MINNEAPOLIS — With just four shapes made out of crude line drawings, Andrea Büttner captures the essence of shame. In one of her woodcuts, Büttner has carved out two hands; an oval signifying a beggar’s lap; and a third shape standing for a veil. “Beggar,” like another woodcut of the same title, portrays a destitute woman asking for a scrap of bread. The woodcuts were inspired by the work of Ernst Barlach, a German sculptor who himself created a series of “Beggar” sculptures. “It’s the only time I’ve seen a work where poverty and shame were brought together in one artwork,” Büttner said of Barlach’s work at a media event for the show.
Büttner likens the gesture that the beggars enact, holding their hands out for charity, to one that an artist makes to the viewer. “It speaks to a certain dependency,” she said. Indeed, no matter the artist’s caliber or reputation, each time artists present their work to the world, they are basically holding out a piece of themselves and opening it up to critique.
At the Walker Art Center, in her first solo exhibition in the United States, the German artist presents her work for us to see, comment, and judge. Curated by the Walker’s Fionn Meade, the exhibit offers a selection of images Büttner created for an illustrated edition of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgement, as well as a body of new work. Throughout the exhibit, Büttner reflects on the hierarchies of “high” and “low” in art, and the vulnerability of an artist sharing her work.
Büttner further explores the concept of shame in her various uses of moss: an abstract sculpture made of gypsum approximates the feeling and texture of moss; a collection of stereoscopic slides created by Harold and Patricia Whitehouse includes 3D close-ups of different moss varieties; and a slab of limestone is host to live, growing moss.
Moss has the unfortunate distinction of being considered, historically at least, one of the “lower plants,” which are also called cryptogams, translated from the Greek “kryptos” (hidden) and “gameein” (to marry), because of their hidden sexuality. Cryptogams reproduce in a secret way, through spores, rather than flowers, so botanists of old put them lower down on the plant hierarchy.
Büttner’s live moss sculpture looks out of place atop the pristine white floor. Out of the shadows, it presents itself in all its glory, defying its “lower plant” status. Shining the spotlight on the beauty of moss, celebrating its formlessness, queerness, and preference for dark and secret places, Büttner not only questions moss’s status as an inferior species, but the practice of creating hierarchies at all.
In Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgement, the philosopher breaks down aesthetics into a series of rational, systematic arguments. Kant argues that recognizing beauty, for example, is an objective, rather than subjective, act, not to be confused with recognizing the sublime, the good, or the agreeable. “This text is often considered to be very rational, logical, and providing a world view that makes the argument for an always understandable world,” said Meade.
To illustrate Kant’s text, Büttner researched images from Kant’s own private library. He had a huge selection of travel books, for example (though he famously never travelled), plus books on architecture and other encyclopedic indexes of the world. When images from Kant’s own collection weren’t available, Büttner used images from her own life to complement the philosopher’s words. We see photos of the artist’s friends, nature photography, as well as other images mined from Kant’s time, such as wallpaper from 1790. The result sometimes mirrors the randomness of an internet image search, with a mix of professional and amateur-looking images.
Unlike Büttner’s illustrated edition of Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgement, the installation at the Walker of lithograph prints doesn’t have the accompanying text to provide the context for what the images are illustrating. Instead, we are left with only Büttner’s interpretations of Kant’s thoughts, gathered as a kind of collaboration between his stock of library images and her own, playfully challenging Kant’s presumed authority. “Andrea looked at the visual references in the book in ways that opened back up the subjectivity in Kant’s own way of looking,” Meade said.
Büttner also illustrates Kant’s need to put the entire world into definable categories, in line with the Enlightenment’s obsession with encyclopedic classification. “There was the sense that you could understand the world without having travelled to a particular part of it,” Meade explained.
That desire for power gained through global knowledge has some resonance in today’s internet-fueled world, where every corner of the earth, culture, plant species, and even planet are accessible on our computers, devices, and phones. Büttner’s three “Phone Etching” pieces seem to reference that need to understand and access the world’s vastness at one’s fingertips. The works were created from Büttner’s smartphone, where the oils from her fingers created a kind of painting that she then transferred onto an etching. She explains that when she “found” what she was looking for on her phone, the painting was complete.
Again, Büttner questions the authority, particularly of those in the “developed” world, to access anything and everything one’s heart desires. As in other aspects of the exhibit, the artist asks the viewer to be aware of how privilege and power inform our ways of seeing, and judging, the world.
Andrea Büttner continues at the Walker Art Center (1750 Hennepin Ave, Minneapolis) through April 10.