In Praise of "JA!"

Program presented November 21, 2015 in conjunction with Andrea Büttner

Novemember 21, 2015- April 10, 2016
Walker Art Center

Curated by Fionn Meade

Andrea Büttner, Untitled (JA), 2012, Woodcut on paper from Kabul Portfolio (detail), 2012 © Andrea Büttner, VG

To start off my toast this evening, I want to acknowledge the moss garden that we’ve brought into being over the past months and that now marks the entry to Andrea’s exhibition. I’d like to offer a tribute to its “bold little beauty” as written by the American poet Emily Dickinson within a poem sequence dedicated to Nature and published as it were almost 120 years ago in 1896.


Pink, small, and punctual,
Aromatic, low,
Covert in April,
Candid in May,

Dear to the moss,
Known by the knoll,
Next to the robin,
In every human soul.

Bold little beauty,
Bedecked with thee,
Nature foreswears

—Emily Dickinson

It is fittingly a leap year that we are in as we gather on a cold November night to celebrate Andrea’s exhibition at the Walker, her first solo exhibition in the United States. More specifically, on February 29, 2016, in what will still feel like winter, we will have our leap year moment, a punctual hole in the calendar during the run of the show. As we are here together, I invite us to think through this addition beyond the usual calendar and toast to this “pink, small, and punctual” fact of the year ahead, time that leaps from the earth askew and revitalizing, just the right imbalance to remind us to keep meaning and direct communication at the fore over the upcoming seasons.

Let us toast to this extra time that keeps us seasonal, that keeps us with and close to what Emily Dickinson aptly describes as the bold little beauty we should all hope to be bedecked with!

And so these remarks on “JA” take permission from Andrea’s embrace of the word “JA (YES)” at regular moments in her work. The “JA” of this evening asks us to leap from one thing to another and celebrate the linking with such permission, allowing a space in between, the kind of in between permission that Andrea asks of each of us regularly in her work, the permission to leap and connect, to encounter both difficult and warm things, and to accept both.

Andrea is not afraid of history and brings a readiness equally to both the tactile surface of her material choices, sharp and reduced compositions, and to the concentric rings of research and questioning that characterize many of her projects. I can readily attest that Andrea is not afraid of being and experience, and to be at large in the world. To be ‘at large’ is a phrase I’ve been thinking about during Andrea’s presence over the past two weeks leading up to the opening of her exhibition. From the enfolding gesture of the blue fabric walls that now ring Burnet Gallery, to the enlarged smear and stain of “desire/search/knowledge” within her new enlarged smartphone etchings, to the exposed gesture of the moss garden to the white walls and terrazzo floors of the Walker galleries, a garden with no space for withdrawal, no moisture. Throughout the exhibition, the arms of each work are open to and facing each other with clear lines and difference.

And yet these ‘”at large” confident gestures also remind of the equally strange word “largesse,” the state of giving away, divestment, and a willing letting go. I would say that the largesse of Andrea’s work is in its imprinted overlaps, gaps, and in between spaces and low conversations. Moments of true respite meet moments of real doubt, emerging forms of order and index meet gestures of release and falling down. In between there is “largesse.” And so a further fragment of poetry, as we need to be reminded of the largesse of the pebble that Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert writes of when he proclaims:

Pebbles cannot be tamed
To the end they will look at us
With a calm and clear eye.

And of the stone that Herbert’s compatriot the poet Czeslaw Milosz gives for us to consider as a counterpoint and host, “known by the knoll,” as Dickinson says:

“We should not think of our past as definitely settled, for we are not a stone or a tree. My past changes every minute according to the meaning given it now, in this moment.”

And this response to the stone and pebble that cannot be tamed by the human eye is the “JA” of life that Andrea so regularly reminds us of. This is the “JA” of being and experience, and the threaded connection that exists and must be traced between forms of life, forms of thinking, and forms of feeling. When Andrea herself writes that: “Shame marks the threshold of visual representation and might at the same time be impossible to represent. Shame means that we resist what we desire,” she puts us squarely in experience, and challenges us to respond with a series of “JA” moments, acceptance and acuity, the specificity demanded of living and thinking as equal demands, the enigmatic move around negation toward something more affirming that approaches an admixture of divestment and acceptance.

Indeed, as Milosz continues in his musing: “What is this enigmatic impulse that does not allow one to settle down in the achieved, the finished? It is a quest for reality.” For reality does not leave us with a no, but with something else, with the “JA” sequence of being and experience. Andrea challenges us to pay attention and be present with what we show and what we hide, what we expose and what we veil, to be ventriloquist, and adopt other voices, other genders, other life forms in our quest for reality. Indeed, to bring these into close contact with each other, to allow for shared experience and research to be imprinted by each other. And so I hope you will indulge one more ventriloquist gesture as I read part of a passage from one of the great “JA” detours in all of literature, the close of Irish novelist James Joyce’s Ulysses, also invoked by a leap year and the skip and jump of divestment, and the breathing in and exhale of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy.

“… yes first I gave him the bit of seedcake out of my mouth and it was leap year like now yes 16 years ago my God after that long kiss I near lost my breath yes he said I was a flower of the mountain yes so we are flowers all a woman's body yes that was one true thing he said in his life and the sun shines for you today yes that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is and I knew I could always get round him and I gave him all the pleasure I could leading him on till he asked me to say yes and I wouldn't answer first only looked out over the sea and the sky I was thinking of so many things he didn't know of Mulvey and Mr Stanhope and Hester and father and old captain Groves and the sailors playing all birds fly and I say stoop and washing up dishes they called it on the pier and the sentry in front of the governors house with the thing round his white helmet poor devil half roasted and the Spanish girls laughing in their shawls and their tall combs and the auctions in the morning the Greeks and the jews and the Arabs and the devil knows who else from all the ends of Europe and Duke street and the fowl market all clucking outside Larby Sharons and the poor donkeys slipping half asleep and the vague fellows in the cloaks asleep in the shade on the steps and the big wheels of the carts of the bulls and the old castle thousands of years old yes and those handsome Moors all in white and turbans like kings asking you to sit down in their little bit of a shop and Ronda with the old windows of the posadas 2 glancing eyes a lattice hid for her lover to kiss the iron and the wineshops half open at night and the castanets and the night we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deep down torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the fig trees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rose gardens and the jasmine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

--Remarks by Fionn Meade

Copryright Fionn Meade unless otherwise stated