Venice Biennale: Bedwyr Williams looks to the stars

Bedwyr Williams
Image caption Bedwyr Williams' work has been inspired by amateur astronomy

Work by the Welsh artist Bedwyr Williams has gone on public display in Venice.

His exhibition - The Starry Messenger - forms the official Welsh presence at this year's Venice Biennale, the international contemporary art event that takes place at venues across the Italian city every two years.

Designed at the artist's home in Rhostryfan in Gwynedd, the installation at a former Venetian convent features sculpture and a video performance.

It is inspired by amateur astronomy, and features a replica observatory and areas of near-darkness.

Bedwyr Williams said: "The viewer walks through a heavy set of doors to get into the space, and the first thing they see is a theatrical screen featuring a printed picture of a terrazzo floor.

"Through that screen they can see the observatory. As they get closer to the observatory they hear the sound of a man crying inside, a middle-aged man crying - the saddest sound of all."

Mr Williams said the exhibition mixed his fascination with space, and man's place in it all.

"In looking at the universe, in a way I'm looking at the astronomer - I'm looking down the telescope the other way. And the idea of an amateur astronomer crying seems to me like quite a powerful image," he said.

The exhibition also features a video in which the artist appears as a dentist wearing a mask made of small pieces of terrazzo floor tiles. Another room contains a giant-sized table covered in household objects like clothes pegs, a desk lamp and an iron.

Image caption Astronomy is William's theme - with an observatory a focal point of the exhibition

Mr Williams said he was fascinated by the idea of enormous everyday items, drawing inspiration from The Borrowers and Alice in Wonderland, and wanted visitors to imagine themselves as a small piece of terrazzo tiling looking up at their giant surroundings.

"I think the exhibition puts a focus on where we are among all these little bits, and that the world is a small bit of a huge terrazzo floor: the universe. I'm pointing out and having a bit of fun by thinking about the different scales that are at work here," he said.

"Like every artist I just hope that more people see my work, and that it leads to more opportunities."

It is 10 years since Wales first had a presence in Venice.

A British Pavilion has displayed art at the Biennale since the first exhibition in 1895 but in recent times Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales have all formed their own independent exhibitions on the fringe of the main event.

This year's exhibition is costing £400,000, with the money coming from the Arts Council of Wales (ACW) and the Welsh government.

The budget is slightly bigger than in previous years and the exhibition will remain open until the Biennale ends in November.

ACW chief executive Nick Capaldi said it was a worthwhile expense.

"I think it's very important in today's globalised world that when you're trying to present a country - its creativity, and its artistic reputation - that you are here at what is the largest visual arts event in the world," he said.

"Over 80 countries are here and Wales is one of them.

"It's like the Formula 1 of the visual arts world, in that a Formula 1 racing car has little in common with the family hatchback other than four wheels and a steering wheel.

"Sometimes when you're walking around the Biennale you think 'What has this got to do with the visual arts that people are most familiar with?'

"But the innovation, the ideas, the creativity at the cutting edge that you see here finds its way into the visual arts across the world, and in the same way that Formula 1 is attractive for those expensive high-rollers, it also has a huge audience of those who just love the visual arts."

The media has already had a chance to see Williams' work, with journalists from around the world attending the Biennale's preview week before Saturday's official opening.

The art critic Lowri Haf Cooke was one of those to see the installation.

"My reaction to his work is always the same - thank goodness for Bedwyr Williams," she said.

"He makes me think, he makes me laugh, he has fun with art and he makes fun of art. It's a world that takes itself incredibly seriously.

"Yes, his work is a bit out there. No, he doesn't court popular approval. And yet that's what he achieves time and time again, whether that's here at the Biennale or at home at the Eisteddfod."

The enthusiasm for Bedwyr Williams is shared by the artist Osi Rhys Osmond, who is also a member of the ACW.

"We came to the Biennale late and limping in some ways, but we're not limping any more, we're running.

"Bedwyr, with his imagination and the people he works with, has managed to create a fantastic and extraordinary experience, where you enter the earth, the universe, the very matter of being.

"He asks you to take an imaginary leap from the small to the enormous."

The Starry Messenger by Bedwyr Williams will be displayed at the Ludoteca Santa Maria Ausiliatrice as part of the collateral events of the Venice Biennale until November.

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