Exhibition Essays

2009 Reviews

June 2009

Williams' driving ambition for Wellington

Tom Fitzsimons
Bedwyr Williams is in Wellington and he has a plan.

No 1: Find a car, preferably something small, ludicrously small even, so that his tall frame can barely fit inside.

No 2: Devise a route around Wellington with plenty of unusual sights. Include the Basin Reserve ("the biggest roundabout in the southern hemisphere"), a Rongotai hillock ("it looks like somebody's taken a control tower from the airport and just put it in the street") and inner-city suburb Mt Victoria.

No 3: Drive the route in the tiny car, stopping whenever the inspiration strikes, and paint 24 pieces in the same number of hours.

OK, so it's a project as much as a plan, a live artwork, Le 'Welsh' Man's 24hour, and it's the major reason Williams, a much-heralded artist who has represented his nation at the Venice Biennale, is in Wellington.

Getting to grips with a place and all its idiosyncrasies seems a common theme for the 34- year-old. After studying art in London, he gave up the urban life and returned to the hub of north Wales.

The Guardian says he "mines the territory of Welshness and provincial life", throwing up everything from a roving nightclub in a caravan dubbed the Blenau Vista Social Club, to a piece exploring the tensions between snooker players and model train fanatics.

Wellington seems the ideal location for his 24-hour dash, he says, comparing it to some suspiciously glamorous locations.

"The city's quite hilly and you've got these zigzag roads. It has that sort of Monte Carlo rally kind of feeling.

"Somebody said it's a bit like San Francisco, and you think of films such as Bullitt. There's the same vibe, by the waterside."

Up close, he fully expects the ride to be helter- skelter. After completing each painting in front of whoever happens to be around, he will strap it to the roof of the car, where it can dry before joining the rest of the collection.

"Some paintings, I'll have literally 45 minutes to paint them, but others, because of the logistics, maybe I'll only have 10 minutes and have to be really quick. So it's a logistical nightmare, but I think it's exciting. And there's also the possibility of failure as well - I could get pulled over by the police, or there's all sorts of things that could go wrong."

As with the endurance art challenge, there's a humour in most of the things Williams produces. It's wry and observational, a bit dark and flippant, and it's not always professionally helpful, he says.

"I think when I was at art school, they said you weren't allowed to do funny things. I think they actually told me you shouldn't have, like, a comic side to your work. And I thought that was ridiculous."

So while he's in Wellington, he's also exhibiting a collection of posters, which advertise real, fake and possible exhibitions - in the sense that he might yet do them.

One of the posters has a giant ear, a small white disc and the words: "Listen to the moon, dickhead". Another reads simply: "Shucks". One says: "Recent Slipper Paintings". Another is just type: "Bedwyr, if we were able to speak Dutch to each other instead of English, I would tear you to s***".

And one has a picture of some fashionable glasses in a thin batter besides the words "Curator Spectacle Tempura".

"It's basically just to do with, I don't know, the world of art posters. You know, how quite often they're intended to shock you, or they're there to seem, like, really intelligent or, like, above your head or something like that. So I've tried to do the whole gamut of art posters, from, like, silly ones to serious-looking ones to flippant, horrific-looking ones."

The tempura was inspired by real art figures who wear outlandish gear - especially curators, he says.

"The art world is quite a pumped-up thing, and you come across pumped-up characters all the time, who are quite easy people to take potshots at. Like they wear weird spectacles and they wear weird shoes."

But whatever Williams thinks of the art elite, it hasn't stopped him from making his own work. In fact, he's prolific.

Even since landing in New Zealand, he has complemented his exhibition with a performance piece in the style of a Methodist minister. ("It's a good fancy-dress costume, it looks cool . . . like a gangster, you know, a sharp suit with the white collar.")

That piece is no sermon in its subject matter, however. Instead, it comically recites the process of being invited to show a new piece from start to finish.

Williams' mix of performance and visual art, concepts and words and images, might intimidate other artists, but it's no issue for him. He even happily takes pictures of himself hurling his body into the air, an awkward black Methodist bird with a pulled face.

"I think it's all the same thing. If I could tap dance, I'd do that as well, but I can't. All the different things I like to do - visual, performance, text - it all comes from the same place, so I don't really distinguish between them."

That sounds fair. At the end of his odyssey, having seen Wellington from one midnight to the next, with two dozen crazy scenes still drying in the boot of his tiny car, it won't be a surprise if it's all a blur.

* Bedwyr Williams performs Le 'Welsh' Man's 24hour around Wellington on February 12. His exhibition of posters is on until February 14 at Enjoy gallery.