Cerith Wyn Evans: Reference and Ventriloquism

Louise O'Hare

Reviews / 09.03.2011
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Cerith Wyn Evans, S=U=P=E=R=S=T=R=U=C=T=U=R=E ("Trace me back to some loud, shallow, chill, underlying motive’s overspill…") 2010, dimensions variable. Installation view, Bergen Kunsthall. Courtesy the artist and White Cube, London. Photo: Thor Brødreskift/Bergen Kunsthall.

Cerith Wyn Evans’s recent exhibition at the Bergen Kunsthall demanded a new power supply be delivered into the building. An enormous amount – 123,000 watts – of electricity courses through the quietly spectacular S=U=P=E=R=S=T=R=U=C=T=U=R=E (“Trace me back to some loud, shallow, chill, underlying motive’s overspill…”) (2010), an installation made of seven columns of light that appear to be propping up the high ceilings of the Kunsthall. Consisting of filament strip lamps, these pillars fill the rooms not only with changing light – they are cranked up to a blinding white and then are dimmed down, passing through a spectrum from lemon to ember, as the lights gradually extinguish – but with warmth: walls of heat emanate from each pillar. When S=U=P=E=R=S=T=R=U=C=T=U=R=E was installed in the cavernous basement space of White Cube, London, in May 2010, much was written of the oppressive electric heat in almost violent terms. Encountered in Bergen, a city buffeted by snowy mountains and a grey sea, the experience felt indulgent.

Two columns welcome the visitor into the first of four halls; they are elegantly camp, like a cross between a minimal Christmas tree and a disco ball. Appearing to get larger as they brighten, and to wither as they empty of light, their presence is mesmerising. But before there is time to further consider the priapic potential of these merry shafts, the visitor is distracted by the sound of flutes coming from the next room. The adjacent hall holds another four columns, each pulsing their pre-programmed light in a mimicry of dance; between them, suspended from the ceiling so that its pipes hang just above head height, a musical instrument dangles like a daddy-long-legs. Clumsy yet elegant, seven glass flutes are attached to seven plastic tubes. These hoses, feeding into the mouthpieces of the flutes, fill with air and extend as they blow a series of notes from each delicate pipe. Anyone who has ever tried to play a flute will appreciate the precision involved in mechanically orchestrating this operation and the grace required to direct the air into the nozzle at the correct angle to cause sound. They may also recall the odd sensation when mastering the technique – one seems to be drawing the note out of one's own body.

Automata, music and dancing light – such an account of the exhibition is beginning to make it sound like a theme park. The danger of baroque description is that it leads the reader astray into a place of the writer’s imagining, a world of subjective responses and personal connotations. Yet it is precisely this territory – between the perceptual and the physical – that Wyn Evans's work inhabits. Multisensory and multi-referential, the work puts the visitor in a position of potentially falling prey to private reveries, clouding the work’s intentionality: is it the viewer or the work itself that provokes its chain of references? Strings pulled, the subjectivity of the visitor might be said to be challenged, unsure as to whether he or she is responding voluntarily or involuntarily – engaging or being led.

As time passes in the exhibition, the flute music seems to align itself into an identifiable tune, and phantom presences, like the sensation of someone standing in close proximity, reveal themselves to be the product of electrically emitted warmth from the light columns. The sound of the flutes resonates throughout the exhibition space, so that the farthest hall, which holds just one column, has an eerie sci-fi soundtrack: a combination of quiet mechanical buzz from the lights and ghostly snatches of notes.

In the central hall, two potted palms sit in buckets beside a bright white neon sculpture (Elective Affinity, 2010) and 22 framed pages from Stéphane Mallarmé’s famous poem ‘Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hazard’ (‘A throw of the dice will never abolish chance’, 1897) are presented back to front, with certain lines cut out. The text can barely be made out through the paper and the intermittent rectangular excisions reveal the wall behind (the work is titled Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hazard, 2009). Trying to study this poem, reversed and printed in the original French, is akin to eavesdropping at a door. Grasping only snippets, reading is fragmented – the meaning is encrypted rather than given.
Cerith Wyn Evans, Elective Affinity, 2010, neon, 28.1 x 343.9 cm. Installation view, Bergen Kunsthall. Courtesy of the artist and White Cube, London. Photo: Thor Brødreskift/Bergen Kunsthall
When reading, perhaps especially when reading poetry, one seems to enunciate the words aloud inside one’s head: a highbrow ventriloquism, where the reader speaks the writer’s words. Wyn Evans's various ventriloquisms here – first appropriating Mallarmé’s words, and next putting them into the reader’s mouth – may also be said to cause a conflict of subjectivities, putting into question the visitor’s autonomy of response. It becomes unclear what meaning is Wyn Evans’s, Mallarmé’s or one’s own.

Reflecting into the glass of the framed poetry, the words of the neon spell out:

‘Look at that picture, how does it seem to you now… Does it seem to be persisting?’

Whispered over the flute notes, interrogative and leading, the question is quietly pushy. Wyn Evans throws his voice, and puts the thought into the visitor’s head that everything in the exhibition is in the very act of being, an insinuation which suddenly makes everything look different, more sentient. Ventriloquism involves making a person, or an object, act, respond or think in the way you want them to. The act of seduction, in this sense, is also a form of ventriloquy – the victim believing they choose to indulge, but in fact puppeteered to behave in a way that pleases another.

Fixed to a sturdy pole extending from the ceiling, its workings clearly visible, there is nothing illusory about the flute contraption; yet the slow scuttle of its tubes, and the mechanic production of such an embodied musical tone exerts an almost daemonic presence. Within the installation its music might be said to function as a siren call – the visitor wallows in the delicate sounds and in a warmth that will burn if he or she stays too long.