A Reaction to Globalised Production

15 international artists exhibit in Rotterdam, in a ground-breaking exhibition that deciphers new meaning within the difference between making and thinking.

The difference between production and consumption informs group show Making Is Thinking, curated by Zoë Gray and assisted by Amira Gad at the Witte De With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam. Featuring the work of 15 artists, the show approaches a multitude of oppositional relationships, including form and content, thinker and maker, as well as conceptual and applied arts at a time when such debates are needed. As far as metaphors go, a separation between mind and body could easily describe increasing divisions between government and populace in a world driven by industrialised wants and needs.

The exhibition contemplates labour divisions that emerged from factory systems at the start of the Industrial Revolution in 18th century Britain; then known as the workshop of the world. This transformed Europe and the United States’ productive capabilities, irrevocably changing societies in the process. Citing Matthew Crawford’s book, The Case for Working with Your Hands: or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good (2009) Gray explains: “Crawford makes various salient points about the way the mechanisation of labour and [Henry] Ford’s creation of the assembly line [at the start of the 20th century] divided the craftsman’s skill into the manager’s knowledge and the workers’ labour – a division that persists today in many fields. It is as if know-how was split in two: know and how. This has had wide-reaching ramifications on all areas of work and education – artistic or not.”

While manufacturing processes separated concept, materiality and making, the traditional crafts diminished, as did the presence of the craftsman’s hand, something Rita McBride’s inkjet prints of pre-digital French curves and engineering tools evoke. As technology continues to evolve alongside the expanding industrial model, the distance between human input and industrial output widens, with efficiency, productivity and progress continuing to fuel a globalised reality where nations are organised under the industrial hierarchy of primary, secondary and tertiary industry. Looking at Dewar & Gicquel’s enlarged necklaces combining worry beads with battered helmets in The Hairdresser’s Birthday Treat (2006) and wooden shells and cars with cricket bats in Cocoa Tourismo (2006), the industrial legacies of imperialism, trade and consumption remain largely unresolved.

But do we have reason to fear those dark Satanic Mills that created a reaction against industrialisation in the 19th century Arts and Crafts Movement, led by William Morris and John Ruskin? Gray observes current parallels, but does not succumb to moral judgements. “An interest in craft is re-emerging in part as a reaction to the globalised economy and its re-localisation of production. However, for Ruskin, there was a close association between craft and morality, something that contemporary theorists of craft such as Glenn Adamson are keen to avoid. It would be naïve nowadays to suggest that craft is good, while industry is bad; things are not that simple … The most interesting artists have always been those who combine brilliant ideas with exciting forms. I’m not so interested in the presumed division between making and thinking as in their fusion. The title establishes equivalence rather than opposition.”

This invites a non-hierarchical assessment of art and life in a mechanised world nearly a century after the Duchampian readymade marked an artistic separation between thought and practice, commonly pinned on Fountain (1917). The industrially-produced urinal was presented, and rejected for lack of artistic integrity, as the world’s first fully industrialised war was raging, forcing society to re-examine its structured reality on all levels, from methods of warfare to the relief of bodily urges. In doing so, Duchamp exposed divisions between designer, maker, and user as large as those between factory workers supplying weapons to frontline soldiers to those managing the conflict. This reclaimed thought and perspective in a society numbed by mindless mass-production and divided by the actions produced from it.

As Teppei Kaneuji’s reference to Babel in Tower (Movie) (2009) remembers, enforced divisions can lead to chaos and decline, both individually and collectively. Sometimes, the body needs the release of creative expression without being restrained by conceptual structures, as the immediacy of small, spontaneous acts using everyday items in Koki Tanaka’s video montage Everything is Everything (2006) suggests. In the case of William J. O’Brien’s coloured pencil and ink works on paper exploring colour, shape and line, instinctive expression can manifest as rich meditations. Though in certain circumstances, it can also come to resemble O’Brien’s installation (Untitled), Topical Descent (2010), containing explosive, childlike outbursts on paper exuding violent spontaneity not unlike the way individuals might react to discipline, or how suppressed groups might resort to protest.

In this sense, the works on show reveal innate conflicts that exist when concept manifests in reality; as with any idea, from an architectural design to a political ideology, formation demands continuous trial and error – making and thinking – directed by circumstantial factors. From Eva Berendes’ combination of found ceramics with painted silks spray-painted by the artist to Julia Dault’s site-specific bended Plexiglas and Formica compositions titled according to the date and time they were made, crudely anchored to the gallery wall, to Edgar Leciejewski’s insular photographic Wands (Walls) series (2008) that systematically documents his own studio, there is a sense that the process of making liberates latent thoughts not yet fully formed. The importance is to allow ample room within rigid processes for such concepts to reveal themselves physically, while still allowing room for them to grow.

Alexandre da Cunha appropriates mop heads – a domestic material, used in this instance to create an extravagant hanging screen in the case of Palazzo (2009) or in turning a plastic planter filled with concrete into an exotic macramé art object in Kentucky Macramé (2010). Deconstructing the mop’s materiality, da Cunha’s crafted process recognises the hidden potential of a replicated object with a singular role. This creative response re-invigorates the industrialised domestic space with new possibilities, proving that anything can change into something else should we allow it to happen.

This adaptive quality is necessary not only in the creation of a single artwork, but in the entire process by which art is created, presented and perceived. Discussing the political potential of art to change things, Ane Hjort Guttu writes in the exhibition catalogue: “I’d like to see art emancipated from itself to a greater extent so that we can experience it as an expression of the humanity that lives in all of us, and on which everyone can draw.” This inclusivity is explored in Hedwig Houben’s Colours and Shapes, A Short Explanation of My Artistic Practice (2010). Taking on anthropomorphic qualities, five shapes represent artistic practice, from instinctive making, to evaluation and analysis, revealing the process of conception, production and evaluation and thus including the audience entirely in the creative process.

Guttu’s 2009 series of 20 black and white photographs portraying three-dimensional shapes discovered in the attic of Oslo’s former national college of arts and crafts invites similar engagement. Titled Static Dynamic Tension Force Form Counterform (2009) after the project undertaken by college students between the 1960s and 1980s, Guttu revives the virtues of making by elevating educational studies to high art through photography. Observing her young son create readymade compositions around the house in video How to Become a Non-Artist (2007) she notes: “Eina got the impression that objects only become interesting when they are photographed.” As a viewer, objects become more interesting when they are actively perceived on a more conscious level.

“Quoting Berendes, it is more about a question of reception; of how we have a more tactile approach to the applied arts, a greater proximity to the way items are made, as compared to our reading of fine art, where the concept has become all-important,” Gray explains. Perhaps this outlook is closer to Duchamp’s intent for the latrine than its common association as benchmark upon which the traditional process of making is rejected in favour of a conscious critique on practice, exemplified in Lawrence Weiner’s notorious Declaration of Intent (1968), which stated that thinking could replace making.

When explaining video work About the Good and the Bad Sculpture (2009), Houben notes that divisions between two objects into “good” and “bad” creates a duality that demands constant reinterpretation. In this sense, the potency of the readymade does not lie in the need to challenge or reaffirm its authority, but in its continuing – and developing – relevance. For example, how far do Handcrafted Pick-axe and Handcrafted Trowels (2003), handmade tools fashioned by Wilfrid Almendra with Dewar & Gicquel to look like their mass-produced counterparts, really challenge Duchamp’s industrially-made wood and iron snow shovel In Advance of the Broken Arm (1915)? Gray posits; “In a sense, this absurdly time-consuming activity is a complete reversal of the readymade.” Conversely, as Fountain critiqued mass-production in the early 20th century, these contemporary “handmades” carry a similar reminder; though technology and industry directs the way we live, we still have the physical and mental tools to create new possibilities from existing realities.

But does this require a re-assessment of value in a world in which economy often overrides humanity? “It is absolutely about questions of value. Time is the most precious ‘commodity’ today and several of the works in the exhibition explore how we spend our time, and what value that activity is given.” Gray uses Hans Schabus’ Der Turmbau zu Babel (2010) as a case in point. In a sequence of framed jigsaw puzzles completed over one winter named after Bruegel’s 16th century painting The Tower of Babel (1563), Schabus presents the puzzles on their reverse side. “Doing jigsaw puzzles is perhaps the least respected pastime, requiring little skill, but infinite patience. What does it mean when an artist such as Schabus presents these mute puzzles as highly eloquent artworks about art and work? What value do we put upon it? These are extremely interesting questions to me.”

After the rise of boom-time artists in the late 1990s and early millennium, exemplified by Hirst, Koons and Murakami, who all worked within a factory-based practice that often saw them oversee production of ideas rather than making work themselves, the role of the artist is a contentious issue from the perspective of human skill, monetary value and market integrity. Following the economic crash in 2008, does this more materialised, tactile approach reflect a change in perception of worth? Gray responds: “I think the term ‘tactile art’ is misleading. For me, Koons’ work is extremely tactile. However, I do see a certain backlash against, or perhaps reassessment of, the dematerialised, globalised world in which we live in the West today. Across society there is a renewed interest in re-taking control of making processes as a way of becoming more engaged with and responsible for the things that surround us.”

By challenging the industrial process, artists are taking steps towards reconciling the negative impacts of industry and the opportunities it represents. Eva Rothschild’s formalist sculpture SUPERNATURE (2008) exists on three levels of the industrial process; mass-produced PVC sheets are wall-mounted to reflect a wooden frame designed by Rothschild and fashioned by technicians intertwined with leather and rope-like forms, hand-woven by the artist and assistants. “These different forms of making come together in one impressive work, which for me suggest a ‘return to nature’ of a piece of modernist sculpture as it is overgrown by the concrete jungle,” explains Gray.

In the end, when it comes to making and thinking, or thinking and making, what’s the difference? Either way, everyone needs to see, feel and understand. With the industrial age hurtling into an unknown future as evidenced in the nuclear crisis in Japan, the rise of China and India as industrial nations and their metamorphosis into consumer societies, Making Is Thinking is a timely and relevant exhibition. Along with the rising oil prices caused by political turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East, flexible re-unification of body and mind, craft and industry, artist and audience, production and consumption and a myriad other dualities prove useful in a world grappling with readymade structures desperately in need of re-evaluation, resolution, and inevitably, re-construction.


Stephanie Bailey