When Welsh artist Bedwyr Williams found out about the relatively-recent disappearance of one of this country’s most important archaeological sites, he decided to bring it back from the underworld. The result is Hypercaust, showing now at Chester’s newly-opened Storyhouse, which stands only a few hundred yards away from where the Roman Baths, or Thermae, were built, in the city then known as Deva, around 79 AD.
In the 1960s, when work began on what became the Grosvenor shopping centre, the well-preserved remains of the bathhouses – once part of the city’s Roman Fortress – were unearthed. But the shopping centre took priority, and despite the fact that archaeologists were permitted to record, map and remove the Roman remains, the baths were destroyed and built over.
Hypercaust is the first of Storyhouse’s new digital art commissions, and you can see it on the venue’s big screen, every day, every half an hour. The title refers to the Roman underfloor heating system, or hypocaust, used in large buildings including Chester’s baths. To create the new video work, Williams worked with Julian Baum, of Chester-based 3D animation company Take 27, to create what appears in some ways to be a virtual tour of the Roman Baths. But what you see and hear is much more than that.
The Baths are seen by night, with steam still rising from the heating systems, but without any naked legionaries seen bathing in the waters. The remarkable interior spaces of the baths themselves, the Basilica or exercise hall, and the subterranean world of the hypocaust, are illuminated and explored in a particularly atmospheric way, by virtual moonlight. The soundtrack, however, makes the experience more curious. Music played on an ancient, double-reeded instrument called an aulos combines with Williams’ voice, reading stories he found in local newspapers from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
These odd tales, a mixture of eccentric, funny, and slightly disturbing incidents and misunderstandings, are the sort of material Britain’s local press no longer bothers covering. One example, for instance, concerns a council meeting in which someone produces a wad of human hair that has been clogging up the filters in the local swimming pool – the architectural and social descendant of the Roman Baths. The inclusion of such stories in Williams’ new work marks the disappearance of one more aspect of British life that seems to have become a victim to media homogenisation. The sound of the aulos, however, is of the period of the Roman occupation, and such instruments may well have been played and heard on the streets of Deva. Its music adds a disconcerting, otherworldly feel to the Hypercaust experience, whereby you start to wonder if you’re reimagining a series of buildings dedicated to health and hygiene, or some sort of ancient temple.
Like archaeology, and like the city of Chester itself, Hypercaust is a multi-layered experience. Its humour and its strangeness speak to the present as much as they do to the past. Bedwyr Williams’ Hypercaust will be visible at 5pm until 5.15pm every day until 31 December.
Bob Dickinson is a writer and PhD researcher based in Manchester.