ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Peter Buggenhout - 2009 - Een brok werkelijkheid [NL, interview]
A Lump of Reality
In conversation with Peter Buggenhout
Peter Buggenhout’s sculptures tell us about reality in the same way that trees, coral reefs and clouds do: by being part of it. They do this in a slightly different way because they have been made by someone. They are not representations, but hand-made objects, which in an analogous manner apprise us of reality: poetic artefacts released by their maker, absolute, solitary, but given to us.
In the first half of the last century, Viktor Shklovsky described artworks as “textural objects added to reality”. The viewer is bewildered. He or she sees, feels and thinks things evoked by the object, but those things never seem to clearly demarcate. Our brain falters, because it cannot drape a legible image over the texture to normalize it for us and thus hide it, giving us the impression of standing face to face with a thing that shows itself.
I point to two forms floating on the surface of a sculpture, which resemble the soles of gigantic shoes, but clearly are not.
Peter Buggenhout: Those shoes came from a carnival puppet, which I crushed. Sometimes it’s good to keep just a hint of a recognizable element, like the cap of a lemonade bottle, a cigarette end or a toothpick so that as the onlooker walks round the sculpture, for a brief moment he or she can experience a kind of homecoming in the autonomy of the image. At first the sculpture doesn’t want anything to do with you, but then you suddenly recognize the form of a shoe. You think you’ve sussed it, but then it turns out not to be a real shoe and again the image escapes you. That’s how things are in real life, too: we walk from point to point, we think our life is coherent, but then it proves to be shapeless.
I want to create things which we don’t understand, which you can’t hold, name or identify to make yourself feel safe and secure. The intention is not to faze people, but the reverse: to have them experience safety in unpredictability, inconceivability and complexity by confronting them with sculptures which are not representations or symbols, but analogies in which the winding roads of reality are repeated in parallel. I experience the world around me as a seemingly shapeless collage, an accumulation or enumeration, but I don’t feel threatened by it, it doesn’t strike me as terrible, it’s just the way the world is.
If you look at the façade of a building, for example, you see that a signboard once hung there, that the windows have been replaced, that a plastic roof gutter has been added, etc. Useless pieces of reptile have also been left behind in our body and our nerve tracts don’t run straight down, but twist. The world has been put together piecemeal, in fits and starts without a preconceived, predictable plan. It’s the same with a conversation. You say something, I say something, then you say something else and we go on until the conversation comes to an end without our having a coherent picture of what was actually discussed. What we are left with is the feeling that it was a pleasant or unpleasant conversation…
Incorporated into a gigantic scrapheap
Buggenhout: In sculptural terms, this means that I love to be incorporated into a larger sculptural entity. The sculptures I showed in Israel recently measured 9 x 9 x 4.4 and 6 x 6 x 3 meters… In a documentary, I once saw the artist Ad Visser at work on a giant scrapheap and that struck me as being the ultimate kick! It put me in mind of Pirsig, who in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance draws a distinction between the mechanic who arranges his tools beautifully and inspects the engine from the outside and the mechanic who almost seems to drown in pleasure. As a student I learned a lot from Herman Note, a philosophy lecturer at Sint-Lucas Ghent, who spent the best part of a year talking to us about the paradisiacal situation, which stops as soon as you become aware of it. My work still always revolves around the desire to forget and be swallowed up into something larger. This is also something I recognized in Jean-Hubert Martin’s exhibition Altäre, which showed how altars in Asia and Africa go on growing as they are covered with feathers, loam, offerings, sprinkled or splashed with blood, and so on, until it looks as if the voodoo priests are sitting ‘in’ their altar, as if in a shrine of which they are part. They don’t stand outside it, like a detached Petrarch looking down on the landscape below from the vantage point of Mont Ventoux.
- You started off as a painter.
Buggenhout: Until 1990 I painted oils which I sprinkled partially or all over with pigments and then fixed. I wanted to pull out all the stops and make paintings in the spirit of the informal painters of the 1950s who were autonomous, but I was unable to escape the symbolic dimension of painting. I spent the years 1990 to 1995 looking for other forms and that’s how I started making sculptures with cow stomachs and horse intestines. What fascinated me about this was the idea that our internal organs determine our outward form. I turned that round and pulled the stomachs and intestines over objects and assemblages to arrive at new forms. I would pad them out here and there. Even then I was looking for forms you cannot attach a name to or memorize, but without any of this making me uneasy. What’s the difference between that and, for example, the moment we plunge into the indescribable world of love-making?
But if you look at the way the light touches my sculptures, you see that I am still a painter. I have the light falter. In my drawings I change this around. There I want the light to penetrate, as if the eye is going inside. And I am also looking for indescribable forms which I try to achieve by making blueprints which I then wash off. Most of the drawings consist of some fifteen layers, so you can’t see which layer was the first. It reminds me of the way a beach is formed by the advancing and receding waves: the sand always shows both the present state of the beach and its history. With my drawings and sculptures it is just the same: I don’t know what it will look like in the end, but I do know that I want to make things which are rather than things which are about something and I know what I have to do to execute them. In the case of the drawings, it was important for example to avoid yellowed paper and a black drawing, because you are then stuck with the idea of a drawing. Hence the purple gleam you see here and there, designed to make the whole thing colder.
- You now scatter dust as you used to strew pigment.
Buggenhout: Yes. At the end of the day, my work is very coherent. The form hasn’t changed much, but the content is sharper. Patricia De Martelaere wrote a nice book about that. When you are young and sincere, you want to make new, different things, but all kinds of roundabout routes invariably lead you back to yourself. You need that roundabout route to continue the authentic and not get bogged down in reductions or clichés. The road you travel can never be logical. It is like when you want to knock a nail into a wall, but don’t have a hammer, so any object will serve the purpose. Conrad says the same in Heart of Darkness: our survival instinct makes us efficient. The logic comes later.
Montagne de Miel, March 6th 2009
Translated by Alison Mouthaan