Bethan Huws

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Visual Arts (drawing, Film, installation art, object, photography)
Europe, Western
England (UK), Germany, Wales (UK)
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January 2, 2012
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Art as translation work

The work of Bethan Huws is strongly shaped by her Welsh origins, her rural life as a child, her Welsh mother tongue, and its independence from English. She is a conceptual artist in the tradition pioneered by Marcel Duchamp, which places great significance on language(s), the translatability of languages, and linguistic questions. Huws employs diverse aesthetic means – texts, drawings, objects, and films – in reflecting on the content and meaning of art and on human relationships. Her visually and acoustically materialized artifacts have a solely catalytic function; their real artistic act lies in the contemplation they give expression to, which the viewer can associatively comprehend and further develop.
Bethan Huws is a Welsh artist whose provenance is decisive to her biography and work. The Celtic principality of Wales, taken over by England in the early fifteenth century, is a constituent part of Great Britain today. It possesses a strong national self-confidence, maintaining its own culture and language. Brought up on her parents’ farm, Huws remains deeply influenced by the rural environment of her childhood, including the native language of her country. Her Welsh mother tongue differs radically from Britain’s dominant English, which for Huws is a second language. In the course of her artistic development, language has assumed a central and defining status in her work. She sees it in analogy to art and, as it were, as the foundation or source of artistic thinking.

On the role played by the languages she uses, Huws writes: “My first coat or layer is Welsh, my second is English, and my third is French, and sometimes they move around just like tectonic plates.” Language stands in close relationship to the act of translation. The jury of the B.A.C.A., which selected Huws for its Europe prize in 2006, identified translation as a core element in her work: “Translation in the broadest sense of the word. Translations from one language to another, translations between different cultures, translations from experiences into concepts and vice versa. Based on a very personal understanding of conceptual art she developed a complex body of work...”

Huws employs various artistic media. Most of her individual pieces are not stand-alone works, but are conceived as part of installations. She undertakes interventions in the exhibition space, uses text, and makes drawings, objects, and films. This places her in a conceptual-art tradition, which she carries forward in a subtle, poetically humorous manner. She repeatedly looks to Marcel Duchamp, one of the seminal artists of the twentieth century, as a point of departure, each time reflecting on his work anew. Duchamp’s readymades – everyday objects reinterpreted to artistic ends – figure especially prominently here. Huws additionally draws on the work of such artists as René Magritte, Piero Manzoni, Yves Klein, Carl Andre, Marcel Broodthaers, and On Kawara.

In their direct spatial confrontation with the place of their exhibition, Huws’ first works constituted a new kind of site-specific art. In these pieces, she undertook such actions as removing all work traces from a particular section of the floor of her studio (“Scraped Floor,” 1987); placing red grapes on a sheet of glass in the back corner of a storeroom; duplicating the installation of an existing added structure in a space; laying a carpet in one part of a gallery; and having a second parquet floor laid in a room. The artist is concerned here not with a material transformation as such, or the physical experience of it, but rather with the creation of a spatial whole, the perception of which is tantamount to an act of thinking. “The work finds fulfillment in the mental construct of an exemplary place.” The same can be said of her subsequent textual works, in which she “linguistically registers phenomenal details, the duplication of a thought, of the thought of its place.”

From the early 1990s, Huws began to incorporate language in her art and utilize text in various forms. These texts may be written on paper and attached to the wall, written directly on the wall, or printed on leaflets or metal plaques. “The Lake Piece” (1991), for example, consists of texts written by the artist on sheets of paper, which are fixed to the walls of an exhibition space. The meticulously detailed description of a lake allows the formation of its image in the viewer’s mind – not the experience of a certain lake, but rather of “lake” in its essence. In “Haus Esters Piece” (1993), the exhibition space in the building designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, originally a villa, is even left empty. The visitor can pick up a leaflet designed by Huws with text fragments she has written, the reading of which, analogously to the experience of the space, manages to create the sense of approaching a work of art. “Das Wort” (1998) is a plaque put up in the landscape near the Swiss town of Appenzell, bearing text that formulates social experiences of rural life. “It (i.e. work, the author) consists in juxtaposing landscape and text, in associating a pleasurable contemplation of nature with thoughts of what defines us as a human.”

Alongside her text-based works, Huws also produces numerous watercolors. More drawn than painted, these simple, mostly monochromatic images are made with just a few brushstrokes very deliberately placed on the broad expanse of the paper. Object-like in character, they approach the subject in a notional sense rather than precisely delineating it – almost like hieroglyphs that evoke primal associations. They are attempts at bringing past experiences alive without depicting them in directly figurative terms. They suggest memories of the artist’s childhood in the countryside, of animals and plants, familiar people and actions, particular locations and moods. These works are of a kindred spirit with the tiny boats made of rushes that Huws often presents in vitrines – objects which in concentrated, emblematic form call to mind experiences and activities from her childhood.

Bethan Huws began working with her characteristic “word vitrines” in 1998. Used as notice boards in everyday business or institutional contexts, these commercially available glass-covered metal cases contain a black rear panel on which light-colored plastic letters can be placed to form words or texts. Huws employs them as readymades for her own purposes of subtle, witty, and thought-provoking wordplay. Such phrases as “THAT ARTISTS DON´T HAVE MUCH TO SAY: PROVES THAT THEY ARE SPEAKING” and “AS SELFISH AS A PAINTER” comment on the role of the artist. The meaning of the vitrine displaying the Welsh “LLWYNCELYN” remains elusive until the viewer learns the English translation of the word – Hollywood – which instantly triggers a chain of associations.

Huws plays on René Magritte’s famous painting in “THIS IS NOT A PIPE: IS CORRECT. IT´S A PAINTING” and on a readymade by Marcel Duchamp in “PISS OFF, I´M A FOUNTAIN,” raising their tongue-in-cheek commentary on perception, on the relationship between an object and its representation, to a new level of reflection. Once when exhibiting in close proximity to a piece by On Kawara, she made direct reference in her work to his date paintings. Her “ON/ON KAWARA/31.03.2006,” in which the English preposition corresponds with the Japanese artist’s first name, was accompanied by the text: “Fully aware of all that/passes in the world around him, On Kawara chooses to sit/stand/quietly painting his painting.”

Along with the textual pieces, objects, and drawings at the center of her oeuvre, Huws has created several films. These highly diverse works, produced mostly in the last several years, are “Singing for the Sea” (1993), “ION ON” (2003), “The Chocolate Bar” (2006), “Fountain” (2009) and “A Marriage in the King’s Forest” (2009). None of these is based on a narrative structure. All are of rather symbolic character and attempt at various sensory-mental levels to capture the essence of art, and conceptual art in particular.

In “Singing for the Sea,” a 16 mm film of around 13 minutes, a group of eight women from the Bulgarian mountain village of Bistritsa sings and dances at the seaside before a bay. In accompaniment to the traditional songs, which tell of shepherds, forests, and young girls, the women perform an open, asynchronous round dance. The different sounds and movements of the women combine in a curious way with the sound of the sea and the dance of the waves.

A similar spatial shift takes place in Huws’ most recent, 25-minute film, “A Marriage in the King’s Forest,” which portrays the wedding celebration of a young couple through the eyes of a wandering, uninvited onlooker. The perspective gradually changes. The social ritual moves out of a ballroom and into a forest landscape. Inside and outside, culture and nature, time and timelessness are mixed together, transporting the events into a new network of relationships.

The almost one-hour-long 35 mm film “ION ON,” which Huws calls a “critical comedy,” shows the actor Gerard James Smurthwaite as he moves through a lonely, remote landscape of ruins in Sardinia. In 45 scenes, he speaks fictitious dialogues between an artist and a curator. For example: “What is a work of art?” “Oh, I don’t know, only artists make things like that.” “Ah, I see. Do these artists give you values for your life?” “Well – no. That only applies to the works. Not to life.” These dialogues weave a dense fabric of reflections on art and its historically determined relationship with life and the public realm.

“Chocolate Bar,” a 35 mm film of 7:30 min., is also based on precisely orchestrated dialogues, performed by actor Rhys Ifans in traditional Welsh dress. He plays himself and two other persons in three different locations. The words “Mars” and “bar” form the point of departure. Their various levels of meaning, owing in part to translations, cause the characters to talk past each other. Duchamp’s readymade “Porte-bouteille” of 1914 adds a further, art-historical level as Huws’ neon-tube version of the famous bottle dryer appears in the background of the film’s scenes.

Marcel Duchamp also figures centrally in the 16 mm film “Fountain,” likewise 7:30 min. in length, in which 49 Italian fountains appear. The title and subject form a connection with both the waterfall in Duchamp’s last work, “Étant donnés” (1946-66), and his early readymade “Pissoir Fountain” of 1917. The babbling of the water in the film blends with the voice of the artist, who reflects on the mythological and symbolic meaning of fountains, and on remarks made by Duchamp. The film is closely tied to the exhibition installation “Reading Duchamp” at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, which displays nine large-format photographs of fountains, printed in ink on Hahnemühle paper, shot by Huws in Rome in preparation for the film in 2001. These are accompanied by seven texts applied to the wall in vinyl dealing with works, titles, and language games by Duchamp. The images and texts, which in the film are connected, stand side by side here, and are joined together in the mind of the viewer.
Author: Michael Nungesser


Bethan Huws was born in 1961 in Bangor, Wales. She grew up in northern Wales speaking Welsh and English, and later additionally learned French. She studied at Middlesex Polytechnic in London from 1981 to 1985 and at the Royal College of Art from 1986 to 1988. Her works can be found in numerous public collections, including Kunsthalle Bern (Bern), Museum für Moderne Kunst (Frankfurt am Main), Kolumba Kunstmuseum and Museum Ludwig (Cologne), Kaiser Wilhelm Museum (Krefeld), Leeds City Art Gallery (Leeds), Centre national d’art et de culture Georges-Pompidou, Musée national d´art moderne (Paris) and Kunstmuseum St.Gallen (St. Gallen). She lives in Paris and Berlin.


Group Exhbitions (Selection)

2011 "Kunst und Philosophie", Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (curator: Marcus Steinweg), Berlin, Germany; "Spiele im Park", Kunst im Garten der Villa Schöningen (curators: Max Hollein and Martin Engle), Potsdam, Germany 2010 "Noli me tangere!", KOLUMBA Kunstmuseum des Erzbistums Köln, Cologne, Germany; "Louise Lawler - Allan McCollum - Bethan Huws", Galerie Isabella Czarnowska, Berlin, Germany 2009 "VOIDS - eine Retrospektive über leere Ausstellungen", Kunsthalle Bern, Bern, Switzerland; "Bethan Huws - Elke Krystufek - Marjetica Potr?", art in public space, Niederösterreich, palace and gardens of Grafenegg (curator: Brigitte Huck); "The Making of Art", Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt (curator: Martina Weinhart), Frankfurt am Main, Germany 2008 "ART, PRICE AND VALUE. Contemporary art and the market", Palazzo Strozzi, CCCS Centro di Cultura Contemporanea Strozzina (Kuratoren: Piroschka Dossi, Franziska Nori), Florence, Italy "TINA B. – The Prague Contemporary Art Festival", Prague, Czech Republic; 7th Shanghai Biennale, Shanghai, China 2007 "Learn to Read", Tate Modern, London, UK; "MARTa schweigt. Garde le silence, le silence te gardera. Die Kunst der Stille von Duchamp bis heute. Das Mysterium der Etrusker", MARTa Herford, Herford, Germany 2006 "Mental-Image", Kunstmuseum St. Gallen (Kurator: Konrad Bitterli), St. Gallen, Switzerland 2005-06 "A Brief History of Invisible Art", Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, CCA (California College of the Art) (curator: Ralph Rugoff), San Francisco, USA 2005 "Over & Over, Again & Again", CAC - The Contemporary Art Centre (curator: Hanna Firth), Vilnius, Lithuania 2004 9. Triennale Kleinplastik. "Ich will, dass Du mir glaubst!" (curators: Jean-Christoph Ammann, Natalie de Ligt), Fellbach, Germany 2003 50 Biennale di Venezia, Pavillon of Wales (curators: Michael Nixon and Patricia Fleming), Venice, Italy 2002 "Zeitmaschine / Time Machine", Kunstmuseum Bern (curator: Hans Rudolph Reust), Bern, Switzerland 2001 "Sammlung Thomas Olbricht", Neues Museum Weserburg, Bremen, Germany 2000 "Mixing Memory and Desire", Kunstmuseum Luzern, KKL (Kultur- und Kongresszentrum Luzern) (curator: Ulrich Loock), Lucerne, Switzerland 1999 "Vergiß den Ball und spiel weiter", Kunsthalle Nürnberg, Nuremberg, Germany 1998 "New Art from Britain", Kunstraum Innsbruck, Innsbruck, Austria 1997 "Skulptur-Projekte in Münster" (Kurator: Kasper König), Münster, Germany; "Niemandsland", Haus Lange und Haus Esters (curator: Julian Heynen), Krefeld, Germany 1994 "Welt - Moral", Kunsthalle Basel (curator: Thomas Kellein), Basel, Switzerland 1992 "Gemischtes Doppel: Maria Eichhorn, Marcus Geiger, Bethan Huws, Hartmut Skerbisch", Wiener Secession (curators: Hildegund Amanshauser, Helmut Draxler, Kasper König, Kristian Sotriffer), Vienna, Austria

Solo Exhibitions (Selection)

Exhibition / Installation
2011 "Reading Duchamp" - Labor Berlin 7 (curator: Valerie Smith; Katalog), Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, Germany; "Films", BAWAG Contemporary, Vienna, Austria; "Black and White Animals", Centre international d’art et du paysage de l’île de Vassivière (curator: Chiara Parisi), Beaumont-Du-Lac, Frankreich 2010 "Zeichnungen", Museum Ludwig (curator: Julia Friedrich), Cologne, Germany ; Kestner Gesellschaft, Hannover 2009 "FOUNTAIN", Museu de Serralves, Museu de Arte Contemporânea Fundação de Serralves (Kurator: Ulrich Loock), Porto, Portugal 2008 Yvon Lambert, Paris, France 2007 Kunstverein / Kunstmuseum St.Gallen (Katalog), Switzerland 2006 "B.A.C.A. EUROPE 2006. Biennial Award for Contemporary Art", Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht (Katalog), Maastricht, Niederlande; "Filme", Institut für Kunst und Medien der HGK, Zurich, Switzerland; Galerie Friedrich, Basel, Switzerland 2005-06 "The Chocolate Bar", Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, Wales/UK 2004 "ION ON, Singing for the Sea", Tate Modern, London, UK; Galerie Tschudi, Glarus, Switzerland 2003 "Word-Vitrines", K21, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, Germany; Galerie Friedrich, Basel, Schweiz; "Foyer", Kunsthalle Düsseldorf (catalogue), Düsseldorf, Germany; "ION ON", Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, Wales/UK 2002 Produzentengalerie Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany 2001 "On What", The Henry Moore Foundation, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, UK; Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Bretton Hall, Wakefield, Großbritannien; Kunstverein Springhornhof, Neuenkirchen, Germany 2000-01 "Dialoge zur Zeichnung", Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau (curator: Marion Ackermann), München 2000 Galerie Friedrich, Bern, Switzerland 1999 Bonakdar Jancou Gallery, New York, USA; Produzentengalerie Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany; Kunsthalle Nürnberg; Nürnberg; Schmidt Contemporary Art, St.Louis, USA; "Illocution", Oakville Galleries (catalogue), Oakville, Canada 1998-99 "Watercolours", Oriel Mostyn Art Gallery (catalogue), , Llandudno, Wales/UK; "Watercolours", Kunstmuseum Bern (Katalog), Bern, Switzerland; "Watercolours", Kaiser Wilhelm Museum (catalogue), Krefeld, Germany 1998 "White³", Gallery Poo Poo, Bank, London, UK; 1997 Galerie Hollenbach, Stuttgart, Germany; Galerie Friedrich, Bern, Switzerland 1996 Galerie Karlheinz Meyer, Karlsruhe, Germany 1994 Galerie Luis Campaña, Cologne 1993 Museum Haus Esters (Katalog), Krefeld, Germany; "The Bistritsa Babi. A Work for the North Sea" (organization: Artangel, London) (catalogue), Alnwick, UK; Galerie Friedrich, Bern, Switzerland 1992 Galerie Luis Campaña, Frankfurt am Main, Germany; Produzentengalerie Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany; Galerie Karlheinz Meyer, Karlsruhe, Germany 1991 Galerie Luis Campaña, Frankfurt am Main, Germany; Institute of Contemporary Arts (catalogue), London, UK 1990 Kunsthalle Bern (catalogue), Bern, Switzerland 1989 Riverside Studios Gallery, London, UK


Stipendium des Deutschen Akademischen Austauschdienstes (DAAD), Berlin
B.A.C.A. (Biennial Award for Contemporary Art) 2006 Europe, Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht
Ludwig-Gies-Preis für Kleinplastik der Letter Stiftung, Köln
The Henry Moore Sculpture Fellowship, The British School at Rome
Kunstpreis der Adolf-Luther-Stiftung, Krefeld


This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the partner institutions.

Labor Berlin

(01 January 10 - 12 January 14)