Creatio Ex Materia (Bauhaus OctopusX, 2017)

Bauhaus / Feminismus / Fundstück / Kunst / Text zur Kunst
Bauhaus OctopusX by Ulrike Buck, Triumph Gallery — Exhibition view

In the Bauhaus Manifesto Walter Gropius stated that ‘[a]rchitects, sculptors, painters, […] all must return to craftsmanship! […] There is no essential difference between the artist and the artisan. The artist is an exalted artisan. Merciful heaven, in rare moments of illumination beyond man’s will, may allow art to blossom from the work of his hand, but the foundations of proficiency are indispensable to every artist’ (Weimar, 1919). This expressionist quote bears witness to a disbelief in technology, this was then in reaction to the unmediated horrors of WWI. Later, in the Principles of Bauhaus Production (Dessau, 1926) Gropius departed from the Arts & Crafts credo and pleaded for strong unity with technology, incorporating industrial progress into the school’s design thinking. As a result, the Bauhaus movements’ approach to democratic design has made global history as a German export hit; in its spirit, other design schools, e.g. Black Mountain College, came into being and multinational corporations, e.g. IKEA, spread ready-to-assemble furniture all over the world. It is also the name giver to the German self-service hardware store BAUHAUS, founded in 1960. This was during the early days of the Digital Revolution, paralleled by the rise of DIY culture in the Western world. Thus a certain utopian idea from the early 20th Century has successfully descended into today’s reality.

In Buck’s work, the utopian character of traditional crafting encounters the contemporary living conditions of a digital nomad. The choice of classic building materials, like terracotta, (wire enforced) glass and steel, predetermine the set of possibilities for the shaping and emergence of new objects. Material knowledge is used as an essential precondition for thinking with and creating through the hands, understood as a sensory extension of the artist’s mind – a significant anthropological constant throughout human history.

Also Octopus vulgaris – one of the oldest living creatures – literally thinks with its hands or arms: Each of its eight tentacles is equipped with a cloud of neurons that builds-up different brain fields. Belonging to the Cephalopod species, this soft-bodied sea animal emerged in the history of evolution 550 Million years ago, on the cusp of the Cambrian. Since then the octopus is a mediator between worlds, communicating between the shallow seawater and the deep sea, one of the most unexplored and pristine territories on Planet Earth, symbolic of the human subconsciousness. This solitary animal is a maverick, endowed with three hearts, reason, memory, and personality. It is capable of camouflaging itself, adapting not only its skin colour and texture, but also its body shape and behaviour; a complex organism with no clear brain-body boundary. Diving into its habitat is like diving into the origin of us all, as Peter Godfrey-Smith recently put in his book Other Minds. The Octopus, the Sea and the Deep Origins of Consciousness (New York, 2016), in which the author tries to assess their intelligence and challenges science to re-frame its understanding of the human brains. Correspondingly, the octopus has become an object of investigation in recent developments in robotics.

The symbolism of the octopus is manifold. Its overall Gestalt, its shape and character is soft and fluid. Lined with countless suction cups, the ceaseless movement of the intangible tentacles embraces the observer with its mystical, and possibly lethal beauty. Throughout art history, the octopus conveys indefinite erotic imaginaries, for instance in The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, a woodblock print by the Japanese artist Hokusai (1814). Thus, it can be interpreted as an allegory of female dreaming, representing an embodiment of the stream of consciousness method; reactive, intuitive, associative, and of a sensuous-rational nature. Not least, it is said, that the tentacles motif has been inspirational for the characteristic design of the ancient Minoan labyrinth. This is one of the most legendary architectural structures in Greek mythology, keeping the Minotaur imprisoned and proving Ariadne’s ingenuity.

The symbol X is universal. Although it is frequently used to indicate a concept of negation, refusing, dividing, or terminating something, it has much more power as a positive sign: Primarily it symbolizes the union of two things, expresses their interconnectedness, or multiplication, lately used in netspeak as symbol for kissing. It is an indicator, identifier, mark or placeholder, often representing the unknown, e.g. locating the final destination on a map, where the treasure is buried. Altogether X stands for the crossing of boundaries, as it is the ancient symbol for change and transformation. It is also Osiris’ symbol, the Egyptian god of the afterlife, and underworld, the god of resurrection. In pagan belief, witches cross fingers to focus and hold magical or demonic energy at the point of intersection. This was thought to mark a concentration of good spirits and served to anchor a wish until it could come true. In genetics, without the X-chromosome there’s hardly life, and the double-X designates the female cell. Not least, the X-axis represents the horizontal in the coordinate system.

In the exhibition, the X also stands for the multiple interconnections and mutual enhancement of the material when combined with artistic energy. The pieces are corpora delicti of a specific moment in time, historically and biographically, a synthesis of the artist’s personal anthropological archive. Aesthetically the objects amalgamate the ascetic, functionalist Bauhaus style with a post-modern idea of a networked world-organism. The deployed technologies, such as sandblasting, iron bending, and clay firing correspond to the classical elements earth, wind, and fire, and hence convey an archaic understanding of the world, when senses were essential for survival. As in Plato’s Timaeus (360 BC) where the creation of the world’s soul is manifested in the letter X.

Catalogue text for the exhibition “Bauhaus OctopusX” by the artist Ulrike Buck, Triumph Gallery Moscow, Jan. 2017. Photos by Ulrike Buck