Michael Beutler: Pump House

Pump House was German artist, Michael Beutler’s first solo exhibition in a public gallery in the UK. A large-scale, site-specific work, it was created in the gallery reflecting Beutler’s direct engagement with industrial materials, which he repurposes and reimagines to form modular constructions, alongside hand-built tools that are exhibited as an integral part of the installation. Beutler is concerned with the notion of production itself, and thus Pump Houserepresents the artist’s subversion of industrial and assembly line manufacturing and dialogue between mass-production and the hand-crafted. The artists’s methodology is also underpinned by the idea of collaboration and the democratic collective, and often involves many volunteers – indeed the installation emerges from the unique dynamic of the team’s social structure. Yet here, as Tom Goldstone’s article reveals, it is Beutler’s instinctive vision of his tools and their potential that anchors the installation and guides its evolution and direction.

Pump House directly responded to Spike Island’s current role as a gallery and artists’ studio complex, and significantly, with Beutler’s fascination for industrial processes – to its former history as a tea packing factory. The title is based on a site which itself suggests the action of pumping water to provide power, and the exhibition similarly features pumping air to inflate paper bricks, where the artist engages with ideas of mechanisation and the hand-powered. It is also linked to the local industrial landscape where disused pump houses are often found, many of which have been redeveloped and converted into leisure venues, including ‘The Pump House’, a well-known gastropub and restaurant near Spike Island. Pump House also travelled to Nottingham Contemporary, as the artist had specifically formulated the exhibition in two chapters, so that although constructed from the same components, the second manifestation would be completely different: ‘the project could be described as building two very different things with the same Lego blocks’, Beutler explained.

Tools not Machines by Tom Goldstone

There were just two rules throughout the installation of Pump House. Only Michael decided what was trash, and only Michael fixed his tools. We already had a selection of tools from previous Spike Island exhibitions, to these were added newer ones which had been made in Berlin and were shipped to Bristol and those designed specifically for this installation at Spike Island.

Michael’s role oscillated between inventor, teacher and supervisor. He invented the tools, taught our team how to master them, and the rest, to a certain degree, was up to us. In the midst of the installation, Michael would appear and we would relate our encounters and discoveries, and he would advise us on how to continue with the methods which he felt were working particularly successfully. Often, he would reappear with new, improved tools or with ones which had been completely redesigned in a way that totally altered their previous functions – adapting to the continually changing nature of the situation. As new volunteers for the team arrived, our roles naturally evolved too, from makers to teachers.

My familiarity with the column-making process for instance, helped me to instruct the new generation of column-makers, in the same way that Michael had taught us. As we passed down our most effective collective discoveries to the next generation, I could see the experiences of my own group mirrored by this new team, as they identified and solved dilemmas in a similar way.

It wasn’t particularly the physical demands that revealed to us why Michael didn’t refer to his inventions as machines, but the way in which these tools introduced us to a specifically physical dialogue. The physical conversations which involved accommodating and adjusting these inventions for each other were essential for us, not only in order to learn the rudiments of the tools, but to develop with the making process itself and produce outcomes that we instinctively knew we needed to achieve. Despite the repetitive processes, the dichotomy between the deliberate, controlled and conscious, and the subconscious, uncontrollable and unintended – ensured that no two prints, columns, sausages, or walls, ever looked the same. Indeed even the most subtle differences became glaringly obvious to our trained eye. We became very attached to each tool and what we created, and in mastering each tool we were confronted with learning new production techniques and working in a team, with its varying problems and solutions.

The first task was to make tables on which to dry the prints. Here, hardboard bent and held in position with rope, was sourced locally from Bristol’s own Scrapstore to make legs, and the pallets that had transported the tools and materials from Berlin, became the tabletops. This formed a large surface for print drying, which significantly doubled as our dinner table, reflecting the collaborative ethos of the project. Therefore this initial task set the tone from the outset. It was not only a space where we could create collectively, but a space where we could socialise – an environment where everything held the potential to be transformed into something else, depending on how we intended to utilize it, or wanted to view it.

The printing tool itself consisted of a wooden body, holding two rollers covered with tights and a bath for the inks. This required at least four people to work it: one person acted as the driver and controlled the pace, threading back to back two sheets of thick paper through the rollers. Then two people on either side of the rollers became the engine, powering the spin in response to the driver, turning the rollers, and at the same time pulling the prints through and placing fresh ones on the table to dry. Another person, who was not always needed, could apply varying degrees of pressure to the rollers. As we worked our way through a rainbow of colours, every print produced a version of the woven fabric pattern, alongside more specific, distinguishable shapes, that emerged from the unevenness of the tights on the rollers. Changing the speed of the printing and the position of the inks in the bath and on the rollers themselves, affected the density of the colour. These variables during a single print, created a range in the depths of colours and patterns and sometimes we would go back over the print, reversing it back through the printer. In the end, we had produced a collection of prints where colour flowed subtly from one to the other. We then glued them together in threes, ready for the next stage of the column-making process.

The sausage making tool constructed the walls, and two main sections made up its body: a hollow cuboid into which scrunched sheets of paper, newspaper, tissue and metallic paper were inserted – and a heavy log of wood was used to ram the paper so that it became compacted. This tool was operated by at least two people, and yellow netting at the end sealed this compressed paper just like a sausage – incredibly dense. These essentially three-dimensional collages were then used like bricks to build the colourful walls.

A tool was then needed to form the prints into columns, or pillars. The body of each column-making tool consisted of two barrels that were connected by a thin pole; the lower body was fastened to the floor and the upper body had a single plank of wood attached across the top, which was wider than the body itself. These were used for handles and were connected to a pulley-system attached to the ceiling. The top half moved freely up and down and around the pole, collapsing when twisted into the right position, and could be completely removed with the support of the pulley system. The tools acted as templates with the paper prints we glued together wrapped tightly around them; the overlapping paper was also glued and ropes were tied to the upper and lower halves of the now three-dimensional shape, as it set. We would then leave it, as one whole column could not be constructed at once. 

The second stage was to glue around the middle of this new shape, tie a rope around its centre where the empty space lay underneath between the two barrels, allowing the barrels and the glued prints to collapse and create the column shape. The rope pulled the paper inwards as both halves finally met, the glue fused the middle together and a complete single column was formed. 

The final days of installation consisted mainly of constructing and fitting together. Through the use of pre-existing physical structures as templates, the components that we created throughout the two weeks, however messy, could never transcend – and indeed were always contained by these constant boundaries. Our expressive ways of making, were therefore bound by and outlined in forms determined by Michael, which allowed every individual piece including the pre-existing structures themselves, to fit into one another, as he said – like Lego blocks.

Main image: Michael Beutler, Tea Bags, 2016, installation view, Pump House, Spike Island, Bristol (photo: Leonie Summers, courtesy of Spike Island)

Michael Beutler: Pump House, Spike Island, 133 Cumberland Road, Bristol 
16 April – 19 June 2016 
Nottingham Contemporary, Weekday Cross, Nottingham, 16 July – 25 September 2016.

Aurora Corio