BY Ronald Jones in Features | 06 MAY 03
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Issue 75

Under Construction

Michael Beutler

BY Ronald Jones in Features | 06 MAY 03

In so far as it seems to consist mainly of pointing out his debt to Gordon Matta-Clark, Kurt Schwitters et al., discussion of Michael Beutler's ratty sculptural installations has been simplicity itself. With gratitude to the essayists who charted this art-historical pedigree, it is perhaps time to move on.

Claude Lévi-Strauss' La Pensée sauvage (The Savage Mind, 1962) had been in print 14 years by the time Beutler was born. Who knows, perhaps he read it at school, between thumbing through pictures of the Merzbau? Long before Beutler entered Frankfurt's Städelschule, Lévi-Strauss' book had influenced a generation and a half of critics and artists. Since then it has mostly sat on the shelf and is now seemingly lost in the mists of time. Recently it occurred to me to dust it off and put Lévi-Strauss' conclusions about the separate but equal realms of science and mythology to work as intellectual leverage, while pondering whether Beutler is more than just another heir to the opening gambits of installation art.

Certainly Beutler's sculptural language has a significance to which a mere appreciation of his historical lineage fails to do justice. But how great is that significance and what is its nature? Think of Whitecubeponderosa (2000) or Alusäule (2001). Beutler is an artistic nomad, his venue provisional, his art home-made; so it seems reasonable to approach his art in the manner of an anthropologist. It was, after all, from anthropologists' field notes that Lévi-Strauss understood how 'primitive cultures' were a response to their environment, which determined the way in which their languages articulated knowledge. Language, he concluded, was a context-specific response to the special interests of a given society, and the knowledge it articulated was not confined to discrete pieces of practical information but comprised a whole intellectual framework. From there he was but a step away from establishing how language constructs cultural worth, and therefore reality.

What does a similar approach tell us about Beutler's artistic language? While vaguely related to Mike Kelley's appetite for the home-made, John Bock's fringe lunacy and Jason Rhoades' fondness for objet trouvé pandemonium, Beutler remains at one remove. First contact with his art reminded me of various garage bands - especially The Cramps and The Ubangis. Perhaps because his intuitive style, so dependent on debris and nonsense, constitutes above all a devotion to performance. But what is most distinctive about Beutler's sculptural language is the way it assembles meaning on the back of a lo-fi economy of production that Kelley and The Cramps never really touched.

For Beutler it matters that his work avoids the 'trash aesthetic', that while his projects are dreamt up from ad hoc scraps, they produce predictable and finished results. Zaunknäuel (2000), for example, is a permanent installation at the Neu Isenberg Office Park that appears to be undergoing an identity crisis: it looks like a cross between a chic sculptural plop-pile and abandoned heap of chain link scrap. No doubt passers-by have seen both in near simultaneity. Paramount to seeing Beutler, through the lens Lévi-Strauss provides, is the fact that in order to manufacture Zaunknäuel he built an improvised - car engine powered - machine from scrap. It mass-produces identical components - rectangular chain-link shapes - that Beutler then arranged at the office park like so much tossed pasta. Rube Goldberg comes to mind as being more closely aligned to Beutler than anyone in the art world. However absurd his mousetraps, Goldberg is Exhibit A when it comes to evidence for Lévi-Strauss' suggestion that a lo-fi economy, in the production of knowledge, is at the very heart of all mythology.

And so the droll trio of Beutler, Lévi-Strauss and Goldberg came to mind when I found myself considering Beutler's jerry-rigged contraption recently on show at Galerie Michael Neff, Frankfurt. Stepping into the exhibition, it was hard to avoid the urge to mentally re-create what had transpired beforehand. An eccentric hand- and foot-powered apparatus comprising ropes, duct tape, pulleys and counterweights, placed off-centre on the gallery floor, had evidently been repetitively slipping well-chosen fabric on to longish strips of metal. Beutler distributed these slender sculptures throughout the gallery, arranging them so they wound around the extemporized machine. The experience in the gallery became, in part, like the task of the anthropologist: a process of reverse engineering and then of scrutinizing Beutler's art for what it was - an intuitive exploration producing foreseeable results.

Beutler is not developing a language to describe that which is beyond normal perception. His work is closer to a form of mythology based on observation 'of the sensible world in sensible terms'. In this way his endeavours are similar to Lévi-Strauss' celebrated bricolage example. Like the bricoleur, Beutler performs his job with the miscellaneous at hand, designing a language to describe experience. His improvised machine at Galerie Michael Neff relied on physics to transform inconspicuous materials into mass produced art. His approach is always intuitive in this way, but what results from it is a distinctive and consistent signature, a structure for his art. Lévi-Strauss attributes to the bricoleur the production of signs, language, while he sees science as yielding concepts capable of opening up new forms of knowledge: 'One way in which signs can be opposed to concepts is that whereas concepts aim to be wholly transparent with respect to reality, signs allow and even require the interposing and incorporation of a certain amount of human culture into reality.' This is indeed the main function of Beutler's art, but, however valid the analogy, what Beutler actually produces is art rather than mythology.

It is worth reflecting, however, that Lévi-Strauss and Beutler seem to agree that art, like mythology, seeks to simplify representation; they seek to be both the thing itself and its representation. At Galerie Michael Neff, Beutler's project was hand-made, the uncomplicated in the service of the explicit. But while it was merely cloth and metal, Beutler's art is not just about process and materials. Set within our information culture, buffeted by waves of influence emanating from post-industrial life, Beutler reaches past the longing for an earlier and simpler age to refresh our pleasure in the complicity between culture and reality, to allow ourselves to be suspended between the mythical and the scientific.

Ronald Jones is on the faculty of the Royal College of Art, London, and a regular contributor to this magazine.