by Dilpreet BhullarSep 17, 2022
On a recent late-summer evening, I happened to witness my neighbour shape a fish from a ball of self-made playdough. She shared the recipe she uses and was demonstrating to me the result when her daughter excitedly asked her to make her a fish. She took a fistful and pulled and tugged. Within seconds she had summoned the shape of a puffer fish. I had always been aware of my neighbour’s many talents. Her effortless and casual demonstration left me in a state of awe. I’d only ever seen trained artists work with such acuity. She told me about all the things she loves to make with her hands, and various forms of femmage, including knitting and crochet. Our exchange made me think about all the unexhibited works of women made in domestic settings that live outside of institutional understandings of “art”.
Works like these, which form part of a universal experience of childhood, intrigue me because they are an extension of play. The dresses my mother used to make for our dolls with leftover fabric are one example. Many others abound of objects made within such a realm, leading me to ponder the similarities between the daily world of children and that of artists. The motivations of both categories of people are governed by a proclivity towards exploration and experimentation, curiosities about states of matter and the potentialities of material.
For children, play occupies the same conceptual terrain as “work” does for adults. The two categories are conflated. Playing with toys is how children explore their realities and train their gross and fine motor skills. Play is work and work is play, just as it is for artists whose studios or work spaces are sites that enable imaginative renderings of complex ideas. The pursuit of form is, after all, a conceptual undertaking, a metabolic notion that is made manifest through the handling of materials. Repetition is often part of the process, performing the same gestures over and over in order to chase an elusive idea of an end result, sometimes settling for what chance or the accident dictates. Artmaking embodies all of the decisions and hesitations that are part of the process of playing with ideas, forms and material possibilities. It involves intellectual as well as physical forms of labour, and can often be said to occur within anti-capitalist contexts that consider non-mainstream notions of productivity. It’s also, quite simply, “fun”, unlike many other professions that do not incorporate elements of “play”.
As I was processing these ideas, I kept returning to my experience of being in the background of a kids workshop by the Berlin-based artist, Philip Wiegard. Titled Kids’ Factory (July 3-27, 2023), it was part of a larger network of workshops facilitated by Eau & Gaz, one of many organisations based out of Schloss Gandegg, a castle in South Tyrol, Italy. The workshop targeted children aged eight to 14 and was set in the park of the castle. Participating children learned a historical paper-finishing technique called paste paper and were part of a full-fledged production process. The workshop’s intention was to teach the children what it means to engage in a craft and achieve a certain mastery in it. “For the artist, the children are assistants during the workshop. Therefore, they contribute significantly to the success of the art exhibition,” an online statement says. “In addition, the children receive an hourly wage and thus get a playful insight into the working world.”
I happened to be at Schloss Gandegg one late afternoon as the workshop was in progress. I was hoping to catch up with the workshop’s co-organiser and co-curator Sarah Oberrauch. We’d been trying to orchestrate a play date between our toddlers for a while and that afternoon the stars had aligned. Later, I was invited to a morning preview of Wiegard’s ensuing solo show, Dreams that Money Can Buy (until August 4, 2024), which included the wallpapers that were made by the artist's assistants. What struck me were the beautiful patterns created through repetition, often using site-specific materials, like feathers shed by the resident peafowl.
The assisting children seemed to have been treated like working professionals, their time-honoured by having them clock in their hours and with a wage, marking their complicity in the act of artmaking and enlisting their talent and work as co-collaborators. At the exhibition, the wallpapers made by the children were installed on the second floor of the castle, asserting their authorship in relation to Wiegard’s own. In one room is a video installation of the titular work, Dreams That Money Can Buy, which has footage of professional child actors interpreting the soundtrack of Loïe Fuller’s Serpentine Dance, with the music played by Wiegard on piano. Each child’s version is played on a different device. I found this work powerful in how it foregrounds playfulness as something intuitive, something that possibly gets lost as children acclimatise to the sway of capitalism. On some walls, the wallpaper patterns were interrupted by a series of polymer clay mosaics, the consequence of Wiegard’s committed involvement with the larger social media-based community of polymer clay practitioners. Wiegard actively posts tutorials on YouTube and TikTok as a way of giving back to the community.
Reflecting on the work in an essay published online by Eau & Gaz, Wolfgang Ullrich talks about the “ethic” that marks Wiegard’s approach. “By picking up on forms of work associated with craftsmanship and recreational creative pursuits, Wiegard aligns himself with a tradition of appropriation art, and so the contributions of others are always an explicit concern in his art,” Ullrich writes. “For example, he will make paste-paper wallpapers – a premodern and almost extinct technique – in workshops with children, many of whom take special pleasure in the repetitive procedures of pattern-making. Yet the fact that he pays them for their work should be seen not only as a token of his appreciation, it also raises the critical question of whether the revival of an obsolete technique brings back another thing of the past as well: child labour. And are even children now altogether subject to the logic of economics?”
Wiegard’s exhibition doesn’t propose answers to this question, nor does it take an ideological stance. What it does, effectively, and even subversively, through its foregrounding of collaboration and the sharing of technique through the realm of craft is invert the idea of the artist as the “author” and the generator of ideas or forms. Through its investment in appropriation art, it almost demystifies that idea of the artist as a solitary genius, or as someone removed from the domain of craft.
The show is delightful to behold because it is grounded in playfulness and creativity and in many ways platforms with great agility and acuity the shared motivations of artists and children through the realm of play. Without necessarily articulating ideas of cooperation or getting into debates about the nuances between art and craft, the solo straddles all these complexities while asserting that any artistic output involves the labour of hands that go beyond the artist, thus inverting simplistic understandings of authorship. In doing so, he levels the playing field between art and craft.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of STIR or its Editors.)