Thoughts on contemporary art and skilled craft by Kara Au


Hammer in Wall. Photo: Kara Au.

It was the summer of 2015 that I was laying on the beach at a cheap resort in Varadero, Cuba, listening to the audiobook Shop Class As Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford. It was a brief respite before I was to venture into Havana to observe the 12th Biennial. The book spoke to the importance of manual competency in an increasingly abstract world, a wisdom I wasn’t prepared to act on until six years later. I am no stranger to abstraction—having heavily occupied the realm of the symbolic, both personally and professionally—for most of my life. My formal education is in the Arts, studying digital culture, while my Master’s thesis was wholly conceptual, delving into affect theory and existentialism. To put it plainly, I have spent my years overthinking and undermaking.

For so long I envied artists, and in my ignorant years, thought they looked so free and made work regardless of public perception. Later, I found out that I actually don’t really know how to read faces well, and people are good at disguising their worries. I would need empirical evidence if I was to determine that artists were, indeed, free. Since that time, I have had the pleasure to become acquainted with many artists, and my opinion has changed: the plague of self-doubt encompasses us all. Being an artist is a complicated freedom and a straightforward risk. Even knowing this, I found myself still admiring their thirst to create despite economic uncertainties, a plunge I was not courageous enough to make. I felt my weakness reflect back on me whenever I went to an exhibition, each artwork like a mirror, taunting me with what could be. The problem is that any number of things could be, and I was still observing art as a romantic.

Six years later.

It is April 2021 and it has been over a year since New Brunswick began to feel the effects of the coronavirus. As a staunch introvert, self-imposed isolation is my bedfellow, a concept separate from loneliness. To be lonely, you don't have to be isolated, but you can be isolated and feel lonely. You can be among your closest friends, holding them dearly, and be lonely. You can have reciprocal love and still wake up at night, empty. Isolation is a physical imposition, loneliness is a malaise of the heart.

That being said, government-ordained isolation, paired with social distancing measures, has posed significant existential challenges extending beyond the yearning to hold our loved ones. In this year I have lost my job, got it back, got a better job, and then left that job after realizing my work was producing a gap in my life. I was lonely in my body, feeling my mind disassociate with my physical vessel as I sat at my desk, typing. I have been typing for a long time. I type fast, its only use to swiftly capture my trailing thoughts, thoughts that I am not allowed to have when I am on the clock. I surreptitiously wrote by hand in my small notebook to avoid notice, and hastily transcribed to the computer when no one was around.

The feeling of disconnect between my body and mind led to a deep loneliness, one that I didn’t know existed until entering a global pandemic. For years, I misunderstood social loneliness from a loneliness of being. I was not a maker, but I spent my days thinking about making, increasing the gap that overshadowed my life. I still looked to art for answers in these challenging times—that mirror that once taunted me in my insecurities now beckoning for some sort of change. Looking at art had become a reminder of my loneliness. I would feel my bodily vessel vibrate, shaking and stirring the blood inside me. My skin, a sensitive membrane, tingled. I had a longing to create, but I didn’t know how to do it.

Over the years, I think art has asked me to embrace my insecurities, as I feel like there is an element of vulnerability in every artist’s practice. To create work that is deeply personal while inhabiting the political space of contemporary art creates a door between artwork and viewer that gives us an opening into the artist’s own life while functioning in the realm of galleries, public places, and in recent times, digital spaces. To exhibit is to make oneself vulnerable to public opinion, an act that requires intense courage, and at times, great discomfort. These artworks are evaluated not just as cultural value, but as capital gain.

Inevitably, this line of thought leads to thinking about failure. Art is evaluated, from something as innocuous as like/dislike, to trying to establish its “worthiness.” I am afraid of failure, but I think the stigma surrounding it is foolish. We shouldn’t feel shame for putting our all into a project that doesn’t pan out. We shouldn’t be afraid of having believed in the value of that work, and we should feel comfortable with letting it go and speaking to it. While voicing my worries, a close friend once told me that I had to let go of the idea that my work is precious. They told me that when I reach that point, I will understand that perfectionism is a lie, and the sooner I fail, the better off I’ll be.

Of course, I am overthinking again, and undermaking. But when I see artists at work, it gives me the courage to engage my body deeply and fully. This vessel that I feared to inhabit due to a fear of failure, I fill in gently. This body that asks for food, sun, and love, also asks to be at work. It asks for movement—to carry tools in my hands and build the worlds that others won’t make for me on this Earth that still incites violence against people of colour, suppresses democracy, and lacks diversity in our highest institutions. Contemporary art continues to struggle with these issues, and it is a slow process watching these organizations earnestly but awkwardly try to generate space for other voices, from the smallest artist-run centres to the most esteemed galleries in the country. As I wait for this institutional change, I will work on changing the world around me.

Thus, I find myself here. I left my well-paying job several months ago to get to know my body in the skilled crafts. I have been learning to build and dismantle any number of things. Instead of pressing my index finger on a keyboard, I am pressing it against the trigger of a power drill. I measure, cut, and secure pieces together. I also take them apart. I think and organize in physical space, learning to problem solve the matter of things instead of creating digital content for some undefined end, crossing off the days in my online calendar planner, planning the next deal or holiday I need to account for. My body is not tired; I have more energy than I ever had working in an office, while working much harder. I no longer count the hours until I leave, as the hours are not measured when I’m focused. Most days I return home covered in soot and dust, satisfied.

Transitioning from a predominantly thinking mindset to a making mindset was surprisingly simple. Thinking and making are not so separate from each other—creating material objects requires knowledge and engagement with the entire body. Knowing how bodies work does not directly translate to working well in your body. In learning to create, some knowledge is only acquired through focused movement. When I drill a four-inch screw into a wooden stud, I’m bracing my muscles to handle the force of the drill’s desire to spin out and twist my wrist. When I use a crowbar to pry a slat from the wall, I leverage the weight of my body to help the tool dislodge the secured wood. If I overestimate the slat, I fall backward with the entirety of my weight, crashing to the floor. When I work physically, I’m thinking with my whole body, making use of the entire unconscious extension of my thoughts.

Prior to leaving my job I had barely touched a tool throughout my whole life, or used a physical thing for its intended purpose. Thinking in Heidegerrian terminology, I was functioning in the realm of present-at-hand, our theoretical understanding that we live in a world made of objects preceding their intended use. I could hold a hammer, but have no real understanding as to what it means once it’s in my hand. I wanted to inhabit the realm of ready-to-hand, to operate in a world where I had a physical relationship to these objects through usefulness and handiness. Now, I can hold a hammer and use it for any number of things. I can look at it and see its potential.

In that vein, when I look at art, I am often amazed at the potential artist’s see in the objects they employ in their work, and the handiness with which they use their tools. Now that I am slowly learning to occupy the mindset of ready-to-hand, I engage with art differently than I used to. It’s not a disillusionment to the value of art as I learn to work with material things, but instead an expansion of art’s potential as my manual competency improves. I can look at a thing both as a theory and as the makeup of individual materials and tools that are needed to make it. When thinking and making merge into a thinking-making praxis, I feel like the world doubles in size. This journey, which feels like an endless road, is only at its beginning.

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