BY Jonathan P. Watts in Features | 13 FEB 16
Featured in
Issue 177

Born Under Saturn

Mortality, madness and misgivings in the work of Bedwyr Williams

BY Jonathan P. Watts in Features | 13 FEB 16

Bedwyr Williams had recently killed six, maybe seven, people when I first heard him address an audience in 2010 at one of Ryan Gander’s short-lived ‘Night School’ events, which were held in Gander’s east London studio. Alongside a minibus-full of international residency artists and a gallery technician, in that year alone, he told us, he, too, had died many times over. On at least one of these occasions, he may or may not have been wearing his Grim Reaper performance outfit – black robes, hemmed by his mother, accompanied by a scythe fashioned from an estate agent’s ‘To Let’ sign. 

In his performance Minibus (2009), Williams emerged blood-soaked from the wreckage of the titular vehicle. Moments before, he recounted to the audience, he’d been munching liquorice, chatting disinterestedly with his four fellow residency artists, when the vehicle careered off the road. Karen Baumgarten had just castigated his scant regard for typefaces – ‘fucking jackass’ – but now she was dead with the others, her teeth embedded in the back of his skull. His traumatized monologue races skittishly through ill-will for the dead and inappropriate digressive anecdotes. Survival is Williams’s exacting revenge against po-faced artists who’ve made his week hell.

Bard Attitude, 2005, c-type print, 100 x 79 cm. All images courtesy the artist and Limoncello, London

In 2010, Williams’s exhibition ‘Jynx’, at 1857 gallery in Oslo, remained in a state of incompletion due to a terrible accident the artist had incurred during the installation. Later that year, no sooner had he arrived in Dundee for a show at Generator Projects, when a taxi hit him. ‘There are so many things I haven’t done yet,’ he laments in his performance portrait of the artist as a run-over man, Dundeed (2010). ‘I haven’t become friends with a German curator who texts me when he’s pissed […] I haven’t been on the cover of an art magazine.’ He ponders the lives of artists, blood forming a halo around his head: ‘Artists that talk in childish voices […] signing off their emails like munchkins. What’s so funny? Why is everyone talking like kids? Things are bad, aren’t they, surely?’

Things, it would seem, were bad. Under duress at ‘Night School’, it became clear that Williams is horrified by almost everything: Hoxton Man’s hipsterism; Barbour jackets, padded and/or waxed (then in the ascendant), and Hunter Wellies in the city; beards that really only serve to point out their wearer’s lack of masculinity or status; bankers; ‘socially retarded’ German curators with their angular fringes and ‘shit spectacles’ (he knowingly stopped short at mentioning their renowned humourlessness); English people who mispronounce his name; grumpy art technicians who arrive to work on fixed-wheel bicycles; gallerists’ epochal studio visits to Cardiff, but not to North Wales. Asked what it means to be an artist living and working in a rural Welsh village, Williams responded, tight-lipped: ‘To not have to see any of these wankers on my way to the studio.’ 

Writ Stink, 2015, video still

But perhaps things are bad: the contemporary-art establishment obviously has its conceits and hierarchies. Faced with his own misgivings about certain art-world players’ sense of importance, Williams supplemented symbolic death – not just of others but also that of his ‘bad’ self, one part of which is his conflicted desire to continue being an artist – with black satire. Satire – caricaturing, ironizing and ridiculing – has a serious purpose of highlighting idiocy and injustice. In a gallery, it might hail the precariousness of artistic existence; the anxious compromises people make to be in the club and the conflicts of interest. But, make no mistake, contemporary British art’s best satirists – BANK, more recently Cathedral of Shit and Horrible GIF – have been insiders. Stranded on a desert island, Williams’s artwork of choice would be BANK's ‘Fax-Bak’ (1999) series – press releases ‘corrected’ and faxed back to the gallery. I’m certain he’d do the same if said desert island had a landline or a fax machine.

From Williams’s earliest work, Box Clever (1998) – a ritualized, repetitive performance of his job as a civil-service porter ‘box fresh’ out of art school – to his recent moving-image and animation installations, such as The Starry Messenger (his installation for Wales in Venice at the 2013 Biennale) or Writ Stink (2015), belonging has been a major theme, whether to the art world, clubs, orders or societies, to Wales, the United Kingdom or, indeed, the universe. The artist’s identification with outsiders – hobbyists, wizened amateurs and those pejoratively labelled ‘eccentrics’ – is informed by his own record of hard knocks: the ridicule he faced as a 12-year-old member of a model-railway society passing through the bar to get to the club (the installation Tyranny of the Meek, 2004, is his revenge); the day-to-day non-accommodation of his colossal bodily proportions (a recent fixation with his teeth and losing his head has bumped his preoccupation with the ungainly size of his feet); growing up Welsh-speaking in a holiday resort where tourists made him feel like an alien at home; being a Welshman among London artists. (‘I swear as soon as I leave the room they let out a sigh of relief.’) Williams could have a whole chapter in a contemporary rewrite of Margot and Rudolf Wittkower’s classic study of the character and conduct of artists, Born Under Saturn (1963). His paranoid biographical obsessions are all there in the work. Many great artists, the Wittkowers observe, were also obsessive eccentrics, necromancers and weirdo hobbyists. 

Century Egg, 2015, video still

However, what Williams finds most horrifying of all is that – apparently against his will – he is eminently clubbable. How many artists do you know who have been inducted into a Bardic circle at a National Eisteddfod (a Welsh festival of literature, music and performance)? Slipping into his white robes he becomes ‘Elian’ after a local saint – one of a roster of performance characters, including The Dinghy King, The Grim Reaper, Albatross and Count Pollen. For reading out loud, he wears his medieval-looking Bardic cap. Having represented Wales at the Venice Biennale, been shortlisted for both the Jarman Award and the Artes Mundi prize in 2015, and selected to exhibit in the Barbican’s Curve Gallery later this year, Williams is becoming just the kind of person a German curator might want to text when they’re pissed. He’s already the kind of person BBC Radio Wales want on air for his opinions on current affairs. His Welsh-language animations for adults and fake sex-toy adverts have appeared on S4C, the Welsh public service tv channel and, when his village flooded a few years ago, it was his video documentation that was screened on local news. After the Joneses – Tom Jones and Catherine Zeta-Jones – I tend to think of Williams as the most famous living Welsh person. To my mind, he’s definitely the most famous Welsh artist. 

The artist's identification with outsiders — hobbyists, wizened amateurs and those pejoratively labelled eccentrics — is informed by his own record of hard knocks.

Williams dons his Welshness like an accessory. True enough, performances such as Spoon 5 or Bombasto (both 2014) and moving-image installation works, including Hotel 70 Degrees (2014), ECHT (2014) or Century Egg (2015), have not addressed Welsh identity as explicitly as, say, Bard Attitude (2005) or Fferm a Thyddym (Farm and Homestead, 2011). But in his recent installations, Williams has found a way to combine the disparate elements – text, moving image, drawing, stand-up comedy and object-making – that characterize his earlier work while foregrounding his mesmerizing storytelling. Like the poet and broadcaster Paul Farley’s pickled Scouse on BBC Radio 4 or the comic Brian ‘Limmy’ Limond’s hard-boiled impersonations of Glaswegian characters, Williams’s virtuoso rhyme, intonation, stress and pitch-shifts of accent enliven his narratives. In his more recent works, the universalizing of themes is matched with a gorgeous refinement of that famous Welsh Bardic prosody. (To illustrate the continuation of this poetic tradition, Williams recently sent me a YouTube video of a young Welsh-language poet with the accompanying note: ‘JP, you won’t understand it but he is reciting a poem about washing his arse in a bidet.’) 

Writ Stink, 2015, video still

A sequence of monochrome, Picabia-esque line drawings animated by narrative voice-over and a syncopated episodic musical sound-track was the focus of ‘Writ Stink’, Williams’s solo show at Limoncello in London late last year. Its protagonist, The Big Scholar, has been hoarding files on memory sticks in a hilltop cave for the past five years. Concerned that his prosthetic memory has been raided, his paranoia deepens with every step he takes, walking further into the countryside. What if someone has found them? He balks at suspicious passers-by. As storage solutions advance, he wonders should he perhaps consolidate the memory sticks? The Big Scholar slips into a kind of magical-pathological thinking-with-things, whereby he believes that the manner in which he considers his storage solution might effect how the files are stored. In the cave, he falls into the chest that housed the usbs, which, in turn, collapses into a hole in the ground. Interred, he finally finds peace. 

At the 2001 Eisteddfod in Denbigh, Williams refereed a traditional Welsh poetry slam, known as ‘Talwyn y Beirdd’ (Bards’ Cockpit), which involves poets buried up to their necks in sand vocalizing opinions on current affairs. This motif of burial – ‘fucking motif’, I can almost hear the artist saying – is associated with shrinkage and obliteration in The Starry Messenger and his video Century Egg. Both seem to promise a silencing of voices and, with that, a certain equanimity. In the former, the video was screened alongside a miniature observatory that emanated the sound of a sobbing man. Nearby, the glass top of a scaled-up table, large enough to walk beneath, was piled with a litany of objects. In the video, Williams, his face and Bardic cap encrusted in mosaic tiles, narrates like a demented Looney Tune. He wants us to imagine our teeth smashed, or that our bodies are smashed teeth, embedded into the hard, cold press of an Italian terrazzo floor, fragments among millions of others. As a cleaner passes a floor buffer overhead, it trepans the skull and we become one with the cosmos. 

Century Egg, 2015, video still

In Century Egg, which is presented on a giant LCD screen hatching from an egg, Williams, his head grafted onto the leathery exhumed remains of a Bog Man, considers how the material traces of a dinner party might be interpreted millennia later. Commissioned by Cambridge University, the artist was granted access to the collections of nine museums throughout the city. Confronted by the collections’ overwhelming accumulation, he regarded objects and artefacts as he might a terrazzo floor: a dense crust of decontextualized fragments. In the video, an earnest eminence gris of a professor gradually loses his inhibition, permitting his imagination to run wild with the university’s ethnographic collection, dancing ecstatically in ritual costume with animated objects. Here, animism raises the spectre of rapacious colonialism and modernism’s objectification of the ‘primitive other’. As with the show Mark Leckey curated in 2013, ‘The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things’, or Anselm Franke’s 2012 ‘Animism’ exhibition, animism for Williams is a way to challenge modernist boundary-making.

Century Egg is where Williams’s obsessions come to a head. As a child in a Welsh-speaking school, the artist was tested on the first prose literature in Britain, The Mabinogion – medieval Welsh stories collected in the 12th and 13th centuries – in which heroic figures encounter commonplace objects that are then transformed into fantastical creatures. Beginning in the 1970s, the cultural historian Raymond Williams argued that the imposition of English law and Anglicizing institutions throughout Welsh history ‘can properly be seen as forms of political and cultural colonization’. While The Welsh Language Society, founded in 1963, seeks to fight this subordination, [Bedwyr] Williams argues that the preservation of the Welsh language risks enervating it. ‘English is like a Ferrari,’ he tweeted recently, ‘Welsh is a vintage car with a mechanic in the passenger seat.’ Vintage cars are classy but their maintenance is costly. Ferraris are fast, flashy and efficient. [Raymond] Williams, writing elsewhere on Welsh culture, suggests a strategy against the English: ‘Admit and exaggerate your weaknesses before they have time to point it out. Or play the larger-than-life exile, your local colour deepening with every mile to Paddington or across the Severn Bridge up the M4. Be what they expect you to be, and be it more. Tell the jokes against yourself before they do.’ With uncanny precision, [Raymond] Williams characterizes what [Bedwyr] Williams has referred to as his ‘Bard attitude’. But the artist’s recent work also addresses and embodies what the human imagination is capable of – beyond terrestrial borders and into the cosmos.

Bedwyr Williams lives in Wales, UK. His solo show at the Curve Gallery, Barbican, London, UK, will run from 29 September 2016 to 8 January 2017. In 2015, Williams had solo shows at Limoncello, London; Vestjyllands Kunstpavillon, Denmark; The Whitworth, Manchester, UK; Visual Centre For Contemporary Art, Carlow, Ireland; and G39, Cardiff, UK.

Jonathan P. Watts is a contemporary art critic based in Norwich, UK.