Bedwyr Williams always looks for worst case scenario
So when he was invited to Glasgow International, to take on the city’s biggest exhibition space, he was always likely to do something interesting. “Tramway is not a place to do small things,” he says. “I was keen to see if they could get a bus in there, and seemingly they can, so I’m excited about that.”
Once it’s inside the aircraft-hanger space of Tramway 2, the coach – “the kind you’d go on holiday in” – will probably look quite small. Most things do. “I like things where, for whatever reason, the viewer is made to feel small. You’re going to feel like a little Lego man inside a scene or a diorama, and I was interested in that.”
The immersive installation, titled Echt (meaning genuine, sincere, unposed), is his first major exhibition in Scotland and his first big new work since he represented Wales in a show at last year’s Venice Biennale. Like his installation for Venice, it combines a variety of media, including a film made with Cardiff-based music-video makers Casey & Ewan.
Tramway 2 will be transformed into a clearing in a darkened wood which viewers will enter through a breach in a chain link fence. The film will be projected from the luggage hold of the coach, and the audience will watch it sitting on suitcases and backpacks. In the film, he explores the idea of a dystopian society where conspicuous consumption is king and hoarders are the feudal elite. “Society has broken down and hierarchies are formed by whoever’s got the most stuff. So whoever’s stolen everybody else’s lawnmower, or everybody else’s trampoline, or whoever’s hoarded all the toilet rolls, becomes king,” he says. “It’s musing on that idea.”
Williams is an astute, sometimes amused, observer of daily life, fashion, consumerism. When a fuel blockade by farmers and haulage companies in 2000 caused disruption to deliveries and bare shelves in supermarkets, he sensed how vulnerable modern society could be. “In a way little bits of our society broke down, like when there’s a Tube strike, or anything that just breaks that pattern of normality that we have. We’re never far from that. And when you see those people with big black Range Rovers, you do think they might be the people who would take control if the government disappeared. Like in Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans where everyone went to the Superdome and gangs started ruling over the water.”
While he’s no pessimist, he’s fascinated by worst case scenarios. “I’ve always been more interested in things going wrong than things working well. As humans we all have an idea of our own worst case scenario and score potential personal disasters according to that. I grew up a quiet kid and I’ve always secretly been interested in observing fairly bad things happen to people: people tripping up, handbrakes being left off, mild-mannered people being forced into fight situations.”
Williams is fast becoming a distinctive voice in contemporary art. Unpretentious, down to earth, he ploughs his own furrow, not least because he lives in Rhostryfan near Caernarfon in north Wales, far from the art world’s urban centres. He has said that Wales is the “Eddie the Eagle of the art world”, and that gives him a feeling of freedom. “When I moved back in 1999, some people told me I was making a bad decision. But I feel a bit hidden up here and that suits me.”
His work has been praised for its storytelling qualities, and its humour. He has even done stand-up comedy dressed as a Welsh bard in a flowing robe and voluminous fake beard. “Laughter is an involuntary thing, like a sneeze or a sexual response. You’re making somebody slightly lose control for a moment. It’s a good time to feed an idea into their heads.”
In one show, he made a replica of a murdered curator as a cake which the audience were invited to eat. “You can’t opt out, in a way. Even if you’re not interested in the subject matter, walking into a dark room with a bus with its headlights on, you will have some reaction to that, whoever you are.”
Williams grew up in Colwyn Bay, north Wales. He remembers drawing on his bedroom wall as a child, and making models with his brother out of cereal boxes and Sellotape. “As I got older the realisation that I did want to become an artist came in different stages, like updates for a mobile phone.”
He studied at Central Saint Martins in London, then moved back to Wales. The moved surprised some, but the sense of being peripheral has fed his creativity. He is drawn to hobbyists and eccentrics, from model railway builders to amateur astronomers (the theme of his Venice show, The Starry Messenger), and to projects with a homespun aesthetic: a teasmade flooding a model Welsh village, a mobile nightclub (the Blaenau Vista Social Club) run from the back of a caravan. But the work itself is far from parochial. It seems to address the gap between the cosmopolitan and the local, how each regards the other.
Although he works in sculpture, photography, drawing and performance, the creation of large-scale immersive environments feeds his fascination with model-making. “When I was a kid I remember going to the Viking Centre in York. I love things like that, anything where they’ve tried to create a smell or a sound of a time or a situation, even if the models aren’t very good. Guys who have fake girlfriends made out of plastic, or people who make their flat look like the deck of the Starship Enterprise. I’m not interested in making really oblique statements, or subtle things that you could miss.” n
Bedwyr Williams: Echt is at Tramway, Glasgow, from Friday to 20 April, www.glasgowinternational.org