Bedwyr Williams’ first solo exhibition in London came in two parts: an installation at STORE and a performance of stand-up comedy at the nearby Macbeth pub. In the gallery six snooker tables of varying sizes overlapped one another, carefully engineered to join together at odd angles. They provided a miniature landscape for a model railway to ride triumphantly over, tunnel through gaping holes cut into the centre of their green baize, and snake through their wooden legs. The populist classical music station Classic FM blared from a portable radio, replicating the atmosphere of men’s social clubs in Wales, where Williams grew up and, as an adolescent, became interested in model railways as a hobby. Tyranny of the Meek (which began earlier last year at Chapter, Cardiff) played out Williams’ fantasy of his introverted hobbyists taking on his chauvinistic counterparts: hard-drinking snooker players. Williams inverted the hierarchy he observed as a kid, whereby the snooker players looked down on the model railway enthusiasts – both activities based on scales offering a godlike opportunity to tower over little worlds.
In 1998 Williams left London (where he studied) for Caernarfon, north Wales, where he now lives and works. Wales is often ignored as being marginal to the dominant London or Glaswegian contemporary art scenes, making Williams’ move seem counter-intuitive to a more career-minded artist. But his return was a wise one, for working in his native area has provided ample material for his projects. A long history of English dominance over and antipathy towards the Celtic aspects of British culture has created in Wales, as in Scotland and Ireland, an ambivalent relationship to the English. Like Quebec or the Basque region, Wales prides itself on its sense of nationhood, its own language. Williams’ observations of unexceptional, everyday incidents call attention to social idiosyncrasies specific to Britain, and the tensions between cultures within its borders presumed to be similar. In 2001 he staged Talwrn Celf/Art Cockfight at the National Eisteddfod (the Welsh cultural festival), and in 2003 he set up the Blaenau Vista Social Club, a roaming night-club in the back of a caravan. He has recently begun to position these deliberately parochial art works in broader contexts across Britain and internationally; observations from a deliberately peripheral position that criticize a class-based world in which he’s also complicit.
At his London opening Williams performed new material from his series of stand-up comedy routines, ‘Bard Attitude’. Dressed as a Celtic bard – a robe and a pair of Birkenstocks, with a flowing fake beard, and cradling a harp with half of its strings broken – he played on a cliché of Welsh heritage and identity. Williams made his audience feel at ease, allowing a crude humour to probe more deeply, using caricatures in line with a British tradition of satire from Monty Python to Chris Morris. ‘I once ended up sleeping on the floor of a posh house in south Wales, drunk. In the middle of the night a moustachioed fucker in red needlecords caught me having a wee outside. He told me off in a very posh English way. Like a mouse holding a court martial.’
Luc Tuymans recently called Britain ‘the last classist country in Europe; and clinging to it’. Williams nuances Tuymans’ remark with gentle self-deprecation, using the conventions of stand-up comedy to question parochialism and cultural snobbery.