Aaron Williamson: The Eavesdropper and Other Stories

Aaron Williamson: an artist operating with all the chaos, confusion and trouble-causing of the avant-garde tradition…

On Tuesday afternoon, the Bluecoat played host to a conversation between artistic director of the Biennial, Sally Tallant, and artist Aaron Williamson. Williamson, who is deaf, says his work as an artist “is inspired by [the] experience of becoming deaf and by a politicised, yet humorous sensibility towards disability”.

The talk, scheduled during the final week of DaDaFest (which includes the Niet Normaal exhibition at the Bluecoat) was to centre on Williamson’s practice and his residency, entitled The Eavesdropper, at the Walker. That it did, but it also provided an incredibly valuable insight into the perspective of working in the arts with a disability.

Tallant, who knows Williamson from her days at the Serpentine Gallery, signalled her intent for what was to be a no holds barred discussion, intelligently covering sensitive and challenging ground. “I’d like to unearth some of the difficulties over the years … on the level of … politics around the ghettoisation of disability”, she said, addressing both Williamson and the audience.

Acknowledging some of the difficulties faced by artists operating with a disability, Williamson noted: “the challenge for disability art is to attract a mainstream audience.” To that end, he and his collaborator, wheelchair user Katherine Araniello, set up the disabled avant-garde, performing public interventions – which have an air of Chris Morris about them – and skewering public perceptions of how disabled people ‘should’ act and behave.

“The challenge for disability art is to attract a mainstream audience” 

A lot of ground is covered over the course of around an hour. We are shown snippets of performances: Charisma, which involves Williamson gnashing and gnawing his way out of some pretty sturdy-looking clothes, is a disturbing piece (a sentiment echoed by Tallant), but says Williamson, “relates to a classic performance tradition”.

We also see Wild Boy, his reference to the treatment and fate of ‘feral’ children, found in the wild and returned (often unsuccessfully) to society. One of the strongest – and perhaps most playful – examples screened is SELF-HANG, which involves Williamson literally hurling himself at a gallery wall. “At that time I was thinking I’d made no wall art. I was thinking … I’ll fling myself at it. It’s a bit of a riposte to the gallery tradition.”

Williamson’s residency at the Walker Art Gallery has so far involved him using his time to ‘eavesdrop’ on some of the paintings in the impressive collection, a great deal of which are centuries old. Details about the intent, and therefore the nature of the interventions are unclear at the moment.

There is a quote from the artist on the Liverpool Museums website which hints at what we can expect: “As a deaf person, it seems to me that the Walker’s Victorian art collection is vibrantly alive with whispers and questions, taunts and sayings: the mutterings against the silence of tight-lipped Victorian society. I want to listen to the collection, imaginatively, and use this research as the source of an entirely fictitious new interpretation of the paintings.”

What these resuting interpretations (which will take the form of performance-based interventions in the gallery on 15th, 16th and 17th November) will involve is anybody’s guess at this stage. He gave little more away in talking to Tallant, merely adding “the Eavesdropper is about conversations between paintings … how paintings exist beyond initial intentions”.

If his work to date is anything to go by, we can at least expect they will be in turn challenging and humorous. That’s assuming of course that you’re in on the joke. Williamson’s work often relies on playing with the ways in which many ‘normal’ people perceive disability, hoping to “catch people off-balance with our intentions”, is how he describes it here. Time will tell.

Aaron Williamson The Eavesdropper: 15th, 16th and 17th November @ the Walker Art Gallery

Posted on 30/08/2012 by thedoublenegative