The Starry Messenger – Bedwyr Williams at the Venice Biennale

Wylo - Bedwyr Williams 2013

Wales is back out in Venice for its sixth Venice Biennale and this time Bedwyr Williams has been selected to represent Wales at the Ludoteca in Castello. His solo show The Starry Messenger has just opened and is already stirring up a whole heap of media interest.

But what’s it like?

It’s like this: I am four or five years old, in the grip of a stomach bug that imprisons me in the tiny bathroom of my early childhood flat. There’s nothing to do but sit this one out and stare at the floor – old lino, printed to look like really bad terrazzo flooring. My eyes try to make sense of the odd shapes and blobs on the floor. The more I stare at them, the more the blobs seem to rise up to meet me and I experience a sinking feeling, like a pebble falling slowly into an abyss or an alternate universe. Gastro enteritis can do that to you. So can Bedwyr Williams and that memory floats to the surface of my mind as I get to grips with his obsession with terrazzo, linked to his love of amateur astronomy.

Let me walk you through The Starry Messenger.

Step off  the dog shit festooned Venetian streets, out of the sun, or the sudden soaking shower that releases the smell of said shit and the perfume of the ubiquitous Tracheleospermum Jasminoides in equal measure. Inside the Ludoteca it is cool and dark. A mesh curtain printed to look like terrazzo is see-through enough to reveal what looks like a stargazer’s observatory beyond it. Through the curtain to peer at this large white erection (how did that get through the door then?) and there’s a sound of manly despair, endless looped sobbing. The door is ajar. The roof open, pointing at the heavens depicted on the ceiling and studded with tiny metal stars.

Wylo, 2013 - Bedwyr Williams (image Anna Arca)Keep up now, we’re going into the next room to one of those ponds that feature in posh lifstyle magzines. Not an infinity pool but one that should be full of koi carp so expensive they make insurers nervous and owners take out contract killings on neighbouring cats. No fish in here though. Instead giant blocks of what look like granite but can’t be because they’re floating on the surface to a soundtrack of things breaking up or breaking down. It’s dark with blue lights to help make out the contours of these drifting chunks.

The Depth, 2013 - Bedwyr Williams (image Anna Arca)On down a dark corridor studded with tiny orange lights –  like cosmic emergency lighting on a budget airline – and into a space where giant dark geometric forms loom all around and overhead, picked out by lights that pulse and change colour. We are small as molecules in terrazzo – if these are the quartz or granite chips then we are flecks of cement or sand.

Obelix, 2013 - Bedwyr Williams (image Anna Arca)So, feeling cut down to size, we stumble out into a brightly lit room, dominated by an immense glass-topped coffee table that we stare at from underneath. Its surface is strewn with seemingly randomly selected objects – if you tear up the Ikea and Argos catalogues and place anything that comes out as a whole image around the floor, this is sort of the effect, but there’s obviously a rationale between the choice of these objects that we’re peering up at, a cosmos of consumables with a white coat hanger gently swaying in the breeze of an office fan. If it weren’t for the steady flow of visitors we could lie on the floor and try and make sense of them.

The Northern Hemisphere, 2013 - Bedwyr Williams (image Anna Arca)Onwards to the room where threads are woven together, but not necessarily into a garment you can immediately wear (think of those skirts that seem to have extra pouches, flaps and hanging straps). Sit with me on the bleachers, put on the radio headphones and here is Williams taking us on one of his surreal journeys. So we imagine we’re a chunk of something, probably a bit of rock and, to become part of the terrazzo, we’ll have to live with the idea of being ground down to a polished surface, the backs of our heads buffed away to a big wound (but don’t worry, Williams assures us it’ll scab over and we seem to be able to deal with this sacrifice).

The Starry Messenger, 2013 (Film Still) - Bedwyr Williams (image Emma Geliot)Williams appears with a mosaic head, his outline instantly recognisable as his famous performance hat has been given the mosaic treatment too. (Dazed Digital gives you a two minute clip here so you get the idea)

For me to replicate the narrative would be ridiculous, it is convincing in the moment, but the imagery is fantastic and takes in everything from bondage to dentists.

Out of the dark and into the light again. Allow a few minutes for the ears to adjust to the chirruping sound that fills the little transitional courtyard. Are they crickets? Cicadas? Grasshoppers? Whatever they are one of them has just farted.

Exit through the broom cupboard, curated (for want of a better word) by Williams so that objects are arranged in a way that implies a relationship between things. Disturbing sounds of dentistry fill this claustrophobic space. I am happy to leave with my jaw aching.

Nearly done now. Out to the last part – a pile of neatly stacked little leaflets featuring a narrative that takes in perfume. I don’t know this as I pick one up, but my nose catches a whiff of expensive scent (Tom Ford I am reliably informed). The devil is in these details.

Behind the scenes of this show – one of the hot picks of the Biennale – is a vast team of curators (the show is co-curated by Oriel Davies and MOSTYN); technicians; fixers, committee members; administrators; invigilators; manufacturers, animators; art transporters; press and pr people with the Arts Council of Wales’ Louise Wright acting as Commissioner and Williams getting extra support from his gallery, Ceri Hand.This is no tuppeny ha’penny operation. The party is full of fancy folk, chatting over gin or Penderyn Whisky and the sausage rolls that made the Wales party famous years ago. Williams gives us another performance and we are moles again, as we were a few months ago when this project was launched in London and St Fagans. You’ll get the idea here.

Bedwyr Williams performing at the Wales party, Venice 2013 (image Emma Geliot)

You can also see more pictures of the show here courtesy of the BBC.

Or, if you can’t make it to Italy, wait for the show to tour Wales once the Venice Biennale shuts up shop again in November (if you don’t live in Wales, here’s a reason to visit).

I’m off to polish my head.

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Backwards and Onward

Happy 2012 blog fans and welcome, as the last pine needles embed themselves in the carpet, to a rather random review of the visual arts year in Wales.

And it was a good one, with lots of highlights:

There have been some mighty fine shows on offer this year and I’ve been lucky to see a lot of them. In no particular order of favouriteness here are some of the ones that tooted my horn:

Project Object at Oriel Myrddin in Carmarthen had everything going for it. I love it when artists are let loose on collections, or people are invited to talk about or curate objects that mean something special to them. This show came in four equally good parts and gave me the chance to come as close as I’m likely to get to the Aurora Borealis and slip a poodle into a public gallery. The Glynn Vivian unleashed David Cushway and some delighted individuals on their precious collection of ceramics. The resulting film,  Last Supper at The Glynn Vivian, shows how passionate folk become when asked to talk about the objects they love.

One would never have guessed that the Glynn Vivian team had been holding their collective breaths, waiting to get the green light for the new development project – the programme was as lively as ever. I’ve already written up my highlight here. The off site programme continues – follow it here.

Neil Mcnally was let loose on Newport Museum & Art gallery to curate a show – The Institute of Mental Health is Burning. Mcnally selected objects from NMAG’s fine collection, mixing it up with a host of artists. Those who went will have Goldie Lookin’ Chain’s Newport State of Mind (You’re Not From Newport) etched into their memory banks forever more. NMAG also brought us Dis-location by Andrew Cooper, an artist who never fails to engage my attention. Pete Telfer, God of Culture Colony, filmed Cooper talking about his work.

In mid Wales, Oriel Davies gave us two artists associated with the 2007 Wales at the Venice Biennale offering: Bedwyr Williams and Paul Granjon. Williams’ show, Nimrod, launched with one of his trademark darkly funny performances and the humour threaded through the exhibition, which coincided with the National Eisteddfod up the road in Wrexham – Williams took the Gold medal and went on to win the People’s Choice and Ifor Davies Award in an unprecedented hat trick.

Bedwyr Williams, Nimrod Oriel Davies

Granjon took over the gallery to create a workshop for unlikely gizmos with very willing volunteers for Oriel Factory. With a suite of his quirky drawings and a loop of films featuring some of his performances, inventions and songs to spur them on, the workshop elves came up with some highly inventive creations – none of which are likely to feature in the Innovations catalogue any day soon.

Across the Cambrian mountains, Aberystwyth Arts Centre has become an important venue for artists’ moving image with The Box seasons, but I’ve also enjoyed Visitor (still  on, if you’re quick) and Wild Thing.

Back in Cardiff Richard Higlett had his first solo show in Wales at g39’s temporary new home in The dairy, Pontcanna with Welcome to Your World. Higlett never fails to surprise and this show was no exception: a talking cat, the GPS (gallery of portable sound) car and a band (Bear- Man) playing from a hole in the gallery floor. Experimentica came back for its 11th outing at Chapter (where else could you find a man covered in mucus bouncing on a trampoline?) Chapter Gallery continued to surprise and delight with Pile and  The With Collective my personal faves.

Over in Penarth, Ffotogallery’s programme was as strong as ever, showcasing new and established talent and with complementary and engaging talks and the ever-popular Artists’ Book Fayre I’m so glad that this is my local. They’ll be bringing an international photography festival to Cardiff in 2013.

Artist-run spaces offered some really exciting shows and events this year: tactileBOSCH in Cardiff, continued to present rare opportunities to see performance, along with installations and painting shows that spilled out all over Cardiff for MOIST; Elysium ran another Bus Stop Cinema and disrupted the streets of Swansea; g39 hit Leipzig’s Spinnerei for the big Art Weekend; The Rhôd created a new series of site-responsive works in an old Mill in the hills of Carmarthenshire and created their own pavilion at the Venice Biennale (Rhodio). Swansea’s Supersaurus played host to shows by Gordon Dalton and Tom Goddard, while Supersuarus member Owen Griffiths dug up a football pitch to grow vegetables for Vetch Veg (sometimes you just couldn’t make this stuff up!)

Online artists’ film platform, Outcasting is heading for world domination. Not content with presenting international content, Outcasting’s evil genius, Michael Cousin, has joined forces with, er, me and St David’s Hall’s exhibitions officer, Ruth Cayford to form Fourth Wall. Pedwaredd Wall CIC, which will be filling Cardiff with artists’ moving image this autumn, thanks to festival funding from the Arts Council of Wales. Watch this space for more info and a call for artists to submit.

Goodbye and Hello

2011 was tinged with some sadness as Swansea lost two inspirational women: Swansea Metroplitan University lecturer Susan Griffiths and Mission Gallery Director Jane Phillips. Both died too young and leave a big hole in the visual arts community.

We also said goodbye to arts education as we know it with some major restructuring of fine art courses and a few closures. I’ve already written about this here so I won’t bang on but I’ll be watching as things unfold over the next few years.

James Boardman, Light Corridor, CSAD degree show 2011

And last, but not least, of the farewells goes to all of my former colleagues at the Arts Council of Wales, who find themselves staring at an uncertain future following the recent major restructuring (more on this as it unfolds).

Meanwhile some new faces appeared on the scene and began to make their mark:

Amanda Roderick took over as director at The Mission Gallery under very sad circumstance, but her work to date would, I’m sure, make Jane Phillips proud. Ben Borthwick got into his stride as Chief Executive of Artes Mundi, which is scheduled for this Autumn in Cardiff. Up in Llandudno we said goodbye and good luck to Martin Barlow, who left Mostyn after steering its development into one of the finest exhibitions spaces in Wales. He is  replaced as director by Alfredo Cramerotti, who took over as the first major retrospective of Blaenau Ffestiniog-based sculptor, David Nash – Red,Black,Other – launched to much excitement.

And finally, we said hello to #0 of tant magazine. They’re currently inviting submissions for #1 so please follow the link.

    David Fitzjohn, TactileBOSCH Citizen 2011     Jonathan Anderson, Dark Star - Mission Gallery

It’s been such a busy year and I’m sure I’ll have forgotten to mention a lot of the wonderful things that I have seen. Please feel free to add your own favourites in the comments section.

In the meantime I hope you have a very productive and creative 2012.