Cerith Wyn Evans: Future Perfect - Art Collector

Issue 68, April - June 2014

Cerith Wyn Evans, Elective Affinity, 2010. Neon, edition of 3, 28.1 x 343.9cm. Installation voew at Bergen Kunsthall, Norway 2011. Courtesy: the artist and White Cube, London.

Cerith Wyn Evan's interests range far and wide, from particle physics to the power of grammar. Elizabeth Stanton interviews the internationally acclaimed London-based artist ahead of a major exhibition in Auckland, the first time any significant body of his work has been presented in Australasia.

A discussion with Cerith Wyn Evans is a journey into deep thought, punctuated by playful references and sharp observations. As he flows between musings on punk rock, particle physics, famous last words and psychoanalysis, one quickly begins to see his immense capacity for communicating complex ideas in the clearest of ways. The Welsh artist’s conceptual practice, which spans over 25 years, distils linguistics, psychology, phenomenology and philosophy into highly refined and seductive forms, activating the possibilities of perception and creating relationships between objects, ideas and the viewer.

“Even though the work might look very sparse,” he explains, “I think the abundance is somewhere else … Allow yourself time to reflect and see that things don’t all happen at the same time; on reflection and on return to something it will have changed and it will have transmogrified. Things don’t keep standing still.” His philosophical and phenomenological interests stem from his study of linguistics. As he notes: “The future anterior tense is always very important to me, the sentence that says ‘by which time we will have already’. It has an extraordinary way of projecting into the future.”

This is exemplified in a work from 2010, Elective Affinity. Here, suspended on the wall, a line of text in neon quotes novelist William S Burroughs and asks us to: “Look at that picture, how does it seem to you now… Does it seem to be persisting?” We are directed to retrace our steps and reconsider our previous encounters. The title is derived from Goethe’s 1809 novel Elective Affinities and is the scientific term to describe how substances combine selectively. Goethe employed the term as a metaphor to suggest that chemical laws govern human passions. However, for Wyn Evans the title of this neon piece is a humorous nod in the direction of Goethe’s supposed last words: “More light.”

“I’ve had a lot of fun playing with titles over the years,” he explains. “Somehow the title is also part of the material … Very often they are quotes from different things and the trainspotters amongst us can go and find it somewhere else.” Following the trail that Wyn Evans leaves could lead you anywhere from Guy Debord to John Cage, from the work of conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader or the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose writing has been an ongoing influence on his practice.

This April will mark the first solo exhibition of Wyn Evans’s work to be staged in Australasia, with a major installation across two collaborating Auckland galleries, Hopkinson Mossman and Michael Lett. It is astonishing that Wyn Evans’s practice has not been more widely exhibited in the region, two exceptions being a 2013 commission for 161 Castlereagh Street in Sydney curated by Barbara Flynn and an appearance in Gary Carsley’s Take a Bowery at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney in 2004. The upcoming – and aptly as yet untitled – Auckland show seeks to redress this absence, including both new and existing works and benefitting from the experience of gallery directors Danae Mossman and Andrew Thomas, both formerly of White Cube, London, where Mossman was artist liaison for Wyn Evans.
“It is exciting thinking that connections are being made that are fresh and bonds are being made between the two spaces,” Wyn Evans enthuses. “Given that things are at a certain distance or at a remove … new meanings emerge.”

Born in 1958 in South West Wales, Evans moved to London in 1976 to attended St Martins School of Art and later the Royal College of Art. “It was a very exciting time to be a young person right bang in the centre of London,” he remembers. “Punk rock was happening and you had this extremely powerful energy … It really felt that there was a sort of explosion of creativity and that seemed very, very liberating.” He became an assistant to filmmaker Derek Jarman, working with him on the iconic Caravaggio (1986), and creating his own experimental films such as Degrees of Blindness (1988) with Tilda Swinton.

He turned to conceptual practice in the 1990s, working across installation, sculpture and sound, always with an eye to proportions and site-specificity. Cinematic references continue to resonate throughout his work both overtly and subtly. As he explained in a 2010 interview with Serpentine Galleries’ Hans Ulrich Obrist: “I can’t help but wonder what role the subject plays in the scene beyond the one that is produced. My work entertains the scenario in which the subject is dispersed across the fantasy.”

Exploring the point where fantasy and reality meet, over the past three years Wyn Evans has been visiting the physics laboratory in CERN in Geneva where he has been introduced to scientific ideas relating to probability theory, matter, dark matter, antimatter and connectivity. “All these things have very powerful resonances across all sorts of relationships – object relationships, the conversation that happens as soon as you introduce one object to another … you create a dialogue which forms something like points in a hologram, you form a third through the combination of the first two. Burrows would call it a third mind,” he explains.

From physics to architectural polytopes, this year Wyn Evans will complete a commission from Bernard Arnault for the new Fondation Louis Vuitton building in Paris, designed by Frank Gehry. His contribution will be a new sound piece. Considering the influence of music theorist and architect-engineer Iannis Xenakis on Wyn Evans’s work, this site-specific commission is greatly anticipated.

Returning to the possibilities presented by the Higgs boson, I ask what his fantasy work might be and he confides playfully: “I’m nympholeptic. It comes from nymph. Essentially a nympholept is someone who has an incurable desire for the impossible.”

However, on the Sunday morning when I speak with him, his immediate task is to return to three objects that await his attention: “I have a sitar, a gong and a big telescope sitting in the room just waiting to have a conversation.”

Elizabeth Stanton

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