A work not set up for sound bites

Ruth Buchanan, Wellingtonian, Gemini, mother, and, as of this month, 2018 Walter Prize winner. The Berlin resident spoke to Sasha Borissenko about all things art, structural discrimination, and taking home New Zealand’s most prestigious contemporary art award.

One of seven artistically inclined children - Catholic of course - Ruth Buchanan was always destined to be an artist.

It said so on a business card she made for herself at eight years old, in fact. “Hilariously it said Ruth Buchanan, part time artist. I wonder what I imagined what I was doing for the rest of my time then. I can’t remember.”

“I’ve got quite a creative family and a lot of my childhood was spent in art galleries. I grew up thinking art was actually an option. Art was part of my language for understanding the world, I guess.”

At some point it dawned on her that maybe she couldn’t survive financially as an artist.

“I thought becoming a designer would be a whole lot smarter so I decided to enrol in interior architecture design. But I realised working to a brief for clients wasn’t going to work for me really either.”

And so it was. A degree in painting at Auckland’s Elam gave Buchanan the confidence to try her hand in the New York art scene.

Ruth Buchanan. Photo: Supplied

“I really loved New York but it was a lot of work just to live there. I would work at cafes, look after dogs, that sort of thing. It felt like it only worked if you had a significant additional income from family or whatever, I had a lot of friends who were getting glamorous internships, and I would wonder, ‘how the heck are you paying for that?’ And then I realised, oh, there’s another income stream.”

After two years of juggling work with her art practice, Buchanan realised New York wasn’t the right place for her so she ventured to the Netherlands to complete her masters. “It was a really intense programme, I was in a class of eight people. I got to have a lot of contact time with the supervisors. It was a really formative experience.”

After four years of showing, talking, teaching, and producing, she set up camp in Berlin in 2010 to be with her future-husband, a German designer living in Berlin.

Art, in a financial sense, can be pretty precarious, and pretty crazy in a lot of ways, she says.

“I manage to cobble bits and pieces together, whether that’s a commission, research funding, editing work, or occasional sales, but I’m fortunate to be able to work primarily as an artist.”

It’s having two children that proves difficult at times, she says.

“The art world is not really set up for people who have a kids in lots of ways. A lot of things happen at night. You have to organise travel, babysitters, the extra financial pressure.

"To go to an opening that includes my own work it can be complicated, bring your kids to work, or pay for a babysitter, both options can be okay, but problematic at the same time. There is a space in Berlin has started to offer occasional babysitters for evening lectures and talks which is great."

On the other hand she has the flexibility of not working fixed hours, which is something, she says.

'Bad Visual Systems'. Photo: Auckland Art Gallery

Buchanan and her partner share the emotional labour, but for a lot of people - and a lot of women - that’s not the case.

“It’s not opinion, it’s fact. It’s still true that women do the bulk of the emotional labour and caregiving responsibilities. It’s more than just a question of guys doing more.”

For Buchanan, the question of who is looking after her children is often the first thing people ask when she goes to an art gallery opening or shows her work.

“I wonder whether I would ever be asked that question if I were a man. Probably not. That question, and whether people ask it is a kind of litmus."

Representation of women and marginalised groups in general in art has to change.

“You can’t do a show of 15, and have four women, and no people of colour. [In a New Zealand context] if we are the avant garde that we say we are we should be leading the charge and providing a whole new framework.

“And it’s not enough to insert women into shows or other minorities into an existing structure. We have to change the whole game. I don’t really know what that new game would look like, but it’s about shifting the parameters, questioning who sets the conditions and who they’re serving.”

It’s these issues, gender and structural order in particular, that runs throughout her work.

Photo: Auckland Art Gallery 

For the everyday philistine, Buchanan’s installations have an architectural feel that’s riddled with bold gestures that are accented with a variety of different colours and materials. One could even argue it is visually tantalising. “And that’s the point,” she says.

“The purple plastic, [for her Walters Prize entry, Bad Visual Systems], is important. You might think of a whole variety of things, a sex club, or a butcher, a lab, or industrial connotations. But In its most basic form it’s purple and shiny and I feel thrilled when people say, ‘I loved that, purple it made me feel good’.

“My work can sometimes feel complicated. It’s not set up for sound bites, I’m interested in that, that it might be resistant to documentation for example. I want it to be complicated, this complexity is on purpose and is to reflect the complexity of our lives.”

There’s also a language element, which activates the environment, in order to draw people into what is often years’ worth of research and process.

Bad Visual Systems took a total of 10 years, she jokes. Perhaps naff, she says, but this iteration was a really strong compression of her work and concerns over the last few years. “I feel really great about it. It felt like a really solid generative statement.”

'Bad Visual Systems'. Photo: Auckland Art Gallery

While the $50,000 prize may seem a lot for some, it means Buchanan can continue projects for the next while.

She’s working on a show for Hopkinson Mossman that will show in March next year, and she’s got two shows thereafter, one in the Netherlands, and the other in Germany.

“It’s funny, my sister asked me, ‘but what does this award really mean, in a literal sense?’ I don’t know, it feels good, I guess. I feel good. It was a huge surprise, I think I looked like an insane person. It’s really cool that a project like mine could get that recognition. It feels very significant to me.”

And does she plan on returning to New Zealand? Not sure, she says. “For some of us, once you’ve made a particular set of decisions follow up options change.

“When I first left New Zealand in 2003, the terrain of the art world was very different than it is in New Zealand now, there was the desire for me to be surrounded by a diverse set of inputs [I] felt that I needed more anonymity.

“It’s also really important for me to maintain conversations in New Zealand. I still feel like that’s my community. I don’t really think that I’m part of a long-term international arts story, but I do hope that I can contribute to New Zealand’s art history.”

Bad Visual Systems is on exhibition at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki as part of the Walters Prize 2018 exhibition until 28 January 2019.

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