Wales Pavilion

Tim Davies is interested in places invested with layers of meaning, valued, altered, visited, neglected. The location of his exhibition for the Welsh Pavilion in the deconsecrated convent of Santa Maria Ausiliatrice suits his practice. Many visitors still go to the stoup and make a sign of the cross as they enter, and indeed, the altar, frescoes and basin are all still present. 
The monuments to Santa Maria find a correspondence with the monuments in Davies’ video projections. His project on war monuments, Cadet, is shown here in three parts, the most vivid of which is projected onto a vast canvas that stands diagonally across the altar, lighting the cavernous space. For this film, Cadet (Running at Cardiff), Davies strapped a film camera to his chest and charged around and around a monument in central Cardiff. The monument becomes a mass of grey streaking across the canvas, momentarily registering as a column, lettering, a pair of carved angel wings. The wind and Davies’ breathing buffer the microphone, hitting us as we enter the room, combining with the audio from Cadet (Parade at Cardiff), which is projected opposite the altar. In the parade projection, the camera is stable and takes in row after row of cadet, police officer and marching band as they circle the Cardiff monument. The perspective rakes the marchers as if they’re a little out of step, and their bobbing helmets and white gloves accentuate every shuffle and false start.  Off to the left, through the darkness into the sacristy, plays a third Cadet film, this time silent and focusing on a single young girl cadet as she stands for a memorial at Aberystwyth. Her head is bowed, and she frequently shuffles, giving the impression – as with the marching cadets – that the memorial is a site of uncomfortable pageantry. The cultural weight invested in ceremonial architecture and events suddenly seems peculiar, futile in the face of war, and oddly humorous.

Presenting a situation from which we may draw our own conclusions is a practice central to Davies’ work. For Figures, an artist book made between 2009 and 2010, Davies wrote descriptions of newspaper images throughout the year (Day 151: Many, many figures queuing for food… Figure in his kitchen… Two figures in conversation…), again presenting material without an overt political siding.  
Indeed Bridges, located midway through the exhibition, is made through a literal and metaphorical erasure of ‘sides’. Davies collected some sixty postcards of bridges from around the world, erasing them with sandpaper until all was blank save for the image of the bridge. Sides of rivers, countries and cities disappeared, and the bridges became isolated figures, uncomplicated by context, and inviting a broader political debate around division.

Simplicity is key to Davies’ work, not only in Bridges and its location at the exhibition’s quiet fulcrum, but also in the video piece that follows. Drift is a silent projection onto freestanding canvas, made specifically in and for Venice. Making site-specific work in a city so art historically rich as Venice is a challenge, and Davies has approached it through simple motion. Rather than depicting Venice’s crumbling architecture, Davies shows us its image only as it appears in water reflection. The camera glides above the canal, filming Davies’ hand as he drifts along in a boat, skimming the water so that ripples reconfigure the buildings in reflection. While Drift may be seductive in its HD image and contemplative mood (in comparison with the running Cadet), and some may enjoy the age and experience of Davies’ hand that speaks for the aging buildings around him, Drift feels rather self-indulgent. Frari, situated in the final room of the exhibition, is a more interesting exploration of Venice, this time engaging in a particular architectural location. 
Filmed in the tower of Santa Maria dei Frari, Frari recalls Kilkenny Shift, and earlier work by Davies that explored a staircase in Kilkenny Castle, and its linkage of upstairs society with downstairs’ identity of submission. This time though, the staircase leads from the ground level of everyday life – we hear the hum of tourists’ voices – up the spiral ramp to the top of the tower, where its bell tolls and marks it as a space of spiritual illumination. Davies ran up the tower taking still photographs and recording both the rising sound of the bells and the diminuendo of the crowd below. The bells reach deafening levels as we, embodied in the camera, emerge at the top of the tower, our ears ringing. There is white light from over-exposure, as well as white noise. Gradually architectural details such as rooftops become apparent, and aeroplanes sound in the distance. Before we have time to adjust, the descent begins, down and down into darkness and back to the beginning. Frari is architecture experienced viscerally, a literal rush to the core of a building, and an exploration of religious and emotional place. In this sense, it brings us back to the first Cadet’s similar sense of rushing, to places’ cultural importance, and to Davies’ interest in why society has invested in them.