Gary Raymond considers the Instagram art of Bedwyr Williams and asks of the tension conjured by its transformation from sardonic, social media satire to a fully-fledged new exhibition, Milquetoast.
I challenge you to think of any truly great contemporary art that doesn’t have a sense of humour. You could argue that the world we live in can only truly be engaged if you have a cocked hat, or at least a hat ready to be cocked. On the recent largely uninspiring BBC Wales attempt at tackling the story of the history of Welsh art (yes, the one that seemed to think women didn’t contribute to Welsh culture until Gwen John came along in 1900 – that one), Bedwyr Williams popped up in the final few reels to provide some light – or even, some hope – to the narrative of what kind of future lays in store for Welsh aaaaarrrrrrttttt. “Contemporary art is so po-faced… it’s ripe for lampooning,” Williams said. It’s this passionate belief that the art world is absurd that makes him Wales’s most exciting and relevant living artist.
Williams’ politics is of the cottage-burning variety. Or is it of the variety that burns paintings of cottages? Paintings of cottages painted by white middle-class London hipster hobbiest painters who have signed the contract on their second homes and then set easel and canvas on their perfect gravel drive, facing in. Whichever it is, this Beca-esque revolutionary zeal is on display on his Instagram account. The grid has been long transmogrified from personal photos of the artist in the studio and the artist on a cliff top and the artist looking half-pissed with friends. Now it is a cavalcade of bitter, biting, hilarious satirical sketches; line drawings slashed with slogans coming out of the left field like the iceberg that sunk the Titanic. It is a world where Welsh mountains tell campers that they’re talking too loudly, and where an omniscient voice cracks wise on the hypocrisies of the privileged class. “Move to Snowdonia couple mitigate the fact they make zilch effort with Welsh language by talking like children’s TV presenters in a cult & photographing themselves swimming in lakes” leaves little doubt Williams’ position on certain types of outsiders. “Tedious British People Displaying Their Trite Tattoos On Specially Constructed Climbing Wall As Part of the Festival of Brexit” is a recent example of what he thinks of some insiders, too. The sharpest witticisms are often, but not exclusively, reserved for the arts world, the gatekeepers, the poseurs and hipsters, the know-it-alls, the poshos, the English, and the pretentious artists themselves; anyone, in fact, who might not share the same sense of humour and politics as Williams himself.
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That Williams snaps so readily at the hand that feeds him perhaps makes him all the more attractive, although he treads the line between rabblerouser and collaborator without much finesse, it has to be said. His latest indulging of the “art world”, inviting the very gatekeepers and chin-strokers he takes pot-shots at to come and admire his carnival float of snarkiness, has just enjoyed a real-life outing in the form of an exhibition at London’s Southwark Park Galleries. Milquetoast was curated from his Instagram, a space that in the last two years has been almost entirely dedicated to these pastel-backed cartoons, seemingly tossed off in a dismissive half-rage and slashed with biting slogans such as the ones aforementioned.
Looking at the work, as a critic, you can’t help but feel you’re being asked where you stand. With the establishment? With the artist? Or with nihilism itself, in which case you stand nowhere. And if you think Williams’ work is shit, snide, artless, but you agree with his general sentiment, then are you left with nothing at all? Luckily, Williams’ work is not shit, and the snideness is a strength (and even what you might view as the “artlessness” has a certain poised craft to it). Even when one tile misses its mark, or is too obtuse, Instagram allows you to quickly move on and find a bullseye.
A number of years ago I sat drinking coffee with a visual artist who told me they didn’t like Instagram because it encourages a superficial interaction with images. The “scroll” is incompatible with the fundamental requirements of the consumer of another’s creative endeavour. Or as Antonio Muñoz Molina puts it, “Looking is not the passive record of what stands before our eyes; we examine and reconstruct it in our visual cortex and then in our conscious mind, creating associations to other images or even, if we remember earlier encounters, to the very image that stands before us.” Williams, then, if we take this evaluation of the insta-experience to be accurate and damning, is exploiting the platform’s superficiality to emphasise the messages in his work. It’s all shit: the industry, the artists (most of them), the gatekeepers, the consumers, and even the way we ingest our art. With this in mind, it’s difficult to feel sniffy about the fact his Instagram art will be “upgraded” to wall hangings (and a book, I hear). The slack shouldered defeatism in the sloganeering might not be quite so winning if it was quite so po-faced as to refuse such an offer from a gallery.
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Artists around the world have come to embrace the platform much more since that conversation I had, but the central idea still holds water. However, an artist like Williams, who isn’t tethered to a medium or style but rather allows the message of his work to come first and choose its own mode of expression, has utilised the promiscuous nature of Instagram as a strength. The images have no depth, no emotion, no nuance. (If there is nuance it comes from the comedic juxtaposition of image + slogan). But why should we demand anything more. Williams here is not showcasing his art on a social media platform. The platform is part of the art.
And so, it’s difficult to think of these images in a different medium, and they lose the snap of the whip when you try and imagine them elsewhere. They are post-it notes, one-liners, barbs, but first and foremost they are insta-images. “Parent in leggings that go right up arse explaining why they took child out of Welsh medium education”, for instance, scrawled next to a drawing of said arse, has a satirical resonance in the context of the scrolling screen.
But that’s not to say the slogans don’t have a life beyond your hand-held device. “Surviving mass extinction event with really unpleasant London based designers”, “Earnest songwriter inspired by the experience of walking through different cooking smells on a street around teatime smells tumble dryer smell”, “Twitter luvvy artist decides to become their own pet”. Spend long enough here and themes emerge, or at least preoccupations inside preoccupations. And you’ll laugh when he skewers pretentious artists, curators, gallery owners, arts consumers, the English; you may even have laughed already at his London exhibition, or at the accompanying book.
You can follow Bedwyr Williams on Instagram here.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, critic, broadcaster, and editor of Wales Arts Review.