Visitors to the Welsh Pavilion at the 55th International Art Biennale won't be surprised if, upon entering the building where the installation is located, the Ludoteca Santa Maria Ausiliatrice, they will feel a bit like stepping into a sacred space and be invested by a sort of contemplatory mood.
This was actually a church, with an attached hospital/convent (currently a student accomodation). Yet Bedwyr Williams's installation "The Starry Messenger" is not a tribute to religion, but to a forgotten figure - the amateur astronomist.
The title of this multiroom installation - The Starry Messenger - is actually a translation of Galileo's Sidereus Nuncius (literally "The Sidereal Messenger"), a text based on observations he made through a telescope and published in 1610 in Venice.
Inside the building visitors can walk around a model observatory (containing a telescope, laptop, deck chair, thermos flask, MP3 player, star charts and assorted books) while listening to ambient noises of a garden or stare at a screen printed with images of terrazzo tiles, reminiscent of the famous Venetian floors featuring sumptuous designs made with chips of marble and precious stones.
The terrazzo tiles also hint at cosmic dust (coincidentally, also the inside cover of the first edition of Galileo's book seems to have the same colours of the digitally printed scrim).
Terrazzo tiles reapper as polyurethane pieces floating on the surface of a koi carp pond in another room. In a press release the artist, talking about the terrazzo tiles, stated: "I thought about people staring into the terrazzo, which is like a universe made of tiny particles, and the people who had worshipped there. Maybe they stared into the ﬂoor and perhaps lost themselves in the particles, if say, they were bored at a sermon. And then I thought about Galileo, who presented his telescope to the Doge in Venice, which was the ﬁrst place he showed it. In a church a telescope is a kind of 'enemy' in a way. The church wouldn’t necessarily encourage you to look too far out of space, nor too much into inner space."
After passing under on a giant coffee table covered in 101 household objects symbolising a sort of domestic solar system visitors can access to the final room and watch the video completing the installation.
The pychedelic film is a jumble of images and music accompanied by an absurd text. At times, watching it while listening to the disjointed musical soundtrack and the confused and fractured words feels a bit like being propelled into space to a terribly chaotic version of Sun Ra's music. At a certain point in the film, an almost dismembered head covered in pastel coloured mosaics (calling to mind the architecture of fancy planetariums à la Sri Sathya Sai Space Theatre) peeks through a mass of boulders, looking like a scary alien statue. Bizarrelly, the coloured tiles that cover the head almost evoke the fantastically sequinned attire of the charismatic leader of the Arkestra.
There was something missing in this exploration of the individual and the cosmos, though: a cake shaped like a murdered curator or PR officer, like the one Williams offered to visitors at the 2012 Frieze Art Fair. A slice of that would have helped making the contemplatory loneliness of the amateur astronomer a bit sweeter and would have also been the perfect symbolic revenge against the usual pretentious Biennale characters.
Bedwyr Williams' The Starry Messenger, Ludoteca Santa Maria Ausiliatrice, Venice, until 24th November 2013.
Image 2-6 in this post: Installation images, ‘The Starry Messenger’, Bedwyr Williams, 2013. Courtesy the artist, Oriel Davies, MOSTYN, Ceri Hand Gallery. Commissioned by Arts Council of Wales.
Photo: Anna Arca
Wylo, 2013, Mixed media
Fibre glass bespoke observatory, 220cmx240cm; Digital printed scrim (double sided), 870x385cm
The Depth, 2013, Mixed media, 438x48x152cm. Wood, 2 PVC pond liners, 2 water filter pumps, underwater LED spot lights, approx. 84 resin coated polyurethane blocks, PC speakers, smoke machine
The Northern Hemisphere, 2013, Mixed media
Steel frame, painted plywood, acrylic top, household items
The Starry Messenger installation, 2013, Mixed media, including The Starry Messenger, HD film (screen 460cm wide, 16x9 ratio), 15 mins (loop)
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