Christoph Buchel: Home Affairs

at TBA Exhibition Space, through May 23

Jim Siener

at Bodybuilder and Sportsman, through May 16

By Fred Camper

Christoph Buchel asked me not to write a conventional review, requesting instead a work of fiction inspired by his installation. But even before he made his request I’d recommended his show to friends without describing it. So if you love surprises, stop reading here and simply head off to TBA, to one of the most unusual exhibits ever to hit this town.

The terms “exhibit” and “installation” don’t quite capture the piece’s enveloping weirdness. In Home Affairs, Buchel, a 31-year-old Swiss, has replaced part of TBA’s front room with a cramped, cluttered apartment whose rooms snake toward TBA’s offices. The door to the gallery is now labeled “3B,” and as you enter, a small, hallway-type window to your right looks out on the street while on your left is a long, narrow entranceway–the claustrophobic opposite of TBA’s large loft space. Huge piles of newspapers line one side of the hallway, many of which have fallen to the floor; at the end of the hall you can see what looks like a living room, where TV sounds are accompanied by a television’s flickering light.

Piles of clothes, books, magazines, food wrappers, and pizza boxes are everywhere. Empty bottles and cans fill a shower stall. The exhibit suggests a specific fictional character: someone who’s around 50–there’s a 1966 high school yearbook in the living room, below some cheap sports trophies–and misanthropic who never throws anything out and never goes out, spending his days and nights watching TV, eating junk food, and reading newspapers, the National Enquirer, and Balzac.

But despite the suggestion of a story, what’s most powerful about Home Affairs is the aesthetic issue it raises. By creating an installation that engulfs the viewer, Buchel risks a plunge into formlessness. There’s no framed picture here, no composition you can step back from and put in perspective; instead the work surrounds you. And it’s chaotic. What saves the piece from becoming a mere imitation of a messy home is the degree of formal control BŸchel exercises over the chaos.

Buchel has presented a variety of architectural installations in Europe; he came to Chicago five weeks ago to work on this one, collecting material from recycling centers and thrift shops. Building the walls at TBA took about a week; the junk was installed in a day. But look a little closer and the arrangement of stuff is a bit more studied than it seems at first. One box holds mostly gum wrappers; the kitchen floor is covered mostly by cereal boxes; the books piled on the bed are still mostly in neat stacks. The TV is always tuned to the same home-shopping channel–and always mistuned so that the image is blurred. Home Affairs is an artist’s conception of a pigsty, not the thing itself.

At the same time, it has an almost diabolically enclosing quality. The narrow passages reminded me more of New York than Chicago–and in fact New York is the only U.S. city Buchel has lived in. Profoundly creepy at first, the piece becomes even more disturbing when one realizes one can actually sit on the chair in front of the TV or on the edge of the bed, whose stacks of books leave only a narrow strip for the fictive character to sleep.

A bedroom comes right after the living room, after which one can take one of two different paths–forward to a kitchen or backward to a dressing area and bathroom–introducing the hint of a labyrinth. The fork also heightens one’s sense that the installation is some out-of-control organic growth, some ever-expanding infernal machine. Perhaps the creepiest thing of all is that the bathroom is not only functional, its TBA’s only bathroom: staff member’s have to go through the whole installation in order to pee, and the bathroom is nearly as chaotic as the rest of the “apartment.”

TBA stands for Thomas Blackman Associates, the outfit that puts on our largest art fair. In fact this installation will be up during Art 1998 Chicago, in May. TBA will have a show office at Navy Pier, but there will also be many people coming here. I found myself wondering how many other galleries would be willing to force visitors to proceed through this mess to get to their salesrooms. Already UPS delivery people have been reluctant to enter. And at the exhibit opening other visitors thought, like me, that they’d come to the wrong floor.

All of this seems part of the work’s point. Galleries and the offices of art-related businesses favor a clean, white, antiseptic look. And “Soho style”–which has spread to boutiques, restaurants, and apartments–does have the virtue of letting the visitor feel relatively free of the surroundings. A gallery filled with furniture and antiques as well as paintings can make you feel you’re in someone’s home, and probably not properly dressed for a visit either.

Home Affairs reminds us of everything that clean spaces seek to deny. We often hear news stories–Buchel read one about a woman in Hamburg–of people who live for years without throwing anything away, their homes spiraling out of control. By plunging us into a fictional version of such a life, Buchel produces more than a delightful piece of whimsy: he reminds us of the messy, entangling nature of encounters with others and of the way clean, modern interiors try to expunge personality in favor of a supposed antiseptic purity that, denying us our quirks and obsessions, also denies part of our humanity.

Computers and computerization have long been feared in the popular imagination as a threat to our humanity: anxious jokes about being replaced by a computer were common in the 60s. But now the future is here, as images, sounds, and information all take digital form.

Jim Siener wittily addresses this state of affairs in his 12 works at Bodybuilder and Sportsman. His show also offers an interesting counterpoint to Buchel’s. If Buchel’s is loudly enclosing, Siener’s encourages you to stand back. If Buchel’s work is “hot,” Siener’s is “cool.” While Buchel claims no particularly important influences, Siener admits that minimalism had a big effect on him, though he also names other influences, from Wayne Thiebaud to David Salle. In his clean, simple drawings and paintings (there are also two photographs of related outdoor installations), Siener imitates digitized computer images made up of pixels. His works’ cool tone and small scale allow one to step back and think.

Some of these works were inspired in part when the 33-year-old Siener–who’s lived in Chicago since getting his MFA from the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1994–first encountered the computerized touch pad on which UPS recipients now sign their names. He was a bit startled to see the “garbled, pixilated” version of his signature, which got him thinking about the effect of translating one’s signature, “a big part of who you are,” digitally. In Stuart Davis Siener gives us the artist’s signature in black on a bright red Davis-like field; like his art, Davis’s signature has a flamboyant, rhythmic, improvisational feel. But seeing it with every curve resolved into the tiny right angles of individual pixels wryly suggests the nuances we might be missing.

Key to Siener’s work is the fact that it’s handmade. Sometimes he uses graph paper to help him draw pixels; other times he uses strips of tape partially cut away, opening up squares to paint pixels in. But some irregularity always betrays the artist’s presence. Viewers are aware they’re seeing not computerized pixels but an artist’s obsession with computerized pixels. Like BŸchel’s, this exhibit tells an implied story, the tale of an artist trying to preserve a little of himself in an increasingly digitized world. By rendering everything in pixels, Siener acknowledges the pathos of his quest, establishing with his brush on board or his pencil on paper a tiny personal space in a homogenized world.

The juxtaposition of two drawings, We the People and John Hancock, also seems to make a point about homogenization. For We the People Siener began with these three words in a computer font, which he converted into a very low resolution image before making a drawing from it. John Hancock, like many of these works, began with an enlarged photocopy of the famous signature; Siener then translated the image into pixels by blackening squares of graph paper. John Hancock has a much higher resolution than We the People, whose text can barely be discerned, yet there are losses even in John Hancock: the curves in the signature are jagged. In the end, high and low resolutions are no different: both eliminate nuances and make organic curves mere illusions. Taking these words from elegant, handwritten documents simply makes Siener’s cultural point stronger: we’re putting everything, even the icons of our past, through the digital filter.

Siener’s one installation, unlike Buchel’s, almost begs to be seen from a distance. Grand Tetons is a black-and-white wall painting made from a scanned postcard; he converted it to a low-resolution black-and-white image and made the wall drawing from that. Up close, it looks abstract. But seen from the other side of the gallery, through two large windows, it’s like a view through a picture window: the outline of the mountains is clear.

Compared to almost any postcard or actual mountain view, Siener’s image is still absurdly reductive; elegant as a black-and-white abstraction, it barely renders any details. But as anyone knows who’s done some serious hiking, a real picture-window view is also pathetically inadequate compared to a walk outdoors, which intertwines awareness of your legs, the landscape, the wind, and the sky. What Siener’s work really reveals is the inevitable distance between an image and fully engaged experience.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Home Affairs” by Christoph Buchel; “We the People” by Jim Siener.