‘There is, in the experience of art and in the genesis of the work, a moment where the work is still nothing but an indistinct violence tending to open up and tending to close, tending to exalt in a space that opens up and tending to withdraw into the profundity of dissimulation.’
The linked notions of belief and shame form the central theme of Andrea Büttner’s work, which references utopian Modernist strategies and outmoded artisanal methods of production. Her woodcuts, glasspainting, and screenprinting would appear to be rooted in craft traditions, rather than within contemporary visual art. That is, if we accept that the Contemporary has a specific aesthetic, then these media may be excluded from the discourse. Yet it is precisely their marginal status that draws the artist to them. Whilst a medium such as the woodcut appears to have no power in the present, its past presence casts a significant shadow: woodcuts were used to mass-produce images, in particular those of a religious nature, and are also closely associated with Modernist utopianism in the early 20th Century. According to the theorist Martin Jay, ‘it is hardly too much to say that since the invention of writing there has been no more important invention than that of the exactly repeatable pictorial statement.’
Whilst an artist’s choice of materials in a post-medium era is of some interest when picking from the officially sanctioned roster of cool factory conceptualism, the selection becomes of great interest when deliberately choosing the wrong one, that is, a medium that does not signify in current discourse. It is as if the artist were playing a forensic game littered with unstable clues whose codification renders identification uncertain. This uncertainty is emphasised by a series of interviews of and by the artist. Several are, in fact, “inverted interviews”, where the artist poses the questions about her work, and the interviewee, a curator or critic, answers in her stead. Büttner has argued that she prizes collaboration as an activity, but not for the usual reasons of exchange and companionship, but because it allows her to remain at once passive and receptive. Although the interviewer normally leads the proceedings, it is usually the interviewee who is the subject, the raison d’être of the session. To invert the format means to place the fate of the work under discussion into the hands of a stranger, indeed replicating precisely the conditions of exhibition, where the artist shows work in a public place to an audience that remains unknowable and elusive. Thus, we might assume, that Büttner relinquishes the responsibility for the work’s interpretation, moreover, if we classify these interviews as textual works in themselves, the artist is also asking others to make her work, that is, she invites fellow professionals to examine and add to, the (de)codification of the work and what surrounds it, namely the position of the audience itself, the gallery and its attendant protocols of display, and the discourse of art.
Allan Kaprow comments that art’s audience is ‘a roster of the creative and performing professions watching itself, as if in a mirror, [and] enact a struggle between the self-anointed priests and a cadre of self-appointed commandos, jokers, guttersnipes and triple agents who seem to be attempting to destroy the priests’ church.’ While Kaprow laments the state of the audience, he does not appear to hold out hope for its renewal: ‘But everybody knows how it ends: in church, of course, with the whole club bowing their heads and muttering prayers. They pray for themselves and their religion.’
The parallels between a secular art and religious belief are well rehearsed, in particular, in the area of museum and gallery display. By aligning contemporary art with the very thing it wishes to distance itself from, religious belief, art’s pomposity and folly are debunked. These connections are not meant to critique, but serve as a way of lambasting art. And yet, despite its apparent disavowal of faith, the artworld is also a belief system, underscored by an impenetrable mother discourse. It is curious, then, for an artist like Büttner to show interest in belief, not as a sociological object of study, but as a genuine inquiry into faith as a means of fostering a dialogue between artist, audience and work. ‘I like the word believe. In general, when one says “I know”, one doesn’t know, one believes’, argues Marcel Duchamp, echoing the artist’s ambivalent relationship with faith.
‘Little Works’ (2007) centres on a group of Carmelite nuns in a convent in West London who are asked to make hand-held videos of their everyday lives and of the objects they make in their spare time. The resulting display takes the form of an installation and shows documents of these unpretentious craft objects, which remain untouched by art and by secular life. What draws our attention to these works is their warmth and ingenuity, coupled with their inappropriateness within the setting of the gallery; there is no contradiction of the spatial misalignment between the artist’s studio and the gallery in this event, as these works have no artistic or monetary value. Instead, they signify as ‘gifts’ that are related to the subject who gives and receives. These “little works” lead the spectator to question the legitimacy of the artist’s purpose who has brought together the display in the exhibition, and, in this way, exposes the artist’s blushes; in other words, her shame, a state borne out of the inability to foretell the success of the exhibition. ‘One has to be honest to comfort the viewer in their misery […] one has to show one’s misery for that purpose,’ states the artist Dieter Roth. Arguably, it is the revelation of individual misery that leads to empathy between the artist and the audience mediated by the work.
In a shameless world dominated by a desire for entitlement, disclosure and exhibitionism, shame provides a social antidote. ‘To be shameful’, according to the curator Lars Bang Larsen, ‘is to be inexplicable to oneself’, and represents the dilemma of communication. Therefore, shame is articulated through the presence of others, through social interaction. Thus the artist actively projects private shame into the public realm, exacerbating the anxiety of exchange. To show, then, invariably means to engage with the art of the confessional statement, inasmuch as any art practice is about confession of one kind or another. According to the artist and critic David Robbins ‘ the artist discovers in his uselessness-by-association the seeds of a critique of the useful […]. The artist comes to behave as if his life is a politicized still life, an accretion of gestures yielding objects and images offered to other people for decoding and interpretation. The artist spends his life polishing his still life, preparing it for lifetimes of interpretation.’
The appropriation of the gallery space provides a recurring theme in the artist’s work. She paints the walls of the space brown as far up as she can reach before engaging in the display of other works. The colour is a reminder of the body, or more precisely, of the body’s functions, eating and excreting, since brown suggests chocolate or shit. Both represent infantile pleasures of reception and production; however, far from reading as a destructive action, it serves instead to disrupt the implacable codes of the white cube. Büttner’s appropriation of the gallery may read as an infantile tantrum, but it performs an effective détournement of the ethos of the gallery space. Indeed, the artist appears drawn to the aesthetics of concealment, from the habits of nuns and obliterated white cubes, to textworks that exhibit the desire to reveal yet are disguised with multiple codes. But is it not legitimate to conceal the identity of the very things we prize the most? To brazenly exhibit, in the knowledge that to do so is a shameful and duplicitous game in which the cards are always stacked against the player, the viewer. Perhaps shame reveals the inner dimension of things, since we value things for their codification and secrecy. ‘The work is then the struggling intimacy of irreconcilable and inseparable moments…between form where it grasps hold of itself and limitlessness where it rejects itself, between work as beginning and the origin on the basis of which there is never any work, where the external absence of work reigns. This antagonistic exaltation is what founds communication’ and leaves the artist blushing.