Bedwyr Willams’ work is known both for its distinctive linguistic flair, and a keen sense of the comedic and the absurd. This is no twee, feel-good surreality, however: characterisations bite, unexpected turns of events provoke a wince, and Williams’ delivery is invariably wry and self-reflexive. The Welsh artist’s solo exhibition ‘Writ Stink’ in Hackney’s Limoncello Gallery is no exception. The titular ‘Writ Stink’ is a twenty-two minute video based on a series of monochrome ink drawings. Select drawings from the video line one wall of the space, which is divided in two by a large, semi-translucent curtain digitally printed with a woodland scene, fittingly titled ‘Bracken, I reckon’.
Though its content may be rather convoluted, the video itself is simply constructed. ‘Writ Stink’ consists of drawings that are either static or altered by only the most rudimentary of effects - zooming, rippling, over-laying, spinning - that accompany a narration provided by Williams himself. This details the story of a middle-aged man dubbed ‘The Big Scholar’, who is increasingly obsessed by archiving his secrets in an ever-growing collection of storage devices. These are kept in a case, buried in a hole, inside a cave, within a disused quarry in the woods; the narrator details the Big Scholar’s preoccupations as we accompany him on a trip to his cache. On his way the Big Scholar encounters an aggressive female hiker, a choir of nudist hipsters, murderous glaziers, and a stinking Shetland pony, among a cast of equally unexpected characters.
The images that accompany Williams’ narration vary from the purely descriptive to the bafflingly abstracted. Though some are recognisable - a box of tissues, a pair of stockings - the meanings of others are hermetic: expressive rather the descriptive. The nineteen accompanying drawings are occasionally visually pleasing, though this seems inadvertent, even irrelevant. In keeping with ‘Writ Stink’, wordplay plays a key role (a frying-pan or skillet with a sensuously curved, feminised handle is entitled ‘Skillette’). Despite its visual sparsity, there is a preoccupation with the senses throughout. As one might expect, the sense that predominates is smell - particularly smells that are unpredictable, peculiar and/or distasteful. A man on a ladder shouts ‘The smell of the ablutions of others is window-cleaner catnip!’; a woman brandishes home-made Mace in a repurposed bottle of perfume labelled ‘Beyond Paradise for Men’.
Throughout ‘Writ Stink’ is the sense of an over-riding ambivalence. Ambivalence towards the pretentiously intellectual, towards illusions of permanence (particularly those inherent in the archival impulse), and towards the fetishisation of the technological and of fashion. This ambivalence is a recurring concern in Williams’ work, which has previously explored his love/hate relationship with fashion and the codes of the art world. The climax of the video’s narrative is darker and more poignant than it is entertaining, supporting the artists’ refutation of the idea that his work is simply comedy. Though Williams’ world is comic, ‘Writ Stink’ is tragic, too.