By 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.

Because of the earlier rain, the ground underfoot was damp. Water droplets clinging to leaves and blades of grass glistened in the sunlight, and the smell was of freshness tinged with the inevitable saltiness of the sea. There was a lot of sea convolvulus growing in the area, and everywhere one could see the ground dotted with its small, pink flowers. All of this, it seemed to me at the time, was part of the performance, because it was integral to the experience of being there, in that place at that moment. The Bistritsa Babi: A Work for the North Sea was, after all, a set of conjunctions. It was a coming together of a group of singers from one place, Bulgaria, with a location in another part of the world, north-east England. The songs of the Bistritsa Babi, at home in the mountains of eastern Europe, were being sung beside the sea. Part of the audience for this event was an invited one – we knew to be there – but there were others who had simply chanced upon it while out on an evening stroll, or while taking the dog for a walk. Even the fortuitous appearance of the rainbow which, following a brief mid-performance shower, provided a framing arch around the singers, could be understood as an integral part of the work rather than an extraneous accident.

The idea that a work of art might not simply arise out of, but might actually be such a set of conjunctions, is familiar to us from Marcel Duchamp's thoughts on the ready-made. The ready-made, he said, could be thought of as a kind of rendezvous. What was important about it was "just this matter of timing, this snapshot effect, like a speech delivered on no matter what occasion but at such and such an hour." And Huws has explicitly referred to this event – The Bistritsa Babi: A Work for the North Sea – as a "ready-made equivalent of the Floor."[1]  While a student at the RCA in 1987 she had painstakingly cleaned the floor of her space of all its accreted layers, taking it back to its original state. A year later she had laid a luxurious wool carpet in the former machine shop basement that was the then home of the Anthony Reynolds Gallery. The 'floor' to which Huws is referring here, however, is the low platform of oak parquet installed over parts of the grey lino-painted concrete of the Riverside Studios in 1989, a work subsequently made in other versions in the Kunsthalle, Bern, and at Galerie Luis Campaña in Frankfurt. The idea of the conjunction was significant in all these cases - between the revealed or displayed material, the possible place of origin of that material, and the situation in which it was encountered. In each instance, too, one viewed the work in natural light, and so what was perceived at any moment depended to a great extent on the time of day and the weather conditions outside. It is no surprise that Duchamp has remained an important reference point for Huws in her thinking about art, place and language.

Another factor suggesting that physical awareness of one's surroundings should be felt as part of The Bistritsa Babi: A Work for the North Sea, and that it should contribute to one's discussions about it, was that Huws herself had made the documentation of such things central to an earlier work. Two years before The Bistritsa Babi: A Work for the North Sea, she had made Lake Piece for the ICA, London. Four texts pasted to the gallery's walls, comprising twenty-four closely written pages, described the sights and sounds witnessed while taking a series of walks round a lake in the Snowdonia district of North Wales. In an intense and involving - but not at all emotional - style, Huws charts the many colours of the heather growing all around her, the sounds of running water at her feet, or of sheep baaing nearby, the shifting areas of disturbance caused as wind ruffles the surface of the lake by which she is walking, and so on. She has commented that when visiting the largely unprepossessing spaces of the ICA it felt as though she were entering a hole in the ground. In the real world, such a declivity might well fill with water to form a lake. Hence the decision to make that work for that place. The astonishing thing for me when I first saw Lake Piece and read it, every word of it, was that it described a place I knew. Which is to say that I knew, for example, how it is that heather changes colour as the sun goes behind a cloud, because I had witnessed it countless times. At the outset, I just thought that I could recognise the kind of experience that Huws was describing, but soon realised that I knew the particular lake, Llyn Idwal, that she had walked round while recording her observations into a small tape recorder for subsequent transcription. Several times in my youth I had driven to Nant Ffrancon (the Ffrancon Valley) parked near the mountain rescue centre by the end of Llyn Ogwen, and walked up into mountains past Llyn Idwal. A good day’s walk was to take in the Devil’s Kitchen and three peaks, each of around 1,000m – Glyder Fawr, Glyder Fach and Tryfan. Glyder Fawr is bigger than its twin by 5m. I understood that from the names: ‘fawr’ means large, ‘fach’ means small. But I did not speak Welsh, so did not understand how ‘mawr’ and ‘bach’, the words you will find for large and small when you look them up in the dictionary, needed to change their initial letter in that context.

I cycled a lot in Snowdonia, the Clwyd hills and down the Welsh coast in the late 1960s and the 1970s, and what I learned very quickly was that you had to know where you were going or you could easily get lost. It was the period of much action on behalf of the Welsh language, and one very visible and effective tactic adopted by those who refused to see the language completely obliterated by English, was to paint out all road signs that used anglicised place names. So, in order to know where you were, you really had to know where you were. And one thing I knew, even though the landscape was familiar to me, and was one to which I developed an enormous emotional and spiritual attachment, was that once I had pedalled a mile down the road from where I lived I was in a foreign country. It was mine, but it was not mine. Or, better, since possession is not really the issue here, the place was me, but it was kept from me. Nationalism, politics and power have their place in any analysis of such feelings, but ultimately it is not a case of this or that language holding a privileged position; it is language itself that both gives access to and withholds the world.

In 1997 Huws would use the Welsh word ‘Hiraeth’ as the title of her proposal for the Skulptur Projekte in Münster. Hiraeth was, in the manner of many of her works, an invitation to potential viewers not merely to stand and look at some object or other, but to participate in an activity, undergo an experience. In this case, the experience was of walking in wooded and open land at the far end of the Aasee, the lake stretching away from the city of Münster itself. Standing and looking might well form part of that experience, but where to stand and what to look at were not to be determined by Huws. A notice board at the start of the walk provided a map of the area and a text in which she meditates on art and landscape, the structure of language, and the nature of art-making and art-appreciating activity. ‘Hiraeth’: longing for a person or place, nostalgia, homesickness, etc. It is a word you hear quite often now, but then it was largely unknown to non-Welsh speakers. Perhaps, perversely, it will become a loan word in English, since the language has no simple equivalent. (Huws directly links the grief, sadness and sense of loss inherent in its meaning and use to the repression of the Welsh language by the English.)[1] German has Heimweh, and it is no surprise that she alludes to Heidegger’s statement that “Language is the house of Being” in the notes to Hiraeth. His meditations on the fact that a sense of place is a matter not only of geographical location, but also, and fundamentally, of language, continue to provide an essential reference point for us. In this vein, Jean-Luc Nancy writes that “The earth is given,” and that words “exceed the earth and the places it assigns us.” But words also falter before those places: “I remain there, you remain there, elsewhere.” Huws’ art bears out Nancy’s assertion that “poetry is made of the patience to bear both this excess and this faltering[2]. ”

What, then, of the Bistritsa Babi, singing on a beach some way to the north of Newcastle-upon-Tyne? The Bulgarian in which they sing is unfamiliar to the audience, though on a more general level the content of the songs might be guessed at: love, loss, the range of human endeavour and response interpreted from within a world seen as tragic in its largest sense. The movements they execute while singing – coming together, separating, turning, circling and so on – are an aspect of the rhetoric of performance, yet that choreography surely also reflects structures of community specific to the place in which they have lived. You can see all of this in the film Singing for the Sea. And you can see, too, that the film is much more than a record of a concert – or even of a series of three concerts – that took place a decade ago. The film is another work altogether, and it does not show what happened on that occasion. It shows what happens on the occasion and in the place that you watch it, which are different. The conjunctions are different.

This essay is taken from the publication Singing to the Sea available from Cornerhouse.

[1] Bethan Huws, Selected Textual Works 1991 – 2003, published by Dieter Association and Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, 2003,  p. 6..
[2] Jean-Luc Nancy, "We need …", in The Birth to Presence, Stanford, California, 1993, p. 308..