Room103@Oriel Q, Narberth
“Room 103: an Homage to George Orwell” March 18th -April 23rd.
BEWARE: Big Brother has instructed that on no account must subjects of Oceania visit this exhibition. Attendance at this unauthorised event must be considered a ‘thoughtcrime’ and will result in the imposition of the severest penalties on anyone ignoring this ruling…
Seventy years after George Orwell’s death, the term ‘Orwellian’ crops up unprompted in media conversation on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis. It may be misused by people who are referencing anything remotely totalitarian or anti-social, but that still provides a measure of this man’s work and the shadow it throws across the landscape of contemporary thought. Although he was not a visual artist and art criticism does not figure prominently in his work, his writing provides a continuing stimulus for artists of conscience and political resistance. Originating as an online resource, ‘Room 103’ has developed into an ongoing travelling show, with an ever-changing roster of artists examining all themes ‘Orwellian’. This Oriel Q exhibition follows on from previous exhibitions in Manchester, Leeds and the University of Oxford, where it provided a visual centrepiece for a symposium dedicated to discussion of the great man’s work.
Some artworks are directly inspired by Orwell’s books; Nineteen Eighty-Four being the novel of choice here because it taps so deeply into the libertarians anxieties in any time. Interestingly, particular emphasis here has been given to Julia, who drives the narrative, rather than Winston, who is reactive to her decision making. Other pieces reference issues which are as pertinent now as they were to Orwell in the 1930’s and 40’s; state surveillance, unrestrained police powers, the questionable integrity of our political leaders, the legacy of Empire; the ever relevant battle for freedom of self expression and liberty of movement, each given a contemporary twist.
Some of the art is more speculative in nature, though there can be little doubt that the issues of people trafficking; the reduction of humanity to the level of any other off the shelf, barcoded commodity; the simultaneous democratising potential and the opportunity for state exploitation of cyberspace, would have captivated the writer’s forensic attentions.
A show celebrating George Orwell, seen as the essential commentator on the state of England and the English, in West Wales might seem perverse. We live at a time when anniversaries and local connections seem to govern the exhibition programmes of many public cultural venues, so presenting Room 103 to an audience in Wales faced two problems. As a result of Covid restrictions, 2020; the year marking the seventieth anniversary of George Orwell’s death, was passed. Neither was Orwell Welsh; he had few connections with Wales. He spent time there in discussion with Arthur Koestler discussing the viability of a Socialist Committee free of Communist influence post-war, and one of the very few politicians he trusted and admired was Nye Bevan. Bearing these two obstacles in mind, the enthusiastic and practical support given to this project by the volunteers running Oriel Q has been most gratifying. Without their work, Narberth and its large Wild West hinterland which this gallery serves, would be a far less culturally rich region. It strives to present exhibitions which make people think. One cannot live by landscapes and seascapes alone -no matter how technically accomplished they may be.
Room 103 @Narberth features painting, print, photography, sculpture, artist’s books and time-based media from over twenty artists, many of them women. “I was initially concerned that because Orwell and Hemingway are bracketed together in certain literary circles as a result of their connections with the Spanish Civil War, one as a war correspondent, the other as a front line soldier, women might see him as too macho. I need not have worried; female artists have been thoroughly engaged and their contributions have proved to be every bit as rigorous and profound as their male counterparts.
It’s interesting that somehow, the usual fashionable backlash against figures of cultural note has never really gathered any traction against Orwell and his ideas have consistently appealed to successive generations, -possibly because his writings are so far ranging. There is always some aspect of his work to stimulate the next generation of artists. If this show leads our visitors back to his work, I will consider this exhibition to have been a success.” Successful enough already to attract the support of the influential Orwell Society, through its Chair, Quentin Kopp, and to have been opened by Orwell’s son, Richard Blair on March 18th 2022.