Christopher Butterfield

 [Christopher Butterfield is a composer who teaches at the University of Victoria. This review appeared in Musicworks magazine, in the spring of 2005.]


The Lab 3.5:  “Pavilion of Heavenly Trousers”

February 13 – March 28, 2004.


“ Some mornings I roll our of bed thinking it’s 1913…”


Chris Butterfield makes this remark during a talk for the opening of his installation, “Pavilion of Heavenly Trousers”, in the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria’s Lab space.  You’d assume that this comes from Butterfield’s work as a composer, which includes homage to such seminal modernist icons as T.S. Eliot and Yves Klein, but it is also perhaps a reference to life in Victoria.  In a city where most central neighborhoods were laid out during an Edwardian building boom (1911-1912), and which repackaged its English origins in the 1930’s to capitalize on tourism, a very particular relationship persists between the colonial and contemporary.  The result might be perceived as an overlap of the ‘post’-modern, and the modern before it properly knew itself to be ‘modernism’, as such.

What Butterfield has created does rely on a classic modernist baffle:  that of the tension arising between a multiplicity of voices invoked by an absent-yet-presiding authorial control.  And yet it is the way the artist allows the use of collaboration and chance to reveal, rather than dominate, the nature of his subject that gives the work its curiously liberating quality. 

The installation consists of rows of yellow notepaper – 600 in all – mounted on the walls from floor to near-ceiling level.  The papers are Butterfield’s handwritten transcription from two novels: Pearl S Buck’s Pavilion of Women, and The Maker of Heavenly Trousers by Daniele Vare.  Butterfield’s undertaking is to ‘interleave’ the books, by working sequentially through both texts writing a full sentence from each author in turn (repeating the latter a second and one-half time as it is shorter).  The transcription itself becomes a performance of devotional labour (a reference is made in the artists’ statement to the “extraordinary Chinese work ethic”[i]), for one hour each day over two hundred days.  Also in the space are two Chinese chairs of the kind commonly exported to the West in the early 1900’s, a vitrine with circa 1930’s editions of the novels, and a small speaker relaying a recording of Butterfield’s voice reading the reconstituted script.

The audio recording is important.  The visual elements provide many well-produced pleasures:  the respective and varied artifactuality of the books and chairs; the orderliness of the pinned yellow sheets (the ‘Emperor’s Colour’ Butterfield notes), their relative illegibility confirming their status as objects of process.  It is in the presentation of the writing as a seamless narrative, however, that this deliberate confusing of voices abandons the charms of labour, accident and archive for the more ambiguous territory of interpolating between writing and reading.

This action was apparent in the examples of text that Butterfield read at the show’s opening.  As one might expect, each sentence tended to both bond with and distinguish itself from predecessor and successor, but the presumed game of reassembling two separate narratives as distinct proved unexpectedly difficult, as association between the sources seemed more elastic, yet less obvious, than one would expect.  Each sentence persuasively presented itself as both part of a distinct narrative history and a new narrative which was constantly being formed and unformed.  That this tended not to break down into self-referential theatrics of free-association – a self-reflexive scattering of sentences into words, words, words – amounted to the miracle of sensibility that holds this piece together. 

Listening to or reading the text invokes a multiplicity of voices rather than just two.  As characters recollect, connect and reflect, their thoughts open up spaces in the narrative line, forwards, backwards and between.  Recalling especially the auditory qualities of a work like The Wasteland, in which tone (in literary terms) becomes the overriding means of apprehending continuity, this opening within the narrative forms becomes artificially but gracefully compounded by the interleaving.  The closeness in tone of Butterfield’s sources should be acknowledged here; Butterfield credits the ‘crystal clear prose’ of the writing with allowing him the flexibility to conduct his exercise with such facility.  Within this greater literary gesture, the clashing of incidentals – who is speaking to or about whom, who is male or female, young or old, etc. – seem like symptoms of acceleration or nostalgia.  The smoothness and deliberateness of the form, like the behaviour of these characters encountering catastrophe or epiphany, clings all the more tenaciously to the camouflage of its tact as it becomes threatened with incoherence.

In one passage, an aristocratic woman, Madame Wu, rushes uncharacteristically from her home to see a foreign priest who has been beaten in the street and is dying.  This event is interwoven with a monologue (interior?) from the Vare text, in which an aging dandy takes ceremonious pains in describing habits of comportment.  The contrast mingles flavors of occidental and oriental; colonialism and imperial decay.  The emotional moment becomes caught in a play of interval in contrast to which the mannered broaches on the ritualistic.  Voices distinguish themselves through their connection to place and object as the shifts break them up – by turns disembodied, exemplary, or possessed by urgency and agency.

In a passage incorporating the final page of the Buck novel, Madame Wu’s experience of a kind of salutary epiphany ([she] knew that she was immortal) meets with the description of someone being lead through an apartment.  Distinct motifs seem to emerge:  here, a description of place coincides with a mental event.  Elsewhere such conditions reoccur in form of various contrasts between internal and external, both of which are stylized, the former as the rather formal and reticent exposition of feeling, the latter as the abstraction of foreignness.  Often the cataloguing and codifying of the traditional (a private school uniform) occurs within the precincts of displacement (the foreign house), with the question of whose tradition and whose estrangement already at issue in the original material.  The stylistic characteristics common to both novels – being circumspect, indirect, and given to revelation of character through incident and epiphany, rather than analytical description – seem compounded by the misdirecting, reflexive yet synthetically unifying action of Butterfield’s exercise.

The result is a surprising and cogent sense of the relationship of ‘foreignness’ to self-conception.  A correlative that comes to mind is the recent novels of Kazuo Ishiguro – particularly, When We Were Orphans and the more important but often overlooked The Unconsoled.  Ishiguro’s narrators, stranded between poles of oriental and occidental find the overturning of the world not within themselves, but a world of terms, architecture, and relationships which shift, stretch and overlap precipitously as if to accommodate a painfully subjective mental flux. Their internal voices however, are usually complacent and understated to a fault, obliquely hinting at a personal unraveling that never comes.  Instead, the world itself is unshelled by degrees, with fragments of relationship and memory commingling in their fall.  

It is worth recalling a question asked at the opening regarding the choice of process: whether Butterfield might have chosen to interrupt the continuity his authors’ sentences as he reached the end of his own lines on the page, rather than the end of each full sentence.  By distinguishing his action from a gesture which more obviously privileged the exercise of chance, Butterfield does not create a demonstration of principle (organized randomness vis a vis repetitious, automatistic labour), nearly so much as he uses juxtaposition to create a new and different literary experience which, at its most successful, refers back to both his source works and issues fundamental to their ethos. 

Crucial to this understanding is to read the work just not as an intriguing cross-section of a process, but as a fait acompli, and in doing so we come to recognize it as a machine; a progression that could continue on after the effort of writing stops.  Buck’s longer text will not always be laid alongside Vare’s in the order in which it appears in this presentation; the shorter text conceivably revolves endlessly within the longer, generating new compositions.  In this way the principle relationship of the piece as a whole – that of work to work to reader, rather than of works to artist – operates continuously, with each component opening up our notion of the other in turns, from moments of static and obstruction to clarity and fluidity.

The principle at hand, for both the characters caught up in our new text and we ourselves as readers, is that the modern subject – as we know it or have known it – requires an infinitely responsive sense of scale and resistance in order to constitute itself.  These un-completing sentences are from texts about ‘others’:  women, foreigners, members of classes remote to us and to one another.  Finding parity within the stylization that reorders them is an alternate code of relationship that, even as it dismays, conserves, rather than objectifies, their civility.

When does chance become purpose – not an ad hominim ‘intentionality’ that unravels a work’s most obvious origins, but a less definable will to form?  Cues slip into the nuance of an open scene like the accents of characters:  Butterfield’s own speech patterns recall the benignly paternalistic voice of the Edwardian children’s book narrator; the clarity is accumulative, specific to the before and after of event.  This is also a biographical performance.  Written down mostly at the composer’s home or in Chinatown, it refers to aggregate tense, filled with floating contracts, which in the greater agreement of the gallery empty into absence, as the purgative that consumes our idea of industry.  The writing as affect grounds an imponderable listening in the score’s illegibility, creating a sense of levity – not the confrontational weightlessness of a formal demonstration, but the more gracious weightlessness of a masterful artifice made new.




[i] Christopher Butterfield, ‘Artist Statement’, The Lab 3.5 Pavilion of Heavenly Trousers, Victoria:  The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, 2004.

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