The Curve of Fate, the Beginning of a Smile: Kristina Buch
By Aimee Walleston
Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, of the future: “Each morning you have to break through the dead rubble afresh so as to reach the living warm seed. A new word is like a fresh seed sewn on the ground of the discussion. When we think of the world’s future, we always mean the destination it will reach if it keeps going in the direction we can see it going in now; it does not occur to us that its path is not a straight line but a curve, constantly changing direction. Each of the sentences I write is trying to say the whole thing, i.e. the same thing over and over again; it is as though they were all simply views of one object seen from different angles.” Seen from afar, Kristina Buch’s OH BOY! (conjugation of a stick), 2017—commissioned and produced by Urbane Künste Ruhr—resembles an imposing concrete wall. It is a structure both generative (it eternally manifests we from they, us from them, one from all) and destructive; it is born to die, made to be broken so we can watch as it tumbles down. Observed from more personal angles—above, behind, below, in front—Buch’s sculpture is not a wall but a narrow chamber, an open structure composed externally of tall concrete edifices and a translucent stained glass mosaic ceiling. At one end, the sculpture opens to reveal a pristine, white-tiled interior. At the opposite, “closed” end, the linear structure bends abruptly, arching into a curve—a gesture reminiscent of Wittgenstein’s blindfolded future.
Wittgenstein’s curve is considered the point at which the future becomes unobservable, unknowable, and perhaps thus untenable to us. It is that which is impossible to consider because it cannot be dragged back from the precipice it peers over. It sees before we see, and it contains the premonition of what we will never be fully able to grasp in this world. The curve is the beginning of a smile, the hook of the finger playfully beckoning us onward. This idea of a hook is echoed (or perhaps amplified) in Buch’s sculpture by three polished bronze coat hooks fixed to its exterior—too high for use, just high enough to summon forth. It is the turn at the bend, before which the fates themselves seem to divide from their etymological certainty—fatum: that which has been spoken. So we meet the curve of fate unspoken, unbound to omen. The stained-glass ceiling of Buch’s sculpture is composed of a pattern of bright shapes that reference a liturgical palette, and the glass itself is derived from church window glass. Interspersed between these shapes are pixelated forms in black, white, and grey—printed on the transparent glass—which compose something of an optical-contrast backdrop. Peering through the sculpture’s opening, we encounter the sun’s light streaming through the translucent ceiling. The light creates a play of multicolored shadows on interior white tiles, as though messages were being encoded into subversive forms and scrawled onto a sterile bathroom wall. The black, white, and grey pixelated forms recall blurred identity photos, slow uploads, and “bad” files—the aesthetics of pixelation are always a stand-in for digitization in its more dissolute form: the unruly, the anonymous. Appearances in low resolution—unresolved and in flux. Like the curve before our unfolding future, things appear pixelated before they resign themselves to their brief moments of clarity, leading us to question which of these is the “true” image: the crystalline representation or the blurred mosaic of squares?
This brings us to the idea of what a thing is or isn’t—the subtle, demanding, diffident, and erotic interstice. This is something of an outlaw hallmark in Buch’s oeuvre. In a work the artist created between 2012 and 2016, One of the things that baffles me about you is that you remain unmurdered., the boundary between a houseguest and a bouillon becomes a thing unresolved, open for incessant deliberation. For the piece, Buch cohabitated with a live chicken for what could be considered an extravagant period of time: more than 900 days. Her initial teleological intention for the work (proposed some hundreds of days earlier) was to cook the bird into a soup and feed it to her guests at a vernissage of an exhibition that should have featured the chicken. The gallery she was meant to present the work in balked at this proposed menu and asked her to use a grocery shop stunt chicken to make the meal, which she refused to do. Thus, she lived with the chicken until a resolution for the work presented itself. The artist documented this living gesture with moving and still images, providing humorously poetic insight into this unlikely cohabitation. We gaze into the artist’s mammalian eye and contrast it against the bird’s own ancient dinosaur eye. We consider the bird’s winged yet flightless corporeality and its spongy, floppy red comb as though these were sculptures unto themselves. We are invited to consider what it is to live with a thing that possesses the ideological identity structure of meat, i.e. of death. The project renders it a thing not merely alive but abstracted from its own identity. And by completing the project and offering it for view, Buch’s bird becomes doubly existent and inexistent. It is gone, save for this film and Buch’s record of events, yet it is more alive to us than the paillard we will consume for dinner.
And the piece itself does not go wholly unmurdered; it is subjected to a censorial murder via an article in Süddeutsche Zeitung (December 2015) which was meant, in part, to bring the work to conclusion. In the process of printing the 500 thousand issues, the head of Feuilleton censored the work’s title in the publication, “eroding an internally agreed final version,” according to Buch. “Only the first 100 thousand issues bear the original title of my work in the page’s title. The following 400 thousand issues were printed as censored papers. A brutally frank and witty email exchange ensued with the head of Feuilleton. [That] email exchange, as well as the censored and uncensored version of the work has now become part of the final work.” Censorship is both a wall and a murder. It is the thing it is censoring and also the presence and the absence of the thing. It asks: How frangible, how illusory, how permeable are you? How difficult are you to transgress, to kill? And what lies in the space between you (the work) and I (that which censors the work)? A death certificate? A lie camouflaged in the garments of hope? We might suggest that we can only truly appreciate things when they are or have been censored, as it is then that they appear to us as violated, or the very least altered, by someone else’s morality. This moral damage makes them come alive for us, because they have eluded the sentence of death—or, more precisely, they have risen from the dead.
OH BOY! (conjugation of a stick) inhabits a municipal realm that was once a cemetery. Akin to the hybrid of a building and a public art sculpture, the conjugated stick held within the title is a changeling—the true and the beyond-true, which offers different meaning to those who encounter it. And when we think about new conjugations, we must also go back to what older words have asked of us. Of the title OH BOY! (conjugation of a stick), Buch cites the story of Moses’ staff in the Book of Exodus:
The LORD said to him, “What is that in your hand?” And he said, “A staff.” Then He said, “Throw it on the ground.” So he threw it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from it. But the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand and grasp it by its tail.” So he stretched out his hand and caught it, and it became a staff in his hand.
When we think we know something, it becomes lifeless to us. Moses is asked by God, time and again, to forget what he knows in order to know something new. Thus, the conjugation of a new word forms out of our idea that we can forget what it does and allow it to do something different. It is Wittgenstein’s new word sewn into the ground, germinating, shapeshifting, and evolving. That Buch’s sculpture lies upon land formerly used to house the dead seems integral, as the stiff corpse opposes the seed—being something that can only decompose, yet something that also creates the fundament for new life. The way a new word is spoken becomes a breath of new life. “Taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear most,” wrote Fyodor Dostoevsky in Crime and Punishment. Yet it is also, as the author must have known, what we desire most.