M Museum’s Eva Wittocx on Peter Buggenhout

Head of contemporary art and senior curator at Leuven’s M Museum Eva Wittocx discusses her newly-opened exhibition of Belgian artist Peter Buggenhout’s work. 

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Can you talk to us about the exhibition? What were its starting points? Did you have any pre-conceived intentions / directions you wanted to give the show? Where did the research initially take you?

The exhibition at Museum M offers a first overview of Peter Buggenhout’s sculptures, combining works from the 90s and new work made for the show. Buggenhout is mostly known for his huge installations made of abject material, intestines, dust, trash, industrial remains… Although his work has been recently presented at major international platforms such as Palais de Tokyo, the Taipei Biennial or MoMA/PS1, this exhibition is the first to combining old and new work, both monumental and more intimate sculptures. With around 30 sculptures the presentation at Museum M is the largest to date. At first we considered a chronological approach, but later on it seemed more exciting to mix work from different series and materials.

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How does the exhibition’s name help to evoke its content?

The exhibition doesn’t have a title. Peter Buggenhout is rather suspicious of giving names; he doesn’t want to influence our reading of his creations. Even naming them ‘untitled’ is loaded today. His work is divided in three categories with matching titles, followed by a unique number. His titles, such as ‘The Blind Leading the Blind’, offer a philosophical background to his work. The new publication that comes with the show is titled ‘We did it before, we will do it again’, a title that also opens up to many interpretations.

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How would you describe the majority of the works on show? In a more general sense, how would you describe the artist’s work, his approach and aesthetic?

The artist aims to present nothing and everything at the same time. He intends to offer a mirror for the complexity of the world around us, creating works that resist in being labelled. His creations exist parallel and analogue to the surrounding reality we live in. The artist questions and resists our direct consumption of images and works of art in today’s society. These works of art invite us to invest time. Peter Buggenhout avoids all possible symbolic content and representation by using garbage and found material. By covering his works in dust he attempts to neutralize the aesthetic of the material. His works of art both attract and repulse, fascinate and disturb our experience.

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In terms of approach, how did you go about producing the show? How involved was the artist? How closely did you work with him/her? Can you talk to us about the selection process? How easy, or not, was it to get hold of all the pieces?

We worked closely together in selecting the works. Part of the pieces belong to private collections throughout Europe, others come from the artist’s studio. At first sight his work resembles the remains of destroyed or abandoned structures. Each work is created in his studio, by adding, changing, compiling and erasing parts until the work becomes autonomous and ungraspable. In order to reconstruct these complex, monumental constructions every work is dismounted and gets an internal logic. His team of assistants worked in the museum to re-install the sculptures. Bringing these works with waste and dust into the museum did bring some challenges: as Museum M also holds other artworks, we needed to make sure all living material was death. Prior to the installation all works were stored and treated in sealed containers to guarantee they were all safe.

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As a curator, how important is your relationship with the exhibited artist?

That relationship is very important and is built on a good in depth knowledge of his work. Over the last years I travelled to many of his exhibitions to experience the works in real, from Paris to Tilburg and Taipei. The final selection is a dialogue where the curator follows and guides the artist in his decisions and choices. Over the last years I visited his studio several times and we had long discussions. Some of our dialogues are recorded and transcribed in the publication that comes with the show.

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From research to scenography, can you discuss the various different people involved in the show?

The show was a joint effort by the whole museum staff and Peter Buggenhout’s studio assistants. Both our production manager, coordinator, press officer and education team went to visit his studio in Ghent last summer, each one working on their contribution to the show.

In the show, as part of the scenography, we explore different ways of presenting his works. Some are hanging on the wall or standing directly on the floor of the galleries; while other works are presented on steel tables and in glass boxes. These different presentations offer another reading of the work and highlight specific qualities. In some galleries we worked on creating a certain atmosphere by using specific lightening.

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What do you hope viewers will get from visiting the show?

That they leave with an open mind, each one taking different views and reflections on his work and the world around us with them. One of these insights could be on how one can be more aware of our desire to grasp or label the things we see or experience (around us).

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On a more personal level, how has working on this exhibition enriched your understanding of the artist’s work? And of contemporary art more generally?

It made me more conscious about things that resist a superficial reading. His work also teach us that it’s fine not to ‘understand’ things, or that one can have many interpretations that are all equally valuable. Perhaps we can learn here how to leave things as they are, autonomous, without any hidden meaning, judgement or without classifying them. That’s what’s so challenging about contemporary art and part of task as a museum, to offer these experiences or encounters. I also respect the fact that Peter Buggenhout has worked for nearly 20 years on developing his artistic practice, creating a consistent body of works that hardly made concessions to trends or hypes. It took some time for his work to be slowly valued and to be picked up by the art world.

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Would you say any influences / references played a major role in shaping the exhibition?

Peter once called himself one of the last ‘Romantics’, meaning that his work aims to give visitors an insight in the ‘hidden’ order or meaning of the world. Different than the ‘Romantic’ painters he isn’t painting images of the world, but does so by using complex and abject, concrete material, excluding all references to the world. This quest to free art from all representation he shares with Minimal Art from the 60s and 70s, although his huge megalith sculptures are very different than their geometric, minimal shapes.

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As a curator, how do you select the artists whom you’d like to exhibit? Would you say your shows all have somewhat of a common denominator to them?

It’s hard to say, I guess the artists I work with have the ambition to give both an insight in the world we live in and to question it at the same time. I am not so much interested in images, but in artists that manage to work with the space and create an experience for visitors. Artists such as Ugo Rondinone or Markus Schinwald are connected to Buggenhout in the way they dialogue or manipulate the space. I also feel their work is disconnected from the time of today, timeless and embracing both the past and future (I know that this might sound as a paradox). Peter Buggenhout’s work looks like the industrial remains from a lost civilisation and both as undetermined ruins from a possible future.

Peter Buggenhout
M Museum, Leuven
Until 31st of May 2015   
 
mleuven.be