How to do things with sculpture
Work-in-progress report VSI summer research grant 2013
Thanks to the VSI summer grant and to non-competitive PDS training funds I was able to engage in practice based research methods including sculpture making in Berlin, Germany, where I am currently engaged in dissertation research for my project ‘Re-Imagining Migration through Visual Art: Queer Movements through Time and Space as a Lens for Contemporary Struggles about Post-National Belonging in Germany’.
SUMMER TRAINING IN SCULPTURE MAKING
My methodological approach involves the making of visual art as a way to reflect on the techniques and strategies used by the artists I analyze, and as a way to explore prac-tice-based methodological and epistemological approaches for working on, with and through visual arts. As laid out in my application for the VSI summer grant, I set to work toward the installation/sculpture ‘King Midas of Germany,’ inspired by the Midas figure in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In the sculpture, the gold Midas wishes to turn anything he touches into, and the gold of the German flag come to characterize (nationalist) hubris as a form of (self-inflicted) violence as gold takes over the figure’s body.
A workshop in sculpture making at the Schöneberg VHS / community school in Berlin included an overview over art historical developments of sculpture in the visual arts and introduction to different sculptural genres and creative techniques, such as sketching proportions, calculating size and mass and crafting the bust of a sculpture. Us-ing clay as the main material, I was able to do a small-scale study of a kneeling body in the moment of suffocating from gold. Another, larger study consisted of the head for the life-size sculpture. Working with clay is a helpful preparation for working with the lighter material of plaster the sculpture will eventually consist of. Skills I acquired included build-ing a wooden base, sketching proportions, calculating size and mass and then crafting a figure’s face, head, neck and shoulders, as well as carving the inside of the sculpture in preparation for baking the clay. During the workshop, I was able to experiment with vary-ing degrees of explicitness in the figure’s expression.
In my dissertation, I am concerned with the question of un/representing bodies and the use of different levels of visibility and opacity. My own artistic reflections thus serve as a basis for my discussions of representational strategies the artists whose work I analyze, as well as myself, employ. Questions that concern me here the most pertained to the symbolic representation of nationalism: the choice to personify nationalism, the expression of the figure, and working with the flag as an obvious symbol of the nation. Thus, the use of clichés, the deployment of over-explicit meanings and thus pedagogical gestures (a no-go in art?), and the question of what to do with violent discourse were constant questions during my working process.
NOTES FROM THE STUDIO
I started out with a miniature sculpture of a kneeling figure reaching for their neck and chest as if suffocating, the face a shocked expression with wide-open eyes. I turned one of the wooden sticks used to keep the clay in place into a flag pole/spine. Maybe the fig-ure won’t be waving the flag, but it will grow out of its back…‘nationalism’s spine.’
The figure appears quite literal – gasping for air, caught in a moment of shock – perhaps too explicit or obvious. I wonder if it would have that same effect blown up in size.
Since the small sculpture’s mimics appeared quite explicit/obvious, I tried a more am-biguous expression when working on the study of a life-size head for the larger sculp-ture. The eyes became a central conveyor of affect; having them half open generated a more explicit/shocked expression, in the final version they remain closed, looking rather serene or perhaps melancholic.
In order to work on the notion of drowning in gold or suffocation from gold I wanted to have bubbles emerge from the nose and ears. This was difficult to realize since clay is a heavy material; I thus moved the bubbles into the mouth. A half open bubble with the inside carved out emerges from the mouth, another small bubble appears inside right above the tongue. I only put in a hint of teeth; the right lip is slightly torn from the protrud-ing bubble. Its rough inside and smooth, round surface is reminiscent of a flesh eating plant. It looks like something is coming out of the mouth rather than drowning the figure from the outside. The shoulders ended up deliberately smaller in proportion to the neck and head, the nose a bit bigger as if zooming in, creating a sense of vulnerability and solidity at the same time. My classmates saw a cigar, a speech bubble, a sleeping face, a face in pain…
In order to lighten the weight of the clay, we cut the pieces in half, carved out chunks to make even edges and stabbed air holes into the inside. There is violence to this process; the head cut open with a paper ball wrapped around the wood stick in the middle looks like a prop for a horror movie. The paper wrapped around the stand then sticking out of the cut-open head made me come back to the idea of putting things inside the sculpture as if the gold of the flag slowly fills up the inside. It appears as a violent process before my mind, an association of stuffing something down someone’s throat. Consequently, questions of planning ahead, sketching out or pre-conceptualizing a work of art came up consistently. During the sculpture making process I re-visited several of the ideas that I set out with. I had conceptualized a personified figure waving the Ger-man flag, the flag’s golden bottom turning into liquid gold that slowly drowns the figure. The flag itself could be ‘made out of discourse’, newspaper articles on migration, election slogans, etc. I wondered what might be coming out of the nose and ears in the actual sculpture and what the flag could be made off – just gold liquid or wrapped up newspaper articles, quotes, etc.
What to do with violent texts or discourse, how can they be read against themselves, perhaps appropriated, transformed? By creating a textual/paper-trail-density of newspa-per headlines, laws, and articles forming the flag? – Re-working textual materials into sculptural ones might be interesting, but I also wonder whether this might be too literal/ pedagogical a gesture in the sense that I would identify ‘bad’ texts. Might having a dumping space for ‘evil’ discourse even become a gesture connected to NS book burn-ings and the attempted elimination of ‘degenerate art’ when nationalism is precisely what I am trying to problematize?
I also ask myself what it means to personify ‘the nation’, to depict it as gender-ambiguous or male, in contrast to the tradition of feminizing the nation (as for instance in Lacroix’s ‘La Liberté’). A reversal might be too much in line with ascribing violence to masculinity or to essentialist notions of maleness.
I experienced material as a powerful factor in the work. Working with clay allows for leav-ing my own bodily marks and traces on the figure, unlike for instance working with a cut-ter to manipulate Styrofoam. I enjoyed letting my hands follow the material, leaving finger marks on it that become part of the structure and expression.
Working in direct contact with the material versus employing strategies that are more removed from the material became interesting points of reflection. Abstract painter Katharina Grosse who figures prominently in chapter one of my dissertation, for instance emphasizes how the use of a spray gun creates a distancing that lets her work with her eyes first and foremost, which is then followed by moving through the painting field with her body.
Another interesting caveat that came up regarding material versus the content was the tendency to get carried away with smoothing the clay when working up close. There was a moment in the working process when I started to ‘beautify’ – as my instruc-tor put it – the back of the head. A figure capturing a violent experience seems to call for a rougher exterior, but the smoothness of liquid gold might also form a welcome textural juxtaposition in the final piece.
Future Artistic Work
In order to work toward creating the full-size sculpture I would like to gain further training in the practice-based, artistic genres relevant to my work, including life-size sculpture and illustration. I aspire to taking more workshops in sculpture making, including working with Styrofoam and sandstone, to add to the basic skills I was able to acquire this sum-mer. I would also like to engage in visual narrative (illustration as visual essay; comic and graphic novel writing) as another practice-based genre, specifically toward the sec-ond chapter of my dissertation. Petja Dimitrova, one of the artists figuring centrally in my analysis, uses illustration and visual narrative in her depictions of migrant rights strug-gles and the institutional practices involved in citizenship and asylum procedures. Train-ing in this genre would thus enable me to explore this artistic technique, to more fully understand its impact and efficacy for my analysis of Dimitrova’s work, and eventually to incorporate it in my own artistic practice.
I would like to thank the Visual Scholarship Initiative for enabling me to conduct artistic research toward my dissertation by awarding me a summer research grant.