Iconoclash by tongue: on Kristina Buch
When I first heard of the new project by the young and promising Kristina Buch, my very first instinct was to climb my bookcase, reach onto the top shelf and sweep the dust from “Iconoclash: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion, and Art”. Edited by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, this beautiful behemoth of a catalogue (I recall James Elkins saying: “It was the bane of my existence the six times I carried it with me on a flight across the Atlantic, trying to read it in Economy-class airplane seats”), is as massive as it is dense with content; it investigates divergent approaches and ideas around the power of images, and the desire they incite to destroy or multiply them. The book also proposes an intriguing distinction between the term iconoclasm – in Latour’s definition, “when we know what is happening in the act of breaking” – and the neologism iconoclash, or “when one does not know, one hesitates, one is troubled” because it is not certain whether the act is “destructive or constructive”. This troubled yet intriguing state – “the enigma, the hesitation, the visual puzzle” – set between the idea that images are dangerous or innocent, applies perfectly to “later, Goliath. And then started humming.” the new intervention by Kristina Buch that is taking place as I’m writing in an unspecified international art collection.
The project consists of two abstract expressionist paintings that from afar might remind the viewer of a Kazimir Malevich or a Barnett Newman, but that are actually made purely of candy. The texture and appearance of the colour is perfectly painterly, and a distracted visitor could easily take them for one of Newman’s signature “Zip” and a black monochrome by Malevich, if not for a very subtle sweet smell, and for the wall labels that state that the paintings are made of confectionary and, most importantly, that they can be licked. As a matter of fact, Buch hopes that over the coming months, perhaps years, the two paintings will appear, unannounced, in various art collections all over the world: the goal being that over several showings they will slowly and inevitably disappear, purely by licking. This “iconoclash by tongue” is also reminiscent of a famous 1993 piece by Janine Antoni, “Lick and Lather”, consisting of 14 self-portrait casts made in chocolate and soap that the artist modelled on classical busts and “re-sculpted” by the processes evident in the title.
Both Buch and Antoni’s pieces address themes related to intersubjectivity and transgression, and play with the ambivalence between feelings of attraction and repulsion: the visitor that understand that the painting is made of pure candy is seduced by the idea of tasting the artwork; while the painting simultaneously bring about a feeling of fear and disgust, since lick after lick the materials degrade (licked areas will form licked relief as spots of strangers’ saliva materialize). The friction between these two poles generates a sensual, if not erotic, tension; the comments of art critic Georges Melrod on Antoni’s work is equally valid for Buch’s: “rather than coercing or lecturing you, she seduces you into intimate dialogue with her artwork”. The work thus becomes the site of a private rendezvous, where the feelings of respect (for the piece of art) and desire (of licking it and thus participating in its destruction) chase each other. However, the substantial difference between Antoni and Buch’s projects is in the intention of the artist. For the latter, the chase is meant to end with the triumph of the desire and the disappearance of the piece: Latour’s hesitant “enigma” in the end finds its solution in the sacrifice of the artwork.
It is worth noting that the ephemeral character of the project is part of Buch’s artistic practice at large; last year, her contribution to dOCUMENTA13 was “The Lover”, a 10 by 10 meter low-hanging garden, featuring 3,000 plants and 3,000 butterflies, hatched daily and brought to the site by the artist herself. There was no net or enclosure, so the butterflies were free to stay or to move on to other flowers and blossoms outside Buch’s environment. “Inherent in the work”, said Buch in an interview regarding the project in Kassel, “is the fact that you cannot really contain or control it. You can’t own it. By nature it’s boundless and ephemeral.” Just as in the case of the candy paintings. Hiding the name and location of the collection in which the paintings will appear, the artist wilfully decided not to control who, when, for how long and how many visitors will end up licking – or not – the piece, relegating its fate or doom to a series of uncontrollable variables and circumstances. Only in a couple of years we’ll be able to tell if a Newman-like painting made of candy is still hanging in an important collection somewhere. But to me it will be much more interesting if this intriguing story ends like the beautiful poem by Giuseppe Ungaretti: “of such poetry / remains to me / this nothing / of the inexhaustible secret”.