Edes Prize winner to create ambitious art installation

Eric Watts, MFA’12, uses a video installation to provide viewers a layered experience that is at once intellectual and rooted in the body. “My work is heavily research-oriented,” Watts said, “then there’s the more experiential realm, where viewers walk around and have a bodily interaction with the art.”

Watts is the 2016 winner of the Claire Rosen & Samuel Edes Foundation Prize for Emerging Artists, a $30,000 award offered to recent graduates from four universities, including the University of Chicago, to fund the creation of original work.

His winning proposal is a film and video installation entitled “Edifice,” which is focused on themes of home, biography and memorial, and inspired by the work of contemporary Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard and early 20th-century Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. This summer, Watts will travel to Austria to film key places from Bernhard’s life, including his home, and scenes from his 1975 novel Korrektur. He also will film the Kundmanngasse Haus, a home designed and built by Wittgenstein for his sister.

The result will be an “architecture” that Watts constructs that will serve as a memorial to his friend and close collaborator Stephen Hess, a Chicago writer who died in 2015. “I always thought Stephen and I would work in this project together,” Watts said, “so a way to continue to collaborate with him is to build an architecture, a sort of home, for him to house some of his writing.”

Although “Edifice” is still in the idea phase, Watts said it will likely possess concepts he has used in other works, such as circularity. His recent exhibition, with his partner Lauren Edwards, at Heaven Gallery, 1550 N. Milwaukee Ave., utilized multiple looping elements such as a 16-mm film projection, a slide tray carousel on 15-second rotation and a portable record player. It’s the same sense Watts gets in reading Bernhard’s stream of consciousness style of writing, “where you are stuck within the narrator’s thinking, stuck inside his mind, in a way in which there is no clear break,” he said. “I am interested in conveying that in a filmic sense.”

Watts’ proposal stood out for its literary, historical, personal and spatial dimensionality, as well as its psychological and emotional potential, said artist Catherine Sullivan, associate professor in the Department of Visual Arts, who advised the Edes Prize selection committee. “Eric is extremely adventurous and talented in creating moving image installations where there are strong, beautiful and specific relationships between what is in the image and how the image lives in the room,” Sullivan added. “The project is ambitious in the sense that it has to depict characters, subjectivities, histories and places through its own unique representational frameworks and media. It must invent its own forms and balance deeply private and personal relationships with others that have more established historiographies.”

Watts said he would like his final work to contain a room featuring films made at the specific sites he will visit in Austria and a room dedicated to Hess’s writing. He plans to exhibit the completed work in Austria, Germany and the United States. “This is a dream project for me,” Watts said. “Without this prize, I don’t know how I would be able to make it a reality.”