Bedwyr Williams lays siege to Ikon on the occasion of largest solo show to date

By Mark Sheerin | 22 May 2012
Colour photo of an artist dressed as a sheep farmer looking across at a hillside
Bedwyr Williams, The Hill Farmer (2011)© and courtesy Bedwyr Williams
Exhibition: Bedwyr Williams – My Bad, Ikon, Birmingham, until July 8 2012

Two sorts of intervention come together in the first solo show by Bedwyr Williams. One is the term for a controversial dictator-toppling military operation. The other is an artwork applied to gallery structure, such as the sandbags currently piled all around the entrance to Ikon.

The windows have been taped up in case of bomb blasts and the walls of the café have been strafed with tromp l’oeil painting. But does the gag work because the regional gallery is miles from a combat zone, or because it is somewhere in the frontline of a funding crisis in UK arts?

Or does it resonate because Ikon already has a footnote in the history of the war on terror, from the time windows were shattered in the gallery’s former location in the Birmingham Shopping Centre? This was collateral damage on behalf of the IRA in 1974.

Clearly Welsh artist Williams has a knack for telling jokes with multiple punchlines. The humour in his work is evident, but the ambiguity is what pulls it across into the realm of art rather than straightforward comedy.

Pencil drawing of a sea of faces cooking in a barbecue
Bedwyr Williams, BBQ (2011)© and courtesy Bedwyr Williams
In a joke within a joke, the entrance on the second floor has also been reimagined, this time as a New York hotel. A bullnose canopy extends deep into the gallery space. It is punctured by a falling street lamp. So it would appear we are back in the warzone.

But Williams’ warzone is not an especially dangerous place. The fallen streetlamp, compared with a heron, casts a warm glow. And a nearby bunker echoes not so much with the sound of gunshot, as with the sound of childish vocalisations of gunshot. “Tac, tac, tac” go the bullets. “Doof, doof”.

Nearby is another piece which plays with the sense of insulation. Stevenson Screen is a weather station with double louvre panels to protect it from wind, rain and perhaps gunshot. Williams has discovered that the box’s inventor was the father of author Robert Louis Stevenson.

It turns out that Stevenson senior was not too impressed by his son’s foray into literature. And now the box pulsates with the soundtrack to a 1931 film of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in which Robert Louis’s best known character is eternally transforming.

The rich pairings of sound and image continue into the largest space on this floor, where visitors will find a couple of electric toothbrushes buzzing away. One is blue, one is pink. But the heady romance of the Schumann playing nearby is punctured by the suggested daily rituals of co-habitation.

On the facing walls are a pixelated waterfall, which shimmers, and a stock still photo of the artist, in which he dresses as a sheep farmer. Both remind you that his country of origin is now as mediated as anywhere else in the world, on the one hand by technology, and on the other, cultural irony.

Irony may be Williams' greatest export. The Tower Room is home to 50 surreal drawings, but you cannot escape the smell of an Air Wick plug-in. Few would take the occasion of their biggest solo show to date as a chance to send up the very institution that houses it. Yet this artist has done so, and come up smelling, if not of roses, at least very strongly of pine.
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