International Project Space, Birmingham
7 November - 15 December 2012
By Beth Bramich
The artist Andrea Büttner considers shame to be a useful emotion, as it can drive an individual to greater productivity and reflection. This heuristic understanding of shame may seem anachronistic, a contemporary life involves a constant performance of the self where mistakes and transgressions must be concealed, and in fact is just one of the untimely concerns that drive Büttner’s practice which include religion, humanism, existentialism and questions of morality. (1)
International Project Space is a gallery at the heart of an art school, which in turn is located within Bournville, a model village founded by Quaker, George Cadbury in 1893. A pleasant and tidy suburb kept artificially distinct from the city of Birmingham through the upholding of the principles of the Cadbury family by the Bournville Village Trust. This religious and educational context is referred to in Büttner’s installation, which sees the gallery remodeled through minimal interventions into a place for quiet contemplation, drawing parallels between spaces of religion, education and exhibition.
The gallery has a high ceiling with a pitched roof and skylights allowing daylight into a room large enough for a mid-sized gathering. Simple benches composed of planks of wood supported by grey crates line the walls in continuous stretches. This seating arrangement allows for solitary use and for small groups to form, emulating Quaker meetings where congregations typically sit in a non-hierarchical configuration, silent unless inspired to speak. Running along the walls above the benches are a series of padded backrests in various woven designs made by members of a German home for the disabled and a convent of nuns who produce fabric used in religious garments. One particularly striking conjunction sees a stretch of bright colours meet a solid block of navy blue with ‘JA’ stitched in red thread. This ‘yes’ is an unqualified affirmation, a certainty, simple and solid but context-less, unsupported by the secular function of the gallery.
A series of glass paintings displayed in one corner of the room feature small printed reproductions of 14th Century reliefs found on the tombstones of academics and professors in Bologna, Italy. These sculptures depict scenes of teacher-student relationships: groups engaged in reading, listening and discussion. The sheets of glass have been painted with subdued earthy tones surrounding details of the reliefs. This iconography of education portraying mastery and benevolent transferal of knowledge to novices is out of step in this contemporary pedagogical situation, particularly in as relatively radical a context as that of arts education.
Audio work ‘Quaker Meeting, Houston, Texas’ (2011), allows the visitor to experience the small everyday noises of many people engrossed in mute reflection. Listening to the ‘silence’ encroached upon by small shifts in the Quakers’ positions and the world of activity outside, their meditation is conveyed but no insight into their spiritual experience is provided. As an outsider, I must assume that it is the crucial element of faith that would exclude me from sharing in the togetherness of the congregation’s communal purpose even if I were physically present.
The passive nature of the exhibition, a solo-show of relatively no bombast, reflects the subdued radicality of Büttner’s practice as a whole: playful, understated, contrary. The close viewing of the work produced by the artist’s hand, confined to unobtrusive corners, seems optional rather than compulsory. The works in this exhibition document sanctuaries, which the audience can in different senses observe without gaining access to. Sitting on humble benches, the focus of the exhibition, it becomes clear, is the act of inhabiting this space with its ecclesiastic overtones, made most engaging as an experience when occupied by many people isolated by their own contemplation.
1. As listed by Lars Bang Larsen during a joint talk with the artist as part of a series, Radical Rupture organized by www.publik.dk