Bethan Huws

The Bistritsa Babi: A Work for the North Sea

Sugar Sands, Northumberland
22 July 1993 - 24 July 1993

Bethan Huws orchestrated a memorable work on the north east coast of England in 1993, bringing a group of Bulgarian women, the Bistritsa Babi, from their home in the heart of Europe to the edge of an island. Huws asked the women to sing to the North Sea.   

The Bistritsa Babi (the grandmothers of Bistritsa, a village not far away from Sofia)  are the living embodiment of a tradition of antiphonal singing which stretches back unbroken over a thousand years. In the villages of the Plana region in Bulgaria, the songs are traditionally performed in the open air, the women calling to each other during the working day, or at festivities and celebrations. In the special coastal setting chosen by Huws, their haunting voices combined with the sounds of the weather and the waves to create a site-specific polyphony.

Standing in front of the sea, the women chanted a repertoire of songs such as Vai Dudole (A Prayer for Rain) and Sultz Saide (for the Sunset) in a poignant meeting of movement and stability, language and sound, the human voice and the North Sea. Beginning at the turning of tide each evening, as the repertoire of songs built, the tide began to recede.

Huws conceived the work as a sequence of live performances and also a 12-minute 16mm colour film, Singing for the Sea, which juxtaposes sequences of the singers in front of the sea with close-ups of the lapping waves. 

Image: The Bistritsa Babi in A Work for the North Sea by Bethan Huws, performed on Sugar Sands, Northumberland, July 1993. Photograph: © Bethan Huws

Making The Bistritsa Babi: A Work for the North Sea

Bethan Huws in conversation with James Lingwood
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Riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs. — James Joyce, Finnegans Wake 

Making The Bistritsa Babi: A Work for the North Sea

Bethan Huws in conversation with James Lingwood, London, 18 May 2004

James Lingwood: When did the work begin to take shape in your mind?

Bethan Huws: It began with your invitation to the TSWA – Four Cities Project in 1989, so it was some years before the work was actually made. I followed the spirit or logic of the title: the Four Cities Project. It inspired me, the vast vision it conjured up in one's head like the title of Charles Dickens' book A Tale of Two Cities, it shares the same grandeur or largeness of vision. I then looked for what these four cities had in common. Derry, Glasgow, Newcastle and Plymouth are all coastal or near-coastal cities. What they shared was the sea. A first location was established for Long Sands, Tynemouth, Newcastle Upon Tyne and at that time we realised that the project would need more elaboration. It was then taken up by Artangel in 1991. This was the very beginning of the project. The notion of the sea and the city are conceptually linked, the vision of a liquid moving mass... of people. 

JL: Juxtaposing two ideas of vastness – one made up of people, the other without people. 

BH: Yes that's it, although not quite so straightforward. 

Read the complete conversation here.



Michael Archer
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Michael Archer, Autumn 2003

It happened ten years ago, but I can still remember it clearly. The danger, in fact, is that I shall merely repeat what I wrote at the time. Although it had rained heavily during the day on which I saw The Bistritsa Babi: A Work for the North Sea, the weather had cleared to leave a fine, still evening, interrupted by a few brief showers. We had all been told to gather in a car park in the town of Alnwick. From there, a bus would take us to the place on the nearby coast at which a performance by the Bistritsa Babi was to occur. On the way to the sea I looked down from my seat on the top deck of the bus and saw some people swimming in a river. Such scenes are very rare in Britain. After a short journey, the bus stopped at the end of a lane and we were told that we would have to walk the rest of the way.

The sea was so calm that there were really no waves at all. It simply folded itself gently onto the shore behind the Bistritsa Babi, who were already down on the beach when we were led along the coast path into the bay. The absence of wind meant that the voices of the singers could be clearly heard, both when they faced towards us listeners higher up the beach, and when they turned to sing towards the receding sea. (The performance had begun at high tide.) To begin with, we watched from a respectful distance, many of us remaining on or near to the path that skirted the bay. Gradually, though, curiosity got the better of us, and people began to edge slowly further down onto the sand, closer to the singers.

Read the rest of the essay.

Image: The Bistritsa Babi in A Work for the North Sea by Bethan Huws, performed on Sugar Sands, Northumberland, July 1993. Photograph: © Bethan Huws  

The Sculpture of Song

Iwona Blazwick
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The Sculpture of Song

Iwona Blazwick, Spring 2003

On an overcast but still day in July 1993, a group of travellers who had journeyed from across Europe to reach a remote spot on the British coast of the North Sea disembarked from their cars and coaches. They made their way along a narrow sandy ridge hugging the curve of the Northumberland coastline. Below the ridge lay a wide stretch of sandy beach. And on the beach stood a small group of women looking out to the horizon.

There were eight in the group, some middle-aged, others quite elderly - all identically dressed in the festive traditional costume of some faraway rural culture. Each had a long white scarf tied around her hair and a flower tucked behind the ear. Beneath a heavily brocaded black dress and jerkin, each wore a scarlet-and-white-patterned blouse edged with lace; under their skirts hung the delicate frill of a petticoat. Stout black woollen stockings were embroidered with delicate pastels, and on their feet the women wore flat leather sandals.

They were not just looking towards the sea but singing to it, in complex, dissonant harmonies. The song they sang, foreign to most of the spectators, was therefore abstract, yet strangely moving. The sheer visceral power of their voices, seeming to emanate not from the throat but from the solar plexus, generated a presence as physically and psychically overwhelming as the wide horizon before them.

Read the complete essay.

Image: The Bistritsa Babi in A Work for the North Sea by Bethan Huws, performed on Sugar Sands, Northumberland, July 1993. Photograph: © Bethan Huws  

Plato's Cave

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When Huws came to the cinema with Singing for the Sea, she rediscovered Plato's myth of the cave. — Pier Luigi Tazzi

Plato's Cave

Pier Luigi Tazzi, ​Capalle, 2003 – 2004

The first time I saw Singing for the Sea was at an exhibition in Antwerp that had an unusually long title, starting with Vertrekken vanuit een normale situatie, and was curated by Yves Aupetitallot, Iwona Blazwick and Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. It was 1993 and the exhibition presented the unequal structural composition typical of the time. This consisted principally in the fact that each individual work was of a different density, and the space occupied by the exhibition reflected this condition of unequalness, if you will permit the neologism. This makes the world an empty expanse, and the works of art are nuclei of meaning no longer contained within frames - or parergon, to use the term preferred by Kant and Jacques Derrida. As a result, the works expand or contract, no longer by virtue of their inner energy and within the bounds of a predetermined field, but only by virtue of their own - material and conceptual - compositions within the void. Consequently, the experience provided by that exhibition could be (alternatively or at the same time) light and trivial or testing and earnest. Significantly, Bethan Huws' film occupied its own separate space, which only came alive during the projection and had no apparent connection with the rest of the exhibition.

Read the rest of the essay.

Text: Longing

by Ulrich Loock
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By Ulrich Loock, Porto, 2003 – 2004

Ten years ago I travelled to Northumberland in north-east England, for the performance of a piece by Bethan Huws. I had never been there before, nor have I been there since. I don’t remember the journey. It was a bright day, but without the shadows cast under a cloudless sky. I arrived in the small town a few hours before the set time. There were few high buildings, as is to be expected in a place near the sea. Without stopping in town, I set off on foot and soon came to a rural area. It was the most beautiful countryside I have ever seen. I followed a path between low, close-set hills, which were nevertheless high enough to limit the view into the distance. I crossed a stream; everything was covered with grass, the colour of which I could no longer name. I seem to remember thinking that what I was looking at was the epitome of a meadow. In the green pastures sheep with light-coloured, almost white fleece were grazing, and there were solitary, quite tall deciduous trees. I don’t know whether I actually saw a dark grey castle there, or if it was somewhere else, maybe even in a picture. It wasn’t all that far away, but still too far to go and take a closer look at it.

Read the complete essay.

Image: The Bistritsa Babi in A Work for the North Sea by Bethan Huws, performed on Sugar Sands, Northumberland, July 1993. Photograph: © Bethan Huws  


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Northumbria's strong folk-singing tradition may have created a sympathetic audience, but it was understood that this was not intended as a folkloric event. — Robert Hewison, The Sunday Times,1 August 1993

Selected Press

The song is then, more often than not, pressed back and forth between tow groups of four Bistritsa Babi. The random drone, along with the polyphany of the backing singers, gives the song a melancholic density which is sad and fatal, and at the same time transcendental. — Gregor Muir, Frieze, issue 12, September/October 1993
Northumbria ’s strong folk-singing tradition may have created a sympathetic audience, but it was understood that this was not intended as a folkloric event. — Robert Hewison, The Sunday Times, 1 August 1993
The women sang antiphonally, first one group of four, then the other, back and forth. The prevailing tone was the kind of harsh harmony, once so strange to the modern European ear, which turn-of-the-century folk-music enthusiasts used to collect and then doll up for concert consumption - but which now gets performed and broadcast in authentic form. — Tom Lubbok, The Independent, 3 October 2011

About Bethan Huws

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Bethan Huws

Bethan Huws was born in Bangor, Wales, graduated from the Royal College of Art, London in 1988 and now lives and works in Paris, France. Her work often references language, particularly the titling of artworks, as well as the position of artists and she works across mediums in film, sculpture, written texts and readymades. Her work as beens exhibited internationally, solo exhibitions include the Kunsthalle Bern, ICA London, and Chapter Arts Centre, Wales. Huws was the recipient of the Henry Moore Sculpture Fellowship at the British School at Rome, the Ludwig Gies-Preis für Kleinplastik der LETTER Stiftung, Cologne and the B.A.C.A. Biannual Award for Contemporary Art in Europe, the latter accompanied by an extensive retrospective exhibition at Bonnefantenmuseum, The Netherlands 2006/07.


Images: (left) The Bistritsa Babi in A Work for the North Sea by Bethan Huws, performed on Sugar Sands, Northumberland, July 1993; (above) the artist Bethan Huws, James Lingwood (second left), The Bistritsa Babi, and Iwona Blazwick (far right) during production of A Work for the North Sea, 1993. Photograph: © Bethan Huws  

About The Bistritsa Babi

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The Bistritsa Babi

The Bistritsa Babi are a group of elderly women from a village, not far from Bulgaria's capital Sofia, who still perform the dances and antiphonic and polyphonic open air singing traditional to the Shoplouk region. They are regarded as an important component of the cultural life of the area and continue to promote traditional expressions among the younger generations, their song passed down from mother to daughter since the Middle Ages.

These women are among the few remaining representatives of traditional polyphony and the village of Bistritsa is one of the last areas in Bulgaria in which these traditions are still practised.

Those that participated in the 1993 performance and film with Bethan Huws were Krema Georeva, Tsvetanka Tsenkova, Dana Ovnarska, Dinna Ancheva,Nadejda Pachaliiska, Evdokia Batlachka, Gerginka Pachaliiska and Sevda Gergova.



Images: (left) The Bistritsa Babi in A Work for the North Sea by Bethan Huws, performed on Sugar Sands, Northumberland, July 1993;  (above) The Bistritsa Babi standing outside Bistritsa Town Hall, Bulgaria, 1992. Photographs: © Bethan Huws  

Book: Singing to the Sea

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Bethan Huws: Singing to the Sea

£19.95 at Cornerhouse 

This book commemorates The Bistritsa Babi: A Work for the North Sea, an Artangel commissioned project by the artist Bethan Huws, which took place in Northumberland in 1993. Where the end of the land meets the edge of the water, eight Bulgarian women sang to the North Sea. The women were the Bistritsa Babi (Bistritsa Grandmothers), whose repertoire included traditional songs such as Vai Dudole (A Prayer for Rain) and Sultz Saide (for the Sunset). The work brought a tradition from the cradle of European civilisation to its Northern edge. It was the first visit of the Bistritsa Babi to Britain.

  • Co-published by Artangel and Dieter Association, May 2006
  • The book features essays by Michael Archer, Iwona Blazwick, Ulrich Loock and Pier Luigi Tazzi
  • 80pp
  • Hardback
  • Black-and-white and colour photographs
  • 215mm x 320mm
  • ISBN: 9782952530408

Singing for the Sea

19 July 2019
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Bethan Huws in St Ives

19 July 2019

Bethan Huws' Singing for the Sea willl be screened on 19 July 2019 as part of the ‘Late at Tate’ programme at Tate St Ives.

This Late at Tate is inspired by Huguette Caland’s paintings. The programme will explore intimacy, bodies, lovers, and the feeling of sound through the body with performance, film and song alongside music and drinks in the terrace cafe.


Porthmeor Beach
Saint Ives
TR26 1TG
United Kingdom

Free with admission, Tate membership or Locals' Pass.

For more visiting information, please see Tate's website.

In The Artangel Collection

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Singing for the Sea

Singing for the Sea is part of The Artangel Collection. Since its initial presentation in 1993 it has been exhibited at Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal in 2013, ATLAS Arts, Isle of Skye in 2016 and The Gymnasium Gallery, Berwick-upon-Tweed in 2017.

  • Artist: Bethan Huws
  • Title: Singing for the Sea
  • Date: 1993
  • Medium: 16 mm film, shown as single-channel video, projection and sound (stereo)
  • Dimensions: Overall display dimensions variable
  • Duration: 12 minutes
  • In the Artangel at Tate Collection
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Who made this possible?


Originally commissioned by Artangel, assisted by the New Collaborations Fund of the Arts Council of Great Britain Northern Arts, Balkan Bulgarian Airlines and Antwerp '93. With thanks to Alnwick Playhouse and Alnwick International Music Festival.

Artangel is generously supported by the private patronage of The Artangel International CircleSpecial AngelsGuardian Angels and The Company of Angels. Singing for the Sea is included in The Artangel Collection