If you can be heard, then you exist: The Art of Rachel Epp Buller
Reciprocal generosity is “to give and to help; to provoke, catalyze, and enable; to be of service, to be responsible, to better and to improve, to contribute to betterment; to give food…to give ‘voice.’” – Mary Jane Jacob, Reciprocal Generosity
Letter writing in these months of COVID-19 is a meaningful response to the time we have available and our need for connection. But when was the last time you wrote a letter or penned a hand-written note? Even before the pandemic, a loss of connection between people—a disconnect—had been noted. Now people are experiencing an even greater relational rupture brought on by COVID, civil unrest, and political anxiety. In this context, artists have a perspective on life—on creating and living—that is valuable for us to consider. They see things differently and help us think differently. Rachel Epp Buller, with her new exhibition Hoping You Are Well at the Salina Art Center in Kansas, is one such artist.
In Hoping You Are Well (December 2–20, 2020), Buller extracts thoughtful, eloquent, and insightful words from herself and others. In a series of projects, the artist’s process focuses on letter writing, which is a small gesture of cognitive movement that we are all capable of. The exhibition is a conceptual triptych, three associated artworks that are best appreciated together: Pandemic Epistles, a durational letter writing project and data visualization; Taking Care, a textile and letter-based participatory work; and Letters to the Future, an audio work of multiple international artists reading aloud a series of Buller’s epistolary poems. On the surface, this exhibition is about writing, engagement with others, and performance. But below the surface are poignant and urgent messages—ideas about loneliness, solitude, and connection, reimagining the ways we care and listen, and the power of slowing down and writing to another person as a temporal gesture.
Loneliness, Solitude, and Connection
Loneliness is not about being alone; it is about a loss of connection. The pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated this societal crisis. But if we consider solitude to be an alternative, we may find opportunities for connection. What is important is taking action—employing the gesture—and Buller shows us how. For example, in Pandemic Epistles, the artist’s durational letter-writing project connects people through an empathetic process. Buller explains she began a daily practice of handwriting letters during lockdown in mid-March, writing on paper that she has marbled. She has been writing one letter a day and, while in residence, continues this performance, positioning letter writing as an act of care and listening.
To visually represent the Pandemic Epistles, which are mailed each day, Buller creates a wall drawing/sculpture with one piece of cut paper representing each day’s letter. The installation grows over the course of the month as cut marbled paper pieces are added each day, a striking visual in the gallery space. Pandemic Epistles, Buller says, “appeals to me right now on so many levels. The ephemeral quality resonates with me, as I think about these letters dispersed into the world, [it becomes] a social engagement project across time and space.” The work is an additive sculpture. It could also be reminiscent of the debate of beauty versus process in socially engaged practices, but this is a misnomer. For me, some of the best socially engaged work pays attention to both—beauty, aesthetics, and formalist concerns as well as poignant, urgent messages and processes.
In Buller’s project of Taking Care, text is embroidered onto textile, which is then hung in the gallery for all to see. The artist asks interested participants to write to her about a moment that they felt taken care of, loved, and connected with another. The letters are not fully represented on the textile; Buller selects fragments of the correspondence that epitomize the poignancy of the stories, to embroider onto the fabric. These are intentional gestures on the artist’s part. This intimate reciprocal letter writing is about generosity and sharing. The quietness of the work speaks loudly in the exhibition as participants take center stage in the meaning of the work. Buller explains: “I embroider some of the words and display them to publicly perform / make visible these labors of care.”
Reimagining the Ways We Care and Listen
Taking Care is a radical reimagining of connecting with another person. “I take the time to take care of their story.... I want the participants to be heard and to be seen,” says Buller. These are intimate letters that are incredibly moving because they often contain moments of grief and loss. Sociologist Brene Brown talks about vulnerability and connection, that along with painful memories, facilitate the ability to deal with tragedy and trauma. On one of the embroidered dish towels, we read in dark maroon stitching:
the rich pink flowers
fill the branches and
so I sit under the tree
they make a curtain around me, hiding me
from everyone else
Here I can still feel
my mother’s care for me
long after her death
This work epitomizes radical care and that the personal is political. Through the artist’s gestures, art is decentered; reciprocal generosity reimagines what contemporary art can be and who the audiences are. In Hoping You Are Well, the artist embraces reciprocal generosity. “Acknowledging, identifying, meeting the audience face-to-face, we begin to eliminate the barriers of distance, difference, and power, that anonymity otherwise allows.…Generosity became the medium, or methodology, and the subject, or product” (Jacobs, 2014: 270).
Buller’s work is political, set in the long tradition of this type of work stretching back to Mary Wollstonecraft’s “Vindication of the Rights of Women” (1792), in which she proposed feminist ethics and radical care as alternatives to patriarchal modes. Second-wave feminists embraced and advanced the challenge to stereotypical norms of women’s role in society. Feminist artists of the 1970s and 1980s, like Carole Schneemann, Ana Mendieta, and Adrian Piper, also critiqued the masculinization of contemporary art, labor, and women’s role in the home. Today, contemporaneous feminist ideas of radical care, love, connection, domesticity, and reconciliation can be found in the artwork of Mierle Laderman Ukeles and Lenka Clayton. Buller engages these urgent and contemporary issues, ones embraced more and more by leading practitioners in contemporary art. It is in this context that we should consider Hoping You Are Well. The three works dismantle hierarchy—high and low art, masculine and feminine domesticity, painting and multimedia works, and quiet over bravado.
Buller describes Pandemic Epistles as durational performative artwork, and indeed it is. Every day since March she has written a letter, and that means the artwork has been a long time in the making. Yet rather than being exhaustive, the artist highlights the urgent need for artists and the public to engage in the process of making. Taking Care is a participatory project, for those who choose to engage. This begets a more intentional creative process, a slowing down and a connected, concerted focus by both the audience/participant and the artist. For example, the color of the thread for the embroidered work is intuitively based on the emotive qualities of the letter received, but it is also drawn from the color of the ink. This is a clever and poignant gesture by the artist.
The curation of Hoping You Are Well embodies solitude and connection and reimagines the way we exhibit care and listen. There is a quietness in the gallery as Buller works in it. The audience must stand at the gallery doorway because the room is cordoned off. But they can read the words and see the artist at work. Embroidered words surround the space; the textiles are hung like laundry on the line. Two embroidered pieces face the exterior windows, and passersby can look in during the day and see the exhibition—perhaps out of curiosity or a desire to connect.
When asked about the furniture in the exhibit, Buller explains that she wanted the desk to evoke the condition of writing, the rocking chair symbolizes a space for embroidering, and the ironing board signifies domesticity. For the artist it was “both practically and conceptually intentional.” An antique wooden chair and desk are sited near the wall work of marbled paper, which springs from the desk like a rhizomatic root into an estuary of intimate conversations of thoughts and writing. Small pieces together make a whole. There is an intimacy in the act and the image. Letters are received at the SAC via a mail slot in the gallery door. There is a simplicity in the installation, though there is much to see. Look closely—look slowly.
Power and the Temporal in Art
Temporality, or taking time to work with communities and sustaining long-term relationships, is another important element in socially engaged practices. For at least two decades, artists and curators have centered visitors’ voices with the work, rendering events organic and temporal. This interaction continually inspires new approaches in contemporary art practices, such as exploring the value of open and relational practices. This approach, which is reflected throughout Hoping You Are Well, causes us to reconsider the audience’s role in the exhibition, namely, it places equal emphasis on the social context and the artworks. The artist, too, is centered in this dialogical process, in this case via writing, and the exchange becomes the priority as much as the final work is. Tavia Nyong’o (2014) argues that post-institutional space is engaged by artists working with galleries to create alternative spaces in the interstices of official culture. She points to those who “realize a transformed space for both critique and reparation...imagin[ing] a mode of being-together that preserves difference and antagonism in the face of liberal multiculturalism” (p. 3).
The performativity employed by Buller is engendered as political space. Slow art is a way of working that is not only about time but also about a connection with art and people. There is a slow element to the durational performance piece Pandemic Epistles. Buller explains that “communication takes on new meaning in pandemic times. Standard phrases like ‘take care’ or ‘I hope this finds you well,’ polite but often generic expressions in an earlier time, now convey the weight of hope against a deadly virus.” Letter writing can offer a physical connection when physical contact is not an option. The paper becomes a connector between the artist and the responder as both touch the physicality of the letter. And like the medium of performance art, Buller allows for the trace elements of the performance to stay in the gallery, developing over time. In this way, she is questioning what artwork is. Is it the writing? Images? Experiences? Memories? She is also challenging the placement of storytelling, gathering, sharing, empathy, and exchange in the gallery space through a reflective practice. This becomes a turning to reflective re-curation as a means of addressing the multi-layered temporal and ethical complexities occasioned by the ever-more-blatant contradictions of contemporary society (Smith, 2012).
Similarly, Letters to the Future is a shared experience as well as a subversion of authorship. We see this often in socially engaged practices. Letters to the Future is a series of epistolary poems that the artist has written, conversations between things she’s read and possible future readers. They’re presented in the exhibition as a 36-minute audio recording on a loop. This work not only mines language, phrases, and the physical process of letter writing, but it was intentionally spliced by the artist—a reflective cutting up of words into pieces that combine to create poetic moments once again. Fifteen people from eight countries, selected by the artist, give voice to these new sublime combinations, connecting care and words throughout the world.
“...if you can be heard, then you exist…”
“...the choice to love is a choice to connect…”
“...collective fragments of memory….”
“...reimagine the planet...”
“...how easy to feel isolated...”
“...let us imagine anew…”
For Buller, there is a connecting across geographical boundaries that reflects an imperative commonality in realizing the way we care must be international and global, personal and wide-spread. These words have become global epistles—a poem or other literary work in the form of a letter or series of letters. Like the textile works, the audio is poignant and emotive.
Hoping You Are Well is about connection and how art can be used to engender emotive experiences. In this exhibition, the affect also comes from sources other than viewing the artwork. Audiences are asked to do more to get more. The artist’s invitation is found in the creative gesture and reciprocal generosity. “Opening the process of art-making to others previously held at a distance is demanding. It involves inserting them into the process and being accountable to them, while they—having become thoughtfully and constructively engaged—become accountable to us and to the art. It is not a passive giving and receiving, and responsibilities exist for each party involved. But the dialogue that is engendered—whether art or part of the process of making—is evidence in that experience of art, we all have something to gain. The more openly and generously we listen to each other, and encourage other perceptions, the more we will hear, and the greater the work of art will resound” (Jacobs, 2014: 273).
The exhibition is a response to the loneliness and disconnection prevalent the world. Each artwork has an element of intimacy as well as performance. They offer us places that prioritize human relationships and ask us to slow down. The artist asks us to consider “how we need to be more intentional about taking care. [There is a] need to be listened to and the need to be heard.” What I’ve learned from the exhibition is the urgent need to find different ways of slowing down and connecting. These actions are, in fact, life giving. These works, and the ideas embodied in them, are quietly and poetically political. They are urgent, timely, and important for us to consider during these unprecedented times. Buller asks us to engage in the project, in life, and with others. I encourage you to join in.
Megan Arney Johnston is an independent curator, museum specialist, and educator who uses socially engaged curatorial practices centered on fundamental questions about art and its display and mediation. Arney Johnston is a noted specialist in social engagement, having coined the phrase “slow curating” in 2011. She has a PhD in Museology and Curatorial Practice from the University of Ulster, Belfast, Northern Ireland. Her curatorial appointments include institutions in Europe and the United States, where she has produced more than 330 exhibitions over her 25-year career. She has written dozens of exhibition catalog essays and articles for academic journals in addition to presenting on social practice and radical museology at numerous national and international conferences. For more information, please see slowcurating.com.
Brene Brown (2010) “The Power of Vulnerability,” TEDxHouston. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X4Qm9cGRub0 Accessed December 2020.
Mary Jane Jacob (2014) “Reciprocal Generosity” in What We Want is Free: Critical Exchanges in Recent Art, Ted Purves and Shane Aslan Selzer (eds). Albany: SUNY Press.
Tavia Nyong’o (2014) “After Institutional Critique: From Fred Wilson to Vaginal Davis.” Abstract paper for American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Los Angeles.
Terry Smith (2012) Thinking Contemporary Curating. New York: Independent Curators.