Blending as Resistance: Peppi Bottrop
by Gabriela Acha
Regarding the artist’s working space, Daniel Buren once wrote that the studio frames the reality and truth of an artwork. In his text The Function of the Studio (1979) he suggested that the work of art ultimately belongs in the studio, because it is only in that space that one can come to understand the process that made the work possible.1 Buren envisioned the archetypal artist’s workspace as first of all a physical site whose specific architectural features wouldn’t differ greatly from those of the exhibition hall.
In his own analysis of the role of the studio, Bruce Nauman took things a step further, remarking that everything within the studio’s frame—even activities such as walking around in it, or just existing in it—should share status with the work of art.2 An expression of this theory arrived with his 2001 video installations MAPPING THE STUDIO I and II, which depicted corners of his working space and some of the rather unspectacular events that happen there. Nauman brought his studio into the museum, which has the ultimate power to validate what belongs to the category of art. Subsequently, all his unspectacular material was enshrined as such.
In this light, one might say that both the studio context and the museum exerts a transformational power over the meaning and nature of whatever happens within it, turning objects, activities, and anything else into artworks—artworks that, per Buren, are best understood in that same studio. But, whereas the studio context preserves the work’s integrity, the exhibition hall alienates it somewhat. But what if these distinctions were to fall away, and the works were produced in the same physical space where they would be exhibited?
This is a central questions that the German artist Peppi Bottrop addresses in SABOTAGE (2020), his first solo exhibition at Meyer Riegger, Berlin. Due to unavoidable circumstances leading up to the June 20 opening of the show—namely COVID-19 confinement and the lack of a studio in the city of Berlin—the artist decided to use the gallery itself as a studio in the weeks prior to the exhibition opening.
Bottrop has always embraced his sometimes-straitened life circumstances, and has allowed them to shape his artistic endeavors. His lack of means determined his choice of materials during his student years at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf; for instance it was at this time that he developed the habit of stapling his canvases directly to the wall. What started as a pragmatic act of necessity became his signature approach, which endures to the present. His palette is also predominantly monochromatic thanks to his reliance on very basic materials, such as charcoal and graphite. And, as with Nauman, the artist’s interest goes beyond painting as a finished object. The iterative scribbles drawn with the charcoal are not more relevant than the actions surrounding and generating them. Everything that happens in the art-making context, whether process or final outcome, has the same status.
With SABOTAGE, production and exhibition took place in the same hybrid space, and thus in this instance, interestingly, it was a temporal factor that transformed the work into a completed piece; the aforementioned “transformational power” was exerted by the opening date. By the time of the public could see the work, all the action behind the scenes was over, and the residue, the aftermath, are what the visitor now encounters. These include a series of graphite drawings on stapled canvas, direct interventions on the gallery walls, as well as a set of traditionally mounted canvas paintings. A series of roll strokes in neon cyan, magenta, and yellow cover most of the gallery’s architecture (including the ceilings) and the mounted canvases. These, enhanced by means of a UV lighting rig, coexist with Bottrop’s usual pseudo-calligraphic shapes layered on his characteristic affixed fabric. All the works were made in the artist’s minimalist fashion; some are superimposed, thus seeming to physically compete for the viewer’s attention.
As the title suggests, the works condense an act of deliberate rebellion against the usual categorical divide between action and object, or between gallery and studio. The smeared walls invoke historical acts of defiance, such as the walls at Maze Prison during protests initiated by the Irish Republican Army and the Irish National Liberation Army.3 Like documentation of that so-called dirty protest (1978–1981), the anodyne cleanliness imposed by institutions is challenged in Bottrop’s work. While the politics of art institutions and the repressive atmosphere of Troubles-era Northern Ireland are vastly distinct, the potency of “messing up” as a strategy of resistance remains significant.
The neon colors Bottrop uses are not accidental; they hint at the colors of fireworks, which when used outside of their typical festive context, convey a different narrative. An increased “abuse” of fireworks has recently been reported in the US, particularly in New York and San Francisco.4 This is thought to be a consequence of either boredom under quarantine or a form of rebellion in the name of Black Lives Matter. While celebratory and essentially innocuous from a distance, at short range fireworks can be dangerous. The temporal and spatial contexts of the fireworks thus have a transformational power that can turn them rapidly from spectacle to weapon.
Each political movement adopts its own semiotics, but all aim to disrupt the structural status quo. In SABOTAGE, some aesthetic and methodological features of protest are abstracted and recontextualized within the gallery space. Following Buren, the question must be posed: If moving a work from the studio to the exhibition space brings it closer to a kind of death, could the same happen with the aesthetics of a protest? Bottrop’s installation queries whether the cleavage of certain categories can serve to amplify a protest’s semiotics, no matter where they are performed, or whether such abstraction leads to a Buren-esque futility. It is an urgent question in an urgent moment for protests taking place within and beyond gallery walls.
1. Daniel Buren and Thomas Repensek, “The Function of the Studio,” October 10 (Autumn 1979), 56.
2. See Dorothée Brill, “The Studio as Artwork,” Schirn, January 9, 2017, https://www.schirn.de/en/magazine/context/giacometti_nauman/bruce_nauman_studio_artwork/.
3. In 1978, after protests to gain recognition as political prisoners, some IRA and INLA prisoners refused to leave their prison cells for fear of attacks by prison officers. Unwilling to “slop out” (empty their chamber pots), they started smearing excrement on the walls of their cells. See “Dirty protest,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dirty_protest.
4. Helen Sullivan, “Going Off: US Cities See Explosion on Use of Fireworks,” The Guardian, June 23, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/us-cities-see-explosion-in-use-of-fireworks-coronavirus-protest.
at Meyer Riegger, Berlin
until 22 August 2020