Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London EC2Y 8DS

Bedwyr Williams: The Gulch


29 September 2016 - 8 January 2017

Review by Tessa Norton

Visiting Bedwyr Williams’ ‘The Gulch’ on a weekday afternoon, a suited delegate from that day’s Product Development conference in the Barbican event space was taking advantage of a break in proceedings to noisily take a business call while tapping away at his laptop, right in the middle of Williams’ athletics track. It was a curious place to stop, especially since the sprawling installation also provides a boardroom; but then again, the boardroom was full of people watching a film about a depressed yogi and hypnotist in Macclesfield. Like the lives of everyone who pops up in ‘The Gulch’, he was trying his best in less than ideal circumstances.

Entering the Curve through a pair of sand dunes and hustled into a small central corridor, a series of objects meet you. Wigs and rocks, a tiny Games Workshop-esque model of the artist, a baseball jacket featuring a goat mascot who invites you to ‘ruminate!’ These artefacts of civilisation are behind glass; as though a single, really bad day had ended up being feted for its mystical significance in a museum of the future.

A broken wooden spoon, one you might take to mark your table number in a fun-pub, accompanies a deadpan audio telling the tale of a lawless, disastrous restaurant’s descent into carnivorous carnage. Gross and hilarious, we hear of candles made of lamb fat, small remote control aeroplanes laden with paté, and “appalling little lapdogs”. The story is almost concealed on headphones tucked into a dark corner – we’re invited to listen furtively to its cautionary tale of gravy-sodden depravity.

At the heart of ‘The Gulch’ is ‘Flexure’, a film commissioned for Macclesfield’s Barnaby festival. It is screened in a convincing boardroom, channeling the seriousness of the corporate world as though it were another live action roleplay scenario. The protagonist, an unsuccessful hypnotist, is thwarted by petty annoyances and humiliations, bad printers and nosy neighbours – a life marked, as Mark E Smith, put it with ‘the highest British attention to the wrong details’. The section of the film where he demonstrates his hypnotic technique, inviting clients to imagine they’re bread baking in an oven, may or may not actually be functional as hypnosis.

Elsewhere, a series of set pieces hint at misdemeanours and failed attempts to better oneself. The final section of space opens out into an athletics track, with mass market MDF storage solutions and feng shui cats suspended overhead. You can try your best, but your aspirations will always be tantalisingly out of reach.

‘The Gulch’ is entirely linear: a shaggy-dog story, a quest. Its vignettes could be designed to coax as much bad behavior out of the audience as possible: running, bombing along, singing. There are quite a lot of bongos. Genuinely funny (not just art-funny), as you leave the Curve you can break out into a full-pelt run – re-emerging blinking, reborn and possibly hypnotised.

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