For an avant-garde movement intended (in Victor Burgin’s words) to “resist . . . assimilation to a history of styles,” Conceptualism has arguably done a grand job of entrenching the scope and importance of authorial style. The dematerialization of the artwork has had the effect of rendering every aspect of an artist’s oeuvre (including its very exclusions) available for stylistic consideration, and stylistic anomalies within a solo practice are now readable as ploys (evidencing – for instance – the author’s critique of authorship). The idea of the oeuvre is reinvested and connoisseurship revalidated. Passages in Conversation Pieces, a 2003 publication on the Manchester, UK-based artist Pavel Büchler’s essentially Conceptualist practice, reflect all this. “The illustration (over) reminds me of something you might have used,” comments one contributor. Elsewhere, other artist-writers express envy over particular Büchler pieces they wished they’d made themselves. What stopped them? Presumably the sense that the works were identifiably “Büchleresque.”
While focusing on recent work, Büchler’s survey “Absentminded-windowgazing” evidences both his long-term engagement with Conceptualism (dating back, he confirms, to his encounter, when still a Czech citizen, with photographs of the Kunsthalle Bern’s pivotal 1969 show “When Attitudes Become Form”) and his development of a clear, consistent style. Buchler’s fascination with those intertwined subjects, revolutionary avant-garde history and typography (his other professional specialty), is played out in clever, condensed works that are nimble in their play of references, attentive to fine detail, and sharply attuned to the importance of absence or negative space. The sound work 3′ 34”, 2006, for instance, features a compilation of the crackly interstices between tracks from ten vinyl recordings of John Cage pieces. In Short Stories (Central Library, Cambridge), 1996, found pencil stubs allegorize the lost texts they once were used to write. In Nodds, 2006, a printed booklet transcribing only the pauses (“Pause”; “Long pause”; etc.) from Samuel Beckett’s 1973 work Ends and Odds accompanies twin video monitors screening a looped snippet of Beckett on film, his head snapping up and down in a comical staccato nod. The contraction of each artwork’s scope of attention leads to expansion – rather like the projection of high-speed film at standard speed, a technique Büchler explores, in collaboration with artist Mark Neville, in the looped film The Moth and the Lamp, 2006. The film’s subjects are amplified both in time and scale: the lightbulb seems a planet, the moth swooping slowly across its face, a batlike giant.
Various works make use of lost property: the pencil pieces, for example, or Odd Pair, 2006, in which a shriveled, mildewed old tennis ball is matched with an improvised blob of rubber bands. Others feature nostalgic (and “ostalgic”) cues: The Castle, 2005, for instance, festoons the Kunsthalle Bern inside and out with cranky-looking clusters of beat-up ’20s-issue Marconi loudspeakers spouting martial parade music and digitally synthesized voices parroting fragments of Kafka, while the looped video Yuri, 2006, shows archival film of the politburo endlessly applauding astronaut Yuri Gagarin.
Thankfully, nothing in Buchler’s work sheds uninflected humanist sentimentality on such objects. However, despite its stylistic coherence, the work’s affective agendas, unlike its cultural and historical references, remain inscrutable. Loss is persistently represented (as in the scribbled but inkless pages of A Year with a Dead Biro [Diary], 2004, for example) but never allowed to become melancholic. Ultimately, Buchler’s practice seems an intriguing study of the habit of covering one’s tracks – a crucial skill, one imagines, for a Conceptualism born in Kafka’s hometown in the Iron Curtain years.
Pavel Buchler: Absentmindedwindowgazing was on show at Bern Kunsthalle, Bern, Switzerland between October 26- December 3 2006
Copyright Rachel Withers & Artforum International Magazine, Inc. 2007