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.
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.)