MEDITATIONS IN AN EMERGENCY
We had met before, on a writers’ residency retreat so I knew to expect Bayliss’s quiet manner, but he seems more taciturn than I remember. We drink tea and he relaxes a little but he seems, nonetheless a reluctant conversationalist. He chooses his words with such care that they often don’t materialise in the air space between us; it’s hard to say if this is a process of live self-editing or rather if the words he’s searching for remain elusive even to him.
This reticence is quite at odds with his art practice in which words, in particular poems, feature strongly. We talk about this, about his instinct to ruminate at length over words, to edit and re-edit them, an impulse that runs counter to their improvised use in conversation. Nevertheless there’s an exploratory, apparently spontaneous playfulness about his way with words in his work, where they roam lightly, and also widely, around a variety of themes. Citizens of Nowhere (2018) covers: a sense of place, the Cornish peninsula; queer sexuality, with ambiguous references to coming and sucking; and politics, post the 2016 June referendum. These elements often appear in comic combination. Hung from the ceiling like Japanese scrolls and painted in UV paint, one section reads:
When I meditate on citizenship I am empty
Maybe one day we’ll be #homowners
First, let’s go for a cream tea –
stir jam anticlockwise into cream,
whirl and howl like an Atlantic depression.
Clockwise won’t un-stir, we’re merging pink!
Bayliss combines wry humour, penetrative social commentary, and critical insight into the place of his work within the canon of art histories. In his practice he switches between, what he calls, the ‘traditions’ of poetry, pottery, plein air painting and dance music, often shuttling between them rather than focussing on one tradition in isolation. This expansive approach to materials and genres lends his works a satisfyingly unpredictable tone, swinging between the kitsch and the contemplative, between the exuberant and the quietly crafted. Housed in and around a serious museum-style vitrine are examples of recent hand-thrown jugs and teabowls. One jug is decorated with a painted shrimp, a classic motif in pottery and a reference to, among other things, the doyen of twentieth-century British pottery, Bernard Leach. Bayliss undercuts this reverence with a range of absurdly oversized clay pasties that are bigger than pillows and glazed in a riotous motley of turquoises, reds, oranges and blacks.
Tonal contrasts like this occur elsewhere in the exhibition too. A set of modest watercolour landscapes painted outside, en plein air (mostly in Cornwall) directly reference the impressionism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Newlyn and St Ives Schools. While, nearby a work in which Bayliss’s name is emblazoned in neon light, injects a note of brazen frivolity and pop. It flashes on and off in blue and pink phases, alternating between:
This kind of irreverence recalls acts of coming-of-age graffiti on the back of cubicle doors. But its materials are a nod to art-historical works like Bruce Nauman’s neon sign series from the 1960s onwards as well as the language of commercial advertising. While its wordplay, is reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp’s 1920s probing of the name of his alter ego Rose Sélavy (‘Rose, that’s life’), which later became Rrose Sélavy (which sounds like ‘Eros, that’s life’). Bayliss’s abutting of high and low art references such as these wrong-foots at every turn.
Meditations (2018), a high-octane dance music video, ups the ante further with its restless acid bassline. Here Bayliss couples found YouTube footage from working military airfields with sexualised pastiche dancing, all filtered through a lurid purple colour lens. Burly aircraft marshals ushering working planes in and out of airfields are pictured, incongruously, dressed in tiger onesies, unicorn masks and skimpy cut-off shorts. They strut, gyrate, cartwheel, moonwalk, mime the YMCA or the Macarena and blow kisses to the pilots they are seeing off, undermining the tone of seriousness that their jobs imply. These scenes are interspersed with shots of decommissioned fighter planes, in rosey soft focus, around which a figure – a stand-in of sorts for Bayliss himself – in skin-tight jumpsuit and unicorn mask awkwardly humps, grinds and dances provocatively. The silliness of all this larking about appears to us civilians, at least, as distinctly out of place.
But Meditations has other implications too, particularly for the way that it performs a destabilising of the codes of cultural and sexual signification. While inevitably cognisant of Freud’s readings of airplanes as associated with the male upthrust, the real protagonists of the film are the marshals whose role, in Bayliss’s handling, is more nuanced. Rooted to the ground – with its feminine connotations of ‘Mother Earth’ – they are dwarfed in size compared to the aircrafts and seemingly vulnerable, unprotected by the metal frame of the jets. But they are also empowered, pictured in roles of dominance, chaperoning the subservient aircrafts. Rather than emphasising this dominance though, Bayliss collates examples of the marshals themselves undermining the power dynamic, their coquettish performances queering the gender role, relations and assumptions that their line of work implies.
As our conversation comes to an end, before I catch my train home, it strikes me that there is something incongruent about the outgoing nature of Bayliss’s work and the introverted nature of his demeanour. ‘I feel like a lot of the time I’m trying to embarrass myself [in my work] and I don’t really know why!’, he tells me. He goes on to relay advice he was once given for writing poetry: ‘bring out your extreme self’ the poet Ella Frears counselled. This ‘extreme’ manifests in various ways: his characters and alter-egos are flamboyant; his use of colour gregarious (neon lights flash and day-glow painted words emanate an aura of acidity); and the punchy dance track plays on repeat, its energy and exuberance apparently limitless.
Bayliss’s high-spirited antics are also however, inflected with melancholy. His undermining of the mores of sexuality in an irreverent pantomiming of otherness is partly because he himself feels like an outsider to these mores: ‘I haven’t felt the need to find belonging through familiar queer codes, etiquettes and aesthetics’. He puts this feeling down to his decision to live and work outside of urban centres in which these unspoken codes, he imagines, are written. In this sense Meditations in an Emergency feels like a personal exploration, through humour, respect, and mimicry, of what it means to perform sexuality on the social stage. Bayliss shoots through assumptions around what masculinity and queerness look and feel like, he dislocates hierarchies of the high and low-brow ensuring instead that paradoxes persist. In this his work unnerves at every turn, seeing to it that we never get too comfortable in its company.
1. The title for the exhibition comes from Frank O’Hara’s poem of the same name in O’Hara’s collection, Meditations in an Emergency (1957).
Lizzie Lloyd is a writer, translator, and Associate Lecturer in Fine Art / Art and Visual Culture at University of the West of England. She contributes to a range of magazines and journals including Art Monthly, ArtReview, artnet, HONORE, Journal of Contemporary Painting, among others. Her writing has appeared alongside exhibitions at Foreground, Peter Von Kant, Exeter Phoenix, Hestercombe Gallery, UH Gallery, KARST, and Bridport Museum among others. She was writer-in-residence at Arnolfini Gallery in 2016 and in Plymouth, through the Art Writers Group, in 2017. Her doctoral thesis on Art Writing and Subjectivity at University of Bristol is due to be completed in 2018