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An Electric Storm: Cerith Wyn Evans Interviewed
Robert Barry , October 31st, 2015 13:29

With a major exhibition currently on display at the White Cube’s Bermondsey gallery, Cerith Wyn Evans talks to tQ’s Robert Barry about music, neon, and the psychedelia of quantum physics

Photograph © White Cube (George Darrell)

“In-betweenness has always been a bit of a catch for me…”

From the ceiling hangs a kind of scribble in curved neon tubes. The work’s title is Neon Forms (after Noh I), it is one of three similar similar pieces that the artist Cerith Wyn Evans will refer to as “these kind of squiggling pieces.” It presents a kind of sublime density of suspended light in more or less tight clusters, loops within loops and whorls within whorls. It could be a figure abstracted from a graphic score by Earle Brown or Cornelius Cardew. In fact its precise, overlapping lines represent the highly codified dance-like movements of Japanese Noh theatre.

Imagine our actor, the Shitetsure, say, or Waki, masked and robed in silk, holding in his hand a sparkler or a kind of light-pen capable of actually inscribing into the air the permanent marks of his bodily gesture. The movements of his limbs are written in light, held gleaming in mid-air, caught in the very instant of their appearance and disappearance.

“There’s something attractive about exploring or interrogating the notion of a transfiguring. It’s in-between the Jekyll and the Hyde, between what something was and what it might be in the act of becoming.”

Talking on the phone to Wyn Evans a few days later I find it hard to picture the space he inhabits on the other end of the line. It is as though it must simultaneously be a cobblestone country cottage and a crisp modernist villa composed only of reflective surfaces and acute angles. Nothing else quit fits except this paradoxical unity. He has a distracted air about him. Sentences begin and then drift off or abruptly interrupt themselves with other clauses, fresh ideas or fleeting reminiscences.

“Music keeps me company a lot. I was just playing some solfeggio frequencies earlier. I quite like playing them around the house in different rooms. There are certain points at which things change. Going up and down the scale in different rooms. Even as a child I had little musical boxes that I would wind up. I’ve always had two or three radios playing in different parts of the house or had the TV and the radio on. So [John] Cage is very important, to that extent. I was playing around with that idea of having things all superimposed or stacked up upon each other but then laying them out in space. I suppose nothing’s changed, really.”

There are no dividers or false walls in the gallery. Everything is laid out together, capable of being apprehended at once as some vast assemblage. Looking through the gaps within the Neon Forms we can’t not also see the trio of palm trees slowly spinning on turntables, as if to act as an immediate corrective – motion arrested in sculpture and stillness set in motion, like a kind of equation. And we can’t not also hear the haunting sound of that odd jellyfish of glass flutes at the far end of the room.

It is a sculpture consisting of 19 transparent tubes of different lengths – almost identical, as Wyn Evans points out, to the tubes of neon lighting – descending from a machine which blows air through the different tubes according to a specific algorithm. There is a similar work installed permanently on the top floor of the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, two more currently inhabit a temporary exhibition at the Museion in Bolzano. They have appeared at the Serpentine, at the Kunsthall in Bergen. The first was made for a gallery in Tokyo several years ago.

Wyn Evans thinks of them as “the sort of instrument Raymond Roussel would have put together in Locus Solus, like somewhere in-between [Marcel Duchamp’s] The Large Glass and Dr Phibes,” referring to a pair of films directed by Robert Fuest in the early ’70s – The Abominable Dr Phibes and Dr Phibes Rises Again – starring Vincent Price as the eponymous undead organist, hellbent on revenge for the death of his wife.

“Whenever you make a piece of work that has sound in it in a gallery you can sort of expect that it will contaminate whatever else you’re looking at or listening to in proximity. A lot of galleries have a lot of space and a lot of hard surfaces, there’s quite a lot of echo. So to that extent they’ve got a propensity to fill the room to a certain extent, like bagpipes. People always hate bagpipes. I’ve always liked bagpipes. I’ve always like the fact that lots of people hate bagpipes.”

First arriving in London to study at St. Martin’s School of Art towards the tail end of 1976, Wyn Evans embraced the nascent punk scene wholeheartedly. “I’d go out almost every single night to go and see bands play,” he tells me. “It was moving away from home, moving away from Wales, feeling as if I could finally get rid of my childhood and do whatever I’d always wanted to do. It was really a strong sense – albeit an illusion – of real freedom.”

He studied under the conceptual artist John Stezaker, and later worked as an assistant to Derek Jarman, credited as editor on The Angelic Conversation and cinematographer on The Last of England. They also collaborated on pop videos for The Smiths, The Fall, and the Pet Shop Boys.

One day, in the early 80s, he saw a glass flute in a shop window on Denmark Street and bought it. “It wasn’t very expensive,” he says. “They were sort of like gimmicks. Not gimmicks exactly. But a flautist wouldn’t choose to play on a glass flute.”

Do you play the flute at all? I ask.

“No,” he says, the ‘o’ tailing off somewhat uncertainly, “– strictly speaking. Whenever it comes to playing musical instruments, ‘no’ is not only the most honest answer but by far the simplest answer.”

Over the years Wyn Evans has, however, collaborated with a great many musicians, building installations with Throbbing Gristle or producing a multi-channel video-opera with Florian Hecker. At the White Cube just recently, Keiji Haino performed live, surrounded by Wyn Evans’s sculptures, on a percussion instrument called oto, like a set of small cymbals struck by metal hammers. “There’s a lot in this sort of multidisciplinary or crossover or whatever it is,” he says. “People police various sides of that. I don’t know. Sometimes it feels like you’re sort of watering something down and sometimes it feels like you’re not. It’s probably best when you’re not.”

Around the beginning of the present decade, Wyn Evans began a regular series of visits to the CERN laboratory in Switzerland. Initially, he was interested simply in “the idea of there being some very big, complicated, mysterious machine which is buried under the ground.” But he soon became fascinated by the “scopic regimes” of a place full of people, “looking for something that can’t be seen.” He wanted to know, “what the building looks like, what the people look like, what the people eat. The whole aesthetics of scientific experiment.”

“Whenever artists look at machines,” he says, “something else comes as a result which somehow interrogates the role of the body in everything. The idea of inner and outer space, ideas that cross over to notions of psychedelia and depictions of consciousness.” In the midst of all this, in 2013, he produced another hanging neon “squiggling piece” called A Community Predicated on the Basic Fact Nothing Really Matters, based this time on a representation of the Higgs Boson colliding with the chemical formula for LSD.

“What CERN does from the point of view of unsettling most platitudes [about] perceptual certainty,” he starts to say. “It’s only a short matter of time, in the next few generations, I think, extraordinary claims will be made for different ways in which the world is perceived.”

When fluorescent lights were first introduced as an artistic medium in the 1940s, they were a symbol of modernity, a flirtation with the forms and techniques of commercial advertising. Today the practice is so widespread that we are probably more likely to find neon tubes in an art gallery than adorning a shopfront. The meaning has changed. For Cerith Wyn Evans, I get the feeling that they offer a means of visualising a process. “What neon is,” he says simply, “is an electrical current passing through an inert gas.” That light we see is but the visual trace of an ongoing reaction. The apparent stillness of his sculptures is just a mask for a volatile force in constant, feverish agitation.