BY Gregor Muir in Reviews | 05 SEP 93
Featured in
Issue 12

Bethan Huws

BY Gregor Muir in Reviews | 05 SEP 93

Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, is beginning to expand into the surrounding hills. Its sprawling industries are, in effect, moving upwards towards Mt. Witosha causing great concern amongst the inhabitants of Bistrista who live in a secluded valley at the base of the mountain. From up on high, the Bistrisa-eye-view of Sofia might well resemble Van Gogh’s The Huth Factories at Clichy(1887), which depicts a smoky, slag heap of a town, edging its way into the countryside at the time of the industrial revolution. This sense of edging is at the heat of Bethan Huws’ latest project, brining together the Bistitsa Babi, (a group of eight singing grandmothers from the village), and the North Sea, part of a more physical edge, otherwise known as the East coast of Britain.
The location for Juws’ Work for the North Sea is a bay on the Northumbrian coast near Alnwick. Apart from this being a place where land meets water, there are several other dualities present in the work. The first is the Bistritsa Babi’s unique way of singing. They are the only group in Bulgaria to sing both antiphony and plyphany, whereby a lead singer, (or caller), sings a random, freeform harmony set against the monotones of the backing singers. The song is then, more often than not, pressed back and forth between tow groups of four Bistritsa Babi. The random drone, along with the polyphany of the backing singers, gives the song a melancholic density which is sad and fatal, and at the same time transcendental. In addition to this, the Bistrisa Babi are positioned right by the water’s edge, allowing for the mesmeric sound of waves washing against the shore, enhancing he notion of fluidity against solidity, which in turn, reflects the digression of the caller against the solidity of the monotone.
This sense of freeform individuality, set against the limitation of the monotone, has a parallel in the relationship between the history of the Bistritsa Babi’s signing and the repetition of experience3e found in mass production. Huws provides tow areas of symmetry here. One is her choice of location – near Newcastle, once the industrial powerhouse of the North East; the other, the true purpose of the songs, which in Bistrtsa, are very much a part of day to day life. For centuries the people there have mined the mountain, tended the land, and bred livestock against a background of ritual singing. Hence the Bistritsa Babi do not see their singing as an art, but something which is inextricably linked to traditional labour.
This tradition, now under thereat by the type of industry found in Newcastle, (historically), and Sofia (currently), highlights the dominance of mechanised industry throughout this century. This has resulted in a culture saturated with the notion that objects that look the same are the same because we have become adjusted to machine-made regularity. Such an assumption, however finds its undoing in the appearance of the Bistrisa Babi’s costume, which at first sight appears to be a uniform: embroidered red and white shirts, black sleeveless dresses and long white headscarves. But on closed inspection, the red shirts are highly individual. (In fact each one is completely different), as is the white trim on the black dress, the choice of flowers above the right ear, the colour of the stockings and the ribbons that tie the white headscarf. So, within the parameters of their traditional costume, the Bistrista Babi manage to exude individuality.

If we take it that Huws is focusing on a specific area where individuality meets conformity, traditional labour meets industrialisation, antiphonal singing meets polyphony, and water meets land, then the work is pointing to conflicting entities. If this is the case, Huws has arrived at such an issue with surprising clarity. She has managed to avoid employing the Bistrisa Babi as meaningless ready-mades or the North sea as one enormous ambiguity. What Huws is saying is that new industries replace old and individualist is forsaken in the name of mass-production. We knew that. But what is really being said here? That the children of Bistritsa who grow up singing Michael Jackson songs should be smacked about the head for doing so? What about renewal, adaptation, synthesis? Huws seems to leave little room for the re-emergence of traditions in contemporary culture: disco dancing, pop music, high street fashion, etc. But in this piece, we only see a tradition that is dying. Huws is creating an empty platform for a worthy lesson which is on its way over, but stuck in traffic. In the meantime, take it from me – ‘shit happens: life’s a beach and then you die.’

Gregor Muir is director of collection, international art, Tate. He lives in London, UK.