The following remarks were delivered by art historian, independent curator, and writer Lars Bang Larsen at a program taking the form of a dinner that coincided with the exhibition Andrea Büttner. It is presented along with remarks by fellow speakers at the dinner: exhibition curator Fionn Meade, Auburn University associate philosophy professor Keren Gorodeisky, and forager and nature enthusiast Elijah Ferrian.
Andrea once told me how the Swiss artist Dieter Roth at some point in the 20th century defined the work of art: One makes a work of art, Roth said, by putting one thing on top of another. An object on top of a pedestal, color on a canvas, figure on ground.
(Parenthetically, Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil (1968) was originally was originally titled One Plus One, but that is another story.)
An example of this one thing plus another in the work of Andrea would be Diamantenstuhl (Diamond chair), (2011) that consists of a rough brown diamond that sits on top of a plastic chair. Diamond on chair: art work.
Andrea Büttner, Diamentenstuhl (Diamond Chair), 2011. Image courtesy Artspace San Antonio
In her show at the Walker we can also think of the two versions of moss presented there, one digital and one natural. Or the way that Büttner the artist places her work on top of that of Kant the philosopher.
But of course things don’t add up that easily. To talk about the art work as one thing plus another is also way of saying that things are never just 1:1. This is definitely the case with Andrea’s work. It always looks pretty simple and straightforward, no bull—ohne Scheisse, as they say—but there is always more to her work than meets the eye. And what’s so wonderful about it is how it makes us see with our own two eyes again.
Some aspects of Andrea’s work—her woodcuts for instance—spell tradition and craftsmanship but she is not that kind of maker. In fact she doesn’t “do” a lot in the conventional sense that artists do. As much as a doer, really, she is a borrower, a channeling medium, somebody who makes versions of existing images, recombines art history, and employs the voices of other people.
You can call her an appropriation artist. All of culture is the palette of the appropriation artist, who also works in the 1+1 way by taking over objects and introducing them into works of art. These objects can be pre-existing ones, or even existing works of art that are treated as things. We can think of Sherrie Levine’s wonderful piece over at the Walker, Fountain (after Marcel Duchamp: A.P), 1991 in which she has remade Duchamp’s urinal as a contemporary urinal cast in bronze. Here Levine in a sense puts her 1991 remake on top of Duchamp’s 1917 Fountain, as a layering of versions of an art work that lacks an original.
The appropriation artist isn’t committed to any single medium, but picks and chooses between things that culture has already produced, and she moves them around between different contexts and frameworks. The appropriation artist is concerned with art as a sign, and she traffics in difference. The appropriationist is a ventriloquist: she lets an existing object talk, but with a voice that she lends to it.
The appropriation art from the 1980s and’90s was impersonal, de-subjectified. There is nobody “behind” Sherrie Levine’s urinal. When we see a work by Levine or Jeff Koons we don’t go, “Oh, this is just so Jeff. I hear Jeff’s voice so clearly in this. What Jeff wants to express here is this and that.” There’s none of that. In this sense appropriation is not 1+1, it is 0+1; because the artist here takes a certain pleasure in being a nobody, a blank. In the work of Koons or Levine, it is in a sense a question of who has chosen who; is it the artist who chose the object, or in fact the object that chose the artist and thereby makes the artist become someone?
Andrea’s style of appropriation, on the other hand, is anything but blank or smooth. It is dirty and sticky. Her question seems to be: “Well, do I have a choice? Do I have a choice—given who I am, which is not my mistake—do I have a choice to make art about something else than German philosophy, about my fascination with nuns, about my mobile phone and the other mundane stuff that surrounds me?”
In her work Andrea in a sense is more than she does. She gives us small clues about who she is: She is a German woman. She is a sister and a daughter. She has some kind of affiliation with Catholicism. She likes to do things with her hands. She has certain political ideas. She is a contrarian who likes to swim upstream and go against the grain. At the same time, as we never really get to know who she is, her biography is leaking a bit into her work, always just enough to introduce opacity. She would of course never present herself as the full-bodied artistic genius, as the chosen one. Instead, the version of Andrea that we get to know through her work is always half a person—half artist and half amateur, half part professional and half part laywoman, half part private person, half part public persona.
So when an artist makes work by putting one thing on top of another, the one thing plus another never equals two. Instead you break open each of the things as they previously existed. When they are together they form a conspicuous ensemble, a combination that is new but at the same time stands out as suspended or even broken—because it breaks down functions, rules, conventions, and so on. To add one thing to another to break things down, split them into fractions in order to try and get the proportions right.
One makes a work of art by putting one thing on top of another. We can speculate that there was a dirty joke in there for Dieter Roth, the old womanizer. To beget art. I seem to remember that Andrea also knows a good one about a nun, a Wurst, and the holy ghost.
In any case, the two constituent parts of the art work can also indicate a becoming-many, a multitude. This concerns how Andrea’s work, apart from being aware of itself as art, also has a strong social dimension. Not in the sense that she sets out to fashion utopia from whole cloth, but that she shows ways of being together that arises out of the gaps that divide people from one another in everyday life. We can think of how the Rastafarians define their community; they never say “we,” but “I and I” – “I and I,” 1+1….+1+1+1+1. This idea of a collective existence that takes difference into account, and whose qualities are up to us to define, is something that I think resonates strongly in the work of Andrea—and the special way that it is self-effacing and performative, radical and gestural, fundamental and elusive.
I and I: raise our glasses—cheers to Andrea!