Thursday, January 21, 2010

Hard-Won Revelations About My Own Artmaking Process

I have just now compiled some rules by which I (and I alone) can gauge the potential of any one of my art ideas, before committing to the grueling task of giving it tangible form.
  • If it isn’t funny (at least to me,) it’s probably a dead end.
  • If it doesn’t have an elegant internal logic (with some peripheral room for interpretation) it’s also a dead end.
  • If it relies on absurd amounts of obsessive labour just to get to the point where I can visualize it as an idea, it will never happen. (Obsessive labour is fine and necessary in the later fabrication stages.)
  • If it has the fussy/trippy complexity or "density of information" of an image that I might see in a dream, then I won’t know how to actually make it visible to others, and I should accept that I’m not the right artist to make this piece.
  • If the “style” an idea requires is not dictated by the story it tells (its internal logic) then I will change my mind so many times that I will never commit to it. I am enthralled by style but I tend to want to show my appreciation for all possible styles rather than accepting that I have to exclude most of them…
  • If I start with an abstract concept (like “animism,” for example,) and try to summon an image or object to embody that idea, I am doomed to failure.
  • Only when the image or idea arises fully-fledged as the result of seeing an existing physical object in the world and envisioning a specific alteration to it, will the piece have a coherence of materiality and concept. Alternately, if the idea arises from a word or phrase that has caught my attention, the piece may be successful.
  • If the title isn’t obvious to me and crucial to the idea from its inception, then the piece lacks clarity and is most likely doomed.
  • If a two-dimensional image is to be the final product, that image must arise from a preordained system that is integral to the concept. Generally, my own interpretation and “intuition” during the making process have no place in such a system. It is the system that saves it from being “picture-making” and makes it sculpture. I am, after all, a sculptor.:-)
  • If the project isn’t virtually impossible to realize, (with my limited means,) then it’s probably not worth making.
  • I should never agree to "edition" an artwork or to make another identical piece to suit a collector's custom requirements. I am only happy when I am problem-solving the first time around. Remaking a piece is hell, and never ends up having any benefit.

--> Other notes to self about the “physical manifestation” of an idea: -->
  • Materials testing/ testing of the fabrication process must happen before too much labour is invested in “designing” the object. The convergence of an idea and a viable means of realizing it can easily extend beyond a year.
  • If the finished piece could be (mis)taken for design, then I guess that makes me a designer as well as a sculptor.
Will my list save me from further agonizing and wasted energy? There's no telling.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Trip to Tallinn, Estonia

In the first week of January a friend from California came to visit and we made the ferry trip to Tallinn, Estonia. It happened to be the same week that the BBC was declaring "the cold snap of the century" across Europe. We stayed in Tallinn's Old Town, most of which was built in the 13th through 16th centuries. A hotel staff-person mentioned that we were visiting during the week of Russian Orthodox Christmas, and that the Old Town was full of visiting Russians. This indeed seemed to be the case, and in spite of the bitter cold there was a very festive atmosphere in this jewel-like medieval city.

On the second day we left the walled Old Town and ventured into the Kadriorg district, with its 18th century Russian palaces and parks, to go to the Kumu contemporary art museum. One piece at the Kumu that was particularly brilliant was Villu Jaanisoo's regimented assembly of about one hundred and fifty sculpted busts by as many different artists--mostly from the Baltic region, I believe. Unfortunately I saw neither the title of the piece, nor any information about it. I was already familiar with Jaanisoo's work because of a bit of prior web research-- he happens to teach at the Academy of Fine Arts in Helsinki, and I've been hoping to meet him at some point during my stay in Finland. Oh, I see the Academy has an available five-year position for a professor in Site and Situation Specific Arts... any of my friends interested in applying?

Anyway, here are some pictures from my trip to Tallinn.

Ice seen from the ferry.

Another Tallink ferry, seen from my ferry.

One of many noteworthy house facades in the Old City of Tallin.

More facades, and icicles.

These windows reminded me of Christopher Alexander's discussions of "pattern language."

As did the carving on this door.

Elegantly patterned wrought-iron gate-- this may have been an ambassador's gated complex, I'm afraid I'm not clear on this!

The Christmas Market, (named the best in all of Europe,) lasted until January 7th. Hot mulled wine (glogi) and hand-knitted sweaters and mittens were in ample supply.

Evening in the Old City. Cold, and the snow was really pelting us.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral at night, busy during Russian Orthodox Christmas week.

Me, freezing, on Toompea Hill, with a view of the towers of the city wall.

Kumu Art Museum

Villu Jaanisoo's installation.

One head made of concrete.

Bust of a child, in plaster.

Waiting at the Tallinn ferry terminal for the ferry back to Helsinki.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Ekenäs, Finland

I moved from Fiskars to the Pro Artibus residency in Ekenäs, Finland, at the end of December. Ekenäs (its Finnish name is Tammisaari) is a predominantly Swedish-speaking town of 14,000. Here I have supermarkets, a variety of shops, hardware stores, a library and a public swimming pool with a sauna-- all within walking distance of the residency house. The house itself is amazing, a stone building apparently built in the 1700s. The stone walls are 17 inches thick—I measured the depth of the window sill seen in the picture below. The temperature in southern Finland has ranged between -6 degrees Fahrenheit and the mid twenties in the past two weeks. I will do a post about what I'm working on, once it's further along. I've put most of my time into research since I've been here. Having this library close by now is a great advantage, saving me loads of money over resorting to Amazon UK! I have been unable to use the Helsinki National Library while I've been here, because they require me to have a Finnish social security number.

Pro Artibus residency house.

The living room in the residency house.

Window in the residency house.

Trees on the way from the residency house to the downtown area.

Snow-covered trees.

Snow-covered trees by the water's edge.

A pier and boat in the snow.

A house on the main street of Ekenas.

A school building on the main street of town.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

December Update (a month late)

So, although I came very close to the precipice, I'm pretty sure I didn't end up losing my mind after all. This, I believe, is because towards the end of December the snow came, and stayed, and brightened up the dark days considerably. And, on some of those dark and rainy November and December days prior to the snow's arrival, my co-resident Laura Baruel and I worked in the well-heated basement of the residency house making a "swan boat" that will appear in an ambitious multimedia spectacle/ performance this March. The project is authored and directed by the Fiskars-based playwright/set designer/ multimedia artist duo, Julian Garner and Hanne Horte. Their previous performances, and information on upcoming projects, can be seen on their website:

The swan boat will cross the Fiskars river, igniting a huge "fire sculpture" in the middle of the river on its way. Here are some pictures of the swan in progress and completed. Although the process is very similar to the "wireframe" project I teach in my 3D Design Foundations classes, using willow branches was a new challenge for me. The branches must be painstakingly pieced together into usable lengths. They are fairly flexible while they are wet, and become rigid (and shrink considerably) when they dry. The shrinkage was enough to change the swan's original proportions to the small boat on which we built it.

The swan is scheduled to sail in Fiskars on March 9th, playing its small role amid many large creatures and puppets made by Culturamobila. Fiskars schoolchildren will be the chief performers and prop-operators in the spectacle.

Look, no 3-horsepower cabinet saw! No combination square! Just two pairs of Fiskars gardening clippers, a pair of pliers and a drill.

The finished swan-boat at Culturamobila's workshop in Fiskars Village.