MILTON KEYNES, UK — Art, which has been called a religion, has a serious problem with faith. Genocides may come and go leaving the beliefs of many intact, but contemporary art is a sensitive flower — in many ways it is still getting over World War One.
So when I asked Anthony Spira, director of MK Gallery, whether the artist in their latest show is religious, he seemed almost put out, “That’s not a question I’ve asked her, and it’s almost beside the point.” The artist in question is Andrea Büttner, and you could forgive me for asking; the German’s themes include shame and poverty, Saint Francis and a handful of nuns.
Spira elaborates: “What she is, certainly, is respectful and curious.” He sees her work flipping between skepticism or interrogation and conversion, as if at times she’s “genuinely moved by the conceptual images.”
He reminds me Büttner had a convent education — indeed a nun taught her woodcut. She now uses the technique to depict beggars, holy sisters, saints, and lowly donkeys. “She’s keenly interested in religion,” Spira admits. “But it’s almost more the trappings of religion, not religion itself.”
One of those trappings is the habit worn by certain nuns and the brown sacking worn by Franciscan monks. She relates these to shelter and concealment by printing images of tents and reproductions of the veiled supplicant seen in a famous sculpture by expressionist and compatriot Ernst Barlach.
But despite the suite of reference points, it is simplicity which first strikes the visitor to MK Gallery at the moment. Two rooms are lined with black and white or monochrome woodcuts. Benches made from timber and crate offer a rudimentary welcome. One wall is clothed in two shades of blue fabric. And a film about nuns plays demurely on another wall. The effect is so modest, it is nearly Godly.
Nearly, but not quite. Having won the Maxmara Prize for Women in 2011 and shown to wide acclaim in dOCUMENTA (13), Büttner is no ingénue. Dividing time between London and Frankfurt, she leads a far from cloistered existence. Her work may exude a certain muteness, but the complexities follow on from there.
A second film zeroes in on the hands of a cashier who shares her name with the Roman Goddess of commerce, Minerva. Nearby a series of photographs turn out to be the work of HAP Grieshaber. In these we see psychiatric patients looking at another set of woodcuts by the older artist. It so turns out that Grieshaber taught woodcut to the nun who taught Büttner.
The myriad connections across different art forms are a key strength, according to Spira, who is also ready with praise for what might be called an “amateur aesthetic”. In what seems heroic these days, Büttner works without a team of technicians. Her woodcuts are clumsy at times. Her giant modernist grids almost sweat with the effort of their making. This is arte povera infused with Germanic angst.
And if anyone were to doubt the thought that went into the cosmology of references in this show, bear in mind that Büttner completed a PhD at the Royal College in London, with a thesis on shame. This has clearly drawn her to celibate Catholic sisterhoods hiding beneath layers of drapery.
Nuns are, it has to be said, the stars of this particular show. One lovable pair feature in a 42-minute documentary about their lives and work in an amusement park outside Rome. We do not see them praying or singing hymns; we do see them riding rollercoasters and manning lucky dip stalls. To their way of thinking the fair is a place of lights, colours and quality family time, so who could disagree? A scene in which they rattle through a ghost train is one of the less likely things you can see in a gallery this year.
The footage was shot on a camcorder, allowing for an immediacy and intimacy in keeping with low production values. Büttner gently probes the sisters about the evils of spectacle, but her subjects have clearly never read Guy Debord and describe the park as beautiful, which now it somehow is. This is some transformation and something like a cognitive miracle.
Their simple existence is also appealing and they remind the viewer that “It hasn’t always been the case about poverty that it’s been perceived as shameful.” Spira points to the new trend in austerity Britain which divides society into shirkers and strivers. And so, at the hands of a government full of millionaires, the have-nots are being stigmatised once again. The nuns have a message for our times.
But we are now faced with a certain paradox. Only those with wealth can renounce it. This was true of Saint Francis, who gave his fine clothes back to his father before taking up a hessian robe. And it was also true of Wittgenstein, the Austro-British philosopher who renounced his inheritance. He is also represented in Büttner’s show by a found photograph as part of installation of refectory tables. “It’s a position that’s only available to wealthy people,” says Spira.“A poor person can’t decide to renounce wealth.”
This must be a conflict which social-minded gallery directors and successful mid-career artists have to deal with every day. And it comes to a head in one of the versatile Büttner’s most recent pieces, Tischreden or Table Speeches. Here she stages an art world banquet in which delegates chow down on salt roasted beetroot and calf hearts. But only while listening to lectures on the theme of poverty.
Visitors to MK Gallery can now enjoy the speeches for free, served with a mug of tea and a biscuit such as you might find in a church hall after Sunday Service. For someone who may not be religious, this German artist really does do the trappings very well. These have after all survived the worst that the 20th century could throw at them. Surely that is worthy of our attention and investigation.
Andrea Büttner can be seen at MK Gallery (900 Midsummer Boulevard, Milton Keynes, United Kingdom), until June 16 2013.