Bedwyr Williams: tearing through art’s facade
The Venice Biennale has rolled around again. Last time, dazzled by funny people in funny clothes, I rolled around in an Aperol Spritz haze, peering through the art critics, dealers, collectors and –ists, trying, and largely failing, to engage with what I was supposed to be there for. There was some good art and some bad art and some boring art, but getting to it was a nightmare; it was like a 72-hour long private view locked in to the most intense 45 minute period, full of people battling over the last of the free Heinekens.
Sanctuary came in an unlikely place; tucked out of the way, apart from the hustle-and-bustle of the Giardini, was the Welsh Pavilion. Here Bedwyr Williams had transformed a former convent into a meditation on the near and far, stars, terrazzo, hobbyists. A direct response to the exhibition space, The Starry Messenger assimilated and riffed on the material context, marrying a kind of British domesticity to the Italian otherness of the palazzo. Passing through different zones – a home observatory soundtracked by a middle-aged man’s weeping, a suburban pond filled with synthetic terrazzo, inappropriately tinkling, and under a giant coffee table covered with domestic signifiers – led the audience to the bleachers, and Williams’s film.
In the (largely) po-faced atmosphere of the Biennale, where art is treated with a reverence usually reserved for sacred texts, this film was a tonic. A dark, humorous trip through the earth and cosmos, from a dentist’s waiting room to a mosaic-tile factory it was contemporary art through the lens of Reeves and Mortimer.
This was a move in medium from the performances and installations Williams had previously been making, but it’s
a format that’s working for him. His subsequent films have explored a dystopian post-apocalyptic suburbia and meandered through the consciousnesses of occupants of the surrounding area of a mysterious hotel built entirely on 70 degree angles. His latest, Century Egg, is a project made in conjunction with the museums of Cambridge, and provides an acerbic and surreal glimpse into an intellectual cocktail party.
Century Egg is being previewed in Cambridge at the end of May, and The Starry Messenger has been installed in Cardiff’s g39 gallery. I got in touch to ask Bedwyr about the decontextualisation of his work.
The Starry Messenger was site-specific in a sense. How did you go about fitting into this whole new context?
I just didn’t even try. All of the things were so much about each other from one room to the other in Venice, you’d have to be like a pedant or something to say “but there’s no terrazzo here.” I hate saying this, but it is what it is, do you know what I mean? I hate people saying that, but it is. What it is.
When you exhibit, your films are often shown alongside or as part of installations. Do you view the installation as secondary to the film, or is it a necessary way of providing a degree of context?
I think I conceive of both things at the same time. I’m not, like, an academic theory artist; I never got into it because of that. I think it could spoil it for me, or something like that. Most things that I do are completely like a gut feeling. Maybe it’s a bad thing to be, but I believe in the idea that there could be a magic idea in my head or something. And when it comes, I’m still excited about being an artist in that way. That’s probably not cool, and not very progressive or anything, but I still think as if I’m making a school project or something; how many things can I put in this to impress my teacher, kind of thing.
I think all the artists that I like do that as well. Almost as if they’re taking on too much, do you know what I mean?
Watching your films I got a sense that maybe they’re only called ‘contemporary art’ because they’re not quite anything else; they don’t engage with the usual recursive, self-referencing discussions of art. They seem to be part of a different discussion: they each have a clear narrative voice. How do you use narrative?
I grew up – not that I grew up at the feet of a shepherd or something like that – but my grandfather was a hill farmer, and a little bit of a raconteur. So he would tell stories, and we had to be quiet. And my parents, my uncles and so on would just listen to this guy talk. There’s something about stories.
I don’t mean those patchwork pants storytellers that bother kids in outward- bound centres. I think storytelling is interesting, but storytelling at Glastonbury is probably shit, you know what I mean? But storytelling in a pub in Toxteth is probably amazing. So that kind of thing.
I think that more or less everyone likes to hear a narrator’s voice. I know it’s not cool to hear a narrator’s voice, but I know, deep down, everyone likes being told something that begins here and ends there. As long as it’s not boring. I believe in that.
Humour features strongly in the narration and visual imagery. A sense of humour in art is quite rare; why have you chosen to engage with it, and how do you use it as a tool?
I studied painting at college; I love painting. I love doing it, I like looking at it, most of the time, but when I was at college, I couldn’t get round that thing that it doesn’t really have a proper, live connection with people.
I was into [Martin] Kippenburger, and Mike Kelley and things like that when I was a student. No different to anyone else, loads of people like the same stuff. But at the time, most of the students around me were making these fake, like, Richter-type things. Or else just throwing grey pigment at massive square canvases and then putting a small, little blue thing on them.
And those fuckers would get all of the end-of-term shows in the gallery at Southampton Road – it would just be full of that shit. I was making no connection at all, but I was friends with Colin Lowe, who used to work with a guy called Roddy Thomson. Through speaking to people like Colin I realised that there were people that have an interest in humour in arts. Because most of my tutors would see it as if, you know, there’s no rules being an artist, but actually – don’t do funny things.
As in, art is serious.
Yeah. You can do anything, but not that. And it’s a bit like institutional critique, as well. I mean, people don’t like you to make fun of fucking goofball collectors in Frieze, with their silly glasses and their silly shoes; we’re supposed to be people that are like sponges to the outside world, we suck things in and we make work, we think about things in oblique ways. But to celebrate that, we go to these art fairs and these Biennials where the people that buy this stuff dress like Quality Street characters, do you know what I mean? And we’re not supposed to mention it. It’s ridiculous, like how can you not? Like a man in a completely red suit and red glasses…
So humour is like a reaction against that? It’s also a pretty keen emotional tool, for audience engagement.
Peter Sellers was the first person to rip through a scrolling title sequence on TV. You know, when the production details were on a roller, he was the first to rip through that, and terrify millions of viewers at home, because they’d never seen a flat plane being torn open. I think we live in this time where artists are wonderful, do you know what I mean? We’re wonderful, we’re marvellous. And we’re feted, and there are prizes for us fucking galore. But I think somebody has to make fun of that, or at least question it, or something like that.
Being based in Wales, you’ve kind of willingly removed yourself from the hub of the ‘art world’, so to speak. Similarly, the concerns manifested in your work are removed from the usual art dialogues. It seems to reflect a kind of faith, or security, in your creative process.
Yeah, it’s weird. Differently to a clever artist – not that I’m stupid, but y’know – if I have an idea that I like, I have an emotional reaction to it. Almost like, not that I’m going to cry because I’m so proud of myself, but it’s completely emotional.
Like, I believe in that thing of the artist as some kind of poet. That you lock yourself away and you come up with something. It’s not a very logical process for me. The working bit is straightforward – like I have to do A, B and C to make it happen.
But the ideas and stuff? You know, there’s two types of people: there’s the kind of people that can go to a symposium and the people that can’t. And I can’t. I can’t order my thoughts in that kind of way.
Lights Out runs at g39, Cardiff, until the end of July