HOUSE OF THE PARANOIAC ABADAMITES
International artists Jane Fox and Brenda Oakes have initiated a collaborative project for the
National Botanic Garden of Wales, Llanarthne, Carmarthenshire. This will take the form of a
residency initially lasting one year, this length of time being of particular importance as it will
embrace all four seasons, thereby including them as an essential (and unpredictable) element of
We plan to build an interpretative facsimile of Middleton Hall in bamboo one third of the scale of the original, utilizing the existing layout plan with the various rooms marked out on site in granite (missing image). For a panoramic view of the site click here and select view 5 ‘Pi to Paxton’. Our aim is to recreate the grandeur of the Hall (missing image) in a material which may be regarded as almost the antithesis of the original in an attempt to answer the question which we have posed ourselves “Which is more sustainable in the broadest terms of the word, bamboo or stone?” Our hypothesis is that global values in terms of wealth, power and the way we view the world have shifted extraordinarily quickly since the days of the British Empire when Middleton Hall (built between 1793 and 1795) stood for all that was admirable, stable and desirable in our corner of civilisation.
The thrust of the project will examine equality, power imbalance and allocation of labour. The choice of bamboo serves to connect past and present, having always been a vital ingredient in housing those with few material assets but now displaying previously unimaginable potential as a high technology material with a vast and growing variety of new uses. “Bamboo is everything men aspire to be; strong, light, flexible, as it sways gently in the wind even as the world below shakes in anger”. It is hoped that the bamboo used in this project can be sourced within the UK.
The drastically altered position of subjugator and subjugated in gender terms is one example of just how radically altered the social order has become since William Paxton first commissioned Samuel Pepys Cockerell to build him a fashionable house at Llanarthne paid for with wealth amassed in
India. Alice Abadam (1856-1939), (missing image), a Catholic suffragist and feminist, was born and spent much of her life at Middleton Hall. Awareness of the inequalities between master and servant prevalent in the household led to the development of her political activism. In 1904 she moved to
London and became involved in suffrage campaigning. She was renowned as an excellent public speaker and toured Britain lecturing on behalf of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and the Federated Council of Suffrage Societies (FCSS). She was a founder member of the Women’s Freedom League (1907) and founded the Feminist League (1920), which met weekly to discuss feminist issues and provided a lending library. In later years Alice was Chair on the subcommittee on art in the University of Wales. She once asked her audience: “Do you realize you
are a New Force in the New World which is destined to rise, clean, sweet and white on the ruins of
the Old Order now expiring amidst blood, savagery, lust, disease and famine?” The title of our
work comes from a comment printed by The Universe (a Catholic newspaper) which labeled her
supporters “paranoiac Abadamites,” adding they all suffered from “incontinence of speech.”
A bamboo house will examine the disparity between wealthy landowners and the marginalised and
under-privileged within local and global communities. Our intention is to construct the house in
stages (if funding allows) – ground floor followed by the first floor, stairwells and roof, with walls
and rooms that will have varying degrees of visibility and obscurity. What we are aiming for is to
create a work which melds seamlessly architecture, horticulture, culture and community. It is intended that the work will be phased and developed over a period of time, creating an installation that is both house and garden in one. NBGW gardeners and volunteers will be needed to assist the second stage o f p l a n t i n g , g r o w i n g a n d maintenance over time.
This societal disparity will also be highlighted by use of horticultural differentiation based around functional and decorative planting. The walls will be used as growing frames and these will change with s e a s o n a l a n d h o r t i c u l t u r a l developments. Expert knowledge and skills will be needed from the NBGW gardening team to realise aspects of this work, for example, selecting compatible and hardy plant species. Innovative and unpredictable species choices and combinations will be encouraged.
It may then be possible to build some of the larger items of furniture in some of the rooms from bamboo and willow. For example a fourposter bed, a bookcase in the gentlemen’s room (maybe filling the shelves with different varieties and colours of rose and cabbage books for example!) Should additional future funding be obtained there will be opportunities for others to construct varying sizes of artefacts and additions to the interior of the bamboo house.
The creation of an interactive sound installation challenging historical class divisions between
masters and servants at Middleton Hall will be a very important element of the work, taking the
project to another level of education, engagement and audience interaction, particularly as we
intend to use humour as a vital element. Partnership with CIRIC at Swansea Metropolitan University
will bring in the knowledge of a company specialising in arduino usage. It is hoped that this will
provide Jane and Brenda with some training in this field which will bring a whole new dimension to
their art practices. In addition, capturing the sound of the plants, and in particular the bamboo,
will add a further element. Research into this field will take the innovative sound works of US
artist Duncan Laurie www.duncanlaurie.com as a starting point.
Laser engraving extracts of Alice Abadam’s writing and speeches into the bamboo of the house (an
archive of these is housed in the County Archives in Carmarthen) will (if funding allows) serve to
remind visitors of the existence of this almost forgotten but crucially important activist in the fight
for human equality. On such an exposed and windy site it might even be possible to experiment
with capturing sound as it passes through the incised bamboo?
The installation has future potential for site-specific theatre and performance, of particular benefit
to a local audience. It is hoped that a talking book and film will be two of the production outcomes
detailing construction, methodology and experimentation. A blog will document the day-to-day
experiences of the artists as they develop the project.
Jane Fox’s skills include informal teaching and advocacy and this residency will relate directly to
Fox’s practice of twenty years, which continues to examine gender politics, marginalization, the
misuse of power politics and global resources. The work shares local and universal reference. These themes are pertinent to the cross-platform work of Fox who is also developing writings for theatre, film and the written form including poetry. Jane Fox has several years’ experience of gardening and growing vegetables and is keen to develop this into a large-scale public sculpture. This will include growing walls and pieces of furniture inside the house, accommodating and experimenting with horticulture in new forms.
Brenda Oakes has always held a secret yearning to be a horticultural artist since she was
encouraged by her Auntie Elsie, a keen and very successful gardener, to start digging and planting
whilst still a toddler! Research into old and new technology and how these can be housed
comfortably together also holds particular appeal. After 25 years of working and travelling as a
public artist Brenda’s art practice took a new route last year when she was awarded an ACW
Creative Wales Award which has enabled her to spend time in her studio in the Neath Valley
researching and experimenting around the theme of dowsing and drawing. The collaborative
project at Middleton Hall will build upon the new and innovative approaches to her ways of thinking
and working which have been important outcomes of the last year’s activities.