On the Radar
David Bethell is the Staffordshire Seamus Heaney. He’s a contemporary Heath Robinson. He’s variously an explorer, a labourer, an inventor, a fell runner and a documenter of how we live and work on the land, then and now. David Bethell is an artist and curator.
Each work is entirely site-specific. Outcomes range from drawing and durational performance to installation and writing. It’s personal and typically British work, pseudo-mechanical and historically influenced; about class and work and loss and development and failure. It’s rich and heartfelt and timely. It’s funny and poignant and occasionally ridiculous.
Machines are at the centre of David’s practice. They are painstakingly knocked together, Wall.E-like constructions that do not endure in the way that their Victorian predecessors have. The Disney reference is not used flippantly – these machines are gentle, heartfelt, innately humorous and poignant entities in their own right. Watching the video of David dragging his Road Roller, 2010 (Figure 1) over the fells of Staffordshire is a moving experience; David’s toil is palpable, but so too is the disintegration of this anthropomorphised object. His work references personal as well as collective histories. Wearing clothes belonging to his father, he recalls his familial relationship to working on the land. The breakdown of a system and the failure of the machine; as a metaphor for the demise of British agricultural industry, David’s work couldn’t be more pertinent.
Work, place and workplaces arise again in two further durational performances. One ,Stacked Against All Odds, 2012 (Figure 2), sees David’s disengaged and sedentary office worker escape everyday existence into a flight of fancy that manages to evoke Wood and Harrison, Fischli and Weiss, Simon Starling, Where the Wild Things Are… even Fight Club [ii]. Using the simulated office construction around him, David rebuilds the structure first as a lighthouse, then as a boat and finally returns it to its original state ready for a new day. He is an artist who enjoys taking things apart and putting them back together again. It’s symptomatic of a process, of a connection to materials and to place, and ultimately, to the futility of human activity.
Digging, 2010, the installation/ performance for which the opening poem was written, sees David reference work and leisure side-by-side. The site is Stoke Fields, a Victorian park constructed when leisure was considered an agent for social transformation; good for the soul and for the country(side). Once more, makeshift machines determine the duration of the performance, tilling and mowing and sewing until they fall apart; the antithesis of ‘games on the lawn’ as they initially appear.
Another site synonymous with British leisure – the seaside- features strongly in a work commissioned by a gallery in Margate. Influenced by J.M.W. Turner, David’s performance Shadows on the Sun, 2011 (Figure 3) makes direct reference to Turner’s trademark centrally-placed light sources in his compositions. A construction designed to record and document sun spots – on first glance a rudimentary apparatus that reveals itself to be highly functional – forms the centrepiece to a performance that is both romantic and analytical. The result is a series of delicate drawings which capture the subtle changes in our environment over time. The work was later re-presented at Jodrell Bank and exhibited at Wolverhampton Art Gallery during David’s residency in March 2013.
Influenced by this residency[iii], David is currently pursuing an enquiry into the geology of the Black Country and Staffordshire based on the Gallery collections. The resulting research focuses on fact and mythology, connections between places and periods, and proposals for explorative missions headed up by an eccentric and unreliable guide- a character created and inhabited by David named Dr Bird. I can’t wait to see where he takes us.
Jane is the Exhibitions Curator at Wolverhampton Art Gallery and has held programming, development and project management positions in organisations across the West Midlands including Turning Point, The New Art Gallery Walsall, the Mead Gallery and Ikon Gallery. She has a particular interest in artist development and artist-curated exhibitions and interventions.
[i] David Bethell, Digging poem, 2010.
[ii] ‘I see all this potential, and I see it squandered. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables – slaves with white collars… We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war… our great depression is our lives.’
Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club, W.W. Norton, New York, 1996.
[iii] Supported by Turning Point West Midlands and the Artist Development programme delivered by The New Art Gallery Walsall.