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Wolfgang Buttress Loves Bees

22 April 18 interview: Alex Kuster
photos: Rankin

Following its success at the Milan Expo in 2015, we spoke to Wolfgang Buttress about The Hive, in issue #75. The local artist created a huge, metal beehive pavilion that highlighted the bee’s importance to our ecosystem, and it was partnered with a soundtrack inspired by the buzzy boggers, written by Tony Foster and Spiritualized’s Kev Bales. The album, One, was critically acclaimed, and the crew took the pavilion experience to the stage with a soundscape throughout 2016. We caught up with Wolfgang himself, and asked him a few questions about his career so far...

You last spoke to LeftLion in 2016, a year after One was released. What’ve you been up to since then?
I’ve been working on various art projects in Taiwan, Australia, the States, and here in the UK. Sound has become a central part of my practice, which has been a really exciting development. I’ve played music for a long time, always separate from my sculpture projects before, but the coming together of these two elements has been such an organic and natural transition.

What drew you to bees as a subject matter?
I’ve been aware for a while that bees are facing unprecedented existential challenges; monoculture, lack of habitat, climate change, and the use of pesticides are all contributing to their demise. Bees pollinate 30% of all of the food we eat, so the opportunity to raise awareness and a consciousness about what we can do to help them has been a calling. I’m an artist, so I want to do what I can through my work.

What stimulates your interest in structure?
I’m interested in form and the space in between things, and what this can mean; how can form and the void express the human condition? I try to distil the essence of an idea and express it as a sculptural experience. I was artist-in-residence at the People’s College engineering department many years ago, which helped me understand both materials and structure. Every project is a new learning experience for me. It’s always a combination of not knowing some of the rules, so you can break them without realising, and then understanding other rules, so you can deliberately push their limitations.

There’s a lot of physics involved in your work. What made you choose the artistic career path as opposed to the scientific?
When I was a child, I thought that art and science were polar opposites. I dropped physics, biology and chemistry O levels when I was thirteen; the subjects felt impenetrable, and moving to four different comprehensive schools probably didn’t help. As I’ve got older, I’ve come to realise that artists and scientists actually share many similar concerns. We’re all trying to make sense of what it is to be human in a world that is both ever-changing and constant.

You’ve covered four continents: Europe, Australia, Asia, and North America. Where’s next on the map, and what’s been your favourite country to visit?
I visited Alaska recently, which blew me away; I’m looking at working on a project involving the melting glaciers there, which could be both incredible and heartbreaking. I’ve always been fascinated by Japan, and over the last fifteen years I’ve been fortunate enough to both visit and create work there. It completely surpassed my expectations, and helped redefine me both as a person and as an artist.

Having travelled to all these glorious places, what made you stay in Notts?
I came here to study fine art at Trent Polytechnic thirty years ago. To be honest, I always thought I was just passing through, but after a while this city gets under your skin. There are more beautiful places in the world, but they’re not Nottingham. I’m happy here; I’ve helped raise a family, I have a lot of good friends, and I’m fortunate enough to be able to travel to new places and still want to return. I now live in the city centre, which feels good; despite the brutal government cuts to services, there’s still such an energising, creative wave here.

What’ve been some of the most memorable moments of your career?
As with most things in life, there have been small and large delights, as well as disappointment and frustration. I’m very fortunate to be able to make a living from being an artist, and assembling an amazing team of architects, musicians, engineers, and scientists to create the UK pavilion, The Hive, for World Expo Milan – and subsequently Kew Gardens – was an incredible experience. Some of the people I worked with on that project will be friends for life.  

What have been the biggest challenges?
Sometimes the hardest thing as an artist is to keep going and hold your nerve. There are always challenges: confidence, money, relationships, timing. Tenacity is possibly as important as talent.

What’s your favourite Notts art exhibition you’ve seen lately? What about further afield?
I really enjoyed the recent Lara Favaretto and John Newling shows at Nottingham Contemporary, Anselm Kiefer at White Cube, Agnes Denes at Tate Modern, and Cy Twombly at Centre Pompidou.

How do you unwind around Nottingham?
I’ve supported Nottingham Forest for thirty years, which is both a blessing and a curse, though it rarely helps me to unwind! A typical weekend for me will possibly involve a trip to Broadway, Rough Trade or Nottingham Contemporary.

Tell us something LeftLion readers might not know about you...
I used to sing in a punk band.

Anything else you want to say?
I would like to wish a very happy fifteenth birthday to LeftLion, and look forward to the 200th issue. 

Wolfgang Buttress website

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