Lost and Found
Words Ben Williams
Photographs Robert Wyatt
Simon Gaiger uses the odd bits of metal and wood offered up by the hedges surrounding his Welsh home for his sculptural work: his tinker’s ethic born of an eclectic childhood lived around the world, from Uganda to the Falklands…
Simon Gaiger’s Carmarthenshire home is at the centre of his work, and the intimacy of his sculptural pieces, industrial but also somehow house-trained, stems from an ongoing dialogue with his domestic arrangement. That his home life should be so settled (although this has not always been the case) seems in part related to its remoteness.
Gaiger and his Dutch wife Mary brought up two children in the old farm they bought around 15 years ago, which sits at the bottom of a valley in this unfashionable, semi-rural part of the county (in 2014 West Wales was the UK’s worst-performing economic region). The landscape is beautiful if curiously denuded, bearing the scars of deforestation from when the area was a tin-production centre – and the remains of industrialisation stretch from here to Port Talbot and beyond.
The Gaiger house is near a fairly busy A-road and a short hop from an abattoir over the hill; only a brief drive from Carmarthen itself with its healing-crystals shops and pensioners hanging around expectantly on street corners. You can see the source of Gaiger’s materials from his kitchen window: the hedges that throw up odd bits of metal and wood, which are transformed in his work into furniture and sculpture. The field in front of the house is scattered with sections of tree trunk; a white goose wanders around in the mud. It looks like it rains a lot. ‘When we decided to live as artists, it was all we could afford,’ he says, coffee cup in hand. ‘And when a place has been left for a long time, there’s a lot of stuff. You know, you’re just dragging it out of the hedges.’ With his closely cropped hair and salt-and-pepper stubble, Gaiger looks like a man who has done a lot of dragging in the past 15 years and he has the presence of a weightlifter, albeit a very well-spoken one. He also has enormous hands, dyed black through years of hammering and forging, with which he gestures gently as we talk.
The metal Gaiger has found over the years has its own shed a stone’s throw from the house, and this airy outbuilding pays homage to all those who love sheds and find something conducive in their dank atmospheres. ‘I keep thinking I’ll knock it down, but partly I bought the property because I like it,’ Gaiger says with a grin. ‘It was used to make coffins.’ The breeze-block walls of the space are crowded with meticulously arranged scraps of metal, sharp and curly by turns, mounted on hundreds of hooks and pins. These artefacts are barely distinguishable from the many tools he uses, forming a kind of museum of the useless – or the once useful.
‘Because I grew up in places like Uganda, Sudan and New Guinea, you remember making do, adapting. Driving past places with car bonnets as fences…’ Gaiger takes down a piece of a car’s suspension arm from the wall. ‘In Egypt they were making adzes and things like that out of car springs. It’s tool steel,’ he says, tapping the suspension arm lightly. ‘I mean, why not?’
This tinker’s ethic was bred during the course of an internationalist childhood as Gaiger followed his government lawyer father into warzones worldwide. Born in Banbury in 1965, Gaiger moved first to Uganda (‘That was scary… after Amin had come in. We were hiding in the corridor because there were no windows there. There were tanks and you could hear the bullets flying’) – before stints in Sudan, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and the Falklands, among others. His father’s Falklands posting, as Attorney General in the immediate aftermath of the 1982 war, presented the teenage Gaiger with a series of material images he finds hard to shake: ‘There was stuffeverywhere, ordnance… All along the Darwin Road there were boxes of shells and ammunition, and wreckage everywhere. We lived right by the wreck of the Jhelum, which just lay there, twisted, with a little jetty going out to it. That was just through the sitting room window.’
After working briefly as a shipwright’s assistant, Gaiger left the Falklands in 1984, enrolling first at art college in Farnham, where he failed his diploma (‘I wanted to do something more practical’) before training in landscape construction at Merrist Wood Agricultural College in 1987, where he began to cement his relationship with materials. ‘Although you want to push them, you also need to know what their limitations are.’
The metalwork shed is just one of a handful of outbuildings owned by the Gaigers. These surround a rough sort of sculpture garden, which – with its endless logs and tools and with heavy machines having turned up the mud – combines something of the traveller site with the outlying green fields of a hippy festival. An immaculately neat workshop, however, sits offto one side, seeming more a repository of finished pieces, with a compact wood-burning stove in the corner. Near the door, an imposing angular object sits under a cloth, ready to be shipped. Gaiger nips the cover away to reveal a waist-high sculpture, eight feet long, a sleek and elemental rectangle that somehow speaks of enormous weight.
‘It’s always scary cutting something because you can’t glue it back together again…’
Gaiger speaks frequently of the importance of ‘tension’ in his work, of the ‘energies’ and of ‘balance points’ of wood. He speaks almost contemptuously of ‘raw materials’, saying of one 19th-century turning handle, ‘If I was to make it into something, it would just disrespect it’.
We stroll from the workshop to stand beneath a corrugated roof, the sides open to the damp Welsh weather, where Gaiger has been at work on a sinuous wooden bench. The physical curves inherent to his wooden pieces seem in part a result of their gently warping in the humid Carmarthenshire atmosphere. The bench has a beautiful ebony finish, almost a purple; a nearby Gaz bottle betrays Gaiger’s preferred method of finishing wood. ‘A lot of the time with timber, I burn it,’ he says. A huge section of tree, nearly a trunk, lies abandoned in the long grass nearby. As Gaiger discusses his plans for it, you begin to pick up something of his mildly mystic appreciation of materials.
‘I might get two… It’s always scary cutting something because you can’t glue it back together again,’ he muses. ‘I think I might turn it over and use this piece, and use the curve in that piece for a gallery down in Cornwall… Each piece suggests itself really. Some pieces are going to take you down a path of something more abstract… it depends.’How does he feel about the journey these intimate pieces make to his clients in the corporate world, to interiors designed by Studio Reed and others?
‘Because of the way that distribution works now, you just pack it onto a crate and the rest is done by hauliers. To an extent you’re never meeting other people – you’re working blind. We did make a trip up to Neo-Bankside [in London]. They asked all the people who’d made stuff to come and have a look. All I remember is lots of people going up in a lift… What are makers when they are in their home clothes? Kind of weird aren’t they? Out of their workshop [you think], “Is that the caterer?”’
In another life, or another country, Simon Gaiger would have been one of those ad hoc roadside-shack mechanics, able to repair a car on spec using only what was around him. The skillset is the same. But here in rural Wales, where a Western approach to the disposability of objects is hard rooted (Gaiger refers to this attitude as simply ‘wealth’), the hands-on skills he holds dear have to be transposed and flower into other forms. Rather than transforming the useless into the useful, Gaiger’s practice turns this formula on its head. The net result is his art.
‘When the photographer came from World of Interiors,’ Gaiger tells me in his kitchen after the tour, ‘he stayed for two days, and it rained the whole time. In the end he closed the shutters and made it even darker.’ The slow-burning qualities of the Welsh light makes it into Gaiger’s work, entirely complementing the found objects and old practices, the whole forming a kind of 3D map of the locality. Deprived West Wales is thus relaunched in a small way, and the industrial successes of the past revisited.