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.

The Culture Colonists

Now I’m guessing that Anna Wintour didn’t start her career by flogging copies of American Vogue from a cardboard box but, as deputy Editor of blown magazine, I set off for Aberystwyth with said cardboard box,  some pretty pictures and assorted stationary and passengers. The rain lashed down as I did various pick-ups from Splott, Riverside and Carmarthen, looping around Wales before finally reaching my bed for the night.

In the run-up to pulling together an issue for production it takes something pretty special to drag me away from my obsessive war against missing or misplaced apostrophes, but then I was heading for an event that I couldn’t miss: the launch of Culture Colony.

Now if you’ve had your head in a bucket or don’t live in Wales you may not know about this creative community, the love child of the remarkable Pete Telfer or, to be more technical, an on-line community for creative people and organisations in Wales.

Telfer, a former cameraman for the BBC, notching up an impressive portfolio of films for such programmes as The Slate, before the Beeb dumbed down their arts content, felt it was high time to circumvent the Welsh media, who had so poorly served the arts in Wales and go, as Culture Colony’s  slogan has it: “Beyond TV”. And he has.

The site offers a non-hierarchical forum for creatives in Wales. There’s no advertising (but please subscribe to keep it going), no agendas, but high production values and a lot of film content from Telfer, who can often be found, camera clamped to his editorially incisive eye, documenting cultural activity around Wales. What’s not to love?

For the launch (it’s been going a while but the site’s just had a major re-vamp) there were no press/media, no politicians or arts administrators, just a bunch of people who believe in the power of the collective platform and of the third (fourth? fifth?) way.

I was torn between (wo)manning my stall and attending the really engaging discussions. So, in the morning I sneaked into the session to hear a really thought-provoking conversation about archiving the arts, chaired (but in an informal “let’s just have a nice chat” kind of way) by  artist Stephen West.  Dr Heike Roms talked us through her work to date on What’s Welsh for Performance, followed by Eluned Haf from Wales Arts International, talking  in Welsh at breakneck speed (props to the fantastic translator who was just a heartbeat behind her) about the need for critical debate in Wales and bigging up Culture Colony.  Richard Huw Morgan, a last minute sub, who talked about some of his previous projects, future plans (both solo and as part of good cop bad cop) and how Culture Colony has supported his latest project – the cross-over from the digital world into the world of actively supporting creativity.

Around Aberystwyth Arts Centre artists had been invited to make interventions. So we had Kathryn Dodd and Louise Bird’s White Shift – Short Shrift; Roger Loughor’s subversive road signs; Kim Fielding’s disturbing photographs and Michelle Collins’ invitation to curate her un-edited archive while wearing a badge that said ” Artist”, “Curator” or “Critic”, with sustenance provided by Pete’s mother’s cake and sundry biscuits. But I can’t pull up at this point without mentioning the rather wonderful Dartboard for Witches in  the gallery. This exhibition offers a refreshing new look at textiles in art and has been exceptionally well presented.

This was not an event, nor  is Culture Colony an organisation, that could be dreamt up in any strategy. It is driven by goodwill, vision, passion and the collegiate and collaborative nature of the arts community in Wales.

Plugging blown, as was my mission, I was suddenly conscious of the role that arts centres and organisations play in Wales. This role doesn’t fit neatly into any monitoring or assessment format but… Aberystwyth Arts Centre have put themselves squarely behind Culture Colony, who are now housed in the splendour of the Thomas Heatherwick studio spaces. I ruminated on this as blown has had so much encouragement and support from Chapter Arts Centre. The unsung part that arts organisations play in developing artists and the wider culture in Wales deserves a big shout out.

If you haven’t had a look at Culture Colony yet I urge you to do so and, if you can find the modest wherewithal to join, then get PayPal-ing forthwith.

And finally, my apologies to my loyal blog fans. I have been out and about, and can commend to you: To the Buddha Veils and Voids, at St David’s Hall, Cardiff, featuring Peter Finnemore and Jonathan Anderson (who has a show coming up at The Mission Gallery in Swansea very soon); Bystanding at g39.  I also revisited the wonderful new Mostyn Gallery and  We have the Mirrors, We Have the Plans, (sorry but you’ve missed it, but more great shows on the horizon), which was well worth a quieter visit, away from the private view hoopla; spent too little time at Re:Animate at Oriel Davies (this year’s curated Oriel Davies Open curated exhibition, featuring the full gamut of some of the most exciting moving image practice form across the UK) and did my annual pilgrimage to the  National Eisteddfod in Ebbw Vale, the gold medal for Fine Art this year going  to Simon Fenoulhet (hooray!)

More bloggery when blown issue 2 is safely at the printers (and there’ll probably be a shameless plug too).

Who was changed and who was dead: The Arts Council of Wales Investment Review

So, today’s the day the Arts Council of Wales announced its most radical review and reorganisation of the portfolio of funded clients to date. There’s little detail in the report Renewal and Transformation, just the bald facts of who’s in and who’s out.

For those who are out this is going to be a tough time – there’ll be a year’s funding grace while they scrabble around to find alternative sources of funding (from where?), or start to wind things up. For those left within the portfolio it’s an equally worrying time. Some have hung on by the seat of their financial pants while the review took its course and they’ll have to hang on even longer before any new funding comes their way.

I’m not going to talk about the other art forms because there have been too many apples and pears comparisons already and my interest remains with the visual arts in Wales.

In the cut the visual arts did reasonably ok, with smaller galleries such as Swansea’s Mission, Oriel Myrddin in Carmarthen and g39 keeping their toeholds on funding. But there were some surprise cuts – Oriel Wrecsam and Newport Museum and Art Gallery (both local authority-run venues) are out, leaving Oriel Davies in Newtown as the only funded gallery in the East of Wales. And Safle comes to end, just three years after it was set up to develop public art in Wales.

It’s no secret that I had enormous reservations about the merger of Cywaith Cymru . Artworks Wales and Cbat (I’m being restrained here – you have to imagine me running around the old Arts Council offices in Museum Place, frothing at the mouth and shouting “Don’t do it! Don’t do it!”). Not because of the work of either of the organisations, which came from quite different perspectives, but because the thinking at the time was “Why are we funding two public arts organisations, let’s merge them and just have one?”, which was rather like merging Tesco and your local corner shop and expecting to get the best of both worlds. In the event the tortuous process of establishing a new organisation managed to throw the baby out with the bath water.

There is no pleasure in saying “I told you so”, because I know what has been lost can never be recaptured.

Safle was the biggest visual arts casualty in terms of funding, but there’s another smaller one, the only organisation that was purely about representing artists and giving them a platform and profile that offered them genuine opportunities to develop their practice on an increasingly broad stage. Axis.

Axis, an online resource for artists, curators, critical writers and all those other people who need to know what’s current, who’s interesting, had already fallen foul the Scottish Arts Council’s funding review, leaving only England and Wales to subsidise selected artists from those nations. It’s hard to see how Axis’ very modest funding (circa £20k) will be used to better effect anywhere else and it also begs the question “Where are the artists in all of this?”

If this document is a statement of bold intent (albeit driven by financial necessity to cut cloth that’s already reduced to an elbow patch on the jumper of public funding), it falls short of recognising that the arts are not the result of strategic planning, of mergers, consortia or of willing things into existence. The arts, at their best, are driven by artistic vision and the creative impulse. galleries, theatres, concert halls and creative hubs are nothing but empty buildings without creative individuals.

I’ve worked in and around public funding for the arts for the best part of twenty years and have watched the arts funders (and I include local authorities and the various government bodies responsible for culture) as they struggled to justify the arts; wiggled after one social or economic agenda or another. The advent of  National Lottery, at one time a huge financial player in shaping the arts in the UK and certainly in Wales, drove a programme that, to begin with, proactively excluded creative individuals and sought to justify this poor-tax-by-stealth by refocussing attention away from creativity towards audience expectations and demand. That audiences in Wales had low expectations of the arts was hardly surprising, given the economic climate at the time of its inception.

Lottery funding has been used to bring the arts to some of the most socially deprived corners of Wales, but the delivery seemed to be the end in itself. No matter that, without investment in creative individuals, some, in fact much, of what was delivered through Lottery funding was of such poor quality that it served no purpose except to tick boxes.

So what is left in the Arts Council’s portfolio doesn’t offer me much hope for a creative future for Wales. There’s a lot of funding things because they’re the last men standing – there has been little or no scope for new things to come through, to follow a creative development arc and then fade away to make room for something else. There’s a following through on capital investment (although in the case of some of the galleries how this will be delivered remains to be seen), complex funding with other parties that can’t be unpicked and a focus on the big things.

In the introduction to the section on visual and applied arts I note that part of my original commentary has been bowdlerised (or even disembowelled).  When I was drafting the strategy for the visual arts for ACW, prior to my departure last September) I tried to tease out the visual arts ecology. Yes the big international projects, such as Artes Mundi and Wales at the Venice Biennale of Art, and the flagship galleries are important, but without investment in artists and artist-generated activity they are trees without roots. Nor can those big organisations be expected to take responsibility for developing the careers of artists in Wales, although many have taken on that role to the best of their ability within extremely constrained resources.

While Wales is looking to Scotland for the new model for presenting Wales at the Venice Biennale, perhaps we should also be looking to Scotland’s support for individual practitioners. With the demise of Safle goes the Stiwdio Safle programme, originally conceived as a way of facilitating creative engagment between communities and artists, when it was the Artists in Residence Programme. This was a substantial investment, levering in further non-arts funding, that enabled artists to work in Wales and develop a practice that doesn’t fit within the confines of the gallery (although, of course, many galleries have run residency projects very successfully as a means of extending their reach and engagement with communities). The Arts Council says they will take this “in house”. Knowing the limited capacity of ACW, who will be facing their own staff cuts soon, it is likely that this will be divested to other organisations, losing any strategic overview or over-arching partnerships with the local authorities and other public bodies who were so crucial to the programme’s success).

The decision not to include Engage, the National Association for Gallery Education, in the reformed portfolio, seems an oversight. The work of this organisation in training gallery professionals to create access to what the report describes as “baffling and confusing” art, has been delivered on an ad hoc, project-by-project basis in Wales. Gallery education is the route through to new ideas and, in the broader ecology of Welsh development, ideas equate to new ways of thinking: from reconsidering approaches to life and death to the overlooked minutiae of daily existence and, of course, to new ways of working with technology. In there somewhere are the seeds for the next generation of creative thinkers and entrepreneurs.

Lastly, as long-standing member of what is now the Women’s Arts Association, I can’t finish without saying that, if artists are submerged in this report, then women artists are at the bottom of the iceberg. WAA were steered away from their important work in levelling the playing field for women artists to become a deliverer of community arts projects to justify their existence. Finishing them off sends out the signal that gender equality is no longer an issue. I beg to differ.

I know that this has been a fraught and complex process for my former colleagues at ACW – rock and hard place – and I hope that they are given the resources to deliver on these beginnings and also a level of confidence from the Welsh Assembly Government to deliver on their true mission: to develop, advocate for and promote the arts in Wales for their own sake and on their own terms.

*Update* Here’s a-n’s take on the art landscape in Wales post review

A howl in the woods

Last night (04 March) I howled. Not in an Oh-Lordy-what-a-bad-day-I’ve-had kind of way, but as part of a series of public events, linked to Simon whitehead’s exhibition at Oriel Davies Gallery, Newtown.  I’ve written about this exhibition before, and Whitehead’s interest in reconnecting people with the land, so I won’t go on about it, but at the private view I picked up a flyer for a public howl and my curiosity was piqued enough to make the journey up through Wales, looking glorious in the early Spring evening sunlight, to Newtown.

Louphole was the final performance, linked to the exhibition Afield. It featured a cast of some 50 members of the public, Newtown Silver Band and a beautiful starry, if rather chilly, night sky.

We  gathered at the gallery, suitably swaddled against the chill air and carrying our torches, to receive our instructions from Whitehead and the stewards. From there we moved off, wending our way to the town centre. As we neared the Elephant and Castle Hotel, strange calls reached our ears from several directions at once. It was Newtown Silver Band, lamps strapped to their heads, working their way towards the front of the Regent cinema, tooting out the specially commissioned music by Simon Whitehead’s long-time collaborator, Barnaby Oliver. As we listened, traffic slowed and heads popped out of windows to see what was going on. Everyone was smiling.It was wonderful and set the tone for the next stage – the tramp up to Bryn Hill for the howl.

In the dark, in a field which may or may not have had sheep in it, we congregated for the next set of instructions. Whitehead told us that there used to be wolves in the Clun Forest 300 years ago (the link will take you to a story about their reintroduction), just across the plain where Newtown nestled below us, twinkling it’s street lights back at the stars over our heads.

Then we learned of the large, annual  gatherings in Algonquin National Park, where thousands of people get together and howl, in the hopes that the wolves will howl back at them.

And then we howled……

Now this could have been one of those buttock-clenchingly, tree-hugging, moon-worshipping activities, that I’ve spent most of my life ducking and diving away from. But it really wasn’t. We took our first lead from Simon, with the instruction to begin to stop when he shone his torch into the large galvanised megaphone contraption he had lugged up the hill with him (see pic above, it’s pretending to be the moon). In the event it wasn’t necessary after the first round of howling and everyone threw themselves into it. In the pauses we waited, listening for a response. Once there was a howl back from the town, then a sheep bleated nearby and finally a train.

After four or five waves of howling, we made our way back to the Elephant and Castle for cup of tea and a hot cross bun. The whole event was beautifully conceived, well planned and stewarded (the friendly police and St Johns Ambulance volunteers contrasting starkly with my St David’s Day experience). And howling in the dark is a great release, while howling in the dark with fifty other people is something else again.

The entire event was filmed and recorded. Highlights will be going on the Oriel Davies website with signed, limited editions of the dvd available to buy for a mere £10.

Home

The past few weeks have offered up some exhibitions that unintentionally drew together a lot of disparate threads in the chaotic loom of my imagination.

It started with a trip to Swansea, to catch the very last day of Peter Finnemore’s show at the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, and the last week of Willie Doherty’s.

Two very different artists, one from West Wales, the other from Northern Ireland, whose work is rooted in their understanding of the place from which they come.

Finnemore’s show was a chance to showcase a collection of his work, purchased by the Glynn Vivian. It is immediately clear that there is a curatorial sympathy for his practice, played out in the imaginative and well-thought out “tree” of tiny dvd screens. Each showed different scenes from Finnemore’s garden in the Gwendraeth Valley. As birds flock and cluster around bird feeders all is so-far-so-good bucolic fantasy. Until Finnemore looms up into shot, clad in his trademark camouflage. The birds carry on feeding and there is an indescribable sense of sinister benevolence (even as I type it it sounds pretentious, but it’s really hard to define otherwise).

Into the main space to watch a loop of  films, all handled with the same subtle humour and some highly surreal moments – Finnemore as a camouflaged Elvis impersonator miming to Eve of Destruction by Barry McGuire (the link won’t take you to Finnemore but to YouTube), using a a giant sunflower as his mic. There are fires and explosions, sheds and greenhouses and the late great Myffin the cat. To go into much more detail would be unfair, as the show’s over. The point is that this is confident work that comes from a strong identification with place. As does Willie Doherty’s.

In the main galleries Willie Doherty‘s films Buried and Ghost Story are glossier than Finnemore’s. The shots are sumptious in Buried and, I suspect, more budget-greedy for the long tracking shot in Ghost Story, narrated by Stephen Rae. In the former we are in dark woodland, in that dense coniferous light that could be day or night. Smoke drifts from a near-dead fire; invertebrates ooze from bark like resin. Slowly the human traces come into focus: shell case, melted plastic, along with the memory of some of the dark deeds that occurred in the woodlands of   Northern Ireland’s bloodied past. It is difficult, as audience, not to overlay meaning on to the astonishingly beautiful and well-shot images.

Again, mean of me as the show finished on 14 February, but this is all by way of setting the scene, so bear with me please.

After a hurried lunch it was off up the Swansea Valley to Newtown and Oriel Davies. Although I’d been up and down the Swansea Valley before, this was the first time I’d done it all in one stretch – watching the Sleeping Giant heave into view at the head of the valley tinged with the colour of pale dried blood as the bracken turned in the late winter sun.

Across the Brecon Beacons, past the absurd German village on the army range near Sennybridge, devoid of all other human traces except for the green plastic porta-loos that modern soldiers require for their comfort. Little fishhooks of hiraeth (which translate from Welsh rather crudely as longing or yearning for home) tweak at my heart.

Missing my secret short cut, I can see the now dark Newtown twinkling below and arrive just in time to miss my next artist’s first howl on the roof of the gallery. Simon Whitehead‘s work, the culmination of some 15 years, is embodied in two core elements: Afield and Louphole. Whitehead’s approach is informed by his days as a dancer and a geographer and has incorporated many different ways of working but all refer back to the landscape and human habitation of and movement through it. This sounds dense and worthy but the results are far from it. He is a generous collaborator, inviting other artists and a wider public to engage with him as he re-examines ways of travelling through a landscape – sometimes by just slowing up the pace to that of a walking horse, or by strapping cameras to the chests of willing participants and asking them to describe their journey, as he does in Stalks.

Since a residency in Quebec, Whitehead has become interested in wolves – hunted to extinction here centuries ago – they were still present in Canada and their howls permeated his consciousness. Had I arrived in time I would have seen him on the stainless steel roof of Oriel Davies, giant galvanised megaphone in hand, howling to the populace of this town in Powys. Instead I’ll have to wait until 04 March (at 7pm if you’re in the neighbourhood).

Meanwhile, back in Cardiff, photographer Martin Parr has been documenting the traditional Saturday night out in working men’s clubs in South Wales. the results can be seen at Earlswood Social Club in Rumney and are well worth a visit. The project is part of public art agency Safle‘s collaborationwith St David’s Partnership – the organisation behind the new St David’s 2 development in Cardiff’s city centre. The launch night offered up bingo, a wonderful Elvis impersonator and I even managed to win the raffle (I’m easily pleased, me).

The show runs until 14 March so catch it if you can.