Some words look funny on the page. Say you describe a diagram, and write that it’s made up of ‘neatly hatched black lines’. All clear. But if you gaze at the phrase a second too long, the term ‘hatched’ will jump out of its slot, dance before your mind’s eye, and make you wonder: how closely would lines have to be hatched to stop them escaping from behind bars? Tripping over metaphors, you stagger into a zone where all things figurative become real, just as they do in the joke: ‘What did the 0 say to the 8?’ ‘Nice belt.’ In the metaphoric imagination, the abstract and concrete trade places; actual objects begin to resemble figures of thought. Before you know it, you’re moving your desk around the room to see whether it changes the course of your writing …
This is precisely the state of mind that Ruth Buchanan’s work puts you in. She is a skilled conduit to the world of the literally figurative and abstractly concrete. In her writings, installations and performances, Buchanan stirs up metaphorical currents that slowly pull you into their eddies.
Written in tall letters across the ground-floor windows of Grazer Kunstverein in Austria, the words ‘the way i move tables’ welcomed you to Buchanan’s 2011 exhibition, ‘A Wayward Punctuation’. Inside the first space, a slide projection, Many Directions (2011), showed a diagram taken from a textbook for learning German. It visualized the relations expressed by prepositions such as ‘in’, ‘under’ and ‘next to’ in the form of a circle and a square positioned in, under or next to one another. Flood (2011) – a 15-metre-long, soft green curtain – diagonally cut through all subsequent spaces. Among the works on either side was Intractable (2010–11), a poem in the form of a linguistic chart, which contained the lines: ‘No touching/No finger-licking/No touching’, in the column titled ‘Intractable’; while filed under the header ‘As Possible’ were: ‘As much touching/As much finger-licking’. The video Sleepwalkers (2011), containing footage from a 1970s educational programme, showed school children being led by a progressive pedagogue to explore museum artefacts through touch. The artist reads aloud a text she has written as a voice-over. Its focus gently slips between subjects ranging from objects being embraced to bodies moving, from sleepwalkers to great birds ‘with mottled grey feathers’ gliding on the wind, from a rapidly speaking female leader to children counting under their breath: ‘Beat one yes, beat two no, beat three relax.’
Buchanan structured the exhibition space using a series of metaphorical substitutions that shifted meaning from words on windows to grammar lessons, from a poem chart to a voice on film. Following this rhythm, the visitor traversed a space of learning in which the disciplinary led to the delirious, grammar to eroticism and the vision of a mottled grey albatross in free flight ultimately evoked the eternal fear of crash landings: meaning, memory and mockery all layered in space.
Such layering was also the operating principle of Buchanan’s recent exhibition ‘Put a curve, an arch right through it’ (2012) at Krome Gallery, Berlin. At the heart of the show was an eponymous audio work, in which the artist narrates a text about the expectations and frustrations experienced while grappling with the order of things in a space that could be ‘a cupboard, a brain, a body, a galaxy’. Or, in fact, Berlin’s State Library, the history of which – encompassing its dispersal during World War II, its multiple relocations and its gradual reconstruction over subsequent decades – Buchanan records in the show’s companion publication, The weather, a building (2012). In the gallery, Ostensibility (2010) consisted of two blue-coated MDF plates held in place by steel legs rising up at such an oblique angle that the overall impression was one of an oversize, upturned desk. Projected low down onto the side of the work was the video Tilt (2010): in it, a hand hovers over a surface, quivers ever so slightly, thumb squeezing index finger – seeking, it would seem, to approximate the angle of the surface below and to align itself with its own shadow. Feeling their way around this architecture of putative knowledge, hand and mind tremble, suspended between the realities of facts and feelings, oddly connected through the metaphorical substitution of words with things, bodies and buildings.
Adjacent to Tilt, placed among other items in the vitrine work titled An exterior, an interior, a surface (2012), was a mat woven with a pattern. In her spoken-word performance Circular Facts (2009), Buchanan described just such a design as being made up of ‘hatched black lines’, only these were more loosely composed, as if they had slid apart and were on the point of escaping. Were you to put the mat at your front door, would lines hatch? Or trip into your house? If so, your space might become what Buchanan’s work is: a home for agile metaphoric thoughts.
Ruth Buchanan is a New Zealand artist living and working in Berlin, Germany. In 2012, she had a solo show at Krome Gallery, Berlin, and her work was featured in several group exhibitions including ‘Performance in the Expanded Field’, Stroom, the Hague, the Netherlands, and ‘Contact’ at Frankfurter Kunstverein, Germany. Forthcoming in 2013 are solo shows at Hopkinson Cundy, Auckland, New Zealand, and GAK, Bremen Germany.