearing to be slightly rusted but strong and stable. Here the exhibition’s layout guides the viewer behind the work, revealing the usually unseen supports that bear the weight, as the working class hold up society.
Opposite, three traditional Welsh quilts hang at eye level from wires suspended from the ceiling. ‘Wholecloth Quilt in The Sun and Daily Mirror Pattern’ (2019) and ‘Wholecloth Quilt in The Sun Pattern’ (2019) reference divisive contemporary media within the centuries-old quilting patterns, with circles of the fragmented words: ‘un’, ‘s’ and ‘m.’ At first difficult to discern, these shapes, juxtaposed with the soft fabric echo themes explored elsewhere in Undo Things Done.
The ‘un’ stitched across the quilts and derived by breaking apart The Sun newspaper’s logo, is a key visual element throughout the exhibition, there also in the command of its title and in ‘Newspaper Confessional’, carved over and over into the hardboard. The damage of The Sun’s right wing editorial stance is well known in Liverpool, post-Hillsborough – the paper cannot be bought in the city – and elsewhere in the UK, the title is synonymous with right wing propaganda. By breaking The Sun’s logo apart, Edwards attempts to cut through their divisive messaging, reforming connections between us here in the city and smaller communities elsewhere. These works prompt memories of the 2019 General Election, when the Labour Party lost many of its traditional strongholds in the so-called ‘Red Wall’ across towns in Northern England and North Wales, where arguments about Brexit, led by the tabloid press, were used to break the solidarity between working class communities in cities and towns that formed the base of Labour’s voter coalition.
Perhaps by breaking apart the name of The Sun, Edwards points towards the need to rebuild that solidarity. The ‘un’ of the exhibition title may reference The Sun, suggesting that what needs to be undone is their propaganda. But it’s only a suggestion. While Undo Things Done is an urgent command, it is also a vague one; nothing feels definitive, the viewer is left to figure out what has happened and how to undo it. Edwards brings the fringes of the place that he came from to the centre of our metropolitan view, depicting fragments of stagnation but also of resilience, leaving the viewer to make their own conclusions about how to undo these divisions.
Sean Edwards: Undo Things Done is on display at Bluecoat until 21 February, alongside Sadia Pineda Hameed: The Song of My Life, available to watch online here. Due to ongoing Pandemic restrictions, Bluecoat is currently closed to the public. A series of online events accompany the exhibition, including Maria Fusco: A Belly of Irreversibles on 19 February (live reading of a newly commissioned lyric essay) and Kim McAleese and Sean Edwards in Conversation on 26 February.
Edward Haynes is a writer and editor based in Liverpool. They run the website An Inside Out, publishing personal essays about art and culture, and have written about comics and graphic novels for SOLRAD, PanelXPanel and more.