John Lennon Art and Design Building (LJMU): Peggy Buth ‘Desire in Representation’

Image courtesy LJMU
Image courtesy LJMU

by Sinead Nunes, Editor

Peggy Buth’s ‘Desire in Representation’ is the German artist’s first solo show in the UK, which has been organised in collaboration with KLEMM’s in Berlin.

From an interest in the writings of Welsh-born American journalist Henry Morton Stanley, who explored Africa in the 19th century on behalf of King Leopold II of Belgium, Buth has created an extensive body of work. The exhibition also takes inspiration from her work documenting the collections of the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, which the artist compiled into a book.

The work on display is mostly very abstract, and I felt that more context should be given in the accompanying flyer for the exhibition. For someone unfamiliar with Henry Morton Stanley’s career, the exhibition might feel difficult to grasp; I would recommend a quick scan of Stanley’s biography before coming.

Buth’s work takes form in a variety of mediums, from film, to photography to sculpture. Most memorable is her work ‘Oh, my Kalulu!’ which is a collection of short satirical vignettes from a film. The scenes shown are very interesting, as they depict in a humorous manner the views held by Europeans about Africans in the 19th century, using irony and comic repetition. The film is shot in high contrast, with emphasis on primary colours, making it seem farcical, and the gestures of the actors are highly affected. The film projects an image of false camaraderie between Stanley and ‘his’ Kalulu, with the clear distinction between white man and slave.

Other works include two textile pieces, and an array of antique furniture. ‘Untitled (aberration, cabinet) 2009’ is an engaging piece: a single scene repeats inside a wooden cabinet of a man lost in a cave. The lost man seems to call out in confusion, meeting a dead end at every turn.

‘Untitled (Octagon), 2012’ is another probing piece: at once a plinth and a cage. The white platform surrounded by bars can be read either way, which makes discussion of this piece provocative. Perhaps here, Buth is commenting on the white man’s opinion of Africans at the time: Africans were exotic and so oddly revered and feared, but at the same time they were seen as slaves.

‘Listeners and Typewriters (Triumph/Olympia) (2009)’ is a sculpture which brings together examples of the evolution of the typewriter. These objects are attached to the backs of lecture theatre seats, suggesting a form of learning in reverse, or a way of looking at things ‘backwards’ – perhaps suggesting the ‘backwards’ opinions of racism.

The final piece, which explores her research on the Royal Museum for Central Africa is a series of photographs taken of the inside of the museum. The images are of historical artefacts, during the various stages of curating the museum’s exhibition. Some of the images show empty display cabinets, as if the room itself is in a stage of undress, and this emptiness seems somehow poignant in the stark, simple images.

Desire in Representation continues at LJMU’s Exhibition and Research Centre in the John Lennon building until 20 September 2013.