Director of Bielefelder Kunstverein Thomas Thiel described Michael Beutler’s show Haus Beutler (The Beutler House) as a ‘retrospective in miniature’. A standard retrospective would hardly befit an artist who consistently works with the architectural and social dimensions of the exhibition space. This is predicated by the works themselves: not only are most of them incomplete without the context for which they were created, but their materials (plywood, corrugated cardboard, crêpe paper), as well as their interrupted status – as ephemeral residues of a process – make it clear that they are simply not made to last. Moving a Beutler installation to a new context seems unable to work as repetition but rather, if at all, as a quotation.
This was reflected in the exhibition architecture. Partition walls turned the Kunstverein’s ground floor into a sequence of smaller booths. Each of these walls (The Wall, Wand and Wand, all 2014) was made using fragments of previously exhibited works, ordered chronologically: the raw, slightly yellowed layers of paper from Mustertherme (Model Spa, 2009, at the Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden); followed by the woven corrugated cardboard from Elefant und Schwein (Elephant and Pig, 2010, at Galerie Bärbel Grässlin) and finally, the compressed paper blocks in plastic fruit nets from Wursthäuser (Sausage Houses, 2014, at Museum für Gegenwartskunst Basel). The booths themselves contained tables full of models for realized and unrealized works – one displayed the repertoire of modular forms which Beutler often draws on for his sculptures.
Overall, this alternative retrospective focused less on the works themselves than on materiality and method. Using DIY materials, Beutler undermines any fetishization of his individual works; instead, he unpretentiously declares his faith in the significance of process. For Beutler, the creative process is to be treated as a performative element integral to the work as a whole, rather than a series of obligatory preliminaries. Each installation was preceded by the construction of machine-like devices, what Gregory Williams once called ‘proto-machines’. Using these contraptions, which are often integrated into the works or shown alongside them as references to their processes, Beutler transformed the prefabricated material for each work without the aid of electricity or mechanics. The paper blocks for Wursthäuser, for example, were made using a kind of battering ram that was also shown here. The show cleverly extended the reference game by filling the entire upper floor of the Kunstverein with a flood of documents: sketches, calculations, devices, as well as masses of photographic and video documentation of a wide range of installations.
For all its cleverness, one drawback of this archaeological approach was that visitors were barely able to enjoy complete works: the mega-installation Portikus Castle (Portikus, Frankfurt, 2007), for example, was reduced to an underwhelming partial reproduction. The monumentality of Beutler’s individual works was present here only in Schwimmende Decke (Floating Ceiling, 2014), itself a fragment of Plafond Tamponneur (Centre d’Art Contemporain de Saint-Nazaire, 2013): a fragile timber roof whose supporting beams float in small pools of water instead of standing on firm ground. But this renunciation allowed Haus Beutler to give a clear view of the artist’s signature nexus of concept, material and performance – something that is often obscured by the sheer presence of the installations themselves. This was the undisputed achievement of the exhibition, which also succeeded in offering a challenging and entertaining contribution to the tired genre
of the retrospective.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell