InterviewsWeekend

Of Buttons and Babies, Arendt and Eichmann

by Thomas Micchelli on November 24, 2012

Maria Bussmann, “Drawing on Hannah Arendt (Buttons)” (2012). Pencil on paper, 50 x 70 cm. (Click to enlarge.) All photos by the author for Hyperallergic.

Maria Bussmann is an artist whose work is rarely seen in this country, and so her compact new show of seven large drawings and 24 small ones at NYU’s Deutsches Haus represents a notable opportunity to catch a glimpse of her singular sensibility.

I first met Bussmann, who was born in Würzburg, Germany, in 1966, nearly six years ago, when a mutual friend showed me examples of her work — drawings based on phrases from Wittgenstein and others on rolls of cash register paper.

These drawings, along with others I saw in reproductions, were so formally imaginative and beautifully crafted that I immediately knew I had to write about them, which I did several months later in The Brooklyn Rail.

Bussmann has been featured in group shows at Exit Art, the Drawing Center, the James Nicholson Gallery in Chelsea, the ‘temporary Museum in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and ISCP Open Studios in Bushwick. But her European exposure has been much wider, with solo exhibitions in (among other places) Paris, Nuremburg, Bremen, Salzburg and Vienna, where her continuous drawing “Long Beach” (2010), on 20 meters of telex paper, was recently shown at the Secession.

The current show is called Drawings Dedicated to Hannah Arendt, which continues Bussmann’s frequent practice of basing her work on philosophical texts (along with Arendt and Wittgenstein, the artist, who holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Vienna, has made drawings from Heidegger, Spinoza, and Merleau-Ponty).

The images that arise, however, are neither conceptual nor illustrative; rather, they evoke the liminal sensuality of a dream state — fantastical imaginings caught (as Arendt has put it) in the wind of thought.

The artist is now living full-time in Vienna, but we have kept up the friendship that grew out of that initial meeting, and when we met for lunch this week I took the opportunity to ask her about the show at Deutsches Haus.

*    *    *

Thomas Micchelli: What drew you to Arendt?

Maria Bussmann: It was through Heidegger. I was teaching a seminar called “Why Not Heidegger?” It was around the time of the publication of the controversial book Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy by Emmanuel Faye, which further discredited Heidegger’s philosophy for its links to fascism and the Final Solution.

What is ironic is that Arendt, a German Jew, was his smartest student and they fell in love. Heidegger was handsome then, not the ugly man we see in later photographs. They had a secret affair that lasted for a while. Hannah knew that their relationship could jeopardize his career, and so she moved to another city. Still, they remained friends. At the end of the course I brought the letters between Arendt and Heidegger to the class. They are sweet and touching: each remained fascinated by the other.

But it was during another seminar, “The Female Genius,” which I taught a little later, that I began to think about Arendt’s work in any kind of depth. The course title came from the book by Julia Kristeva [Female Genius: Life, Madness, Words: Hannah Arendt, Melanie Klein, Colette: A Trilogy, Columbia University Press, 2001]. Kristeva believed that Arendt’s greatest contribution was the idea of natality – the state of being born – which is the opposite of Heidegger’s mortality, with its implications of destiny, hopelessness and darkness, of endings and what comes after death.

Natality is instead the gift of beginning again.

TM: In a sense it is a more contemporary idea — what comes after death is hardly the intellectual obsession it once was.

MB: Heidegger talks a lot about mortality. Arendt doesn’t ask what is after death. It is not about endings for her. Our being born endows us with freedom, and in that freedom is rebirth.

TM: In the show there are two sets of drawings. The smaller drawings are of your daughter’s baby toys and the second is of your grandmother’s sewing kit.

Maria Bussmann, “Drawing on Hannah Arendt (Sewing Kit)” (2012). Pencil on paper, 50 x 70 cm.

MB: My grandmother would have been around the same age as Arendt. But it is interesting that neither Arendt, who gave us the idea of natality, nor Kristeva had children of her own. Arendt was very much a feminist but not in the way we think of feminism today. She had to be tough to make her way in a male profession. Although she was a classically trained philosopher, her outlook differed so much from Heidegger’s that she took up a position based on birth instead of death.

I read Female Genius when I was pregnant, and so it had a special meaning for me. And from there I read a great deal of Arendt. My daughter was born and she was given all of these baby toys. I thought they were mostly horrid and I wanted to ban them. Instead, I was invited by a Swiss gallery to participate in a show called “Geburt” (“Birth”), and so I made drawings of them.

I soon found myself writing Arendt’s concepts on them, like “thinking willing judging.” It was almost a joke, really, with a triangular toy labeled “God” and a toy duck becoming human possibility. It became a game of picking the right toy for the right quote. I’m not sure what I think of these drawings.

Maria Bussmann, “Drawing on Hannah Arendt (Needle)” (2012). Pencil on paper, 50 x 70 cm. (Click to enlarge)

That was six years ago. The larger drawings were made more recently, since January. They are on flip chart paper from Staples. These are more like tributes to Arendt, rather than based on any one text. There is one of a sewing tool – its name in German means “putting the thread through the needle.” It is a little metal disk with a clip at the end that helps you direct the thread through the eye of a sewing needle. There is always a cameo-style classical profile of a woman decorating the disk. I substituted Arendt’s portrait, but I’m not very good at portraits. The idea was that, like the thread, she gets your thought going in the right direction. I believe, though, that the image must stand on its own. You don’t need to know where it came from. I’m not sure of what I think of these drawings either.

TM: There is a one simply of buttons that I found magnetic —

MB: Any pile of innocuous objects makes me think of the concentration camps – the terrible photos of shoes and clothes. Everyone knows that Arendt coined the term “the banality of evil” about Eichmann, and these banal household items become metaphors for me. When I was teaching “The Female Genius,” the entire Eichmann trial was broadcast on YouTube. You know, Arendt was attacked for using that phrase. Eichmann was made out to be evil incarnate, not someone like any of us. They said you can’t make it that easy. And in fact Eichmann did put on an act, playing the harmless order-taker.

But normal things can be sinister, like the IBM cards used in the concentration camps. The buttons, the needles puncturing the sewing cushion. These drawings are much larger in scale than almost anything I’ve ever done. There’s one of a very large needle, taking up the whole sheet. It is not based on a text, but on the ideas that connect us to the text. It looks as if ready to inflict pain. I think of Francis Bacon’s paintings as the moment after the pain is inflicted. These are the moment before.

Drawings Dedicated to Hannah Arendt by Maria Bussmann continues at Deutsches Haus (NYU, 42 Washington Mews, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) through January 4, 2013.

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