Award-winning artist and research professor at the Manchester School of Art Pavel Buchler is a modest man; quite contrary to the portrait of a ‘strict conceptual artist’ he confesses he probably should be. He prefers producing his own postcards to sending texts or emails, and it’s a trusty Nokia 3210 that he is carrying.
When he begins to talk about his work though, it quickly becomes apparent that however calm and collected he may seem, he thrives on living and working in the artistic centre of a buzzing Metropolis like Manchester. It’s the sort of place where he can daily encounter the ‘small stories’ and ‘cultural situations’ which inspires his work.
As you step into his deceptively large office, with multiple doorways and only one exit, it’s clear that Buchler is another world. His world is one in which two pencils make a castle, or where one glove is better than two. Each door, I am assured, leads to nowhere, but might provide a gateway into another dimension.
In his words, he lives in a place “where everything is back to front” and is “brilliant”.
Originally from Czechoslovakia, Buchler recently scooped the prestigious Northern Arts Prize. Nominated by Maria Balshaw, Director of the Whitworth Gallery, for his contribution to the international art scene, the Prize’s accompanying exhibition in Leeds centres on his work with found objects. Notable pieces include ‘Eclipse’, an arrangement of projectors, casting the shadows of variously sized balls onto a blank wall.
Another is the fantastic ‘Il Castello’, described as “two pencil stubs forming a visual-verbal pun for a castle” and the smallest, yet arguably the most fascinating piece in the entire institution.
Meaning “the castle” in Italian, after its namesake the seminal yet unfinished novel by Franz Kafka, Buchler describes the work as “almost like a full stop”. But he stresses the fact that Kafka’s text is not the subject matter of the piece, but more a source of inspiration, and what Buchler terms a cultural situation. “There are artists who are inspired by trees and birds and rocks and that’s where they live. Where I live is about books and cultural products. Those are the things that come my way.”
“[Artists] who I get a lot from are not models,” explains Buchler. “They are almost like situations in culture – Duchamp is already of our culture really – they are for me something completely depersonalised.” Although artists like Duchamp provide Buchler with a certain artistic license, claiming “you can measure the greatness of an artist by what he or she enables you to do”, he insists that ready-mades are not the method of working for him. Nevertheless, the use of the found object is integral to his working practice (pencils and solitary gloves his particular favourites), providing an essential barrier between artist and audience. “Another measure of greatness”, he claims, “is the extent to which a work resists exhaustion. The extent to which it makes you curious again and again.”
“There’s a big difference between ready-made and found objects. The difference is that when you find something, it’s only then that you realise that’s what you should have been looking for. I’ve never had an idea in my life. After a lifetime of doing it, I still don’t know what to do in the studio.”
“The studio is somewhere I can practice, like you practice the piano, so I’m alert enough and ready enough to see a thing when I come across it.”
Authorship and authenticity, in a traditional sense, clearly do not apply to Buchler, who describes how “the artist is always ultimately disconnected” and how the categorisation of art according to medium is “historically redundant”.
“If we think of all the properly 3D objects as sculpture, what does that really mean for the historical meaningfulness of that category? I think you probably don’t get very much out of that sort of thinking. I don’t even have a proper category for my work. If it performs for you one way or another, I don’t care. A friend of mine, who also finds it problematic to be described as anything other than an artist, came to the opening of Eclipse in London. They said that if this was a painting, they would spit on it. It must be a sculpture because he didn’t spit on it.”
Despite the fact that his work is largely theoretical, Pavel Buchler comes across as far too sincere to be considered sensationalist. His works belong to an avant-garde canon of western art to which they both refer and significantly contribute.
If the measure of a great artist is what he or she enables us to do, in the simplest sense Buchler is a one of our greatest. His art makes things visible, pointing out the little things that pass by unnoticed, not in a patronising way as he explains, but in a “let’s see what happens kind of way”.