Self Portrait in Video: Kent Anderson Butler

"Sacred Encounters: Rest" (2015).
"Sacred Encounters: Rest" (2015)

"I remember being extremely fascinated with looking at Chris Burden's work," Kent Anderson Butler says. The first piece he saw was a video of Burden's performance, "Shoot," in which the artist's friend shoots him in the arm at close range with a .22-caliber rifle. Anderson Butler spent hours, long after screening it in a new genres class in college, thinking about it. "I think that's where I got hooked," he says.

He was starting to do performance work at the time, and he soon found his métier following the example of artists who in the 1960s and 1970s turned their focus away from traditional media and instead began using their own bodies as sites of authorship. What intrigued him about Burden's early performance work was the possibility of the audience sharing the experience. "One of the reasons why I think I'm so attracted to creating that communication or tension with the viewer," Anderson Butler says, is because of Burden.

The small-statured, cherubic, former football player nearly always features himself in his video/performance work, in which he inscribes, figuratively, on his own body, the action of intimate dramas. About half of his videos include other people. "I think a lot of the work is rooted in my personal narrative. There are lots of reasons why I use myself -- some of that's because the work stems from who I am physically. But then, I use myself, too, because I'm readily available. I know it is kind of naïve to say that, but it's the truth," he says.

"Holly Kiss" (2005).
"Holly Kiss"(2005). 
Holy Kiss, by Kent Anderson Butler

Like Burden's early work, Anderson Butler also pushes the limits of his body. Though he is never in the kind of serious danger that Burden placed himself in "Shoot," or other works, Anderson Butler often inflicts pain on his person, literal or otherwise, in his performances. And, as if to draw us in to that experience, in most of his videos, he stares into the camera, seemingly challenging or testing his audience. "I've always been interested in that relationship that the work has with the audience. I think the first time I actually started to look at the viewer is probably in "Holy Kiss" (2005)," he says. "I've always felt like -- like this idea of what's inside of me gets manifest in the work."

"Penetration," a video from 2006, figuratively mimics Burden's "Shoot" with the exception that in it, Anderson Butler shoots himself. The double channel video depicts Anderson Butler with a bow and a quiver full of arrows, smoothly pulling back the string and delivering shot after shot into a target with his face on it. "At that time in my life, I wasn't happy with who I was, things going on in my life, or my relationships with other people. Part of it was me getting out the aggression that I felt, the unhappiness I felt, through shooting arrows into myself. And also, a lot of it has to revolve around trying to learn to accept my body," he says, explaining that his body image and weight have always caused him pain. But, he says, "I see it very different than Chris Burden's 'Shoot.'"

"Penetration" (2006).
"Penetration" (2006).

Psychological models reinforce the idea that in repeating some version of self-inflicted trauma over and over in his videos Anderson Butler is seeking to heal an unresolved wound. G. James Daichendt, Dean of the College of Arts and Humanities at Point Loma Nazarene University, and a colleague of Anderson Butler's at Azusa Pacific University for many years, finds the idea of repeated trauma compelling. "I know everybody has trauma, but Kent, as a person, internalizes trauma in perhaps in a much rougher way. Maybe the videos are a type of self mutilation: a simulated mutilation," he says.

"I think a lot of it may stem from my experiences as a child. It is related to my experience with surgeries," Anderson Butler says. He was born three months premature and had to undergo numerous surgeries as a result. "All that stuff happened to my body, physically, and a lot of it happened when I was so young. So I think, definitely, a lot of that, psychologically, comes out in the work." He says that the sense of dissatisfaction he felt when he made "Penetration" definitely still comes up in his work, though not always consciously. "My perspective internally has changed, but I think internally, definitely some of those things still show up in the pieces later on." But, "It's who I am. This is my body. I can't explain it. It's like my body is my tool," he says.

"Sacred Encounters: Play" (2015).
"Sacred Encounters: Play" (2015).

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In his new series, "Sacred Encounters" (2015), Anderson Butler has taken his work in a slightly different direction. He thinks of it as exploring the relationship his body has with particular environments. He created the four videos at a residency at the Hambidge Center for the Creative Arts and Sciences. While he was at Hambidge, he began asking other people to share about the things in their lives "they hold sacred," he says. (Anderson Butler is open about his faith, which informs what he does as an artist.) "Sometimes it was an actual location, like home," he says. Other times, "People would talk about experiences, the act of being held by another human being, or objects: photographs of family. I was really intrigued by a lot of the discussion I had with individuals. Even the bathroom could be a sacred space for somebody, which in some ways kind of makes sense, because it is one of the most private places in our lives. I felt that maybe some of those locations are just as sacred, or more sacred than sitting inside a church."

"Sacred Encounters: Bathe" (2015).

In "Bathe" (2015), one of the new videos of the "Sacred Encounters" series, he stands beneath a cascade of water, bracing himself against the cold torrent. Anderson Butler has identified Bill Viola as an important influence, more so than Burden, and "Bathe" is reminiscent of Viola's 1996 video, "The Crossing," in which a human figure is alternately consumed by fire and water. Yet, "Bathe" is much more visceral. While "The Crossing" is cerebral and metaphysical, "Bathe" exposes Anderson Butler's discomfort like a raw nerve. The waterfall that pours over him is fed by snow melt, and the pain of subjecting himself to that freezing cataract is palpable -- even audible. The soundtrack begins with the strangely tinny sound of the splashing waterfall. Anderson Butler appears in the deluge, and his shouts and howls of pain from exposure to the near freezing water are overpowering. As the shouts subside, seeming immobile, he stares into the camera as if he is being held prisoner behind the waterfall.

"I think he uses his work as a way to reveal as much of himself as he can, which is sort of ironic, because personally, he is quiet and reserved," Daichendt says. Yet his efforts to connect can be awkward. As Daichendt notes, "When I see people engage his work for the first time, they want to look away. He's got his shirt off and he's got this bright white skin, and it's almost exposing too much, too fast, for a new relationship."

Daichendt once described Anderson Butler's work as a form of self portraiture using new media. Mat Gleason, who owns Coagula Curatorial where Anderson Butler will be showing "Sacred Encounters" in September, also sees the work fitting into a long history of self portraiture. "The work is much more queasy when viewed this way. Not knowing his sense of identity is exactly what makes the work tense," he says.

"Sacred Encounters: Cleanse" (2015).
"Sacred Encounters: Cleanse"(2015).

Not all of Anderson Butler's videos feel so charged. For example, "Cleanse" (2015), which is part of the same series, offers something a bit more prosaic: the artist brushing his teeth. However, some viewers have confessed to feeling a degree of squeamishness about watching this ritual, as spittle mixed with toothpaste runs down the artist's chin and goatee. Yet even with this seemingly everyday activity, Anderson Butler fixes the camera with an intense stare that radiates out to the viewer. Anderson Butler has acknowledged the need to create tension for his audience -- even admits to liking it. It is perhaps a test of his audience to see how they will respond to him. Gleason sees this as evidence of the work's complexity. "Perhaps he is searching for something that he can only find out about himself in the way the audience reacts," he says. At the same time, Gleason figures that the audience's response doesn't affect Anderson Butler. Comparing him to Burden, Gleason says, "Neither Burden nor Kent care about the audience more than they care about the art and that monomaniacal dedication to the question they are asking (as opposed to the answer that the audience will have). [That] is a hallmark of both men."

"The Embodied Project: Embodied Self" (2010-11).
"The Embodied Project: Embodied Self"(2010-11).
"The Embodied Project: Embodied Fusion" (2010-11).


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Top image: "The Embodied Project: Embodied Self" (2010-11).

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