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Sean Edwards and The Maelfa

Artist Sean Edwards reflects on The Maelfa, a shopping centre on the outskirts of Cardiff and focus of Edwards' new exhbiition. The artist considers the building in relation to its historical and social functions as well as its current decline as a 'ruin in reverse'

Sean Edwards, Maelfa, 2010, 25m, single-channel HD projection. Courtesy Spike Island, Limoncello, Tanya Leighton. Photo: Jamie Woodley

Sean Edwards, Maelfa, 2010, 25m, single-channel HD projection. Courtesy Spike Island, Limoncello, Tanya Leighton. Photo: Jamie Woodley

The Maelfa has, and hasn’t, changed since I lived there. The estate of Llanedyern, where the Maelfa is located, is situated on the outskirts of Cardiff. It’s typical of a certain type of post-war response to social housing and town planning, but I wanted to generate a personal response to this specific site where I grew up. The project allowed me to address a younger version of myself who, then unaware of the Maelfa’s place in a lineage of architecture and social political history, felt it had a certain sense of beauty and brutality—traits which are now more closely associated with a sense of disappointment and failure.
 

Robert Smithson’s essay ‘Monuments of Passaic’ was critical in my initial research before approaching the building. The Maelfa is, in Smithson’s words, ‘a ruin in reverse’: I believe it rose to become a ruin, rather than one that declined into ruin. As a child, I felt as if I was living with something that was sited out of time: there was a sense of living in a present-past, a paradox structure that perhaps had no past to me, only an indeterminate and short future. Returning to Maelfa in my work, I was searching for some way to document this ruin in reverse and to find a way to create a new monument.
 

With this work I have been very drawn to the eradication of dirt and dust in late 20th century town planning. It’s the nature of architecture to immediately slip from the shining vision of utopia it was intended to be, and into a more realistic visualisation that contains the scuffs and scratches of use. For this reason, I wanted to cast the Maelfa as a remaining piece of dust onto film/video, and to create a document that would have the ability to force the viewer into a space, physically and chronologically, in which the building itself existed—a paradoxical site that held the qualities of being outside of time/space.
 

The work doesn’t contain any direct references to my childhood, but my sense of recall comes about through occurrences that take place onscreen. Practically, the scale of the projection and the layers of reflection seen in the film help to locate the viewer inside the projection, and within the architecture. The pace and angle of the camera creates a feeling of being pulled forward while also looking back. It’s important to remember this building is still being used: the film is heavily populated with people, and this human presence hints at the idea of these ruins in reverse and how it is perhaps us that put them there.
 

I see the Maelfa as equivalent to previous subjects in my work, which I often refer to as ‘vessels’. The Maelfa is different certainly in terms of the scale of the building and time I spent on the project (this is also my first major film/video work), but my methods of looking remain consistent. The building as dust, or as dirt, as something that is generated by us, runs through the core of my recent sculptures. It’s an approach that takes the debris, or ruins of activity—often small inconsequential gestures that were made as result of some other vaster, greater activity or master plan—and focuses the attention down to the minutiae of these fallen and forgotten moments.
 
Sean Edwards, Maelfa, 22 January–10 April, Spike Island, Bristol