Bedwyr Williams; Cornelia Parker review – imagine you’re a pebble
Source:theguardian Author:Rachel Cooke Date: 2015-08-19 Size:
At the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, the Welsh artist Bedwyr Williams has a new show of installations and films, an expanded version of work he first staged at the Venice Biennale in 2013……

‘Everything but the kitchen sink’: Bedwyr Williams at the Whitworth, University of Manchester.

At the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, the Welsh artist Bedwyr Williams has a new show of installations and films, an expanded version of work he first staged at the Venice Biennale in 2013. It’s called The Starry Messenger after (I think) Galileo’s text of 1610, in which the Italian astronomer recorded a series of observations made through his telescope – though in truth I only came by this fact thanks to Google: the exhibition itself, on a mezzanine floor, is entirely devoid of explanatory material, unless you count one brief text by Williams. “The Starry Messenger is about bits,” he informs us in this miniature manifesto. “Big bits, small bits, and how we as humans fit in amongst all these different sized chunks and chips… Zigzagging between the flapjack of fragments that is terrazzo flooring and the infinity of bits in outer space.” Hmm. Mistrustful though I am of art whose meaning needs to be spelled out, I do think he might have used a more precise noun than “bits”.

The visitor lifts a curtain of black net to reveal… what? Centre stage in the gloomy first room (of two) is a small observatory, its door ajar an inch or two, a telescope emerging from its domed roof. It resembles a white Dalek. Peek inside and you’ll see an old-fashioned metal and canvas deckchair, an open laptop, a collection of maps and a mug of tea. The chair is empty, but whoever once occupied it can be heard on the soundtrack that accompanies the piece, moaning and wailing as if the sky were about to fall in. Its title is Wylo, and it speaks of a suburban, middle-aged crisis, even of a full-blown nervous breakdown. Here is a (black) hole that no hobby, however passionately indulged, can possibly fill.

‘Bedwyr Williams at the Whitworth, University of Manchester.

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Some people find the universe soothing; its vastness gives them a sense of perspective. But it seems to be having the opposite effect on this keening amateur astronomer, his sense of his own insignificance only deepening as he gazes at the stars. Intrigued, I turned around and took in everything else. In a pair of cabinets were samples of 1960s wallpapers with astral designs. On a wall was a group of pictures from the Whitworth’s collection, chosen for their vaguely starry themes, among them one of Hogarth’s small illustrations for Samuel Butler’s Hudibras (Sidrophel Examining the Kite through his Telescope, No 10), an engraving by J Walker from 1794 entitled William Herschel’s Twenty-Foot Reflecting Telescope and – a bit more tenuous, this – a couple of 19th-century marble end papers. On the floor were a series of huge foam shapes, cut and coloured to resemble pieces of quartz. Finally, in another cabinet, there was a hat, pale blue with long earflaps made of mosaic tiles. My tour took me all of five minutes. How paltry these things seemed, and how random. They barely spoke to each other, let alone to me.

Did the second room make things clearer? I’d be lying if I told you that it did. In the dark, I walked beneath a glass-topped coffee table designed as if for a giant. Looking up, I could see it was piled with stuff: a sewing machine, a hairdryer, a clock, a colander, a badminton racket… and on and on. Beyond this was a water tank, jagged grey forms floating on its surface like granite lily pads. And then there was a film, narrated (I assume) by Williams. A mosaic dentist from the wall of an unknown municipal building has miraculously come to life – his face covered with tiny coloured tiles, he wears the silly hat we saw earlier – and is describing what it feels like to be both made of stone and attached to it, the back of his head having been flattened by a mason’s lathe, the better that he might hang there down the decades. Along the way there are other images too: deep caverns, gimp masks, dextrous tongues, and a visual invitation to imagine what it would be like to be a pebble.

Did the second room make things clearer? I’d be lying if I told you that it did

“You’re in serious flapjack, mate,” said the mosaic dentist – or someone. It was as if an ancient Open University geology programme had been spliced with grisly outtakes from an S&M home movie. As the minutes ticked by, I found (not much to my surprise) that I wasn’t remotely interested in imagining what it would be like to be a pebble, or even a glittering chip of marble in a terrazzo floor. Contrary to Williams’s expectations, his cosmos of unfathomable bits and pieces made me feel neither tiny nor gigantic nor “somewhere in-between”. Irritation simply shaded first into boredom and then into a powerful desire for a cup of tea.

‘Unexpectedly stirring’: detail from Magna Carta (An Embroidery) by Cornelia Parker, being hand-stitched by Embroiderers’ Guild member Anthea Godfrey.

Still, my trip wasn’t wasted. In the next room, into whose light I stumbled gratefully, is Cornelia Parker’s Magna Carta (An Embroidery), newly arrived from the British Library and displayed alongside a number of lovely examples of needlework from the Whitworth’s collection: a section of a 15th-century orphrey, a 19th-century panel copied from the Bayeux Tapestry, an alphabet sampler of 1912. Parker captured the Wikipedia page for Magna Carta on 15 June 2014. She blew it up, printed it on fabric, and divided it into 87 sections which were then sent out around the country to be stitched by more than 200 people. The main body of the text was produced by prisoners organised by the charity, Fine Cell Work, plus an extensive list of famous/distinguished people; the more detailed work, which is truly exquisite, was done by members of the Embroiderers’ Guild.

Jarvis Cocker with Cornelia Parker and Magna Carta (An Embroidery) at the British Museum last year.

I must admit that I was overcome with irritation when I saw the names of some of Parker’s individual embroiderers (though I won’t reveal which ones in particular irked me, the roll call includes Brian Eno, Germaine Greer, Caitlin Moran, Jon Snow, Tom Watson MP and Jeanette Winterson). All the same, the finished article is unexpectedly stirring, not so much for the way it speaks to the legacy of Magna Carta, but for the way it connects us by both a simple means (sewing) and a highly complex one (the internet) to our ancestors. Picturing Jarvis Cocker, his head bent, all of his concentration on needle and thread as he traced the words “common people”, I experienced a small epiphany of joy. What freedom we have: the time to make art, to see it, and to like it or not, as we choose.

[Editor] 张艳

    Artintern