With your new exhibition at Vitrine, London titled ‘You Will Knead’, you can see you responding to lockdown life caused by Corona Virus. This new work reflects on your ways of observing things. What has struck you about the last 10 months, and what lies behind the ideas for this exhibition? Where does the title for the show come from? a play on the word knead and what we really need? Is it a tool kit for daily survival perhaps?
The title came from thinking about the uptick in baking over lockdown and that period when all the flour ran out in the shops. It’s obviously a play on words of knead and need, I think bread making became this sort of cathartic meditative thing for a lot of people – the need to knead. If any good has come out of lockdown, it could be that it forced us to pause everything and think about our basic needs in a way that we wouldn’t have noticed before. I was also thinking about home crafts, of people filled with free-time – so referencing the ‘you will need’ section from instructional craft books. There is a second idea to this about coercion or control – bread baking and craft are all fun to a point, but it’s weird that it’s been forced upon everyone – so I guess I was also thinking about the lack of control we’ve all felt?
Lockdown definitely influenced this show – very much the premise really – I didn’t really want to make work about lockdown but it was pretty all consuming and hard to think about anything else.
My studio was closed during the first lockdown, plus, I used to get my ceramics fired in the big kilns at Northumbria University which I lost access to by no longer working there, so it caused a big rethink of how I conduct my practice. So, the materials used for the work in this show came from a place of trying to figure out how to make work from home with limited resources – i.e., substituting salt dough instead of ceramics. (I should say my studio reopened later so I didn’t make everything at home, to the great relief of my flatmates).
Do you play computer games? More specifically, do you play the Sims, or Sims 4 – ( I remember how much the game Animal Crossing became a thing in the first lockdown. You mentioned Sims in the press release, I have always liked Sims speak! particularly when they get agitated or angry with each other.
I actually haven’t played The Sims for years, but this is an active decision because I love sims too much. Genuinely, I think I am scared to download it, because if I did, I know I would spend all my time on the game and slowly lose all my friends, my work ethic and general grasp on reality and just melt into sims world completely. But I’ve been thinking about Sims a lot, I know a lot of people downloaded Sims 4 for lockdown 1, and I think this is interesting as Sims sort of ties together those two lockdown themes of satisfying basic needs and a lack of control over our lives. In Sims you have godlike control over sims lives and its really easy to deal with all their basic needs that are all laid out, nice and simply, much nicer than real life. Why would you not want to play this in lockdown? The other and probably more important thing about sims is that you can build your dream house, that’s the main reason I would ever play sims. This was the premise for the first artwork I started making for this show ‘Sims Dream flour Shop’ I wanted to make a sculpture in the same way I might play on sims in the context of lockdown, so I built a miniature shop, fully stocked with flour (since in real life all the flour was scarce) as a starting point for the piece.
This rush to strip the shops of bread flour) Does it represent a longing for baked bread? – and of home life routines, all elevated to a new level .Evidently, we are all a bit wearier this time than with the first lockdown back in March/April, now we are into the third lockdown, is there still a lot of home baking going on in your house?
What do ‘little utopias with an abundance of flour’ mean?
The flour rush was one of those peculiar moments of lockdown where basic needs were laid bare and demonstrated in panic buying – the absence of flour from supermarket shelves and loo roll was quite a funny revelation of what we really hold dear – shitting and baking – I mean funny, with the caveat that I know this actually was really serious and difficult for those who couldn’t get what they needed and getting hold of life’s essentials.
When I think about the longing for baking bread, it reminds me of an old episode of Sabrina the Teenage Witch (the 90s one) where she makes the perfect boyfriend out of ‘man dough’. I’m not sure why this scene particularly springs to mind, but I think it’s sort of like building your dream house in sims, the idea of creating something perfect, or creating anything at all, just something you have control over. Dough is a really visceral material, you can form it into whatever shape you want, you have to nurture it if you are using sour dough, and watch it grow like some living thing that you’ve created. Also, the fact that it is a functional activity – and you get to eat it afterwards, so it’s got some sense of purpose at a time perhaps when we were all lacking purpose?
Saying all this, like the sims, I actually haven’t done any baking over lockdown! I made one tart tartin at the start of lockdown and I used pre-rolled pastry. But I did channel all my baking needs into this show through the making of salt dough, it felt like an appropriate material for the times.
I was very interested in your observation about scale, for the way our world has been re-framed – and our orientation to the scale of a screen! I was thinking back to some things I read (I have always been interested in this idea of scale, as a curator) and I had mentioned the Will Self story Scale, (1994). But more tellingly you are describing something else, – that is that all ‘culture’ and therefore quite a bit of art experience has been ‘reframed’ into the shape and size of the digital screen.
Yes, scale online, and via the screen is something I’ve been thinking about a lot over lockdown and in the specific works for this show. It came from idly scrolling through small ornaments on eBay (a favourite pass-time of mine) I like looking at these really ornate crafted sculptures and seeing them posed next to mundane objects ‘for scale’. I also enjoy how categories of mundane-for-scale-objects seem to emerge, for example I’ve found that dolls house items usually have 1 and 2 pence penny coin next to them for scale, and small sculptures usually have 20p or an AA battery next to them for scale, and in the darker corners of the web, bags of weed usually have lighters placed next to them for scale. There are also a string of memes circulating around ‘banana for scale’, originally based on someone trying to sell a TV online and sticking a banana to it for scale. I had a couple of incidents where I tried to buy things off Facebook marketplace, thinking they were one size, and then upon arrival realising they were way bigger or smaller than I had assumed ( a tiny Tupperware box, a giant window and a miniature trolley).
But I think these are all indicative, the bigger (smaller??….) issue of how scale becomes weird on a screen. Poignant for the times as everyone’s lives have moved onto screens – for work/socialising/gigs/ virtual art exhibitions – as you say, all culture has had to move online and therefore scaled down to fit the format, it’s strange to experience infinite information compacted into a small square in your visual field.
When thinking about lockdown activities I read a couple of articles about peoples’ hobbies over lockdown that all seem to involve strange scales in some way, then there is the woman who knitted a tiny diorama of the NHS Nightingale ‘knittingale’ hospital, someone sent me an article about farmers growing giant vegetables, sims is about creating little worlds – like digital dolls houses, when I did salt dough when I was younger, we would make little characters or food or furniture. When I think about it, nothing seems to be to scale right now.
I know you have a very hands-on approach to installing work, how will the work be installed in London? What makes VITRINE so distinctive is its role in the square, and that it is viewable day and night, and you can walk past it. Will the work be accompanied by digital animations in the windows? Do you have a detailed plan for how to make that window in Bermondsey work?
Yes, we’ve had to do some careful planning for the install! It will be a hands-on install, but we are keeping it fairly minimal! Since its a window space viewable from outside, people can see the show in the open air, while maintaining social distancing – obviously for the time being this is only possible for people who live locally – hopefully things will be a bit more normal before the show ends. But I really hope it can bring some joy to anyone gasping to see some art in real life.
Yes, I’ve been thinking about the Vitrine space, as it’s this lit up box day and night, and viewable from the front rather than a space in which you walk around the works, the way you view the space in itself is reminiscent of a screen, and in the construction of some of the works. I’ve been thinking about them almost in the way that I would compile animations – gradually building up layers of objects and frames and characters. All the works are all walled-based, starting with a backdrop and then slowly building the image outwards.
A lot of the works reference windows, with dough hands pressing up against the glass, as if someone has spent so long starring out the window and kneading dough that they’ve slowly morphed into some weird hybrid creature of the two. Because it is long narrow space, I wanted to try and use the depth with the sculptures leaning from wall to glass, giving the sense of being trapped, starring outside, being exposed and creating that sense of claustrophobia. We’ll see how this turns out in the actual space. The digital animation sequences I have made, won’t appear in the windows, they will run on the VITRINE Digital platform.
What are the components for the new work?
There is a nod to the making craze that characterised the first lockdown – the interest in– ‘craft’ at home with the kids? The choice of salt dough as a key element for these sculptures.
Did you install an oven or a kiln in the studio to make the work?
Yes, salt doughs been great! It was partially a practical solution to suddenly finding myself without access to ceramic facilities, whilst also thinking of home crafts and activities for children stuck at home. I remember doing salt dough at home with my mum in the summer holidays. It turned out to be a really great material for creating things without relying on anyone else – I don’t have to book a kiln or anything. I had to go through quite a lot of failures before I got it right, I made a salt dough tile-piece that had to binned because I baked it on too high a temperature and for not long enough, so it went soggy. I researched and developed it as a material that has durability and longevity and, with advice from another established artist who’s used the material often, I honed my technique.
I’ve found that the best way is to mix some filler into the dough and once they have dried out to carefully paint them with several layers of furniture lacquer. I originally started doing them in the oven at home and annoying all my flatmates, as you have to leave them in the oven for hours and hours. In the end, I made a makeshift oven in my studio with a space heater and a drying rack wrapped in tarpaulin, which worked really well. And to add, then my studio smelt like baking all the time, which was nice.
What really comes through from the photographs of the new work is the intense pleasure you find in these details; you are such a maker! And the fun comes from observing the precision, such as the scaled, printed reproduced boxes of flour, the packaging, the collected signs of baking, the viewer is overwhelmed by the stuff.
Excess and detail are definitely dominant themes in the way that I approach making, my work often tends to be compiled from long arduous receptive tasks – (which I love), I‘ve always found decision making stressful, so I take great pleasure in spending hours mindlessly folding tiny boxes of flour with a sense of achievement. With some of these pieces I’ve been thinking about the process perhaps like a microscope that slowly zooms out, I started with the smallest details in the middle and worked outwards from there. Reflecting on it, (I think that I mentioned earlier) the increased amount of time I spent making animations over the summer had a massive impact on the way I approached a lot of the work here. In my animations I make components separately – a background, a looped animation of a character or object, still ‘png’s of scenery to float by – and then compile them together. Similarly, in these pieces I worked on different components separately – the flour boxes, salt dough tiles, wooden frames, expanding-foam characters – and then compiled them together into a scene. So, each surface has had a dedicated little dose of time and detail poured into it.
I had to have a doubletake of looking at these, there is an explosion at the bakery! as a child I recall the storybook of the magic cooking pot and little pot of porridge that wouldn’t stop, – a cooking pot that kept cooking porridge until the town overflowed with the stuff. When I was looking at these sculptures – there seem to be stories attached to them, would you agree?
I love that story! That never even crossed my mind when I was making these works but so relevant! I guess the repetition and excess of a thing exudes a sort of pleasure and exuberance verging on maniacal – like in the story, more and more is better until it’s too much. Baking is fun, fun, fun, but how much fucking dough can I make until I can go out and see all my friends again? I don’t know if I was thinking about this exactly when I was actually making the work (I think I’m just more fed up with lockdown 3), the original idea was a character that makes so much dough that it turns into dough, or the dough becomes sentient – I’m not sure which. But, hence the dough slugs, dough hands, dough people hanging about. And you need (knead… ha-ha.) lots of flour to make all that dough, hence the sims dream flour shop with a full stock.
In the past you have incorporated domestic items, such as gloves, taps, into your kinetic moving sculptures. Here too domestic items, stuff that you would find in the kitchen, labour saving devices are present, what is it that attracts you to these domestic objects?
Rather un-excitingly I think a lot of it has to do with circumstance, when I’m feeling lost, I go to Wilko for inspiration. I used to go to Robert Days where they had a decent plumbing section and that was around the time that I made hydroponic sculptures, but now my studio is next to Wilko.
I think this could also be a bit of nostalgia, when I was a kid, I liked to play with household objects and give them a personality or a different function, I remember having a family of marbles, and a big bowl would be the swimming pool and a table would be a mansion etc. Personifying household objects is a recurring theme, and in this work, it made sense, since we’re spending so much time with them. If household objects were people, they’d be your best friends right now, you see them all the time. I spend much more time with my mug and my sink and my chair than I do with any other individual. A lot of the inspiration seems to have come from me just staring at stuff in my room, whether that was the computer, the window, or noticing that my plug sockets look like shocked faces upside-down!
I wanted to ask you about the inspiration for the dioramas. Was that conscious decision based on the gallery being a remarkable window display, almost a vitrine within a vitrine?
There are these multiple vignettes and scaled down dioramas or interior rooms in these sculptures. You can see how they serve as focal points. They look like they have their own lighting. Several seem to have their own plumbing. I was super struck by the ambiguous, is it joyful or triumphant nature of your characters, what are they holding, are they celebrating as they rise out of the dough?
It was not a conscious decision based on the gallery architecture. The flour shop with all the flour fully stocked was the first piece I started making and was sort of a jumping off point for the little narrative running through that piece and ‘Bread hands house’ which was a person baking so much that they turned into a bread monster. The little people in the shop are all in exaltation about the amount of flour available, a couple of them have started to sprout doughy limbs, they are surrounded by bread/dough slugs. The one at the bottom is holding a giant piece of bread aloft.
The ‘Bread Hands House’ is a mix of scales, a little door surrounded by little household objects in the middle of a huge window, with giant bread hands emerging. I hadn’t thought about this before, but it’s a bit like one of those models of cortical homunculi – models of the human body where the body parts are proportional to the amount of the brain that is dedicated to their functioning (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/0a/Sensory_and_motor_homunculi.jpg/550px-Sensory_and_motor_homunculi.jpg), The door to the house is barely used and small, but the hands for kneading and the window to stare out of have become engorged.
What role do the words have? How have you used text in these works?
There is a lot more that is legible than in previous artworks? Scrolling LED displays, – words flow or don’t flow around these sculptures, indeed they could be said to be stalled, what are the words you have used for these?
I was unsure about the use of repeated text, as I know it’s a bit of an obvious one. Repeated text is about being stuck or broken – like a CD skipping and repeating, like Bart Simpson writing lines on a blackboard in enforced punishment, or a slow mental decline like in The Shining when he writes the same words out over and over again – I’m aware this is a trope, but hey, I love a cliche and I wanted a texture, so I’ve used the word ‘kneads’ over and over, implying the repetitive action of kneading and may be a sort of mental reinforcement of ‘this is what I need’ . The words are all piped in filler, so making the work became like acting out the character that I had envisioned for the sculpture (someone who bakes so much they turn into a weird bread creature) there’s another piece in the show that is an image made by meticulously piping out a mixture of cornflour and PVA glue (I think it looks like a big tray bake). So, I didn’t do any actual baking over lockdown, and yet I’ve spent hours kneading and baking salt dough, and essentially decorating fake cakes. I haven’t turned into a weird bread creature, but I did make one???
I wanted to ask you about the large sculpture suspended from the ceiling with the integrated lighting. It is a box of self-raising flour, but it is also a bit like the green cross of the chemist sign?
And then there are these serpentine shapes of salt dough encasing the flour light sign.
Yes, this really is a sort of blatant pun, a shining beacon of hope – Self raising!! – a big 1kg bag of flour guiding light. The serpentine shapes are ceramic worm objects I made ages ago, pre lockdown, when I was reading an article on hauntology, which described sort of time-based haunting aspects of painting/photography residue as like ectoplasm – so the marks of wear and tear of an old photograph signify something lost in the passage of time, – i.e., remnants of a ghost, – i.e., ectoplasm. I decided to use this in a bit of a brash way and put cartoony, gooey ectoplasm on things as a way of saying ‘WELL THIS IS A HAUNTING THING’. I guess this is playing into that theme of finding some joy in baking, but in the shade of it being enforced and out of your control expressed as a kind of haunting.
What did you make of that quote I shared from the Will Self short story? ‘Some people lose their sense of proportion; I’ve lost my sense of scale.’ from Scale, (1994)
Okay, I’ve just ordered the book, but it hasn’t arrived yet so I’m going into this a bit blind. I think proportion refers to one part of an object compared to another part, while scale is the full object compared to another object. So, things get out of proportion when scales inside them change? I think our lives feel out of proportion right now as the scales of things within have gone off kilter – we’re suddenly doing less of one thing and more of another, at another moment there’s less flour than we’re used to and more masks than we’re used to. I think online things feel out of scale because you’re constantly comparing one image to another, out of context – If I go on my Instagram feed, I can see a picture of a building someone’s posted right next to an advert for a pair of shoes, so the shoes look massive or the building looks tiny, and if I look at my eBay recommendations, there’s a picture of some enamel saucepans next to a pair of trousers, so if they were in reality the saucepans would be massive or the trousers would be tiny. We haven’t evolved to use computers, we’ve just learned to deal with them, so I wonder what effect this has on the brain and if it distorts reality in some way or something?
I found the Claude Levi Strauss observation interesting, that we experience little things as more beautiful as we can apprehend them in their entirety all at once. I think this also applies to viewing things on a screen. I haven’t played a video game since Dynasty Warriors on a PS2, but my flatmate is currently playing Red Dead Redemption 5 or something. and the detail and scenery is insane.
Kara Chin’s exhibition You Will Knead at Vitrine, London continues until 11 April 2021.