London based, German artist Andrea Buttner’s paintings, woodblock prints and sculptures challenge preconceived fundamental societal notions, entrenched connotations on words such as ‘rich’ and ‘poor’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘ugly’, what’s ‘little’ and the notion of aesthetics. She seems to be interested in focusing on the minorities, the ‘marginalized’, discarded attitudes of the art world, encouraging her own works, often described as ‘little’, to ‘fall down’.
Her interest lies in themes that cause discomfort, that are uncomfortable to talk about especially in the plushy world of ‘avant-garde’ art; themes of poverty and shame in art, for which she did her doctoral thesis in, and in the exhibition The Poverty Of Riches (2011) for which she won an award for. However, this perceived advocation for the minor or the alterior is misconstrued as her works reveal an ambiguous stance when viewed on a deeper level, an ‘in-between’ position alternating between the mainstream and the opposition. Certainly I don’t think she ever said that its virtuous to be poor or that there’s something wrong with being rich.
Part of the confusion stems from the fact that she uses subject matter that makes it seem like its good or virtuous to be poor, as in the case of St. Francis of Assisi, who give up his wealth to find God. I think she’s just using him for arguement’s sake. What she does confront, is that worldly tendency to focus on the price, maybe the popularity or whether an art work has some eye-catching visual acrobatics or dazzling appeal.
“I don’t know about you, but when I read a novel, or listen to a piece of music, or when I look at art, I’m searching for a friend.” Andrea Buttner 2014
And the arguement, the point she’s trying to make is that to talk about poverty and wealth in relation to art, is to miss the point. Just as philosopher Immanuel Kant described in the Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790) the impossibility of rationally explaining what’s beautiful and what’s not, so too is poverty and wealth, in the traditional sense, alien to the constructs of avant-garde art. ‘Transportivity’, the ability of an art work to transport someone to another place and time, might be a better attribute to describe it.
If poverty is about the lack of something material, then the ‘poverty’ that Buttner is referring to is something else; it is about using something which seems ‘poor’ to lead one to find something ‘rich’. Her choice of using the lowly moss as subject matter, of using the outdated woodcut printing technique and even her finger marks swiped on an iphone are all instances of using things that might seen as ‘poor’ or ‘worthless’; things which need to be eradicated and elevating them to another level.
Her notion of ‘shame in art’, I believe, is a man-made one; it reminds me of those teachers in primary and secondary school saying “you should be ashamed of yourself”, which is a way to control the behaviour of unruly children. But if you look at Dancing Nuns (2007), she really should be ashamed of herself. The strokes seem so adolescent, like a child did it.
But I think she did it on purpose, like its an experiment to see how the public would react. For if one looks at Nativity (2007), or Vogelpredigt / Sermon to the Birds (2010) the stroke marks are much more detailed, refined. Or if one looks at Hand (2015) that’s proof right there she can paint.
Piano Destruction (2014) is a video installation of various archival scenes depicting male conceptual artists of the 1960’s destroying pianos as a rejection and ‘liberation’ from the shackles of this symbol of the bourgeois notion that good girls (and some boys) have to spend hours and hours practicing piano every day in order to be ‘gifted’ or even ‘educated’.
The ruckus of pianos being sawed, toppled, smashed by axes and of wood being torn apart fills the gallery as one traverses through it, which gives way to a video of a more melodic performance of Chopin, Schumann and Monteverdi classical pieces by a group of 9 woman playing together at the other end.
These seemingly disparate acts of, on the one side destroying a piano and on the other playing it, are revealed to have a certain linkage, as the repetition of one hammering and sawing are somewhat ‘mirrored’ in the repetitive moves of the female pianists playing in unison. That these instruments are being destroyed by the men, cultural leaders in their own right, demands a kind of heroism. They were being expected to play or at least respect these musical instruments, yet here they were playing the part of a motley demolition crew. But this is also being ‘mirrored’ as the women play the romantic pieces which express a kind of grand, heroism too.
While it may seem that being a woman, Buttner would be biased towards the playing contingent; that playing the piano is actually higher or more noble than smashing it to bits, even if the men pretend to ‘play’ it while doing so, the way the film is made leads one to think otherwise. For there is a certain surreal irony that somehow becomes evident as the film progresses.
In the historical piano destruction films, there is also an irony, but it is an expected irony. One expects it to be ironic, to carry an inappropriateness in the acts of these men 50 years ago, especially in the cases of deriving such pleasure at the destruction of these instruments. But the film of the women playing in unison also somehow conveys an irony, a surreal oddity even, although much more subtle, as some of them seem to just go through the paces. For the years and years of practice to get this far and perform at this event, many don’t appear to be enjoying themselves too much, except for the group leader.
Confronting entrenched societal notions, taboos in the art world like shame, poverty, worthlessness and beauty, Andrea Buttner’s art works appear to vindicate the marginalized or the ‘bad’ or ‘other’ side of the mainstream point of view, but at a deeper level reveals an ambiguous stance. This is most evident in her films such as Piano Destructions (2014) of the piano playing women which initially might be seen as complimentary to the footage of piano destroying male artists, but on closer scrutiny reveals a criticism of both. A similar position can also be read in Vogelpredigt / Sermon to the Birds (2010) with St. Francis of Assisi preaching to a flock of birds, and in Nativity (2007), with the three wise men gathered together in a barn with the faithful before an invisible baby Jesus, which are ‘in-between’ positions alternating between the mainstream and the heretical.