Materials, relationships, time dedicated to care

Laura Põld

Published 14.06.2024

Laura Põld is an artist who lives and works in Tallinn and Vienna. She studies places and territories with a subjective approach as well as observes the relationship between different materials and forces. Her installations emerge through site-specific collaborations involving text, textiles and thread, soil, ceramics and clay, foodstuffs and plants (or anything else). She studied ceramics at the Estonian Academy of Arts, painting at the University of Tartu, and plastic concepts and ceramics at the University of Art and Design Linz. Since 2010, Põld has worked as a freelance artist, participating in numerous exhibitions and residencies around the world. Currently, Põld works as a visiting lecturer in the department of installation and sculpture at the Estonian Academy of Arts.

(At home)
Eggshells are scattered on a grey tablecloth. These have recently been soaked, washed, and boiled, then drained and dried on a towel. Then gathered, placed in a box, and tomorrow these will become ingredients in a bioplastic recipe. The eggshells collected since past summer filled up just a small box the size of two palms when crushed. Tomorrow, after being finely crushed, there will be even less.

I accept the opportunity to contemplate what the concepts of ‘care’ and the ‘ethics of care’ mean in creative practice. As I seldom practise writing, I tend to procrastinate over this laborious task which, on the other hand, is now facilitated by the state of being forced to sit at home with a broken leg. While I am being taken care of, I myself care for my dog, my plants and the birds I have been feeding outside my window for quite a few weeks, while my body rests and focuses on healing my bones. 

What do artists know about care? On one hand, the process-based and largely intuitive studio practice is clearly associated with care(work). Preparing or processing familiar materials like clay or yarn for work requires time and peace of mind, involving a touch that also tunes the body and mind for the next stages in the work. This piece of writing includes short passages describing such work of tuning and preparation. Taking care of this phase creates a strong relationship between the hand, the work surface and the materials. That type of relationship between learning and acquiring, care and creating is for instance discussed in Jyrki Siukonen’s popular work “Hammer and Silence”, or in Lambros Malafouris’ book “How Things Shape the Mind. A Theory of Material Engagement”. This experience is also supported by the writings of several theorists of New Materialism that have fascinated me for quite some time. For example, in her extensive work “Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning”, Karen Barad explores the relationship between human and nonhuman factors, emphasising the activity and agency of materials as essential aspects in understanding art.

On the other hand, I must admit that the word ‘care’ also evokes a certain uneasy feeling in me when I encounter it in multiple exhibition concepts or artist positions. Can care be planned and declared in a press release when it should serve as a sensitive interaction between the caregiver and the recipient? Even if the artist wants to provide care to ‘everyone’ at the exhibition, it definitely creates some anxiety – how does the expected relationship arise when commissioned?

Even if the concept of the ethics of care is nothing new,1 the keyword ‘care’ has been in frequent use in recent years, partly because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It could even be said that a new form of care culture and etiquette is emerging, something that I perceive in my daily teaching practice at the Estonian Academy of Arts, where communication has become more sensitive and thoughtful compared to when I studied there myself. The subjects, such as climate crisis, self-care, recreation, issues of physical and mental health, domestic violence, dialogue with the community, citizen responsibility, growing and the origin of food, relational aesthetics, embodied practices and radical care – all these are to a smaller or larger extent represented in various exhibitions or public programmes in every exhibition space. Despite the fact that the list of subjects is very long, all these can be associated with the conceptual frameworks of the ethics of care and feminist ethics. In short, the ethics of care focuses on relationships where their importance lies in emotional needs, bodily vulnerability, relationships and interaction with other humans and nonhumans, as well as the context-sensitive approach towards problems at both a personal and institutional level.

(In my studio)
The tufting gun is working again, it just needed a proper touch of oil! Four strands of wool yarn simultaneously pass the gun: three light green and one light purple yarn. During the process of tufting, small pieces of yarn and pastel wool tufts fall on both sides of the stretched tufting fabric. These pieces form semi-transparent fluffy piles on the floor. I’d like to photograph these but my phone camera has low quality and thus it is better just to look at them. In a couple of days I’ll gather the piles and put these in a plastic bag.

The need for self care is biting an inexhaustible need for creative work

Even while acknowledging the priorities just listed, there are occasional admonitions within professional circles that artists and other creative freelancers should learn to avoid this endless hustle and bustle, including the excessive organisation of exhibitions. They should learn how to stop work at the right time and instead how to spend time outdoors, with loved ones, to eat properly, to go on vacation, etc. It’s a nice idea to live a better and more balanced life. On the other hand, individuals who have worked so much in a single year that just looking at them makes you feel sick are often rewarded and highlighted in creative fields. It is not shameful to recognise such digressions into extremities whenever it is necessary to say a few complimentary words about a laureate. Hence, on one hand, extremes are set as an example in cultural life, while on the other hand there are increasing discussions about dangers such as becoming addicted to work, burnout, depression, alienation from life, the inability to see anything else in life besides work and achievements. One can be professional and taken seriously in the field of art but that is not enough to earn financial security – and that is unfortunately a truth that can ruin one’s health. While also thinking of others besides creative individuals, I would add another noteworthy tendency here – the desire to be “normal” in every possible way, to be always perfectly functioning and capable. This applies to everything – being present in public spaces, as a collaboration partner and at home fulfilling daily tasks – I am talking about mental shape, am I not?

(In the street)
I am sitting on the studio steps and staring into the darkness, seeing nothing. The busy day is about to end, but there’s still a bit of energy left to spend. A few people are passing by. The entire road has been dug up; sewer pipes are being replaced. There’s sand and a dark abyss behind the fence. Interesting little stones, quite nice pipe sections, stacks of construction materials in a tightly closed yard. The stones, however, reach out to me. I collect several pocketfuls. Next day, I would glue tiny magnets to one side of the stones and use these to draw dotted lines on the wall.

Occasionally, I happen to watch some captivating films about “old-fashioned” creative individuals, mainly men, such as “The Diary of Vaino Vahing” (dir. Rainer Sarnet, 2021) or “The Gardener of Tension Fields” (dir. Joosep Matjus and Katri Rannastu, 2021) about Mehis Heinsaar. Male filmmakers seem to strictly approve of one particular attitude for which they are also appreciated – namely, having control over the relationship between time and care. Time is given and spent selectively – less for loved ones, and more for creative work and creating a space with the peace to work or maintaining a particularly sharp state. In “The Diary of Vaino Vahing”, there is this staged scene based on a short story by Vaino Vahing, where a female character, who herself desires to work with her writing, must bring home bread, milk and a chunk of meat from the grocery store. She places all these products on the kitchen table in front of the typewriter where the male writer is working. The writer unpacks the meat and angrily throws it on the floor while accusing her wife of disturbing him while working. As a viewer, however, I acutely perceive the time wasted in queues at the store and the painfully limited choice on the store shelves at that time and not the storyline of obvious creative jealousy between spouses. In this and other scenes in the film, the female characters are pretty but they are portrayed as the caretakers doing household chores and shopping. Although I can fairly confidently say that things are quite different now, what stuck with me from “The Gardener of Tension Fields” is the question asked by Mehis Heinsaar’s mother who came to his birthday – she asked how a modern vacuum cleaner works, to which the writer responded that he wouldn’t know.

The reader may not believe this but my aim was not to write about household chores. In fact, when watching these films I recognise that nothing has charged and nourished me more than undisturbed studio sessions, even if there is a lot of mess in the room. So why do I have these strict demands for myself and my surroundings? I have repeatedly diagnosed myself with various disorders because of the clutter around me. It seems to me that our culture of care also has its downside – the perfectionist falls into the trap of endless care work or keeps covering only a narrow spectrum of an issue.

(In the park)
We are walking around the old castle in the park. I am pretending as if looking at every plant and vine, yet I am thinking about the failed conversation with the gallerist and the castle owner. I am trying to find food for my thoughts, while picking up ordinary green leaves and branches without really knowing what to do with them. We also come across a bone covered with moss, and I pick it up. And then, near the stone wall of the castle we are picking the petals of withering roses. I promise to use all these things. And I will.

Chop-chop, pull yourself together, sweetheart!

While meeting a dead end with my writing on the topic of cleaning, I found a silly video documentation titled “Pull Yourself Together”2 on Youtube. The piece criticises the expectations and demands on women, mostly associated with inheritance from the matrilineal descent system. Bobby Baker, a London-based artist and activist, has expressed her thoughts on the stigmatisation and discrimination of people with various mental health disorders since the late 1990s. Drawing from her own experiences with mental health issues, she created the performative piece “Pull Yourself Together” to be exhibited in London, Haarlem and other cities. Here’s how it looked: a truck drives slowly on city streets with the following phrases written as large slogans on both sides of the vehicle  – “Pull Yourself Together!”, “Put a Smile on Your Face, Sweetheart!”, “You Can Do It!”. And Baker herself sitting in the back of the truck, screaming the same commands through a loudspeaker to the passing people: “Hey, pull yourself together now!”, “Be happy, darling!”, “Yippee! Chin Up!”, “Remember, always give your best!” and so on. Baker enjoyed this act of melodically calling out loud these insulting pieces of advice to the people in the street and those eating in outdoor cafes, since she had been hearing the same phrases again and again throughout her whole life.3

Bobby Baker’s performance relies on the artist’s strong and resilient character which, along with her shouts, is projected into the urban space. “Pull Yourself Together!” is a good example of how humour can help us understand ethical values or dilemmas while also making it easier and more convenient to approach the problem.

(In the kitchen)
The plastic bowl for collecting coffee grounds is almost full. A sour smell greets me when I enter the apartment. Waiting any longer is not an option. The damp coffee grounds need to be spread out and dried. I am mixing the grounds with clay that has already been recycled once. I am kneeling on the floor, facing a large laundry tub filled with brown liquid clay that has now acquired a coffee-like texture. Mixing this blend requires both hands. The moist scent of the
clay and the sour smell of the coffee grounds merge into something uninviting. The entire clay mass will go mouldy in a couple of days.

Creative work (plus artist’s practice as well as his/her studio, according to the perceptions I have used in the present piece) can be compared to a catalyst. As a part of a creative practice or even while experiencing it, one can constantly question and re-evaluate how and for what we care and to what we dedicate our time, both on a personal and collective level.

In my text, there’s a paragraph listing daunting and seemingly unsolvable problems that the ethics of care could relate to. However, the excerpts resembling my studio diary mostly end up describing failed experiments, time, and care. Materials that diminish to nothingness or go mouldy and lose their value entirely in the context of an artist’s studio. Yet, I don’t regret the lost time and experience. Despite the unknown outcome, there was still some significant value in that relationship, and I remember how it was.

  1. The ethics of care theory was first used by psychologist Carol Gilligan and philosopher Nel Noddings in the early 1980s.
  2. Video about Bobby Baker’s performance “Pull Yourself Together Haarlem” on Youtube:
  3. From a conversation with Bobby Baker:
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