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Plate 14: Search Yourselves (13 November 2021)

from Penallta Colliery: Sound pictures [album] by John Harvey



Above the entrance to a building at Penallta Colliery which housed the downcast shaft and what was called the ‘contraband area’, was painted a commanding sign that read: ‘Search Yourselves’. The instruction served to remind the colliers at the beginning of their shift that they shouldn’t descend the shaft carrying smoking materials (cigarettes, lighters, and matches). They were expected to ‘auto-frisk’, as it were, before proceeding. However, the Banksman (who attended to affairs at the top of the pit), too, would search them, just to make sure. One strike of a match underground in a gaseous-areas of the workings could send the smoker and their workmates into oblivion in an instant.

The text recalls those painted above the pulpit in the classical-styled chapels during the 19th century that enjoined congregations to make ready for worship and order their lives. Biblical texts such as ‘Prepare to meet thy God’ (Amos 4.12), ‘Trust in the Lord’ (Proverbs 3.5), and ‘Be ye holy as I am holy’ (Leviticus 19.2) were among the most common. (I dealt with this architectural feature in my book entitled 'The Art of Piety: The Visual Culture of Welsh Nonconformity' (1995).) For miners who had been immersed in chapel culture, ‘search yourselves’ would’ve summoned that spirit of habitual self-examination before God, which the Bible commended believers to practise (Psalm 119.59; 2 Corinthians 13.5). Thus, even before the miners entered the colliery, mining and religion were inextricably and inevitably intertwined. (This theme is explored extensively in my book entitled' Image of the Invisible: The Visualization of Religion in the Welsh Nonconformist Tradition' (1999).)

The composition is an adagio. Its melodic content is entirely ‘instrumental’ and constructed from sections of the Overman’s narration. These have been slowed-down considerably, enhanced harmonically, divided, edited, reordered, overlaid, and played against one another in reverse counterpoint. The mood of the piece is plaintive. At the close, the voices (comprising a superimposition of several scenes of collective chatter) of the coalminers emerge for the final time. And it is they, appropriately, who get the last word.


from Penallta Colliery: Sound pictures [album], released July 31, 2022


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John Harvey Ceredigion, UK

I’m a practitioner and historian of sound art and visual art, and Emeritus Professor of Art at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University, UK. My research field is the sonic and visual culture of religion. I explore the sonic articulations of the Christian religion by engaging visual, textual, and audible sources, theological and cultural ideas, and systemic and audiovisualogical processes. ... more

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