I think there is a lot to be said for boredom. Boredom is the most powerful starting point for something creative. We get bored with our everyday life, we get bored with seeing the same things, we somehow try to look again and find something new in them. Without boredom there would be no art. My everyday life is the most banal, boring thing that there is. I am like the Beckettian character who can never get out of this loop. Yes, I think the treadmill of repetitiveness is what drives creativity, indirectly.
Certain words or short phrases are often employed in texts about your work, and some of your own texts about your work, and they might be said to characterise your work. These are things like ‘found objects’, ‘visual puns’, ‘obsolete technologies’, ‘repurposed things’, ‘the text’, ‘the page’, ‘appropriated material’, ‘art historical references’, ‘absurdist humour’, ‘understatement’, ‘economy of means’, ‘gaps’, ‘by-products’ and ‘purposeful uselessness’. They are all there in your work, but you could equally use them in relation to the work of other artists, such as the Fluxus artists and their predecessors, some of the concrete poets and a few of the early conceptualists, for example. But I don’t see that what you are doing is simply reiterating what has gone before, though I couldn’t work out for myself what it is that distinguishes your work beyond these traits. Am I responding to the craft element present in your work? Say, compared with an artist like Robert Filliou, who was exactly the opposite in this respect, strenuously avoiding the acquisition of any artists’ craft skills whatsoever and making a feature of this lack. I think that, very subtly, you do the opposite. Yes, maybe it is Beckett again – you know, the better failure. I often tell students not to worry about whether someone has done something before. If an artist notices something in the world that is worth doing something about, that doesn’t diminish the potential of that thing to be taken up by another artist. It raises the hurdle, it raises the challenge, it becomes even more interesting to look at it again. And so you could think of it in that kind of Beckettian sense of ‘fail better’. There is a pleasure and thrill and some degree of pride in noticing little opportunities in places where so many artists have gone before – even though I don’t actually go out to look for these gaps. They just present themselves, just as I would think of what you call ‘found objects’ as objects that have found me.
So that’s one thing. Another is to do with keeping things around for a long time. That seems to be the reality of my life. Look around in this studio: every single thing here is old, including the two of us. It’s just how I am, I am that kind of a person. Look at my car, look at the jacket I wear, look at my hand-me-down mobile telephone. I am unable to let go of things until they completely fall apart, and in a way the art making is a bit like that. You have something in front of you that is staring you in the face, and it has to reach a point where it collapses, implodes or disappears in a kind of puff. I do have a nostalgic streak in me, but it is not nostalgia that makes me hold on to things that should really be thrown in the bin in order to see whether something that has reached the threshold of obsolescence can yield some last drop of meaning. You quoted the phrase ‘purposeful uselessness’, which I think is the definition of art’s function – art is useless on purpose, its function is to be useless. And so somehow working with these things, with ideas and objects, with technologies or techniques that are of no further use in the practicalities of daily life, gives me a sort of head start. I don’t have to do the rather tedious legwork that some artists who start working with a blank sheet of paper or canvas have to do. A blank sheet of paper is a potentially useful thing and so they need to paint on it to put it beyond use outside of art. Nobody paints anything for any practical end – why would they?
JUN 15 | ART MONTHLY | 387
| Interview | Pavel Büchler |
As for the craft aspect that you mentioned, that is quite interesting because I do have a whole side to me, a line of work I have recently started, where I work in ways I was trained for – observational drawing, watercolour and so on – just to see how much is left, if I can still do it and whether I can make some use of it in just the same way as I can make use of some practically obsolete machine or a piece of technology. But if the craft is indeed there, it is only there because it is difficult to unlearn. It is like swimming or cycling which you are supposed never to forget once you have learned. Fortunately, I never learned any craft very well and I’m not very good at those things and so, unlike Filliou, I don’t feel any need to avoid the traditional artistic skills ‘strenuously’ and I don’t feel that they get in the way. The very idea of a skill is to avoid strain, and if I have any craft then it is probably something to do with knowing how to keep things simple. And that is something that I learned from life. You know, the way we used to live in the old country demanded that kind of skill, of keeping things simple.
What you might call some of your sculptural works are often very small. They require the sort of attention with which you would study a postcard, or peer at a small object you have noticed on the pavement. And you don’t only make work for gallery spaces. Am I correct in sensing that there is no hierarchy within whatever forms you may choose to use? A small booklet would be as important to you as a display in a gallery the size of Ikon? Yes, absolutely. There is no hierarchy of materials or forms or media. Ultimately, every material or every procedure has its own criteria, and different things fall into place in different ways. In the Ikon exhibition there are some works which are on a huge scale. The Castle, for example, the biggest ever version of it, is an enormous thing with over 150 loudspeakers, each one almost the size of a person – huge things. Or Idle Thoughts, the overwritten diaries that I have been writing almost every day since 2003, or Work, my photographs of 1,200 cigarette breaks that I have taken in recent years when installing exhibitions. But there are also works that were produced in an instant, that came together as a result of some fortuitous encounter with readymade things in everyday life: a diamond in an ashtray, for instance, a copy of Art Monthly with its masthead cut off by a bookshop assistant, or an old slide projector with nothing in it – you can’t even say that I made that. I didn’t, it was just there and it left me nothing to do. And I hope that somehow I can let these different things show what they can do together when I leave them to their own devices. So there is no hierarchy of any sort, just as there is no key work or indeed a central motif or a common theme.
What is important in all art, I think, is what the work does, not what it is. A text work of three words cannot have the complexity of a novel or a feature film. It would be difficult to stand in front of it and stare at it as if it were a painting by Jackson Pollock. But then again, three words can do things that a novel, film or Pollock can’t do and they can have the capacity to hold your attention long after the object is out of sight.
How important is it to you where you place your work in the world, literally? You have shown The Castle at different times on different continents. Does it remain the same work? Our encounters with art – with what used to be called the visual and plastic arts – don’t take place strictly speaking in the world at large. They take place in environments which are more often than not specifically devised, maintained and equipped for that purpose – typically galleries, museums, art fairs and so on – and to that extent every work of art is as much autonomous as it is context-specific.
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