Kathrin Köster

Tender Buttons – Tenderly Buttoned – Button Tenders

Kathrin Köster in conversation with Rike Frank

in: Kathrin Köster. ex plica, pp. 79-85, argobooks, Berlin 2019


Rike Frank:

This meeting is a chance for us to discuss our shared interest in textiles. But also, since we haven’t previously had the chance to talk, it will allow us to get to know each other’s work. The occasion is your first catalogue that is currently in production, featuring a selection of works that we’ll discuss later.

My own curatorial practice concerning textiles initially coincided with their increased presence at art academies: fabrics and weaving techniques were used directly, or their history, visual language and materiality were taken as a frame of reference within which to reappraise principles of art-historical inclusion and exclusion, as well as received hierarchies of value. At the same time, artists whose practice is closely linked to photography and film began to include textile procedures and references in their work, a development that might be described as a change of texture, in which relationships to the visual and the socio-aesthetic (and thus political) forces of a formalist visual language were explored afresh, addressing the boundaries between fine and applied art.

I’d like to ask what shaped your approach to textiles. Was studying with Lothar Baumgarten an influence?


Kathrin Köster:

The point of departure for my artistic practice is painting. Over time, the supports became more and more loose, flexible and mobile. Now the pictures come about with and through the properties of the fabrics. The changeability of folds, their instability and flexibility, determines the material interaction: additive, cumulative, successive; via folding and unfolding. At the same time, the content of the paintings moved further and further outwards, beginning with the step into three dimensions via installation-based hangings. This created spaces through which the viewer could move, following an inner choreography. I’m interested in physical forms of perception and the physicality of painting. Movement in space is one such form. Finally, this interest in the physical inscribed itself into the material – textiles are mostly not just flexible but also have directly to do with our bodies.

Textiles first appeared in my work long after I graduated. My student years were marked by exchanges within the class, where a multimedia approach was taken that fostered dynamic thinking. That is at least one aspect associated with the textile.

But what did you mean by textile approaches in photography and film? Do you mean techniques or also ways of thinking? And can you describe more precisely what you mean by a change of texture?


Rike Frank:

I was referring to the research carried out by T’ai Smith, especially her text “Limits of the Tactile and the Optical: Bauhaus Fabric in the Frame of Photography”, the German version of which was included in a book edited by Sabeth Buchmann and myself, “Textile Theorien der Moderne: Alois Riegl in der Kunstkritik” (PoLYpeN, 2015) – you mentioned that this was one of the books where you originally came across my work. T’ai Smith gives a wonderful account of how, in her essay “Stoffe im Raum” (Fabrics in Space), the Bauhaus weaver Otti Berger relates textiles to the emerging medium of photography: photography was fascinated by textile textures as they helped it to fully develop a new optical programme. Using the concept of “grasping”, Berger explains that knowledge always depends on the haptic. This reference to the history of opticality and the current renegotiation of relations between tactile and optical parameters is what I meant by a change of texture.

In Smith’s remarks on Otti Berger I also find links to your work. One example is the following passage: “Through a subtle and perhaps counterintuitive response to photography, [Otti Berger] insisted on the tactility of different materials (the smoothness of silk or the roughness of jute, for instance) as well as fabric’s contact with kinaesthetic movements of the body within architectural space (with curtains or upholstery).”1 In this light, I want to ask what you associate with inner choreography? How does this work in a concrete installation situation? Do you predefine the way visitors should navigate the exhibition space? How and by what means does this take place? You also mentioned the importance of physical forms of perception and the physicality of painting: this description, too, focusses on the presence of the visitor and frames the exhibition as a temporary event. Which relations between the protagonists – objects, painting, visitors – are you interested in?


Kathrin Köster:

I can certainly relate to your quote from T’ai Smith’s remarks on Otti Berger. What I mean by inner choreography is a sequence of acts that develops out of each viewer him or herself. Through my work on position and movement, I have a navigation of my own that transfers itself to specific exhibition situations, but I would never want to guide visitors directly. For me it’s about creating points of contact and establishing a dialogue (be it physical or intellectual). Such dialogues between protagonists, objects and visitors are initiated in different ways and take different forms.

My works are almost always taller than I am and they sometimes communicate architecturally. In their relationship with the viewer, the painting objects act as cues. This is where the kinaesthetic aspect comes into play. To use a comparison from the field of dance, it’s like in methods of contact improvisation where, among other things, force is passed on through a point of contact and possibilities for movement are explored with no specific purpose. A picture, too, can be a protagonist, can view or be viewed. As a viewer, I adopt a stance and take a position – in both spatial and figurative senses. At the same time, I’m interested in a relationship between objects and viewers that creates links to symbols. In my work ex plica in sepia mania, for example, the motif of the fold is not just an element of the work, but also a metaphor and an art-historical reference. The fold is a symbol for something that remains in a suspended state – for the world inside the world inside the world.

If my works are viewed in the context of painting, then one might speak of a corporeal experience of visuality. The relatedness of the works to architecture contrasts with their often fragile and flexible materiality. The textile carries this ambivalence. I’m interested here in the motif of a “movable boundary”.

My most recent works also oscillate between tactility and visuality. These objects made of paper, fabric and porcelain are directly related to the body. Their materiality and forms propose tactile relations – which are also actually realized by performers. At the same time, they are elusive and visitors are denied direct touch.These works are currently on show in a small exhibition called tender buttons as part of fourseasonsberlin.


Rike Frank:

Although I had already seen works in your studio, the installation of tender buttons in the space highlights the degree to which the painting objects are also demonstration objects that extend the body or can be applied to them as an extra skin and layer. The concertina-folded papercuts, for example, show the outlines of people with objects. Due to the high black-and-white contrast, person and object merge and form a single surface, a silhouette.

What is the function of the booklet? This also raises the question of documentation: Has the idea of an inner choreography changed your approach to exhibiting and especially to documenting shows?


Kathrin Köster:

I see the booklet as an independent element that stands alongside the objects at the same time as referring to them. In the concertina-folded work, the silhouette-like photographs follow a dramaturgy, a distinct rhythm with pauses and tension that rises and falls. But it doesn’t explain anything and is thus not a “guide” to dealing with the objects. Instead, the papercuts are one possible “derivative” of the objects, showing how I myself relate to them. By omitting information, the silhouette opens up a large space for the imagination (to see more). The merging of object and figure leads to a new conglomerate entity.

And it is my inner choreography that determines the positioning of the objects in the space, in turn influencing my approach to exhibiting. For some shows, as well as photographs of installation views there is also film documentation, for which the camera moves through the show or films a person moving through it. Whether film is suited to documenting the activation of the objects in tender buttons is something we will evaluate together with dancers in a cooperation as part of the Schrit_tmacher dance festival in spring 2019. Since filming follows a predefined choreography from a fixed viewpoint, physical aspects of the perception of a performance are lost: contact with the objects, the viewer’s scope for movement, the sounds of one’s own movements, the smells and the temperature in the space.


Rike Frank:

The exhibition title tender buttons is borrowed from Gertrude Stein’s book of that name. You once said your attention was caught by Stein’s choice of section headings (Objects, Food, Rooms) and how her use of language resonates with the way understanding can pass by different routes. Concerning her style, her treatment of the rules of grammar is meant to establish a different relationship with the reader. You’ve already mentioned that your objects supply cues. In terms of your practice, I’d be interested to hear which rules you think need to be broken in order (for art) to facilitate new forms of understanding?


Kathrin Köster:

What fascinates me about the texts in Tender Buttons is their free use of language. At the same time, the objects she addresses have strong links to the body.


Enough cloth is plenty and more, more is almost enough for that and besides if there is no more spreading is there plenty of room for it. Any occasion shows the best way.
Leaves in grass and mow potatoes, have a skip, hurry you up flutter.
Suppose it is ex a cake suppose it is new mercy and leave charlotte and nervous bed rows. Suppose it is meal. Suppose it is sam.


The book has three sections, Objects, Food and Rooms. Many of the texts in the Objects section have to do with fabrics and clothing (A LONG DRESS, A RED HAT, A BLUE COAT, A CHAIR, A CLOTH), while Food and Rooms also refer to aspects of our corporeality. And in many places there are references to different materials and colours.


Dirt and not copper makes a color darker. It makes the shape so heavy and makes no melody harder.
It makes mercy and relaxation and even a strength to spread a table fuller. There are more places not empty. They see cover.


For Stein, the focus is on capturing not the functionality or attributed meaning of things, but their essence. In this sense, her objects, too, can be understood as giving cues. Stein herself referred to her prose pieces as Cubist still lifes and this link to painting, among other things, makes sense to me. If I describe my own works in terms of a corporeal experience of visuality, would it not also be possible to describe Stein’s texts as a representation in language of such a corporeal experience? She uses language as a material that changes shape, that forms new combinations, that is both solid and flexible. For me, her texts are highly evocative and full of images. I don’t experience them via intellectual understanding. I can abandon myself to the sound, the images, the properties of the materials, meaning that I am far more physically involved in perceiving the texts.


Alas, alas the pull alas the bell alas the coach in china, alas the little put in leaf alas the wedding butter meat, alas the receptacle, alas the back shape of mussle, mussle and soda.2


Rike Frank:

One motif that runs through the exhibition is that of the robe or Gewand [the German word for garment that includes the word for wall, Wand], a figure in which textile, body, painting and architecture seem to meet, and which resonates both with your choice of title and with the decision to make all of the objects wearable. You mentioned that Hanne Loreck’s essay deals with this aspect?


Kathrin Köster:

The works I have brought together under the title tender buttons hang in the space, we can approach them from different directions. This divides up the space, and at the same time their materiality makes it possible to perceive sounds, temperature and the physical presence of other people in the space. They remain permeable.

Writing about my work ex plica in sepia mania, Hanne Loreck uses the German word Gewand to emphasize the non-figurative picture’s relatedness to architecture.3 In my view, this is a fitting description of the essence of this work: the simultaneity and ambivalence of the textile-based work’s character as both space-defining and permeable.

For me, the motif of the garment also contains the motif of the “moveable boundary”. In this context, I’d like to mention a fresco by Andrea Mantegna that has always fascinated me: [Andrea Mantegna, ceiling fresco from the Camera degli Sposi, Castello di S. Giorgio Mantua, 1464-1474]

The fresco, which decorates the dome of a closed space, the Camera degli Sposi at Castello di S. Giorgio in Mantua, shows a painted opening in the architecture, creating the illusion of a view out into the sky. Painting acts here as a kind of prosthesis to the architecture – a classical motif in the combination of painting and architecture and a way of overcoming the closure of architecture. Painted figures look down into the room from “outside”. As viewers of the fresco, we are viewed by painted figures, a switching of positions that symbolically renders a further boundary softer and more flexible.


Rike Frank:

Finally, I’d be interested to discuss collaboration: on the one hand because, as you mentioned, you will be working with a dance company in the spring, and on the other to hear what aspects of curatorial cooperation are important to you and what shape you like such cooperation to take? I think you once said that the works and exhibitions are also like “holes” that can form refuges?


Kathrin Köster:

The concept of refuge is not one I’ve used before, but I very much like it because it contains the notions of “dwelling” and “shelter”. Dwelling corresponds to the spaces that can be mobile architectures, as in ex plica in sepia mania – some visitors even spontaneously started dancing! – and it also fits with nomadic works that fly from room to room like a moth, being influenced by the character of each specific exhibition location (its essence, its architectural and historical lightness or heaviness, its systems of reference) and undergoing a constant process of metamorphosis (works like Be Tex. Revolution, subvers).

We’ve already spoken about the exhibition title Die Falten werden durch Löcher ersetzt [Holes Replace Folds] and in particular about the “holes”. I’m fascinated by the idea of holes being able to replace or fill something. An empty space that is animated precisely by its emptiness. In the case of this exhibition, the empty space was inhabited by five performers following a choreography I had devised, rolling up and unrolling two lengths of watercolour paper to make a screen-like architecture. For the opening, the hole was filled with a temporary event. For the duration of the exhibition, only the rolls of paper were on show, plus a brief sequence from the performance as a film projection. In chronological terms, Die Falten werden durch Löcher ersetzt followed on from ex plica in sepia mania, a work in which folds occupy a central place. In the newer work, the folds were replaced by an open space in which a temporary “unfolding of the exhibition” took place. Last but not least, this was also a collaboration with five performers.

In this light, I am very much looking forward to the new Schrit_tmacher dance festival cooperation in 2019. Detached from any choreography, this time I imagine the dancers relating directly to the objects that make up tender buttons. The dancers should take their cues from the objects only – from their materiality, their shape and the ways they can be handled. In this context, an interview between Sabeth Buchmann and Heike-Karin Föll comes to mind in which they discuss, among others, the relationship between painting and dancing. For Föll, painting is always linked to a need to move, to try out gestures, to leave a trace – just like dance.4 And at the beginning of our conversation, I already mentioned the “physicality of painting”: as the thing doing the painting, my body is an essential component in processes of painting, especially when the format of the works is far larger that one’s own physical height. So I’m involved in motion not just as a painter but also as a viewer, apprehending the works in motion through my perceiving body.

Finally, a last remark on curatorial collaboration: here, I’m especially interested in which new connections to other artistic positions are thought up. Which new forms of situatedness and contextualization result from conceptual cooperation with a curator. A collaboration to produce further collaborations.


1 T’ai Smith, Bauhaus Weaving Theory: From Feminine Craft to Mode of Design (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), p. 81.

2 All excerpts from: Gertrude Stein, “Tender Buttons” in Look at Me Now and Here I Am: Writings and Lectures 1909-45 (London: Penguin 1971), pp. 161-206.

3 See Hanne Loreck, “The Act of the Fold” (in this catalogue, pp. **).

4 Sabeth Buchmann, Heike-Karin Föll, “Proben am Stück” in: Hans-Jürgen Hafner, Gunter Reski (eds.), The Happy Fainting of Painting, Ein Reader zur zeitgenössischen Malerei (Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König 2014), p. 74.
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