During February this year, I joined 8 other artists on a week long masterclass run by Beatrice Brovia and Nicolas Cheng at St Lucas School of Arts in Antwerp. We focussed on how as makers and artists, we only engage with a very brief period in the life of objects and materials; rarely seeing where they originated from or where they may ultimately end up. The objects we make, along with their materiality, have a much larger lifespan than we realise and at different periods may be decreased or increased as well as being changed, sometimes completely.
The thread of the masterclass was that of expanding on the notion of conflict materials and understanding how, in the global arena, any material – from the fabric our clothes are made from, to exotic, rare timber sourced halfway around the world, to our daily household waste – is all part of a complex, supply, demand and discard society where cultural, economic and geopolitical powers are constantly at play, and whose dynamics it is impossible to escape from, fully grasp or control. The other important aspect affecting the planet today is the anthropocene: a proposed new epoch that takes into account the drastic human impact on the planet, and how this has irreversibly affected the ecosystem, so much so that human and natural forces (and their products) have become completely enmeshed with one another.
Working from these premises, we were given an item each to investigate and retrace its history as far back as we were able to go.
‘Mining’ the history of these well-known flowers was very revealing. As probably one of the most politically loaded flowers in existence, having caused what became known as tulip mania in the Netherlands during the 1630s, bringing the futures markets into existence, such a prized possession meant that a single bulb could cost more than most people earned in a year. Prompting the remortgaging of homes or taking out huge loans in order to procure them. It has been compared to the failure of the speculative dot-com bubble and the subprime mortgage crisis of the 21st century.
The irony of it all was that the most sought after varieties were in fact riddled with disease and it was extremely rare for a clone bulb to produce the famous ‘breaks’ the original bulb had originally produced. Not indigenous to Holland, it’s native range extends west to the Iberian Peninsula, through North Africa to Greece, the Balkans, Turkey, throughout the Levant and Iran, north to Ukraine, southern Siberia and Mongolia, and east to the Northwest of China, whilst it’s centre of diversity is in the Pamir, Hindu Kush, and Tien Shan mountains. It is a common element of steppe and winter-rain Mediterranean vegetation but firmly holds it’s identity as a national symbol of it’s adoptive country.
Following a day of research, we were put into pairs in order to combine our materials and comment on their status and to give them a new direction. I was working with Larissa Cluzet, whose given material was chocolate – with both materials being highly culturally, financially and politically loaded, we felt that an homage to the Dutch Masters was fitting and so created our own ‘still-life drawing’.
Melted chocolate and shredded pages of financial newspaper formed into a ‘tulip vase’ holding tulip flowers that had started to wilt stood as centrepiece, highlighting the consumerist demand which had turned these natural commodities into something far greater than their actual physical worth and is still ongoing. Handing out ‘golden tickets’ to our visitors, we were drawing attention to the notion of the museum and how objects can be elevated to an entirely different level of status, regardless of the economic, social and cultural damage that may have been caused during the sourcing of the materials they have been created from.
Through looking at the source history of materials, the effects their extraction has on the natural, cultural and economic world has only highlighted for me the need to know where my materials have and are coming from and how important it is to be able to source these in an as ethical manner as I am able.
As my work is centred around site-specificality, it seems only fitting that knowing the background origins of my material along with wherever possible, being able to source it physically myself, can only add to the story and memory that I endeavour to share with the viewer.
All images ©Kate Grimes