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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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