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In Firsthand: Andrea Büttner, the artist discusses a group of recent works that speak to a characteristically diverse set of philosophical and cultural concerns. They include Karmel Dachau (2019), a major new video about a convent of Carmelite nuns established on land that abuts the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial. Also featured are large-scale photographs of former plant beds used for biodynamic research by the Nazis on plantations at the Dachau site itself; a group of oil paintings on gessoed cardboard that address the abiding presence of the grid in modernist art; and reverse glass paintings with collaged images of bread that critique the supposed authenticity of artisanal production. In this conversation with Stuart Krimko, the gallery’s Editorial and Research Director, Büttner poses questions about the “brown”—or fascist—roots of the contemporary green movement; the connections between religion, cultural appropriation, and suffering; and the ongoing dialectic between modernist and anti-modernist tendencies in politics, economics, and aesthetics. These themes will also form the core of Büttner’s upcoming solo exhibition at David Kordansky Gallery, which opens in July 2021.

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Andrea Büttner

Karmel Dachau, 2019

HD Video, 32:25 minutes

Edition 1 of 6 with 1AP

Inquire

The video Karmel Dachau seems to be an important new addition to the group of your works that deal with religion and monastic communities. What is striking in this case is that the modernist architecture of the Dachau monastery itself is quite striking.

The space does play a very prominent role. The sisters’ lives are really held by it. It's a very beautiful example of early 1960s architecture that's very true to its materials. The carpentry and woodwork were done in a woodwork shop in another monastery close by where they employed disabled people. I first visited this monastery when I was a child, and even then I found it beautiful. But I found out later that the architect of the monastery, Josef Wiedemann, was a member of the NSDAP (National Socialist German Workers’ Party) and part of a group that helped build Hitler’s mountain hideaway on the Obersalzberg. When you think of fascist architecture, you usually think of classicism. But there is a second trajectory which is called in German Heimatstil—“local style”—and which was prevalent not only in Nazi contexts, but also in Switzerland, for example, in the 1920s and ’30s. It’s a variety of modernism that looks into local traditions, so it’s also a kind of anti-modernism at the same time. This is something that's maybe close to the issues I raise in the plant bed photos.

Another strong ambivalence in the video has to do with the idea that you can own the suffering of others as part of your own spirituality, which we call cultural appropriation nowadays. I deal with this explicitly at the end, when one of the nuns reads the letter from a survivor who is against the idea of building monasteries on holocaust sites. But this has very deep roots in Christianity. If you think of Jesus on the cross, the taking of others’ suffering is at the core of Christian theology.

Yet another complex issue is the fact that a significant number of priests were held as prisoners in Dachau. Sometime in the early 1940s, many religious prisoners were brought there from other camps. These were mainly Polish priests; there were perhaps 2,000 of them in the plantations where the plant beds in the photos are located. So the monastery at Dachau was originally founded by a priest who was a former inmate, which makes it different from another monastery that was founded at Auschwitz. But this priest was also part of a group called Stille Hilfe (Silent Help) that helped former Nazi war criminals escape to South America and other places. And of course, it’s incredibly complicated that the nuns are praying while facing a site of mass murder. Many people from their generation were the children of Nazis. The Holocaust is used as something sublime.

I’m curious about the experience of working with and around the sisters at the monastery. What was that like?  

 

I first produced Karmel Dachau for an exhibition at the Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism in Munich. I’d been wanting to work with this convent since 2012, when I was making work for dOCUMENTA 13, but affiliation with the Documentation Center helped me to approach them in an official capacity and extended the reach of the project beyond art. This historical aspect made the nuns very committed to the project too. I worked with one nun in particular—Sister Elija, who reads the letter at the end of the video. She was something like my producer; the Mother Superior delegated her as my point person. I’ve known about the Mother Superior since my childhood; she’s a potter and did her training in a potter’s training workshop that was run by my mother’s cousin. So I remember her sitting at the wheel, but of course she didn’t remember me.

When I went there to make the video, I stayed in a part of the monastery that they reserve for guests. I slept in a cell. There is a dining room for guests too, but since I was the only guest, I ate there alone. I’d written Sister Elija a few emails before I arrived, so she was prepared to help me collaborate with the other nuns. I hadn’t expected to be able to film within the cloister itself, since the Carmelites are a contemplative order and the nuns live a life of prayer alone. But I was very free to move in the monastery. And it took me a while to really feel this freedom and accept it, because I was, of course, very shy and concerned that I was trespassing into their privacy. But they were very open. I enjoyed being there. I only stayed for short periods because of my family situation, but it’s very relaxing. You're in a beautiful cell and you get food served to you, and you're totally free to do whatever you want, or nothing.

What’s it like to have the nuns handle the camera themselves?

I gave the camera to several nuns so they could film the views from their private cells. I didn't enter these cells, and the other nuns don't enter them either. These are very much private rooms. But you feel how the camera is held differently by different individuals; some of them used a tripod, and others just put the camera on the window sill.

 

Their views become a structuring device in the video, in terms of their relation to the Dachau memorial site.

This is what they look at. I think this is why I was interested in what happens there, because they are looking across at the memorial all the time. It’s like looking at the cross: what’s the meaning of this kind of looking? 

 

It's a very complicated question, because despite the horrific implications of it, it’s hard not to feel empathetic towards the nuns and their reasons for committing themselves to their order, and to that view. 

 

When they’re filming the views from their windows, the nuns speak about how much time they have spent at the convent. Some of them have been there since the late ’60s. That's a life spent contemplating a crime. So I can only have respect for this commitment. It also makes me think about what it means to live in a culture where these kinds of choices are hardly made anymore.

 

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Andrea Büttner

Former plant beds from the plantation and herb gardens, used by the Nazis for biodynamic agricultural research, at the Dachau Concentration Camp, 2019 – 2020

chromogenic print

67 x 100 1/2 inches

(170 x 255 cm)

Edition of 3 with 1 AP

Inquire

Thinking both about Karmel Dachau, in which plants and greenery are rather prominent—the nuns caring for the plants inside this beautiful modernist building, for instance—and the Former plant beds... series of photographs included in this presentation, I wondered about the presence of plants in your work generally.

 

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Installation view of Andrea Büttner at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2015). Photo by Gene Pittman

In the past, I have made a number of works about moss as well. But I find that there is a tendency in many exhibitions at the moment to see plants in such a positive way, which to me feels related to certain anti-modernist tendencies that are growing in prominence right now. The emphasis on craft and organic lifestyles, for instance. When you study the histories of these movements, you quickly find that they have roots in right-wing movements. I grow concerned about talking about plants generally in my work because it takes away this contextual specificity.

 

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Andrea Büttner

Former plant beds from the plantation and herb gardens, used by the Nazis for biodynamic agricultural research, at the Dachau Concentration Camp, 2019 – 2020

chromogenic print

67 x 100 1/2 inches

(170 x 255 cm)

Edition of 3 with 1 AP

INQUIRE

So what do the photographs titled Former plant beds from the plantation and herb gardens, used by the Nazis for biodynamic agricultural research, at the Dachau Concentration Camp depict, exactly?

 

Next to the Dachau Concentration Camp was a huge plantation, and the prisoners were forced to do gardening work there. Part of this was related to Nazi research on the development of German drugs and German vitamin C, because the Nazis were, of course, very interested in Germany becoming self-sufficient. These plantations were called an “Herbal Garden”; this was the rather euphemistic marketing term used to sell the products grown there. There was also a related initiative that began in 1941 and was something of a pet project of Heinrich Himmler’s, which was dedicated to research on organic and biodynamic gardening. There is growing interest now in the “brown” roots of the green movement, something that comes into clearer focus when you consider that many of the people demonstrating today against vaccines, for instance, come from green movement backgrounds and are teaming up with very right-wing people.

 

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Andrea Büttner

Former plant beds from the plantation and herb gardens, used by the Nazis for biodynamic agricultural research, at the Dachau Concentration Camp, 2019 – 2020

chromogenic print

67 x 100 1/2 inches

(170 x 255 cm)

Edition of 3 with 1 AP

Inquire

So there’s a connection between the organic, back-to-the-land ethos and the nationalist and isolationist tendencies of “purity”-based movements?

Yes, and the Dachau plantation is one place where these things co-existed: the economy of the concentration camp and organic gardening were intertwined. Their connectedness and shared histories crystallize at Dachau, though there were also organic farms at camps in Ukraine. There was a farm next to Auschwitz too, but it was used for research into rubber production.

 

I was also thinking about the way the Karmel Dachau monastery in the video is very green, and how both it and the greenery that now grows in the plant beds are evidence of regeneration. They’re signs of new life: things grow back. But this new growth also covers up the past.

The title of the photos is very specific and descriptive. There’s a specific thing I want to bring to the public’s attention, and it’s not about a trope or a cliché, or even a symbol. It’s pointing to something that’s politically important at this moment: cultural practices that we associate with the left are, upon closer inspection, revealed to be rooted in anti-modernist discourses of the right. In terms of the plants at the monastery, they’re an important part of the space but they’re really not so connected to the specific issues I’m looking to address with the photographs, though they're both connected with the history of the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial.

 

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Andrea Büttner

Bread Painting, 2016

reverse glass painting with found images

21 3/4 x 17 7/8 x 1/8 inches

(55 x 45.5 x 0.2 cm)

Inquire

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Andrea Büttner

Bread Painting, 2016

reverse glass painting with found images

15 x 14 1/8 x 1/8 inches

(38.1 x 35.9 x 0.3 cm)

Inquire

Do the paintings in this presentation also relate to a larger conversation about modernism and anti-modernism? 

 

I started making the reverse glass paintings with images of bread a few years ago, when I noticed many posh bakeries starting to open up; and then more recently, during the pandemic, it’s become a hobby of many people to make sourdough bread. I’m interested in and critical of this phenomenon. How does it sit within the economy at large? Is it really a good way to deal with the harms caused by globalization?

 

So something about the contemporary fixation on artisanal modes of production rings false to you?

Of course, there is no right life in the wrong one. In a way, all good taste and tastefulness taste bad. Sourdough bread is like sugar on a donut. It comes with a sense of a lie, of an ideology. 

 

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Andrea Büttner

Untitled, 2021

gesso and oil on cardstock

nine parts, each:

7 7/8 x 10 1/4 x 1/8 inches

(20 x 26 x 0.2 cm)

overall dimensions:

23 5/8 x 30 3/4 x 1/8 inches

(60 x 78 x 0.2 cm)

Inquire

It’s interesting, then, that the other paintings in this presentation, the oil-on-card grid works, point toward a more recognizably modernist language. How did they come about?

 

In each of the plant bed photographs, there is a kind of a rectangular form. These are the concrete foundations of the plant beds. I wanted to make paintings that enter into conversation with these forms. They make up a kind of grid, and I was thinking about Rosalind Krauss’s 1979 essay, “Grids,” in which she basically asks, “Why is the grid so successful in modernism?” And her answer has to do with the fact that the grid covers up something which has come to be considered shameful, which is narrative. From my perspective, this narrative is the narrative of religion, and of history too, I think. So it seemed important to show the photographs, which are part of the history of National Socialism, alongside grid paintings, and to critique abstract art as a way of dealing with history, guilt, and trauma.

I came to making them based on my long interest in frescos and Romanesque chapels. I’ve often worked with Giotto’s iconography in my woodcut prints, and I made a ceiling painting for my 2019 show at Hollybush Gardens based on the chapel in Padua, Italy, but I replaced his stars with potatoes because people don’t believe in heaven in the same way anymore. So it’s all about how the body and spirit and mind exist in a Romanesque chapel during a secular age.

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Installation view of Andrea Büttner: The Heart of Relations at Hollybush Gardens, London (2019). Photo by Andy Keate

Installation view of Andrea Büttner: The Heart of Relations at Hollybush Gardens, London (2019). Photo by Andy Keate

Installation view of Andrea Büttner: The Heart of Relations at Hollybush Gardens, London (2019). Photo by Andy Keate

I also made a painted ceiling in a project space in London called Friends, which is run by the artist David Raymond Conroy. It was made from nine oil paintings stuck together. It's like a cassette ceiling, but made from oil paintings on canvas. The oil-on-card works I’m showing here have similar proportions, though they’re much smaller. In my upcoming show this July at David Kordansky Gallery, I’ll present a large-scale, installation-based work that relates directly to these forms and ideas.

At the same time, the card works also function a bit like Joseph Albers’s paintings, in terms of color and composition. But they’re really like models of paintings. They’re intentionally very flat; the cardboard is only two millimeters deep and that’s very apparent when you look at them. They’re like my woodcuts in this respect.

In an online show, of course, their materiality is less apparent and their scale is harder to discern. So it really does end up being more about the grid in this context, especially because they’re quite distinct from the photographs in terms of why and how they’re made. This brings us back to the Rosalind Krauss essay. The grid is a supposedly empty sign that obscures the fullness of all kinds of stories, including those we find shameful.

 

Text-Image

Andrea Büttner

Untitled, 2021

gesso and oil on cardstock

nine parts, each:

7 7/8 x 10 1/4 x 1/8 inches

(20 x 26 x 0.2 cm)

overall dimensions:

23 5/8 x 30 3/4 x 1/8 inches

(60 x 78 x 0.2 cm)

Inquire

Given this conceptual framework, would it be correct to say that the card paintings partake of this narrative emptiness, but that the video is not empty at all, and actually quite full? 

 

Yes, that’s true. And the paintings in combination with the video perhaps underscore what Krauss wants to say about the religious charge of seemingly secular modernist painting. That becomes palpable, but I am undermining it by making paintings that are flat and read as maquettes; I’m not trying to make holy paintings.

 

But you're opening up the space for a conversation about holy painting.

Yes. I'm interested in that conversation and wonder what it means to have it in a secular time, when painting on canvas is considered to be holy, basically. I don’t believe in the holiness of painting on canvas.

 

Bio

Photo by Julia Zimmerman

Andrea Büttner (b. 1972, Stuttgart, Germany) was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2017. She has been the subject of numerous solo exhibitions at institutions worldwide, including shows at Bergen Kunsthall, Norway (2018); Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2017); Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen, Switzerland (2017); Kunsthalle Wien, Austria (2016); Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2015); Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany (2014); Tate Britain, London (2014); Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff Centre, Canada (2014); National Museum Cardiff, Wales (2014); Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin (2014); and MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt, Germany (2013). Recent and notable group exhibitions include The Botanical Mind: Art, Mysticism and the Cosmic Tree, Camden Art Centre, London (2020); Affective Affinities, 33rd Bienal de São Paulo (2019); dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel, Germany and Kabul, Afghanistan (2012); and There is always a cup of sea to sail in, 29th Bienal de São Paulo (2010). Büttner lives and works in Berlin.

To learn more about Andrea Büttner, please view these articles from Artforum.comFrieze, and Artforum, and purchase these books by the artist, including Shame (2020) and Beggars (2018).

 

Further Reading
 

Andrea Büttner has compiled a list of sources for those interested in reading more about the ideas discussed in this online exhibition. Except for Rosalind Krauss’s essay “Grids,” in which its author theorizes about the prevalence of the grid in modernist aesthetics, these texts consider the “brown roots of the green movement”: that is to say, historically documented connections between environmentalism, organic and biodynamic agriculture, right-wing politics, and Nazism. As Büttner notes above, this is a burgeoning field of research that has largely emerged over the last two decades, and new contributions to the literature continue to appear.

Janet Biehl and Peter Staudenmaier, “Right-wing Ecology in Germany: Assessing the Historical Legacy,” Ecofascism Revisited (published by New Compass Press, 2011, pp. 89–132)

Franz-Josef Bruggemeier, Mark Cioc and Thomas Zeller, How Green Were the Nazis? Nature, Environment, and Nation in the Third Reich (published by Ohio University Press, 2006)

Rosalind Krauss, “Grids,” October (published by MIT Press, vol. 9, summer 1979, pp. 50–64) 

Sveinung Legard, ed., “The Politics of Nature from Left to Right: Radicals, Reactionaries, and Ecological Responses to Modernity,” Ecological Challenges (published by New Compass Press, forthcoming)

Peter Staudenmaier, “Organic Farming in Nazi Germany: The Politics of Biodynamic Agriculture, 1933–1945,” Environmental History (published by Oxford Academic, vol. 18, no. 2, April 2013, pp. 383–411)

Peter Staudenmaier, “Advocates for the Landscape: Alwin Seifert and Nazi Environmentalism,” German Studies Review (forthcoming)

Corinna Treitel, “Artificial or Biological? Nature, Fertilizer, and the German Origins of Organic Agriculture,” New Perspectives on the History of Life Sciences and Agriculture (published by Springer International as part of the Archimedes book series, vol 40., 2015)

Frank Uekoette, The Green and the Brown: A History of Conservation in Nazi Germany, Studies in Environment and History (published by Cambridge University Press, 2006)

 

Installation view from BP Spotlight: Andrea Büttner, Tate Britain, London, April 21 – September 28, 2014, Photo by Ana Escobar
Bread Paintings photography by Jörg Baumann, Courtesy of Hollybush Gardens, London and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles
Grid Paintings photography by Roman März