Two mounds of pinkish-grey clay are fountains in the middle of the room, water barely burbling from the hole at the top of each rounded cone. A photograph of an ATM is on one wall, smeared with something deep brown. Paint? Not putty colored, like the fountain. Not quite baby-shit brown — burnt umber. A soft sound comes from black speakers on the floor near the wall with the photo. A white plastic chair with a tiny charcoal-brown, crepuscular object is set off to the other side of the room. Stepping close to look, I set off an alarm. Searching for relationships, I decide there is no rational color palette here. The objects don’t fit the room; seem placed by an agency oblivious to negative space. If only the wet clay mounds were larger, or the chair was pushed further into a corner. Desperate for some sort of crosstalk, I advance on the chair and set the alarm off again. And again.
Seeing is seeing difference and similarity. And so too for sound, the senses index perceptions, try to find pattern, rely on context and memory for clues. It wouldn’t have been so bad if not for the didactics, the liner-notes provided for Andrea Büttner’s exhibit Three New Works, now on view at Artpace. Prepared by an intern, the notes may be tangential to the exhibit, perhaps missing in accuracy or focus. But published by the institution and stuck in the show room, they have de facto authority. We are informed that the artist “invites participation from the audience to generate ideas and themes.” The object on the chair is an uncut brown diamond. Here are fragments of the text:
“The dominant colors within the works — white and brown — represent a dialogue between the symbolisms that each color bears. Conventionally, white is the symbol of purity, whereas brown can be construed as dirty.”
And, “Büttner utilizes Sigmund Freud’s analysis of excrement and money, where the former symbolizes the latter in dream sequences. To see waste in a dream is to make the dreamer feel as if there are aspects of the self that are dirty, undesirable, or repulsive; feces also can symbolize money or anxieties about money.”
We are told that the artist, who is based in London, England, and Frankfurt, Germany, wonders, “Should she feel shame when she surpasses or does not meet the audience’s expectations?”
In Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick there is a chapter entitled “The Whiteness of The Whale,” presenting a contemplation of how white can symbolically represent purity or nobility, and also something unimaginably malign. After recounting many radiant examples spanning the globe, including the title “Lord of the White Elephants” used by “the barbaric, grand old kings of Pegu,” and citing that the Hanoverian flag bears the figure “of a snow-white charger,” Melville, in the voice of the narrator, finds that, “there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood. This elusive quality it is, which causes the thought of whiteness, when divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terrible in itself, to heighten that terror to the furthest bounds.”
Moby Dick is, of course, both the title of Melville’s book and its phantom — the great white whale that is pursued by the mad Captain Ahab of the New England whaler Pequod, resulting in death for all aboard save the narrator. The novel is a story of a pathology — an obsession with the sublime.
The sublime is a cause of terror, the unfathomable storm that cannot be perceived through the senses, the hulking mountains that extend beyond sight, Moby Dick, the great white whale. It is also a proof, to some, of the superiority of thought over the realm of the senses. Though surpassing our ability to directly apprehend the universe, we can conceive of infinity. Pursuit of the sublime also tends to denigrate context, to heighten the value of universals, of the symbolic world. And so back again to fear.
Organized by curator Chus Martinez, Andrea Büttner’s installation Three New Works, which I have attempted to describe above, is one of three shows in Artpace’s International Artist-In-Residence New Works 11.2. The other exhibits are Adrian Williams’ Median Dogs, an installation of disparate objects that were props and musical instruments in a performance piece that dwelt on the conflict between public good and private profit; a recording of the performance is available to the visitor along with the detritus of the event — evidence to ponder if she cares to attempt to imagine what happened between actors, musicians, and audience. The other exhibit is Kurt Mueller’s Living Still, which like Büttner’s and William’s installations, presents the viewer with disparate, apparently unconnected information. Notable in the room is a jukebox filled with historic “moments of silence,” that like tunes, can be played (a quarter is the price, several are kept on hand). Some of the “silent” moments are filled with sound, such as an audiotape of election protests in Tehran recorded in 2009. None of the three shows provide easy entertainment; all challenge the viewer to create a story from strangely gathered objects, rooms of scattered evidence.
But then, regarding context, step back once more. Find Büttner’s study in brown and white in the prestigious Artpace building, and so, in San Antonio. But how do you think her alignments of earthy tones with the scatological, with shame, would be received if the show were mounted instead at a Latino community center, such as the Guadalupe? How would the exhibit be read at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, at Centro Cultural Aztlan?
Büttner may be concerned with her own anxieties, but what of ours? •
445 N Main
Exhibits on view to Sep 18.
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