MATTERS OF THE ART
Reflections: The woven connections in Bev Butkow’s tactile new installation
Bev Butkow’s practice is the result of a process that trusts in the intelligence of the hands and embraces the meditative, intuitive rhythm of weaving.
Johannesburg-based artist Bev Butkow’s recent immersive installation, reflective connections, is an invitation. The artist’s four woven works, presented by the art gallery Guns & Rain, suspended in the Yi Tai Sculpture & Installation section of Art Central Hong Kong, proliferate in both form and meaning, prompting an earnest engagement with materiality and space, and encouraging a series of playful and speculative connections.
Butkow’s work, simply put, is about connections. It’s about fostering genuine emotional connection in a time of simultaneous hyperconnectivity and increasingly fraught human relationships, fractured along the lines of class, geography and contemporary markers of identity. It’s also about the connections we’d rather not have – heavy histories, unhealthy relationships with work and money, an overreliance on imported goods and materials – and those we’re still searching for.
Butkow’s journey into art began later than most.
In her mid-40s, she moved from the rigid, intellectual focus of a corporate career to the more corporeal creative process of art-making as a means of making “new” sense of the world, or “un-becoming”.
Based in Johannesburg, Butkow is also a wife and a mother of four. She makes a point of foregrounding all of these parts of her life, as she finds them inextricably linked to her way of making.
An artist who works with embodied materiality, her practice is the result of a process that trusts in the intelligence of the hands and embraces the meditative, intuitive rhythm of weaving.
Her materials – dressmaking scraps, artificial pearls, beads, textile offcuts, plastic jewels and other mass-produced, synthetic items – are run through these laboured and embodied gestures of handweaving, animated and formed on the loom before being removed, rewoven, reformed and further entangled.
Borrowing a term from South African artist Penny Siopis, Butkow views the resultant compositions as “fugitive forms” – works that escape neat interpretation, always shifting their form and meaning.
In reflective connections, Butkow returns to these synthetic materials, many of which might have ended up in Africa through a process of production and trade that originated in Asia. Suspended, these soft sculptures resemble nets, newly dredged from the ocean floor and dripping plastic and fabric. Or perhaps they are monuments to excess – pendulous reflections on seemingly everyday objects that we continued to mass-produce, trade, consume and discard.
Her use of these materials also relates to her memories of her grandmother, who, having escaped Lithuania prior to World War 2 and settling in Johannesburg, kept drawers filled with salvaged materials of these kinds.
The four works that make up this constellation are at once distinct and interconnected. Distinguished by their use of materials, colour and their individual forms, they are intrinsically bound by their material migration – their initial creation in South Africa, and subsequent showing in Hong Kong – and by the inevitable material and spatial interactions they will come to facilitate among audiences through their tactility, form and use of light.
In the case of the former, one might read Butkow’s works as abstract cartographical sculptures that speak to contemporary systems of labour and trade. The relationship between South Africa and Hong Kong has long been defined by its systems of trade, criss-crossing oceans and continents, influenced by the ebb and flow of socioeconomic powers.
Today, underwater cables echo ancient trade routes, exchanging intangible goods, information and other invisible cargo while tactile materials and labour continue to move back and forth.
In form and materiality alike, the works can be seen as serving a dual function of documenting, and speculating on, the socioeconomic and material forces that continue to shape the world and our ways of existing in it.
Countless textile and domestic materials are woven together to create a collective portrait of labour, excess, consumption, migration and more.
Even in their creation – a collaborative act between artist and assistants where everyone is encouraged to work with the materials and weaving methods they choose – Butkow muses on the basic human act of working alongside and engaging with others.
Experiencing the works in all of their complexity, however, which is to deliberately and actively engage with the tactile nature of the works – to touch, to move between, peer through and immerse oneself in – reveals their potential as animate forms that influence spatial relationships.
In Butkow’s installation, connections flare up and fade away, always.
They are seen in the corner of one’s eye, glimpsed in passing, held always in the mind and made possible through a collective engagement with the artist’s material forms. Here, the tactility of Butkow’s work is key. There is both a layering and a porosity to the forms that allow them to be in conversation with each other and with the space, simultaneously.
These textured, distressed and multi-layered forms eschew neat interpretation, but each has a characteristic presence: some sway gently, others hold their shape.
The soft yield of the thread in “dappled perspectives”, sits next to the unrelenting plastic pattern of “a material being, or building momentum towards a rupture”. Suspended in their abstract, porous and hybrid states, they begin to function as a record of human entanglements and embodied connections, using Butkow’s own body as an archive.
As the artist has said of her process: “Weaving takes me into my body, relying on mundane bodily gestures to create woven surfaces. Woven gestures materialise and embody the movements and rhythms of my body…
“Weaving is a useful investigative tool because the woven marks are visible and, through them, my bodily gestures become illuminated. They become visible as patterns of the body, the mind, of behaviour, of embodiment.”
In this way, the performativity of Butkow’s work remains present in the material. Encountering Butkow’s soft sculptures means engaging with the traces of her physical gestures, surfacing the relationship between activity and materiality.
Central to the installation are the mirrored fragments on the floor. Shadows, traces of movement and connection, and the negative spaces created by Butkow’s sculptures become as integral to the experience of the installation as the works themselves.
In isolation, they are luminous shadows, active shapes cast by their suspended forms. Collectively, they reflect and expand on the space itself, but they perform a more subtle and enduring function – that of reminding the viewer of their own activity and presence; their relationship to the world around them.
The immersive quality of the installation – its potential to become oceans, neural pathways, malformed maps of long-forgotten landmasses, plumes of plastic adrift in the ocean and more – is owed to how the works interact with the space and with one another.
While each form has a profound and enduring presence, Butkow renders her works with a level of conscious fragmentation that encourages a deeper involvement with the form’s individual materials, a closer reading of its patterns and fibres.
Peering through the folds and fissures in the fabric allows one to consider the next artwork, or the next person, through a different frame.
Ultimately, the work invites its audiences to engage in a process of ambulatory thought – to take a slow and meditative meander through the space, and to pursue the emergent and incidental connections evident in the work, the space, the world.
It is only when it is engaged with by a willing audience, that reflective connections can become an enduring meditation on the origins, impulses and spatial consequences of contemporary human connections. DM/ML
“reflective connections” was shown at the 2023 Yi Tai Sculpture & Installation Projects section of Art Central, Hong Kong, from 22 to 25 March.