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In the book Coal Tree Salt Sea, Sarah Rhys describes the custom of the sin-eaters of the Amman Valley, societal outcasts who were employed to absolve the dead of their sins. Bread and salt were placed on the body to draw the sins out of the body and into the bread. Uttering incantations the sin-eater would eat both the bread and salt, then was paid a small sum before being kicked out of the house and told never to darken the door again.

My first impression as I enter the museum and walk down the steps into the room holding Rhys’ eclectic collection of fragments is of an archaeological assemblage of colliding myths and rituals, a complex interweaving of stories. The museum vitrines accentuate the authenticity of the past with an intense sense of looking, as though through a microscope. Here scientific meets an older magic; alchemy and legend stand side by side.

It is an exhibition of stark contrasts. Equal status is given to borrowed discoveries, the photographs of the coal tree and the constructed talismen. Salt is placed as a counterpoint to coal. In one glass cabinet lie two horns of plenty spilling the riches from below our feet - salt and coal. In another Allah Chemia, glass containers hold the precipitation of crystals, salt mixed with carbon, referencing the alchemical forms of albedo and nigredo, the transparency of the glass and crystal forming layers of reflection. The smudged and marked shroud that cradled the charcoal inside the Charcoal Tree in Prague hangs in a cabinet next to a display of archaeological items: remnants of broken grain seals, lost love tokens, a refashioned lead aeroplane, a Masonic ring, coins and other fragments. The museum’s own collection merges with Rhys’ work, bleeding into the meaning. A water damaged, fragmented wall painting from the Gunter Mansion Chapel used for illicit catholic worship during the 16th/17th centuries and a glass box containing taxidermied owls hang on the wall above the vitrine containing the horns. There is a poetry in bringing these things together.

The exhibition doesn’t attempt to showcase an individual piece of work but rather shards of a whole. The viewer holds these fragments and constructs their own meaning from them. In amongst the artifacts vying for attention, I am jogged by half remembered stories of chimaera, of hybrid animals, monstrous beasts, half man half goat, sacrificial creatures from ancient religions, of Pan, the mythological figure of the trickster. While the image of Ritual Archaeology depicts a curious constellation of objects, stirring a suggestion of time measurement, of older scientific beginnings, of wonderment. With its use of shadow it operates like a sundial or a circle of standing stones.

The references to the artists of Arte Povera are plentiful, from the slice of tree leaning against the wall reminiscent of Giuseppe Penone’s tree works, to the use of materials used by Jannis Kounellis: coal, rags, salt and wood. I am reminded not just of man and nature but of work, the hard work of mining, of cutting, hollowing and hewing the contents of the earth. And at the center of the exhibition is the symbol of the hollowed oak tree giving birth - to carbon, to coal, to energy and life. It is a potent symbol. Rhys tells me that when she filled the tree with coal, the regular walkers in the area became alarmed by the threat of fire and of burning the tree.

In her book Rhys describes the blue scars that mark the bodies of miners as miner’s maps. Caused by the coal dust rubbing into exposed wounds underground, miners continue to sweat coal dust years after they stop mining. This exhibition too, with it’s myriad of connections and pathways is a kind of mapping. Alongside the photographs of the Coal Tree hang three exquisite paintings of trees by Josef Herman, the Polish Jewish artist 'the outsider' who came to Wales as a refugee and formed the inspiration for Rhys’ work. In Notes from a Welsh Diary, Herman writes: “The River Tawe below, Craig-y-Farteg above, in between the ground of daily life. Between waking and sleeping life like anywhere else, but nowhere else such a dreaming place…”

Rhys too, feels herself to be something of an outsider but is continually drawn to Wales, the landscape she grew up in and has returned to. “I too feel the need to roam those wild hills; sometimes alone and sometimes with others from the surrounding area; people who wanted to share their experiences and knowledge.….The outsider can play a role in bringing certain things to the fore that aren’t necessarily seen by native inhabitants; a reinterpretation of a place”.

Review by Carol Laidler


Images (from top): 

Charcoal Tree, Prague 2016, by Sarah Rhys Photo: Sarah Rhys; Salt/Coal Cabinet, Oriel Q Photo: Frank Menger; installation view, Oriel Q, Photo: Frank Menger; Coal Tree, 2015 by Sarah Rhys