BETHAN HUWS WORD VITRINES
Bethan Huws, 1961 – Interdisciplinary artist, author of sculptures, installations, objects, neon signs, drawings and spatial interventions and performances. She attended the Middlesex Polytechnic in London (1981–1985) and the local Royal College of Art (1986–1988). In 2007–2008, she worked in Berlin as part of the DAAD Artist-in-Residence scholarship. In 2003, she represented Wales at the jubilee 50th Venice Biennale; In 2006, she was awarded the European Biennial Award for Contemporary Art (BACA). In 2011, she took part in the project Billboard for Edinburgh organized by the Ingleby Gallery; her contributions included a billboard with a provocative dialogue: – Where’s Duchamp? / – In the library. The figure and work of Duchamp is a recurrig theme in Huws’ projects. She has thoroughly analyzed the assumptions of his theory of art, and also borrows and transforms motifs from the French artist’s work.
Referring to the memories, her Welsh identity, as well as the practices of Dadaism, Huws proves that the perception and understanding are based on the translation process. In her work she aims at making this process visible. For her the key element is the study of language as a means of communication and arts. In her projects words and objects appear. It can be a chair and a shovel (Please Do Not Use, 2003), a natural shell that looks like a sculpture
(Le porte bouteilles, 2008), enlarged spoon (Spoon, 2013) or large nuts carelessly thrown on the floor (Five Hazelnuts, 2013). Juxtaposing seemingly mismatched objects, the artist invites viewers to an alternate reality, where there are no familiar laws and rules, and the main point of reference is the individual perception.
Since 1998, Huws has been using industrially produced screens with movable plastic letters that are used to communicate information in public places. The artist seeks the maximum unification of message; she plays with the ambiguity of words and the game between their meaning and phonic sounds. Huws creates a synthetic message about the public perception of art, its purpose and critical evaluation (Untitled [Life is more important than art], 2012–2016, What’s the point of giving…?, 2006), borrowing from the art of René Magritte (Untitled. Ceci n’est pas un miroir, 2006) and Marcel Duchamp (Piss Off I’m a Fountain, 2016).
In 2016, she started a series of works made with neon lights. The first was the puzzling structure reminiscent of Duchamp’s 1914 work Bottle Rack. Huws employed a familiar theme in the history of art, but the technique and titles – L’Arbre (Tree), Forest – suggest that once again art requires abandoning the familiar context and proposing an alternative way of looking.
In 2017, Huws took part in the exhibition Primary Structures. Meisterwerke der Minimal Art at the Museum of Modern Art in Frankfurt am Main. Her works were also featured at individual shows, such as: Bethan Huws, Barbara Gross Galerie, Munich (2017); Bethan Huws – If I Were A Frog, I’d Live In A Fountain, Galerie Tschudi, Zuoz (2016); Reading Duchamp, Research Notes 2007–2014, Kunstmuseum, Bern (2015); Capelgwyn, Whitechapel Gallery, London (2011).
The artist lives and works in Berlin. Her works from the “word vitrines” series are presented for the first time in Poland.
In white and black. On Bethan Huws’ word vitrines
Today hardly anyone looks at the world: the world is being read. Polish language seems to support this view by submitting handy metaphors of reading for visual perception. When a picture or an image is blurred and unclear, we say that it is illegible, i.e. cannot be read. The world seems to speak to us, or rather write to us in sentences, which we try to read from left to write, from top to bottom, combining things as if they were words.
But this process is supplemented by its apparent opposite: words are also visible objects. The difference between letters and objects, between signs and things, is increasingly difficult to define. Bethan Huws’ works from the Word Vitrines series, though they use language, are first and foremost material objects. Her exhibition catalogues enumerate materials out which these works have been made: “aluminium, glass, rubber and plastic letters”. They give number of copies, identify the owner, provide us with dimensions: 75x50x4,5 cm and 100x75x4,5 cm. And what dimensions do words have? In how many copies do they exist? What materials have been used to produce them?
Pertinent questions, because Huws’ vitrines are also words, combined into phrases or sentences, which are far from being – esthetically, politically, philosophically – neutral. Some can be read as concrete poetry. The best example is perhaps the vitrine in which one of the two o’s jumps out of the word above the horizontal line and the word GOOD changes into GOD. How to read such a work? That GOD is an incomplete GOODness, since it lacks one letter? That in the GOOD which is GOD there is always something missing? Does not the word with a rising and falling line evoke the ideas of loss, collapse, failure? Or, quite the opposite, can we claim that the “o” that has jumped up gives the word an affirmative – hallelujah! – character? We should not forget that GOOD GOD is also an idiom, an exclamation, which, once a religious taboo, is now free from religious connotations. We read and we look, becoming assured that what we face cannot be reduced to a single, stable meaning. Meanings are not discovered, but created.
This is not Huws’ only vitrine that brings to mind concrete poetry. One of her plates refers to Marcel Duchamp’s “Nu descendant un escalier”. These four words displayed in the vitrine should not be read as much as they should be seen, since they have been “written” (or placed) so as to make the purely spatial arrangement of their letters meaningful. What does this vitrine refer to? To itself or to the history of modern art? Is it really a “nude descending the stairs”? Or is it white plastic letters that “descend the stairs”, in an optically falling phrase?
“Life is more important than art”, claims authoritatively another vitrine. How seriously should we treat these words, when we realize that they are nothing more than just plastic forms fixed to the black surface, reminding us of similar plates with menus in Polish milk bars: entirely depersonalized, formatted, and schematic? It is not without reason that Bethan Huws places her plastic letters on a framed plate which looks like a painting: a reminder that these are artworks, compositions on a flat surface, before they may become, as I tried to prove earlier, poems or aphorisms.
But in the title of her series Huws gives us also another hint. If they are vitrines, glass cases in which objects are displayed, then each plate is a glass pane or a window, with “vitrum” meaning “glass”. Perversely so, because the vitrines are in fact black, making it impossible to see anything through them. The title of the cycle, denoting transparency, invites us to go deeper, under the surface, but what we see, the black, opaque surfaces, makes it impossible. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Huws used (contrary to common practice) white letters on a black background, with whiteness suggesting some kind of an opening, the possibility of moving deeper, and blackness working as a barrier, an impenetrable plane.
It may be worthwhile here to recall Duchamp again, this time as the author of “Fresh Widow”. It is a big, glass door, but its windowpanes are black, we cannot see through them. The title, an example of Duchamp’s fascination with puns, shows that language acts similarly. “Fresh widow” is a near homonym of “French window”. Language, just as the wooden boards covered with black leather of which the eight windowpanes of “Fresh widow” are made, does not let us see through it, it is not a window onto the world. The obstacle is not only the wooden surface, but also the materiality of words: Duchamp’s French window does not open to any garden, but onto other, phonically related words.
In one of her vitrines Huws quotes a comment on the priority of speech over writing, but she proclaims this priority in writing, thus undermining the very sense of the quoted comment. Ironically, this particular vitrine is almost entirely covered with letters, making it clear that language contradicts itself. Between what we see and what we read a shadow falls.
Let me refer to one more artist and one more window: Magritte and “The Interpretation of Dreams”. In the four squares of his famous “word vitrine” we have pictures and words, objects and letters. An image of a horse is labeled “the door”, a clock – “the wind”, a jar – “the bird”, a valise – “the valise”. As was the case with Duchamp and Huws, Magritte’s windowpanes are black and opaque. We find ourselves in the world of the surface, on which the relation between the word and the image seems absurd. Unless, trying to find connections, we start interpreting the signs metaphorically: the horse is linked with door because it offers a possibility of moving out and far away; the clock is paired with the wind since time goes with the wind, and the jug is called “the bird” because of the spout which resembles a beak. We have linked words with images: this was possible because the word and the image, what we read and what we see, what is written and what is painted, are both signifiers.
In her work “Piss off I’m a fountain”, Huws alludes to another work by Duchamp, composing a sentence which is doubly metaphorical. “Piss off” has its physiological, as well as idiomatic meaning; the word “fountain”, apart from its lexical sense, refers to Duchamp’s idiosyncratic metaphor, with which he signed his urinal. Words are flexible, work by metaphoric shifts, linking themselves with any other word.
Letters, from which words are made, plastic, printed or written, can be arranged and rearranged in a variety of ways on blackboards or on paper, so as to make signs and things, words and images, reading and seeing coexist in a clinch, which generates, as they do in Bethan Huws’ black-and-white vitrines, forever changing forever new meanings.
Signum Foundation Gallery, ul. Piotrkowska 85, Łódź