Performa 13: Bedwyr Williams Plays a Romantic Art Thief in “A Break-In”

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Twice on Sunday night the Welsh artist Bedwyr Williams performed “A Break In,” a monologue he created for the performance art biennial Performa 13, accompanied by live sound effects from Ian M. Colletti. Williams, whose funny and tangent-filled stories have included an evening of stand-up comedy at Performa 11 and performing an autopsy on a life-size curator cake at Frieze London last year, told a story about an art thief planning and executing a robbery at a collector couple’s home — a fitting narrative for a piece staged in Thea Westreich Art Advisory Services‘ very homey Soho loft.

At the later of the two performances, attendees — plied with a seemingly unlimited supply of vodka shots — found their seats while a slow and insistent drumming played over the speakers and a giant image of a moth was projected onto a wall. Williams, donning his trademark cap, stood at a microphone at the front of the room reading, while Colletti provided the noises to match the action in the story — ruffling a copy of the Village Voice to accompany a mention of a coffee shop’s newspaper supply, clinking champagne flutes as a big night of drinking began.

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Williams’ story was narrated from the seasoned art thief’s perspective as he sets out to seduce the collectors’ cleaning woman, nearly falls in love with her, succeeds in getting a copy of her employers’ keys, dumps her, and breaks into the art-filled apartment. The thief turns out to be a very poetic, even romantic type, the tiniest details sparking flights of fancy, recollections of dreams, hilarious thought exercises, and preposterous metaphors, like when he first enters the collectors’ apartment: “I like the smell in here; a kind of futuristic, cardamon smell.” Williams’ story was rich with detail, his robber full of personality, and his delivery rife with spot-on pauses and shifts in intonation, as when the thief spots a mortar and pestle sculpture in the collectors’ kitchen whose pestle magically floats above the mortar: “I wonder, does it work with magnets? You know what, I don’t care. I don’t care.”

The thief’s relationship with the cleaning woman took up the first half of the narrative, and his description of their courtship was hilarious. Their dates include going to the movies — “We hold hands in small independent cinemas that don’t sell popcorn” — exhibitions — “a visit to an exhibition about rope, which appropriately enough is titled ‘Rope'” — and a string of “hipster” restaurants that the thief worries are slowly dulling his taste buds: “Everything tastes of hickory; slowly but surely, I feel as though I am being smoked.” Though the comforts of couplehood briefly sidetrack the thief — sniffing his girlfriend’s shoes he describes their pleasant odor “like an unfamiliar baking smell from a culture not your own” — he eventually breaks up with her and prepares for the heist.

The titular break-in is full of surreal details, which is appropriate given that Surrealism is one of Performa 13’s themes. Stepping into the collectors’ home the thief remarks on their alarm system’s ring: “Rather than the usual sound, it is the specially recorded sound of a cat meowing repeatedly.” Colletti obliges with a rapidly looped “meow” sound effect. While exploring the kitchen the thief remarks: “On the refrigerator there is only one magnet; it is a miniature replica of the refrigerator itself.” Though the actual art seems to hold relatively little interest for the thief, mundane objects provoke rhapsodic commentary, from a Sky Mall-like catalogue sitting on the kitchen counter, an exceptionally large shower head in the master bathroom (“as big as my wok”), or an elegant ironing board in the utilities room: “Let me just say that this is the most beautiful ironing board I have ever seen.”

This love of the everyday, appreciation for the unpretentious, and willingness to become distracted by and lost in the seemingly mundane is indulged throughout “A Break-In,” forming a sort of cautionary tale against coveting shiny and expensive objects over rich experiences — a fitting message for a work staged at a biennial devoted to performance art.

— Benjamin Sutton

(Photos by the author.)