Page last updated at 16:37 GMT, Friday, 5 December 2008

Artwork helps Aberfan 'move on'

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View part of Shimon Attie's installation

By Clare Gabriel
BBC News

Aberfan is a name recognised around the globe because of the coal tip disaster which claimed 144 lives in the south Wales valley village 42 years ago.

Since, the community has fought to cope with the trauma of its unimaginable loss in the glare of the world's gaze.

Now a US artist hopes his contemporary artwork will help Aberfan to move on.

Shimon Attie's powerful five-screen video installation goes on show for three months at the National Museum Cardiff from Saturday.

In October 1966 a coal waste tip suddenly shifted down the mountainside overlooking Aberfan, burying beneath it an elementary school and several homes.

Male Voice Choir from  The Attraction of Onlookers: Aberfan - An Anatomy of a Welsh Village
I wanted the piece to confound our expectations
Shimon Attie

Overnight, the village's privacy was lost as the worldwide media descended.

Forty years later, Attie was invited into an "apprehensive" village. He spent three months living there, and 50 villagers took part in his creation.

The "cast" introduced by a short poem read by poet Gwyneth Lewis, including a former miner, head teacher, fish-and-chips man, shop assistant, boxer, policeman, male choir singers and their conductor.

Attie explained that all the villagers who took part were asked to assume poses reflecting their social or occupational role.

The villagers "performed" being themselves, while Attie filmed them on an unseen, slowly revolving stage.

The exhibition is on show in Aberfan until 22 February 09

Everyone who took part in the artwork was illuminated by delicate lighting reminiscent of Old Master paintings.

All the participants retain a look of anonymity as they revolve, and Los Angeles-born Attie said that was intentional.

"My aim was to create a body of images that compete with and upends the historical archive of existing imagery and that complicates the conversation about a place such as Aberfan," he said.

"I wanted the piece to confound our expectations and projections onto what it means to be a 'victim' or a 'survivor', and to resist easy interpretation and sentimentality.

"Ultimately, I wanted to create an artwork that - at least in the realms of the imaginary - might help Aberfan take its rightful place as a Welsh village among other Welsh villages."

Villagers from Aberfan, some of whom are in the installation, have been invited to the launch of the exhibition in Cardiff.

Keith Anderson, chair of the partnership of the Merthyr Vale ward's Communities First scheme, admitted they had been "apprehensive" when the idea of Attie doing the exhibition was first put forward in the 40th anniversary year of the disaster.

"It was difficult at first. We met up with him and chatted to him. We asked him what was going to be in the installation, and he said 'I don't know'.

"I said to him 'How can I tell the partnership about it then?'. But, fair play, he spent time in the village, and he came to be accepted.

Mr Anderson said the exhibition was about helping the community "draw a line".

"It's about getting people to talk, and I think it has been a real success."

Mr Anderson said many people still travelled to Aberfan and they were hoping to build a visitors' centre in an old chapel vestry near the cemetery dominated by the memorial to the children and adults who lost their lives.

He said it would be great if Attie's exhibition, which has already been shown in a New York gallery, could eventually be housed at that centre.

The Attraction of Onlookers: Aberfan - An Anatomy of a Welsh Village is at National Museum Cardiff from 6 December until 22 February 2009. A BBC Wales documentary, An American in Aberfan, will also be screened to complement the display.

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