If you are purely interested in an easy Sunday afternoon of “art’ viewing where one doesn’t need to try too hard to water their cultural viewing thirst, Bethan Huws is not the right artist for you. While having a look at her show last week, I wasn’t surprised at how many viewers walked straight past her work with but a few glances in order to get to the “real art”. It also didn’t help that the gallery space next door housed Mona Hatoum’s Current Disturbance, an installation fitted with the amplified sound of electric currents and the flashing of light bulbs within a dramatic caged wall. To put it lightly, Huws’ didactic looking text pieces and her installation that looked like the transitioning space between two exhibitions, had a hard time competing with the Hatoum. However, if one does manage to control their phototactic tendencies and focus on Huws’ work, a subtle conceptual brilliance reveals itself in Capelgwn.
Huws is a multilayered conceptual artist that plays with her interests within Duchampian models/texts; her own Welsh roots reaching toward an interest in language and an investigation into contemporary art spaces and sensibilities. The installation, Capelgwn, seemed to be an empty space that was merely a transition between two exhibitions, but it actually had an alteration made to it. A raised platform step of 17.5 cm was added to the gallery space, made to look exactly like the gallery flooring. In this space also stood a gallery attendant, which was a brilliant addition, whether or not an attendant was originally scripted into the installation by the artist. I noted the confusion on my fellow viewers' faces as we all entered the room; clearly, the gallery attendant was there guarding work but no actual work was evident. Here is where the road forks, where one can admit defeat and walk shamefully back past the scrutinizing gallery attendant to the panel telling the viewer what you are experiencing., Or you can place hand on chin and pretend to contemplate what you have convinced yourself is the work within the space. Thankfully I knew what I was in for, unlike the poor guy that was examining the painted dry wall as if something was subtly being reflected off of the lighting, so I knew not to fall for the ruse.
I enjoyed Huws' subtle intervention. Though many artists have stripped the gallery bare before, her 'stage' beautifully allowed for the viewers to become the watched, not the watchers. The space is a bit more constrained due to the platform; and yes, nobody would notice this change unless one spent every day in this space, but this minute change activates the space as experience (in and of itself) rather than a container of experience.
This method carries on in Huws’ text works on the walls where Marcel Duchamp quotes and artwork titles are explained with idiomatic expressions. Through these explanatory notes, viewers are led into the layered meaning behind some of Duchamp’s humour, which at the same time strips it of humour all together. In exploring these notes, I discover that Capelgwyn is the Welsh translation for Whitechapel, and am reminded that that I have been exploring the artist's work on her grounds, which she has cleverly controlled and laid out for us all to experience.
-- David Yu
All images courtesy the artist and The Whitechapel Gallery
Images: Boat, 1983-1992, Rush, Dimensions variable, © Bethan Huws & A.D.A.G.P. Paris – DACS London, Photograph: Studio Bethan Huws, Paris; Joseph Kosuth, 1965, 2003, Vinyl text on wall, dimensions variable, Installation view, Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, © Bethan Huws & A.D.A.G.P. Paris – DACS London,Photograph: Achim Kukulies, Düsseldorf