The history of every art form shows critical epochs in which a certain art form aspires to effects which could be fully obtained only with a changed technical standard, that is to say, in a new art form. The extravagances and crudities of art which thus appear, particularly in the so-called decadent epochs, actually arise from the nucleus of its richest historical energies.
— Walter Benjamin (1936)1
Although sculpture first was made by shaping stone, it has since been produced in many materials, whether hard or soft, rigid or flexible, and by way of constantly renewed techniques. It is in the apparent porosity of its specificities that sculpture, in its current form, is viewed differently here so as to reflect on how man works material in a socio-political context of conflict. In appropriating the concepts of catastrophe and armed conflict through sculpture today, Ben Jackel, Clint Neufeld and Charles Krafft endow emblematically tough and masculine objects with a fragile quality. The sculptures of these three artists address notions of the machine, catastrophe and war, and are variously comprised of motors, jets, tanks or guns, which have become aestheticized objects stripped of their initial function.
For Ben Jackel, using stoneware to construct catastrophe and war devices has led to the production of politically charged objects without technological input; for Clint Neufeld, a former soldier, transforming motors into delicate ceramic pieces makes it possible to revisit the concept of masculinity; while Charles Krafft intertwines know-how and destruction through an arsenal made up of ceramics painted in the delftware tradition, which he created after a trip to war-ravaged Bosnia and Herzegovina
Let’s get back to stone; while sculpting primarily means cutting and carving in hard materials, the reverse of this technique is found in earthenware, clay, porcelain, ceramic and pottery, in which hard material at first crumbles into powder and is then mixed with water and made solid once again after being fashioned by hand and fired in a kiln. The last stage of this process not only seals porous material, it also adds a layer of meaning by specifying the role of sculpture in re-contextualizing the reproduced object. For instance, Ben Jackel adds beeswax to clay in order to obtain a metallic effect on his hydraulic machine replicas —which take the shape of firefighting equipment—and a miniaturized tank. Clint Neufeld covers his motors with paint and floral decorations and then places them on various types of armchairs or tables. Charles Krafft meticulously paints and decorates his porcelains with glazing or decals on ceramic before the final firing. Through a permutation of meaning prompted by the object itself, all these techniques and processes not only add weight to what was originally nothing but powder; they also actively partake in reformulating sculpture via a process of appropriating and transforming the material and the works’ significance.
Sculpture is re-examined here not so much in opposition to the use of stone, but rather in the choice of the object to be made. North American industrialization in the late 19th century—in parallel with the military revolution that considerably impacted weapons technology and projectile speed—made it possible to manufacture motors and arms, to mass-produce functional objects and modern warfare. When an artist chooses to manufacture this same type of object in his studio rather than on an assembly line, he is using a counterproductive process and disrupting the function of the utilitarian object. Like a unique work, the object, in its singularity, reproduces a fraction of what it initially was, but becomes, in a way, the artist’s social or political critique through an aestheticizing treatment that modifies the object’s operating mode. Its functioning unfolds both in the artist’s know-how, being closely linked to arts and crafts, and in its structured commentary on humankind’s fragility in regard to machines and wars. Human engineering, which leaves its mark at once in the manufacture of objects and the manufacture of armed conflicts, is completely reconsidered in Neufeld’s motors, Krafft’s weapons and Jackel’s miniaturized tank.
It’s through a counterproductive manufacturing mode, in which the object is unusable, that sculpture bears witness to altered human engineering—or rather the aestheticizing of this engineering through the superposition of material know-how and social commentary. Through their display in a museum, the sculpted motors and war machines are evidence of a material reconstruction of uselessness, of a functional counter-productivity and a physical presence in an inappropriate context. When brought together, all of these elements adroitly convey the intention of the artist, who puts much effort into a sculptural reproduction of the object that is intended for viewing rather than use. The meaning of the object emerges precisely from its uselessness. Clint Neufeld’s motor, which is placed on a flowerdecorated Recamier couch, figures as a travesty of masculinity considered in terms of man’s inclination to create, manipulate and enjoy a set of motorized components and functions. Ben Jackel’s tank, through its physicality and appearance as a miniature model, straddles destruction and construction, projecting war in the image of child’s play. Charles Krafft’s AK47, straight out of a fine porcelain arsenal of destruction, bears witness to the fragility of war in its most violent, but also most appealing aspect.
This way of fashioning the raw, even brutal object, the object of fantasy, the object of violence by magnifying its uselessness is one way among others to re-think sculpture, at least in a critical perspective with regard to masculinity and violence.
In Marinetti’s manifesto on the war in Ethiopia one can effectively read the following: “For twenty-seven years we Futurists have rebelled against the branding of war as anti-aesthetic.… Accordingly we state:… War is beautiful because it establishes man’s dominion over the subjugated machinery by means of gas masks, terrifying megaphones, flame throwers, and small tanks. War is beautiful because it initiates the dreamt-of metalization of the human body. War is beautiful because it enriches a flowering meadow with the fiery orchids of machine guns. War is beautiful because it combines the gunfire, the cannonades, the cease-fire, the scents, and the stench of putrefaction into a symphony. War is beautiful because it creates new architecture, like that of the big tanks, the geometrical formation flights, the smoke spirals from burning villages, and many others.… Poets and artists of Futurism!… remember these principles of an aesthetics of war so that your struggle for a new literature and a new ‘sculpture’… may be illumined by them!”
–cited in Walter Benjamin (1936)2
Translated by Bernard Schütze
Marie-Hélène Leblanc is an artist, writer and curator. Her recent curating work includes Objet Indirect Object, co-curated with Steven Loft and presented at DAÏMÕN, AXENÉO7, Artengine and SAW Video (Ottawa); Striking a Pose_Prendre pose, at Musée régional de Rimouski (Rimouski), Latitude 53 (Edmonton) and Paved Arts (Saskatoon); La résistance – Espace blanc 5, organised by the artist-run centre Caravansérail (Rimouski); and Preparation|Reparation, a screening of videos by Emanuel Licha and Harun Farocki (Gatineau). Marie-Hélène Leblanc also has published texts and produced artists’ books. She is a doctoral student in the Études et pratiques des arts program at Université du Québec à Montréal, where she is researching the post-conflict in contemporary art.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, New York: Schocken Books, 1969, p. 237.
Ibid., p. 241-242.