Cerith Wyn Evans


PEOPLE UNACQUAINTED with the London art world are probably unaware of how central a presence Cerith Wyn Evans is here. Admittedly, to a certain extent this quasi-institutional status derives from his flamboyant party persona—he is a stately figure in Dior suits, dispensing Wildean pronouncements with a strict Welsh lilt. But his standing owes even more to his austere, heavily encrypted, crisply poetic tableaux, in which chandeliers, fireworks, and other objects are charged with literary, cinematic, and countercultural references. This elegant body of work has had formative impact on a younger generation of London artists who move in his orbit.

The recognition accorded Wyn Evans is somewhat belated: Now approaching fifty, he started out as a filmmaker in the ’80s and turned to art in the early ’90s, although his use of light and temporality continues to bespeak his roots in experimental film. Last year he had solo exhibitions at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and the Munich Städtische Galerie and finally at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts. The last show, titled “Take My Eyes and Through Them See You,” was a homecoming to the institution that hosted Wyn Evans’s first public events in the early ’80s: weekly screenings, produced in collaboration with fellow filmmaker John Maybury, in which the two young auteurs premiered their own work, boosting the events with camp surplus (perfuming the cinematheque, playing interval music, serving fruit and cigarettes). This history is foundational to Wyn Evans’s recent show, and so too is the ghost of another ICA event: Marcel Broodthaers’s final exhibition, “Décor,” 1975, which, as Wyn Evans explains in an accompanying pamphlet, had a profound effect on the teenage artist when he saw it that year.

Wyn Evans has often declared his disdain for accessibility; viewers must labor intensively to interpret the multiple opacities in his work. Architectural theorist Mark Cousins has brilliantly compared this experience to that of a deaf man staring at a radio. “Take My Eyes and Through Them See You”—a precisely executed installation occupying both floors of the ICA—was no exception. It assumed a familiarity with the venue’s history, as well as an ability to decipher citations both textual and visual. Viewing the exhibition without the pamphlet, which featured an extended interview with Wyn Evans that elucidated these references, would have been not unlike staring at a gadget designed for a missing sense—and indeed, visitors who ignored this operating manual took the show as little more than a series of hasty, appropriated gestures.

The first work one encountered was a striking understatement, particularly so during the week of the Frieze Art Fair and its attendant spectacles. Wyn Evans had removed a wall in the lower gallery to reveal four decrepit windows. This gesture evoked a number of historical precedents associated with institutional critique (Gordon Matta-Clark, Michael Asher), but it also brought another exhibitionary convention to mind: multiscreen projections, spectacularly commanding the length of a gallery. Because the ICA’s lower gallery is below street level, the view through the newly exposed windows became a real-time film of lower legs and traffic, undramatic and banal yet still elegant.

This work was titled Décor, but there were more explicit homages to Broodthaers’s final show in the upstairs spaces, which overlook the Mall (the road leading to Buckingham Palace), the Horse Guards parade ground, and the back of Downing Street. In one of these upper galleries, Broodthaers had shown his 1975 film La Bataille de Waterloo (The Battle of Waterloo), with its shots of the annual Trooping of the Color, an event visible from the ICA. Scattered throughout the space were his signature palms from the Belgian Congo. Wyn Evans replicated this layout in the same gallery, installing a large film projector screening the short 35-mm film Take My Eyes. . ., 2006, whose monochrome black footage (occasionally supplemented, during the show’s run, with a reel of monochrome white footage) slowly deteriorated over the course of the exhibition as the film stock corroded and gathered dust. The projector was surrounded by potted palms; in the corner of the room was a reddish-pink light whose effect was less campy than melancholic, for it turned one of the plants a ghostly gray.

This allegory of filmic opticality continued with a minimal intervention, Title Withheld, 2006, in the adjacent gallery. On a small LCD screen, a text concerning the calibration of Schmidt plates (a type of optical corrector used in long-range telescopes) was displayed in Morse code. Two black venetian blinds, covering windows on either side of the plasma screen, transmitted the code by clicking open and shut. They offered fugitive glimpses of the Mall while plunging the empty gallery in and out of shadow. Dot, dash, open, closed—like the continuous movement of a camera’s aperture capturing twenty-four frames a second. It was in this room that Broodthaers had placed two antique cannons, aimed squarely through the windows. It is typical of Wyn Evans’s approach that he made no direct reference to the cannons but focused instead on the view—in other words, on the relationship between the windows, the institution, and the Mall—relocating the emphasis from a symbolic register to an optical one. The effect was now that of surreptitious surveillance (reiterated downstairs in an oblique view of these windows obtained via two skylights in the ceiling of the ICA bar) rather than direct assault.

High on the wall near the exit of this gallery was a neon text, the front of it painted black so that it seemed both to transmit and repress illumination—another oxymoron of eclipsed light. It quoted, and was titled after, lines from Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”: And If I Don’t Meet You No More in This World / Then I’ll, I’ll Meet You in the Next One / And Don’t Be Late, Don’t Be Late, 2006. There was no obvious connection between these words and the other pieces, but the work’s affectual impact was quietly devastating. Black and white, open and shut, on and off, this world and the next.

This type of installation, in which cited components are sparsely distributed around a space, forming an open composition of references rather than a theatrical mise-en-scène, is itself indebted to Broodthaers. Unlike his post-Minimalist contemporaries of the late ’60s and ’70s, who placed emphasis on a phenomenological reading of space and a literal use of materials, Broodthaers developed a conceptual mode of display in which each element serves as a referent to other systems. Images and words are condensed, displaced, and redistributed around the gallery. The artist’s multilevel web of relations and spacings, in which conventions of display are fragmented to allegorize visual and literary affinities, offers a specific experience to the viewer: a rebus for the mind more than an immersive experience for the body. The intervals between objects become as important as their presence, like the line breaks in a poem, and the result is Conceptual art at its most poetic, critical, and elegiac.

One can see why Wyn Evans, like others of his generation in the ’90s (Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, even Rirkrit Tiravanija), might have been drawn to such an approach. Installation art of the ’80s, in which gigantism and an excess of materials produced an immersive mise-en-scène, had become increasingly theatrical and offered little space for the viewer (think of Ilya Kabakov or Ann Hamilton). By contrast, Broodthaers’s model of installation—which Wyn Evans has described as a “tone poem”—permits different registers of perception to coexist simultaneously, while providing gaps in which to reflect on the conventions of display itself. In the work of Wyn Evans, as in that of Philippe Parreno and Pierre Huyghe, this approach to the exhibition is also filtered through the medium of film. But while the French artists take this cross-fertilization in a particular direction (the exhibition-as-film is less scenographic than a “scenario” of imagined or projected events), at the ICA Wyn Evans used film as a cipher for opticality, a temporal register into which other signifying systems can be translated. This show thus represents an important development of his practice from the now-overfamiliar chandelier sculptures that blink out Morse code messages (seen widely throughout Europe in recent years) and the postproduction approach of Dreammachine (1), 1998, in which Brion Gysin’s device to instigate “lucid dreaming” is remixed with Japanese tatami mats and yet more Broodthaers palms. It is also more resolved than Eaux d’artifice (after K.A.), 2005, his series of esoteric Sunday interventions in the Barbican Centre’s palm-filled conservatory, in which sound works and sporadic performances were supplemented with four telescopes trained on various views, including an apartment window and a traffic light.

There is one more important comparison to be made here. The present decade has seen the emergence of a whole subgenre of art about Broodthaers, in which the Belgian artist is name-checked and referenced via palms, museums-within-museums, or nineteenth-century typography. The recent São Paulo biennial, for example, contained a “nucleus” of such contemporary homages in the Niemeyer pavilion, anticipating a select presentation of Broodthaers’s work (the first ever in Brazil) on the upper floor. On display were, among other works, Tacita Dean’s film Section cinéma (Homage to Marcel Broodthaers), 2002; Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Untitled 2006 (Palm Pavilion); Juan Araujo’s 2006 paintings of Broodthaers’s books and catalogues; and Meschac Gaba’s Museum of Contemporary African Art—Museum Shop, 1997–2006. Where Wyn Evans differs from these artists is in the relentless subjectivity of his appropriations; biographical yet openly counterfeit, they are all the more potent for their near-total restraint. That the artist is all too aware of this deferred, purloined, and painfully regained authorship is signaled by the title of another work in the ICA (dated 2006), a stuffed magpie on a leafy branch in the corridor: Please Pay Attention Motherfucker.

But perhaps appropriation is the wrong word after all. The critic Jan Verwoert has suggested that Wyn Evans trades not in appropriations but in “invocations.” This is because his referents are not dead commodities (as they are in Fredric Jameson’s famous definition of postmodern “pastiche”) but revenants that walk among the living. As if in a séance, Marcel Broodthaers is conjured up—with Jimi Hendrix as his unlikely sidekick—to impregnate the galleries with a ghostly presence. This reading is also suggested by Wyn Evans’s film: Alternating black and white, and progressively degrading, what it effectively produces is a long, slow photogram of the room. The technology of projection is misused for registration—like using a telephone to make a video or, for that matter, venetian blinds to send a message. The intellectual and affective force of Wyn Evans’s work lies in these oblique displacements between registers, sly shifts that borrow from his heroes but which manage always to betray their passage through his eyes.

Claire Bishop is assistant professor in the department of art history at the University of Warwick, UK.