Cerith Wyn Evans interview: 'If people go away mystified, maybe it’s good'

He's known for beaming Morse code messages via chandeliers and writing poetic texts in fireworks. Yet, as he installs a new show at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, Cerith Wyn Evans tells Time Out that he is no romantic

  • Cerith Wyn Evans

    © Cerith Wyn Evans/White Cube

    Cerith Wyn Evans
  • Cerith Wyn Evans

    © Cerith Wyn Evans/White Cube

    Cerith Wyn Evans
  • Cerith Wyn Evans

    © Cerith Wyn Evans/White Cube

    Cerith Wyn Evans
  • Cerith Wyn Evans

    © Cerith Wyn Evans/White Cube

    Cerith Wyn Evans
  • Cerith Wyn Evans

    © Cerith Wyn Evans/White Cube

    Cerith Wyn Evans
  • Cerith Wyn Evans

    © Cerith Wyn Evans/White Cube

    Cerith Wyn Evans
  • Cerith Wyn Evans

    © Cerith Wyn Evans/White Cube

    Cerith Wyn Evans
  • Cerith Wyn Evans

    © Cerith Wyn Evans/White Cube

    Cerith Wyn Evans

Cerith Wyn Evans

© Cerith Wyn Evans/White Cube

Much like his work, Cerith Wyn Evans shifts from the intellectual to the anecdotal in seconds. It can be hard to keep up. One minute he's quoting the late Italian scholar Mario Praz and taking a pop at 'bums on seats' populism; the next, he's reminiscing about his dad, a keen amateur photographer, and chortling about how art is a bit like the Tardis - 'You don't question where you are because the Tardis has just taken you there'.

Taking a break from installing his forthcoming show, the fifty-something artist delivers this turbulent stream of consciousness down the phone in a sing-songy Welsh accent. It's an accent that makes you forget he's lived in London since the 1970s, working with the likes of Derek Jarman, Leigh Bowery and The Fall while carving out a reputation as a maker of artworks and installations that deliver potent hits of beauty then spiral off into the spheres of history, film and literature. Meanwhile, in the Serpentine Sackler Gallery - a nineteenth-century building designed to store gunpowder during the Napoleonic wars - the components of his exhibition are being unpacked. If Evans is being 'a little eccentric', as he puts it, it's partly because this is the moment when art and Grade I-listed architecture meet. It's also because he's not entirely sure what he'll find when he opens the crates.

What will you be showing?
'There will be a neon text running all the way round the space, a sort of establishing shot that takes you on a narrative excursion. There's sound - a piece for two flutes in call and response - and there's some low-key film works projected on to images that my father took in the 1950s. There's a hell of lot in the show for someone who's known for not putting very much in a show.'

It sounds like you've got it all sorted.
'Well, I'm describing all of this to you, but of course I haven't seen any of it because I don't have a studio where I test things out. This is the studio. I don't know whether I want people to know this or not, but 90 percent of time I stare at the crates and I say "What's in there, then?" And when I open them I go: "Oh right, I forgot that I decided to make that."'

Sounds scary. Why the seat-of-the-pants approach?
'It's really good. It's like getting Christmas presents from yourself - ones that you've hidden on top of the wardrobe, then had some sort of self-induced amnesic fit in order to give yourself a future surprise. The show is totally about that.'

‘I loathe chandeliers, I think they're the most vulgar, ugly, impractical things’

© Ali Janka

How does your father fit into it all?
'He's always been very important to me and I'm forever returning to certain images that I grew up with. His images have been silkscreened to become silver screens really.'

So you're a romantic, then?
'No! My work is perceived as being romantic but I'm not really sure what people mean by that. I think of romantic as wanting to die from a heroin overdose in a gutter outside the Chelsea Hotel. I don’t know what it means exactly. People who are soppy? People who like crying. People who would expire if love wasn’t returned?'

But your work often has a yearning quality. It's beautiful. You use chandeliers!
'I loathe chandeliers, I think they're the most vulgar, ugly, impractical things, but they serve their purpose. They're sort of my dray horses really - my Trojan dray horses. They're hosts, they're not in and of themselves particularly interesting. The real work goes on somewhere else, in the imagination of someone who has come to see the exhibition.'

So, the art is there to invite contemplation?
'It's really about fluidity, about drifting through the space, about sounds drifting, images drifting. You're moving from one place to another and that movement can happen physically but also emotionally.'

Do you worry that people won't understand the work?
'I'm all for as many people as possible coming. But if they go away mystified, maybe it's good. You know, why be populist? There are plenty of people doing art for all; Gilbert & George do that and it's fantastic. But sometimes it's necessary to go somewhere quiet and meditate. Or confuse things: play the radio and the television and sing at the same time. That's what I do. When I started showing my work, my dad was very proud to come along and see things. But I remember he used to say: "Good God, Cerith, where do you get your ideas from?". People keep asking that question but I'm so glad they do. If they're asking that, somehow you're on the right track.'