Cerith Wyn Evans: Light Fantastic
289 | April 2017
By Louisa Buck
Hard at work: with major shows planned all over Europe, Cerith Wyn Evans is about to experience his busiest summer yet. Photo: courtesy of the artist
As the Welsh artist fills Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries, ahead of showing in Venice and Münster later in the year, he talks about his varied inspirations, from Duchamp to Japanese Noh theatre

Cerith Wyn Evans first emerged as a key figure in the 1980s alternative scene in London, where he collaborated with the likes of dancer and choreographer Michael Clark, cult performer Leigh Bowery and the Neo Naturist group, while also making his own experimental films and videos. Since the 1990s, he has built a reputation for site-specific sculptural works that often use light and deal with notions of time, language and perception. This year is his busiest yet. He has been selected by Christine Macel for Viva Arte Viva at the Venice Biennale in May as well as for Sculpture Projects Münster in June. Also in June, a show of new work opens at Marian Goodman in Paris. And he has just unveiled a major new work involving nearly two kilometres of white neon suspended throughout Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries.

The Art Newspaper: In developing ideas for the Tate Britain Commission you have to consider the space and heritage of the Duveen Galleries, as well as your relationship to them and Tate’s collections­—and yours runs pretty deep.

Cerith Wyn Evans: I’ve known the Duveen Galleries for many, many years. My first visit to the Tate was when my Dad drove me up to London to see the Rothkos for my 12th birthday present, but the Rothkos were not on display, which was something of a disappointment. Then Alan Bowness [who was later director of the Tate] wrote me a letter inviting me back to see the Rothkos and a few months later he met me in person and took me backstage downstairs. I think there were four that you could lift the polythene off.

You sound like a very advanced 12-year-old.

Growing up in Wales, in the shade, art was my only escape. I’d read [Patrick Heron’s] Changing Forms of Art by the time I was 11 and I used to get Llanelli library to import Studio International and Flash Art for me; this stuff was my lifeline. From when I was a student at St Martin’s I worked as an invigilator at the Tate on and off for years, so I knew the collection inside out.

Cerith Wyn Evans's Duveens Commission at Tate Britain (© Tate 2017)
What were your thoughts about the Duveen space itself?

Making work on that scale is a challenge and you have to consider the implications on a narrative level of a space which, is, as the French call, enfilade: one going on from the other. It’s very hard to remember how tall the Duveens is, so I wanted to work in the air and to occupy the volume of the space. I wanted there to be nothing on the floor and to challenge the notion of how you occupy the space “sculpturally”. I decided to carry through a strain that has run through my works of the past five years and attenuate the medium right down to just these white neon drawings in space. I’ve been looking at Duchamp, I’ve been looking at technical drawings, I’ve been looking at the notion of The Illuminating Gas [part of Duchamp’s last work, Étant donnés]. I’ve been reading [the artist and writer] Hito Steyerl, I’ve been talking to Eric Alliez who wrote this extraordinary book, The Brain-Eye, and I hope is going to do an intervention-lecture. Then I’m fully aware of the echo that your shoes make and I’m also familiar with the vicissitudes of how the light falls into the galleries. The space is so golden in the afternoons on a sunny day, the walls are like honeycomb.

In the South Duveen there is just a single neon ring. Can this be seen as a giant peephole?

It’s a peephole, a porthole and the circle with an arrow that signals “you are here” on old paper maps where successive fingers have worn out the space. I’m playing with the idea of it being the literal hic et nunc, the here and now, like being told on the GPS exactly where you are. In a sense, the whole piece is a critique of the scopic field and hierarchies of scopic regimes. I’m trying to interrogate very basic ideas around the tools of mimetic representation and lifelikeness such as one-point perspective. What I am saying is, let’s look at looking again.

In the central Octagon space, three suspended neons take their form from the “Oculist Witnesses” in Duchamp’s Large Glass. In the Large Glass Duchamp takes a two-dimensional diagram lifted from an optician’s eye chart and he stacks them on top of each other in a kind of volumetric sideswipe in space-time. What I’ve done is upend the whole thing and knock them off register: they’re just “spot off”. So in the Octagon you have a kind of overture which looks at all the themes and leitmotifs. You also have the sightlines that go directly into the Tate collections to the left and right, as well as into the North Duveen where the structure becomes a different thing.

Cerith Wyn Evans’s Neon Forms (after Noh I) (2015). Photo: © Cerith Wyn Evans, White Cube (George Darrell)
Cerith Wyn Evans’s Neon Forms (after Noh I) (2015). Photo: © Cerith Wyn Evans, White Cube (George Darrell)
Can you talk about the origins of the dense, dangling mass of hanging lines, curves and circles in the North Duveen?

The forms originate from the Kata diagrams that are the movement patterns made for performers in Japanese Noh theatre. The diagrams show how to perform a particular role and specifically how to address the choreology [the notation of movement]: the footsteps, head gestures, the stamps on the floor, the flicking of the kimono, position of the fan. They look at the transformation that happens in every Noh play, between the person who is there to recount their story as if they were on earth who then transforms into the true spirit of whom they are. So it’s about these places where there is a hinge into a transformative mood, activated by the steps. The elements will be close enough that you can see the electrodes at the end of each neon gesture and line, and see that they are all connected electronically to other parts. The whole of the Duveen Galleries presents a kind of ethereal, subtle body which takes the notion of perception into visible and invisible realms.

Does the audience need to be aware of the work’s multiplicity of references?

There are many layers to it and multiple points of entry. Very importantly, my take is not the only take on it. If anything it’s a kind of zone for meditation and a place for reverie on the transference of energy. I feel there’s an insufficiency of means to come to even a conventional description of what it is to live through a revolution in information technology and to look at the exchanges of energy that go across the surfaces of the earth, let alone what fantasies we might have about parallel realities. I want people to be in a place where they might be able to pick up on some of these things.

You’ve said that you are never comfortable with facts, inviting one interviewer to “come with me into this place of contradiction”.

I feel there’s a need to get into the thick of what our lived experience is at the beginning of the 21st century. Everyone is looking at a screen, everyone is being controlled by hidden hierarchies, energy power structures, globalisation, re-territorialisation and the trade of invisible stocks and bonds that we are all somehow subject to. What’s occluded by this call for clarity? What is this notion of fake news? For me a successful work is one that is un-photographable. My friend, the great artist and Duchamp scholar Molly Nesbit, talks about my work as “a rendezvous of question marks”, which I like very much.

What are you showing at Venice and Münster?

Christine [Macel] has invited me to show my 1998 film Firework Text (Pasolini) in Venice [see sidebar] and I’m making a new sound and light piece for Münster. There’s an extraordinary Brutalist church that was built outside the city centre just after the war and I’m installing an air conditioning device in the bell tower which lowers the temperature so that the bells will be ringing at a higher pitch, as if it was a freezing cold day in January. I’ve also taken two sections of horizon from German Romantic landscapes that I have made in two slightly different shades of white neon. These will be upended and buried in a pale pink floribunda rose bush which grows against the church wall.

• Tate Britain Commission 2017, Tate Britain, London, 28 March-20 August; Venice Biennale, 13 May-26 November; Sculpture Projects Münster 2017, 10 June-1 October

Biography: Cerith Wyn Evans

Background: Born in Llanelli, Wales, in 1958, Wyn Evans went to Welsh-speaking schools and grew up in a Welsh-speaking household. His father, Sulwyn Evans, was a keen amateur photographer who became a forensic photographer and a pioneer of the use of colour photographs as criminal evidence. Cerith lives in London and Norfolk.

Education and early career: While on a BA in the sculpture department at St Martin’s School of Art between 1977 and 1980, Wyn Evans chose to study film “to annoy the sculptors” and was greatly helped by his teacher, the artist John Stezaker, who encouraged him to consider film as “sculpture in the expanded field with the medium as Super 8”. From 1981 to 1984, he took an MA in film and video at the Royal College of Art, where the film-maker and theorist Peter Gidal was a major influence. After graduating, Wyn Evans continued to make experimental films while working as an assistant to Derek Jarman—he even had a cameo role in Jarman’s Caravaggio. He also collaborated with Michael Clark, Leigh Bowery and the Neo Naturists as well as making videos with the Smiths, the Fall and Throbbing Gristle. Between 1989 and 1995, Wyn Evans taught at the Architecture Association.

Milestones: Wyn Evans showed his films at the ICA in 1981 but began to make a significant impact on the art world in the 1990s. Although slightly older and with different preoccupations to the Hirst generation, he went on to show in many of the YBA exhibitions of the era, including Life/Live at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (MAM) in 1996 and Sensation at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1997. His first solo show was at White Cube, London, in 1996. A work made for Tate Britain’s Art Now space in 2000 was included in Documenta 11 in 2002 and he showed in the Welsh Pavilion at the 2003 Venice Biennale. Solo institutional exhibitions include the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 2004; MAM in 2006; Glasgow’s Tramway in 2009; Bergen Kunsthall in 2011; and the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in 2014. He is represented by White Cube, London, and Marian Goodman, New York and Paris.

Key works: a mirrored retina, Pasolini in fireworks and a chandelier speaking morse code

Cerith Wyn Evans, Inverse Reverse Perverse (1996) © Cerith Wyn Evans, courtesy Jay Jopling/White Cube, London
Cerith Wyn Evans, Inverse Reverse Perverse (1996) © Cerith Wyn Evans, courtesy Jay Jopling/White Cube, London
Inverse Reverse Perverse (1996)

A large concave mirror positioned on the wall so as to reflect the viewer was made in an edition of three for Wyn Evans’s first solo show at White Cube in 1996. A minimalist version of a fun house mirror, its reflective qualities emphasise the subjective nature of the viewer’s experience. The work is one of Wyn Evans’s earliest overt forays into investigating the experience of perception. “It’s really about the interrogation of the ocular, in that it is exactly what the retina does,” he says. “In a sense it is an acting out of the retina in the room.”

Cerith Wyn Evans, Pasolini Ostia Remix (1998-2003) © Cerith Wyn Evans. Courtesy White Cube
Cerith Wyn Evans, Pasolini Ostia Remix (1998-2003) © Cerith Wyn Evans. Courtesy White Cube
Firework Text (Pasolini) (1998)

An elegiac 15-minute film shot at twilight at the Idroscalo di Ostia, close to where Pier Paolo Pasolini was murdered in November 1975. A billboard-sized text in Italian from Pasolini’s Oedipus Rex is written in fireworks and filmed from two angles as the words flare and then fade. The text translates as: “On the banks of the Livenza/ silvery willows are growing/in wild profusion, their boughs dipping into the drifting waters.” Wyn Evans says: “There was no editing, we shot it on two cameras and put one on after the other and looped it. The film stock was processed by Cinecittà in Rome and it enabled me to work with a film crew. It’s important because in a sense it lays to rest my conversation with film as film.”

Cerith Wyn Evans, Astrophotography...The Traditional Measure of Photographic Speed in Astronomy... by Siegfried Marx (1987) (2006) © Cerith Wyn Evans. Courtesy Jay Jopling/White Cube, London
Cerith Wyn Evans, Astrophotography...The Traditional Measure of Photographic Speed in Astronomy... by Siegfried Marx (1987) (2006) © Cerith Wyn Evans. Courtesy Jay Jopling/White Cube, London
‘Astrophotography…The Traditional Measure of Photographic Speed in Astronomy…’ by Siegfried Marx (1987) (2006)

One of a series of works in which ornate Murano glass chandeliers made by hand in Venice flash out texts in Morse code, controlled by a hidden computer, which also here displays the words on a monitor. The text is from a 1987 scientific publication, Astrophotography Stages of Photographic Development by Siegfried Marx, which examines research relating to the beginnings of astrophotography, a specialised type of photography that records the night sky and astronomical objects. The research reveals that microscopic inconsistencies in the photographic emulsion, caused for example by dust, led to mistakes in the recording and naming of stars and galaxies.

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