September 20, 2018
to be with art is all we ask
—Gilbert & George
I normally create a situation wherever I go.
I was going through my pictures of our class field trip to the Red Clay Farm (红泥乐农场) studio space, and outnumbering photos of artworks and studio projects were photos of goats and pigs. The Red Clay Farm was not exclusively a studio—the expansive piece of land it sat in was mostly dedicated to agriculture, and the studio we visited only occupied one greenhouse-converted space and an additional small plot of land.
Sculptures in the greenhouse-converted-gallery-studio were elevated on eye-level pedestals, designed for a standing person of average height. We were constantly urged and encouraged to examine the full three-dimensions of the works to understand its craftsmanship. In the Red Clay Farm studio, an interested patron of the arts could walk amongst the artwork and see them as closely as the students scrutinizing the detailed intricacy of the artwork makings.
The instructor explained that the studio settled in this area for the dirt’s special red hue, which they used to make their own clay. When he was pointing out where they dug for the clay material, most of us began running towards the corner of the field where there were two enclosures—one for goats and one for pigs. The animals captured our attention just as much (if not more so!) than the crafting methods that our instructors were describing.
The entire animal enclosure was roughly the shape of a square, with the goats and pigs separated. Although the goats probably thought we had food to offer, our squealing was enough to draw the attention of these curious animals towards the fence that divided us. As we squatted and hunched over in various ways to look at the goats face-to-face, they baah-ed back at us and wove amongst themselves to get closer. Just as we were fascinated with the goats, the goats were fascinated with us.
Unlike the artworks, the goats were low to the ground and clearly demarcated. I had to physically reorient how I was accustomed to looking at things in order to look at the animals. I was struck by how planarly I interacted with the goats compared to the sculptures. Amongst all my goat pictures, I chose the above image because you can see the perspective of the fence as a three-dimensional object that forces you to move along its two-dimensional axis. I think fence-as-sculpture provides an interesting possibility in decentering the human as a response to the modernist sensibility of treating form as king, and interpretation as god. The more insidious context of fences is also a part of this discussion, but in reacting to the 20th century modernist notion of “pure sculpture,” to think of ourselves as objects of communication alongside other objects of communication may be useful in complicating our ideas of what is space and how do we detect space. So, it begs the question, how can an immobile sculpture move? Well, it can’t. But it can move things around it, like people. Did I interact with the sculpture, or did it interact with me?
The social relationship developed with non-human others is a vital to how people organize themselves. The dichotomies set up between instinct and intent, natural and unnatural, are reductive approaches to understanding subjectivity and the cultural constructs of perennial cycles. Although it can be argued that anthropocentricity is unavoidable and attempts to find otherwise are only a hierarchical and linear projection of values, articulating and embodying exchange can be transformative. I’m not trying to say that people and goats share the same kind of intellectual curiosity, nor do I argue that sculptures can talk back. Eduardo Kohn eloquently states, “[T]hat which lies ‘beyond’ the human also sustains us and makes us the beings we are and those we might become” (How Forests Think, 221). The elasticity of the types of exchange between human and non-human, capitalist and non-capitalist, necessarily feed into one other in a nebulous fashion as opposed to a hierarchical one.
I think doing so requires not just finding things interesting, but making things interesting. This emphatically recognizes the context and process of a happening. Just as the artists from Red Clay Farm can make seemingly unimportant dirt into clay, we can also make seemingly unimportant detritus from our social lives into art—sometimes, art is at its best when it sneaks up on you, when it is imbricated in your curiosities, when it is an apparatus of being alive. Beauty is as difficult as it is unexpected. It reveals how subjectivities can be informed, how meaning can be made and reassembled, and how humans can then be continually evaluated as sustainable subjects.
The excitement before finding them.