Pavel Büchler – (Honest) Work @ Ikon, Birmingham

My entry to the Frieze Writers’ Prize 2015. It never stood a chance.

In 1997 Michael Haneke’s television adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Castle was met with overall critical ennui. The director suffered accusations of flat characterisation and lackadaisical narrative, which was surely the point (as some sympathetic critics observed). The truth is, Kafka belongs to abstraction: we are more accustomed to thinking of the Czech writer as an idea of isolation, alienation and bureaucratic absurdity than as a composer of considered drama. This is perhaps why so many artists are wont to turn to Kafka for reference, as to lift these factors from their literary setting is to understand the abstract nature of his characters – in The Castle, K. is frustration; he is alienation. If one were to place K. in a contemporary setting, he would doubtless epitomise Zygmunt Baumann’s other: that which has no societal strata and falls through the cracks in our globalised social geography, recognised only as diaspora.

Pavel Büchler’s most recent (retrospective) exhibition at Birmingham’s Ikon gallery features references to The Castle prominently, perhaps subconsciously recognising that Kafka’s great unfinished novella loses none of its potency by being cut off abruptly (Haneke himself honoured this by having his film come to a full-stop in precisely the same place as Kafka’s book). Indeed, one could argue that it is this quality of narrative sudden-death which has kept Kafka’s voice so vital in the years since his death, as it automatically precludes itself from resolution – K. is eternally trapped in the bureaucratic purgatory of non-admittance to the castle, and as such we sympathise with his societal ouroboros. Büchler here gives us this abstract frustration neat, stripped of its narrative trappings. A solitary figure taps away on a typewriter and presents the viewer with the imperative “SILENCE PLEASE.”; antiquated Marconi speakers are arranged in a tree-like formation and simultaneously blare out fanfares and excerpts from The Castle in various languages and dialects, an aural cacophony which itself permits no accessibility. A resituated EXIT sign partially conceals the ghost of a typeface remaining from one of Julian Opie’s many past exhibitions, ostensibly a prison for a desperate fly seeking egress as K. seeks ingress.

If one keeps to the theme of contemporaneity, then one could say that few are the cities currently more apposite than Birmingham to host the work of Büchler: the Czech-born artist has, over the past three decades, carved out an oeuvre for himself which draws much of its strength from a Western disinclination to discard ephemera in tandem with its constant and exponential technological turnover, and to this end the Ikon – less than ten minutes on foot from the former Central Library, a Brutalist structure forsaken in favour of a new architecturally Altermodernistic building – is perfectly in situ to frame the macrocosm offered by the former library: just as Büchler’s tape-to-tape cassette recorder hangs on the wall of the gallery, functional yet still obsolete, so too does the gutted ex-library sulk redundantly in the shadow of its successor.

Büchler has a keen eye for re-situating material, and if his allusions to Joseph Kosuth appear somewhat superfluous then one needs only to afford his prints (“One and Three Words”) a second thought: the ingenuity here is that Büchler has transposed the philosophical model as expressed by Kosuth in his instantly recognisable One and Three Chairs from the Heideggerian to the Wittgensteinian, neatly encapsulating along the way both Conceptual art’s methodology and its forms of expression. One can, of course, argue that – regardless of insight – the self-referentiality of Conceptual art is something which has by now been covered from all angles, yet Büchler’s intellectual in-jokes work too on their own merits. Here, the mannerisms of Kosuth, Weiner or Huebler are presented as small snippets of literature to complement both The Castle and Samuel Beckett’s Watt (an excerpt of which is applied to the gallery’s entrance). The parenthetical honesty of the exhibition’s title is interpreted this way as a truthful representation of modern Greenbergian law, in that the old highs and lows of post-war culture are no longer segregated in any real (honest) way, and artists such as Pavel Büchler (whom also serve as our modern cultural theorists) give us the intellectualism in an increasingly anti-bourgeois age. Honest work, indeed.