Kunstmuseum St. Gallen
‘Piss off I’m a fountain!’ an abusive notice board proclaims in white plastic letters on a black ground. Are these the words of an offended ornament that we have mistaken for a urinal? Or are they the angry reaction of a readymade that feels it has not been identified promptly enough as a Duchampian paradigm? In fact, there is no object in sight to which the text might refer: in this piece, entitled Word (2003), Bethan Huws plays with the mere possibility of an object, a situation, a perception. Formerly used for official announcements in offices, these sober blackboards with their aluminium frames and moveable white letters have, for the past eight years, served Huws for her polysemantic language pictures. One might say she writes scripts for potential encounters with possible art works.
Huws grew up speaking both Welsh and English; she employs various media, but her work is always based on a special relationship with language. She often references names of artists and titles of art works associated with the history of the readymade and Conceptual art. Her oeuvre skilfully links the mythology of the Duchampian industrial object that was once upended and signed, with an ironic questioning of the story of its creation. She is concerned with exploring her own creativity: how does one arrive at an artistic action that brings about an altered perception of things? Huws takes the approach of an ethnologist tracing the origin and identity of readymades.
The show also included a recent group of small sculptures that are more reminiscent of primitive art than readymades. One work, made from chocolate but with a wood-like appearance, for example, was presented as African Sculpture (2006): arms spread, this crudely fashioned female figure kneels on an outsize solid wood plinth. In his essay ‘The Artist as Ethnographer’ (1995), Hal Foster uses the formula ‘first projected, then appropriated’ to describe a technique which the artist appears to adopt here to show the process by which the ‘other’ is first projected as exotic and ‘strange’ and then embedded all the more firmly in a mythological narrative of the ‘original’.
The Chocolate Bar (2006) – a four-minute, 35 mm film, transferred to video – places a bottle rack and a Mars bar in just such a ‘strange’ situation. First, one of Marcel Duchamp’s best-known readymades Le port-bouteille (Bottle rack, 1914) is shown, and then a male actor dressed in traditional Welshwomen’s dress asks: ‘Where does he come from, Mars?’ The question relates, of course, to the planet Mars, which implies a certain symbolic ‘otherness’, but the film concludes with a lengthy scene in which the actor, now dressed in regular clothes, consumes the eponymously named chocolate snack with an almost lascivious pleasure. In order to function effectively as a readymade, Huws seems to imply, Duchamp’s bottle rack requires a ‘strange’ location: in this case the red planet. This very otherness, however, seems suddenly to arouse our desires to a heightened degree. Huws thus situates the readymade within a mythological narrative of the capitalist logic of commodities and fetishized ‘strangeness’. The focus of this artistic exploration is not the conceptual act of contextual shifting, but the consequences of Duchamp’s work today.
While Huws succeeds brilliantly in earlier works that are limited to one medium (may it be text, film or sculpture), the juxtaposition of sculpture and film in her more recent work is not always so convincing. Several elements from The Chocolate Bar reappear in sculptural and photographic form: in the foyer leading to the exhibition spaces, the artist has placed a collection of used bottle racks of various sizes, one of which is made out of neon tubes. The ‘lady’ from the film also appears in the exhibition in the large-format photographic portrait Our Welsh Lady (2006). It seems questionable to photographically or sculpturally manifest the protagonists of a film that already has so much to say about repetition and appropriation. Huws’ work remains of particular interest when its subject is something invisible, something that is not shown.
translated by Nicholas Grindell