Exhibition review of Ron McCormick's How Green Was My Valley

by James Milne

'As a consequence of the accelerated decline and destruction of heavy industry that followed the Battle of Orgreave, current generations have become disconnected from industrial landscapes. The only realistic glimpse of that vanished world today would be a momentary glance from the M4 carriageway of the Tata steelworks, in Neath Port Talbot.'

Full review available at Offline Journal #004 (April 2020)

Review of II* exhibition

by Dai Howell

In September 1842 Carlyle watching trains depart a station, turned to his friend Milnes and said “These are our poems Milnes!” the reply came “Aye and our histories too”.

It was a conversation at the height of the Industrial Revolution, a time of great development and strives in industry and design. They spoke of the latest developments in technology being the poetry and art of the day. When we look back at the Industrial Revolution our minds conjure up images of stream trains and great industry, as Milnes deduced the heavy industry of that day has become the history of our day.

It is with this same spirit I see James Milnes latest exhibition “II*” a title referring to the grading system used to list cultural and buildings of significant architecture in the UK. Grade II* being the second-highest for buildings of particular importance and/or of special interest.

The exhibition explores the way we view and treat these listed buildings with a focus on our recent industrial past. One surprising and unsettling revelation illustrated in the exhibition is that some of our grade II* listed buildings are now falling into ruin. The project began with the artist's interest in the George Street bridge spanning the Usk River in Newport. Built in the 1960s it was the first cable-stayed cantilever bridge in Britain and as a result, bares the grade II* listing designation. A structure that is wildly familiar in Newport and one that is crossed by thousands daily without a moments thought.

I must confess I had no idea of the architectural significance of the bridge or many of the other structures listed in Milne’s exhibition. For me, the work firstly reminds me of how unnoticed modern history is. The grade II* listing also denotes historical structures such as castles and stately homes, a concrete brutalist bridge of the 60s is the important and significant construction we tend to forget.

The exhibition features a series of photographs, drawings and photorealism images that is so iconic of Milne’s style. Entering the space you are confronted by a wonderfully cultivating photograph of the George Street bridge underpass which seems to continue on through the walls of the gallery and momentarily gives you the sensation of travelling on to another place. The work is clustered around buildings or maybe monuments of recent days is a more apt description of these listed structures, each image is an exquisite example of Milne’s unique eye and interpretation into this world.

The exhibition also features a limited number of chosen works from the museum's own collection presenting Newport’s industrial might. A Hans Felibusch study of the George Street bridge being built is presented on one wall, an extremely vibrant explosion of life and colour. On another wall a Thomas Rowland Rathmell painting from 1975 shows a lost insight into yesterdays world, a boat is moored and a factory stands eternally present in 1975 Newport, wherein the modern world the Riverfront theatre and a shopping centre now live. These ghosts of life forever captured in art.

I found an extreme sense of fascination when viewing the exhibition, the buildings that today we wander by without a moments thought, those old decaying concrete and brick powerhouses now stand full of empty purpose, that weren’t always that way. Once they were industry, power and might, they were lives. People worked, laughed, cried, loved and spent time there. It is said time is our most valuable commodity and looking at James work I am reminded of this. The time of yesterday leaving its ghosts in today's world, it's important to remember these buildings and cherish them. It’s a reminder that once we did this, we built things, that these concrete brutalist structures are our poetry and our art.

James Milne's exhibition is a wonderful reminder of this, of the beauty and the history in the everyday structures we pass each day.

God's of Steel

Dai Howell

(A short text I wrote last year when Port Talbot steel works looked set to close which has now been saved for now but still felt it was a important in today's world)

I was recently standing on a train station platform, patiently waiting my train. As I lingered, I absentmindedly gazed out over the busy station. My eyes took in a passing goods train without paying it much attention. As I watched the flat cars go by, I become aware that the first few cars were packed with steel girders. Then a half full car passed. Followed by an empty car. More and more cars streamed by with more and more of them running empty. As the last empty car went by the realisation struck me that I was watching steel being transported from Port Talbot and this could be the last time I see such a sight. The familiar image of steel transport on the railways could vanish and become a thing consigned to the old newsreels and photographs of former glory days books and films. The mundane sight of steel on the tracks could be slipping into the world of yesterday.

I was born in South Wales, a child of the Valleys. I don’t remember the coal industry, it was going when I was born. I didn’t see the coal miners or the towering collieries, I didn’t see the long lines of coal cars or even the mines close but I saw the effects. I see them everyday, in the empty shops, the absent spaces, the collapsing miners halls, the mass migration of job seekers to other places, the lack of esteem and pride in the work which remains. I see this daily. Thats what happens when the industry, the life blood, the dependance of a place disappears.

Port Talbot is famous, everyone knows the name and knows it for the steel. The steel works and Port Talbot are synonymous. Passing Port Talbot by road the steel works dwarfs the town. The economy is depend on it and not just that, the pride is in the steel. The very purpose is in the steel.

The recent news of its possible closer isn't just due to the cheaper imports or the global fall in steel prices. It is also due to Britain changing from an industrial economy into a service sector economy (the chief characteristic being the output of services instead of end products) which in principle for a developed country’s G.N.P. is fine but it may not be fine for a countries measurement of happiness and pride.

Of course we have seen the closure of industry before. Academics tracked what happened to the 300 MG Rover workers after the car plant closed in 2005, they found 90% of them did find other employment, a lot retrained into the service sector. However they were now earning on average £5,640 less every year and a quarter admitted to living off their savings or being in financial difficulties.

There’s pride in construction. It’s a very different kind of pride from the kind found in helping someone with their P.P.I. claim. We have a different reaction to someone who works in a call centre (which is what Wales’s new economy seems to be) to a steel worker. The problems with these jobs are they are temporary, most of my friends in that industry swing from one call centre to another after they close and reopen peddling something else. The loss of the heavy industry in Wales is the loss of a pride in the nation. A person who retires after years of work in a steel plant has a very different identity to a person who retires after spending years working in a call centre processing injury clams, there is honour in one and not much in the other.

One is a job that children grow up dreaming of becoming, a role which they idolize and train for many years to do. The other job is one you just fall into to pay the bills, its one that just happens, one in which you just do. One in which you do but not dream to be doing.

(March, 2017)


Kenneth Trayner

South Wales 2014 is not the same as South Wales 1974, 1984 etc. Different times. Different landscapes. Different versions of the country.

Heavy industry has always required large scale installations characterized by a purely functional architecture devoid of aesthetic concerns. Everything is connected and operated towards a specific purpose. The mine is a vast machine for extracting raw materials from the Earth. The steelworks is a vast machine for processing iron ore.

In South Wales there were mines and steelworks and factories all over the country, employing thousands of people. It is a history documented in photographs, drawings, paintings and written accounts. It is a history that is often talked about. These are fragments, evidence that a different version of the country that existed before the one we occupy today (a past that was wiped away to make way for the present).

Some physical traces survive, fragments of vast industrial machines left in forgotten corners when the industries migrated to other countries. Industrial complexes were disassembled and cleared, leaving behind occasional debris like jigsaw pieces that offer hints of a larger, lost image.

Stripped of all relevant contexts, the work of the imagination is to determine / decode the previous function of the physical traces of heavy industry that haunt so many cleared grounds across South Wales. It is work that leads to documentation; to research into historical evidence and the creation of new documents.

The current exhibition is the result of an effort to capture something of the strange otherness of industrial remains and the emotions they inspire. As fragments of a whole that no longer exists, there is a haunting quality to an encounter with physical evidence of a once busy, dangerous and restricted environment. Each encounter is a reminder that nothing is fixed or static or secure, that although traces remain they are only fragments of something much larger that has been cleared away.

The work in the exhibition employs drawing and photography to acknowledge that, stripped of their intended function and historical context, there can be no definitive statement on the remnants of industrial installations. Instead, each fragment must be carefully considered and re-considered from different perspectives, in different media, to communicate its simultaneously fixed and elusive nature and unlock a haunted, tragic sense of time passing.

Blackwood Miners Institute (12TH – 26TH May 2014)

Industrial Heritage: Hidden in Plain Sight

James Milne & Pieter De Raedt

"A project like the emigre artist Robert Frank's The Americans portrays the country in ways that it might not see itself, or wish to; artists are at their best, honorary aliens seeing the familiar through strange eyes and the unseen in plain view."

-Rebecca Solnit 'The Visibility Wars', excerpt from the publication: Invisible: Covert Operations and Classified Landscapes by Trevor Paglen.

The traditional perception of industry was an integral part of the community; housing, social activities, sports clubs, all revolved around grand industrial facades and complex architectures that came to symbolize unity in the face of adverse challenges and hazardous working conditions. The location, layout and appearance of most industries were therefore a direct result of a specific localized context.

Over the last sixty years these communities, especially across Europe have witnessed radical and relentless decline, in contrast to the relative stability of the past. Brought about by destabilizing factors such as rising production costs, globalization, unstable market conditions and technological advancements, these changes have created uncertainties. As a consequence once traditional industries at the heart of the "local" landscape simply disappeared, became outdated or dormant. Most industrial bases followed a familiar life-cycle which displayed rapid development followed by an abrupt end.

The wholesale demolition of vast installations ensued, as companies migrated abroad or become "nomadic" in order to adapt to these changes. This in turn led to increased redevelopment of post-industrial waste-grounds and brownfield sites for housing, retail and new business. The pressure or demand for open-spaces and the ascent in green polices mean that superstructures and substructures are normally eradicated completely, without recognizable traces. The examples of industrial architecture which survive today whether active or not have largely exiled to the periphery of the collective conscious, they now serve as silent backdrops in the remodelled landscapes of enterprise and heritage tourism. Whilst public works are sometimes paused or even halted in order to study or protect old archaeological remains, usually the traces of other nearby industries we know very little about may be in the process of demolition.

And yet, industry in all its diverse forms continues to influence the direction of out daily lives, from the cars we drive, to the fuel we consume; from the electrical power inside our homes. This underlines that we continue to rely on the benefits that industry allows, however we choose to side-line the processes and geographic locations where these products are created and sent out into the world. Society, especially in Western Europe has become disconnected from the productive and manufacturing processes it relies on. Damaged, polluted or man-altered landscapes are also considered undesirable; they have no place in the emerging trend of "green politics", except as locations where the line between past and present is drawn. As a result, it would not be unfair to say that compared with other forms of architectural heritage such as military or medieval; industrial culture is considered less important.

As largely disconnected or isolated forms of functional architecture, such as blast furnaces, mine headgear's or cooling towers, we fail to recognise the inherent value and localised identity contained in these forms. The stigma of negativity brought about by their sudden and dramatic decline needs to placed to one side, if only for a moment. By doing this, we can begin to see landscapes, or architecture in a renewed territory.

Ultimately we must appreciate less obvious forms of heritage which are not always occupying visual or theoretical territory in the mainstream.By doing this, we are able to preserve industrial heritage for future generations and in the digital age, this has become easier and more accessible than ever. The objective is to unveil and reconnect forms of disparate architecture, their often unseen interiors and geographic locations which have over time become less visible, and therefore hidden in plain sight.

(Contextual text for IndustrieKulture-Photographie (IKF) 2013 Yearbook)