Last year I was commissioned to make a series of visits to read to some potters at the Whitechapel Gallery. My readings were a part of the Visual Artist/Performer, Urban Planner and Activist, Theaster Gates, Soul Manufacturing Company for The Spirit of Utopia exhibition.
This interactive installation was an extension of the Gates’ previous works at the White Cube Gallery earlier in 2012 – “My Labour is my Protest.”
The Soul Manufacturing Company exhibition interrogated the notion of the value of art and was an oblique but very classy tongue in cheek critique of the art world – “who or what gives value to a piece of art, how does the institutionalized canon of opinion in valuing the making of art maintain itself and what questions can be asked about the labour of the hands that make the art?
Six ceramicists were commissioned to make the simplest Japanese style bowls and cups and hand-made bricks from a basic clay as if in a factory production line every day for 8 hours a day. Hundreds over 10 weeks were made. The destiny for these objects seemed to be a bit of a mystery and in vein with how Gates works. They will be shipped back to the US and what they will be used for is being held close to Gates’ chest. Right now, let’s make pots.
“He who works with his hands is a laborer.
He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.
He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.”
― Francis of Assisi
My job was to manifest the value of each potter’s labour by offering them the gifts of poetry readings and song. I researched quotes, short stories and poems around clay, labour and the will and purpose of the working craftsperson.
The experience was rewarding in a way I did not expect. As the public came in waves, I could be alone with the potters for a good length of time, with maybe only a handful of people scattered about the rest of the gallery space. These moments felt genuinely selfless and the purpose of the exhibition began to resonate.
By just watching, I could see there was a meditation in the repetition of throwing clay for such simple pots and many times I wondered if I was more of a distraction.
By day 3, I had a hang on who would like what sort of poems or songs. The songs were more successful. Poetry can be hit and miss. Same as working with wood, metal, and earth – you can understand how to manipulate the properties of an element but it’s the spirit and eye of the craftsman that will determine the poetic narrative of the outcome.
“An artist is not paid for their labour but for their vision.” – James Whistler (though the labour is equally as important Jimmie).
I related to the fact that sometimes no matter how hard the ceramicists would strive for perfection the pot might not or ever be and that the simplicity of the design lent itself to more mistakes because any nick or tiny crack would glare. And it’s through entering a concentration leading to a meditation that the potter and the clay begin to communicate. Same with poetry. If there is a hint of insincerity, the sound of it will be cringe worthy.
So I focused on my labour and got to writing, selecting and reading with the intent of solidarity with the potters’ endeavours. And to be honest, this connection made it easier to perform with an audience standing right beside me as the public tide came in and my pride for the arts as vehicle for ‘the peoples voice’ warmed my chest.
This was my first large gallery experience and I’m grateful for it as it has served the deeper purpose of galvanizing ideas for the actualization of The Fury Project Transformation Tree installation at the Red Gallery completed a few months later.
One Thursday, I had lost my voice after a brilliantly hectic week performing late, eating bad fast food and waking up early to facilitate a poetry and installation project around young women’s voices at a girls school in Tooting. Voiceless, I opted to ‘gift’ Janie with a coconut and lavender oil hand massage and shoulder rub. Hunching over a potter wheels for hours on end is not easy. I tried for 10 minutes and it takes more effort than it looks. I have a new found respect and think a potters strong hands are sexily captivating to watch. (Yeh. I had my own “Ghost” moment…)
All in all, I took well to this theme. As a freelance artist, it’s hard enough for me to fully comprehend the mental, physical and emotional energy that goes into creating and delivering poetry, education packages, performances, live events from inception to manifestation, let alone explaining it to non-artists friends and acquaintances. Ok I’m not hard grafting down a mine with soot lining my lungs, or enduring ludicrous hours in a sweatshop with no toilet breaks – I recognise my privilege. But being mentally switched on to the artist’s life hustle 24/7, 365 with erratic pay, irregular work is not a casual stroll through imaginary cornfields. It can get stressful having to work hard to dig deep for the raw trust that the arts/education employment climate will work in my favour for just another month, as not much is certain these days, and when it’s not, the urge to throw in the towel (or the pen) can be overwhelming. I have a mortgage and working rep to maintain. Delivering quality with lasting resonance is always at the forefront of my mind. Its how to get re-booked, if my labour is deemed ‘worth it’.
And so, I question (out of innocent curiosity, sometimes incredulity) how art and an artist’s presence is valued at 6 or 7 figures – what are the thought processes and politics behind this fiscal pricing, who are the personalities types that buy this costly work and why? How does one man’s cooking pot become another person’s security guarded prized possession?
The irony of these enquiries is that after making several funding applications to the Arts Council which flopped, I have FINALLY been successful (my first ever!) and will be going to Chicago to work further with Gates on a project I’m devising now called Re-Imagining Arts in Action or RAAP. Someone at ACE thought my idea was worth a flight to the US to explore this project and by mid August I should be able to reveal the results of their decision. As much I get baffled by how it works I’ll do as the Romans do because as arbitrary as pricing arts seems, I wanna wage and a self-ordained promotion in the shape of a pay rise in tune with inflation every now and then!