Emma Geliot's picture

Red Dolls House copy

As part of their exhibition programme, Ceredigion Museum invite artist, writers and performers to respond to exhibitions. Petra Aydin Barberini wrote a script for one of the teams responding to Cassandra s Rant, an exhibition of automata by Shani Rhys James. She talks here about her encounter with a major survey of Rhys James work across two sites in Aberystwyth.

Meeting Shani Rhys James takes your breath away. An assembled group of artists, dancers, writers and poets- The Response Team - are in the gallery area at Ceredigion Museum when she arrives. Scriptography Production, headed up by Sandra Bendelow, are preparing aResponse performance to Rhys James automata, paintings and drawings in the exhibitionCassandra s Rant .

Rhys James and sculptor husband, Stephen West, arrive to deliver hooped crinoline skirts for the dancers to use during their response to her work.

This artist is a dynamo, a power-packed energy, bursting into the space, wearing a pixie hat, which gives her astrange air of simultaneous gravity and mischievousness. Generous with both her energy and time, Rhys James launches into an expert reading of the prose and poetry that has influenced her work. She holds us all spellbound.

Suddenly the spell is broken as she stops, off to tend to her automata like a mother hen.

The retrospective of one of Wales most renowned painters appears simultaneously at Cassandra s Rant at Ceredigion Museum (just finished), and Distillation, at The National Library of Wales until 23 May

Cassandra' Rant, Shani Rhys James  - Ceredigion Museum instillation shot

At Ceredigion Museum, Rhys James automata are given context with sketches and paintings. All Rhys James trademark elements in one room. Charcoal sketches, blood red paint, penetrating gazes and claustrophobic atmospheres of the caged infant, amongst the disembodied costumes. Mechanically brought to life, the cot and the pram, both empty, rock, shake and groan in unison; the rusted clanking of duty-bound motherhood and reluctant child-rearing. This is not your average family-centred interactive museum visit. Try as they might there s no buttons for the kids to push here. Although Rhys James work certainly pushes the buttons of the adult visitors. The children visitors instinctively find the exhibition spooky, intuitively threatening. The adult visitors sense a raw tension within dysfunctional family bonds. The female visitors comment on the remembered dark moments of motherhood when both child and mother scream for individual attention.

Tapping Hand (detail)  - Shani Rhys James

The crinolined Edwardian headless female dominates impatiently, tapping her fingers on an iron table. The frustrations of her buttoned-up exterior pulsing out of her tapping hand. The empty petticoat hoops shudder a short spin and grind to a halt. Scratchy halting soliloquies from long-remembered roles played out by the artist s mother. Softening the harsh, tense metallic sounds, bars of Latin folk-like music drift out of the Red painted doll s house. The music is performed by Rhys Jones son, jazz guitarist Matthew West. This really is a family affair.

There is a small black and white monitor of a child in an Alice in Wonderland environment, Rhys James stare leaps out of the child s face and you realize this child features in so many of her paintings. The wonder is that this is the child Shani acting in the film, it s you that has fallen down the rabbit hole of her family s world. Her whole family being both subject and creators within this intense drama.

Ceredigion Museum is a former theatre, an emporium of bygone goodies, with picnicking families in what should have been the stalls of the theatre. Above, in the upper circles of the auditorium,the Edwardian costumes in cases echo the automated crinolines and bustles in the exhibition below. From the gallery, just left of the stage, the sounds of Rhys James actress mother reciting from Ibsen s The Doll s House and other theatrical roles, lures the visitor into the space.

Once in the gallery there is an unsettling cacophony of sound. The usual safety of cots have been transformed to cage the all knowing infants and the crinoline rings encircling and restricting the woman of Rhys James world. The crimsons and scarlets of thepaintings and The Red House give the room a pulsing, womb-like intensity.

In contrast, the wide-open spaces of the National Library s formal setting add gravitas to Rhys James vibrant use of colour. Here the space gives both painting and viewer the chance to breathe. The sheer size and impact of these paintings seem to demand such monumental space. Moving through the gallery, the narrative elements of Rhys James well-documented move from sunlit childhood Australia to the baffling cold bedsits of London are starkly portrayed. Row upon row of self-portraits out stare and challenge,unnerving and, at the same time, demanding you hold her gaze, even when it comes from a bathtub. In her newest paintings, the colour is bolder, with the repeated black floral motives of remembered wallpapers.

Rhys James stare boldly statesI deserve this, I sweated for this. I feel as if she s forcing some of her energy into me whether I ve asked for it or not.

I turn around and she s there smiling and observing the invited guests. Having sat through the formality of the opening speeches where various backs were patted and cultural axes had been ground at a knowing audience. Rhys James is exhausted, but relieved it s all come together. I tentively suggest that,for an artist with such precision and attention to detail, it must have been very brave for her to allow a Response team to perform amongst her work.

It s like ahappening man', she laughs, taking the mickey out of her 1960s' roots. This isn t a retrospective of an artist who s done all they can do, but a survey of a story that s still being told.

Distillation continues at the National Library of Wales to 23 May, 2015 www.llgc.org.uk A publication to accompany both exhibitions, with new writing commission can be bought directly from Dolpebyll Pres

All images courtesy of Shani Rhys James