Curiosity is what gets us out of bed in the morning and carries us through the day. Like a good story, we don’t know what’s going to happen, and we want to know what happens next.
Curiosity is the fuel of our art practice. Without curiosity there is no art practice. It is a primal, seductive drive that sucks us in. It does itself, like a good book you can’t put down. It says, “I don’t know, I want to know, I want to know more, I want to get into the studio and explore and experiment!” We are all very familiar with this force.
Unfortunately, curiosity seems to come and go. I think more to the point, we put our nose to the ground and stop following it. We end up doing things we’ve done before, falling into familiarity, some kind of shtick. If you follow curiosity sincerely, you don’t know where you’ll end up, because where you’ll end up is a discovery.
Fortunately there are many tricks for triggering curiosity, I imagine you may have a couple up your sleeve. The one that works best for me is looking closer, which is convenient, as a lot art training is about exactly that – slowing down and looking closer, slowing down and learning how to see.
Instead of a monologue on how the mechanism of looking closer triggers curiosity, I thought it would be best to do a sort of mini workshop in seeing, with the hope that it triggers curiosity (or interest or seduction, other names for curiosity) in you.
There isn’t any clay in the room, and I’m not going to stuff your brains with a lot of images. However, if you put your attention into your eyeballs, you can feel that they are 100% full of sight, 100% full of vision, with no gaps. This fullness feels like something. You close your eyes, and then open them, they don’t take any time to warm up at all. Just bang! 100% seeing. So we have plenty to look at, and plenty to work with.
When we look more specifically at things (see examples given during presentation at the 2017 NCECA Conference, two modes of knowing and perceiving become apparent: Objective functional fantasy, where things stay put, and objects have constancy. It is a realm of discreet unchanging objects that have consistent identities, a realm of nouns and concepts. The second mode is subjective actual experience, where things do not have constancy. Because it is what we actually experience, the objective mode is by default, a fantasy.
In the realm of subjective actual experience, everything morphs. Nothing stays put. Identities try to form but they never quite make it (ever feel like your identity is always under construction?). Everything is a verb. Everything about you is a verb – you’re breathing, your heart is beating, your skin is doing it’s air exchange business, you’re digesting and metabolizing, your mind is streaming, you’re rearranging your position regularly. The only thing constant about you is your name!
The objective mode is what education and conditioning and language acquisition are all about. And again, it is very functional. The subjective mode we are trained to ignore. But this is where curiosity resides, where curiosity is triggered, and where all of us, bar none, lived as children up to ages 7 to 10, according to developmental psychologist Jean Piaget.
The following are tricks for jogging curiosity, which are all variations on slowing down and keeping looking (specific guidance with each is given in the talk):
- Actually physically slow down – moving slower makes you notice more. It breaks up the superficial co
ntinuity speed creates. When you slow down, for instance, reaching for a jar of peanut butter, numerous other experiences open up besides just the overall “reaching for a jar of peanut butter”.
- Pretend you aren’t familiar with things you are familiar with. “Familiarity” turns out to be a fantasy, a process of ignoring or taking things for granted. How you’re sitting and holding your body is familiar, pretend it isn’t. How you’re feeling is probably very familiar, pretend it isn’t. Almost immediately you realize it is different than how you think it is. Boom! Curiosity hits. It’s like a fish becoming aware of water.
- Go to www.headless.org and click on the experiments (one is presented in the talk).
- There is foreground and background (figure ground) in representational two-dimensional art. In three-dimensional art, the sculpture is often all foreground, referring just to itself as an object (image 1, Ken Price sculpture). With the arising of site specific work in the 1960’s-70’s, artists started making objects that refer and belong to an actual background – where the object exposes something about the background, and the background exposes something about the object. This has been the strategy of much of my artwork (image 2, prepared floor crack, and 3, Migration Grid #26). In “Prepared Floor Crack, 1999”, the floor, which is normally background, becomes foreground. In “Migration Grid #26, 2006”, research found that Monarch butterflies migrate following invisible sky grids of UV light. This body of work imagines us being able to see these ephemeral forms, making something foreground that is so subtle of a background, we can’t even see it. This particular grid is site specific in that it is installed in the atrium of the School of Evolutionary Biology at UC Irvine, where the research was conducted.
We have foreground and background in our lives. My problems, where I am in the herd, cute girl/guy, are examples of usual foreground suspects. What happens when we pay attention to the “boring” background? Our breath, the quality of light in the room, the space behind you, the ringing in your ears? You can make the background foreground by asking, “What else is going on?” We realize two things by spending time with the background:
a. The background is not boring.
b. The importance of things (what’s considered foreground) recalibrates by itself. The itch in my foot and the sound in the hallway are both equally in the field of my experience, and instead of being a little separate discreet object in a big world, there is continuity. The background becomes a player, our world becomes larger.
- Notice you really have no idea what’s going to happen next. The uncertainty is astounding! Portland might have that overdue earthquake, you might get an idea that will set your artwork on fire for the next 10 years, you might get gas pains. We don’t even know what we’ll think next or where our attention will go! It all morphs, and it is all making itself up as it goes! Viscerally getting that you don’t know what will happen next is by definition endless curiosity, endless not knowing. And what does happen next is by definition ongoing discovering, ongoing revelation! Low grade most of the time albeit, but still discovery.
Another name for this lived sense of ongoing curiosity and discovery is a sense of wonder. Which is what this article is really about. I don’t start there, because we have nostalgic and perhaps clichéd ideas about what that is. It is more immediate and less tame than that.
*This article and talk is a brief composite of workshops, lectures, and book on art and perception that I put together during my sabbatical in 2015.
Stanton Hunter is a mid-career artist. Articles by and about him, and images of his work appear in numerous publications. He is an art professor (ceramics) at Chaffey College in California, and received his MFA from USC in 2000, where he was a T.A. for Ken Price. Find more information at http://artaxis.org/stanton-hunter/
- 1. Inez, 2010, fired and painted clay, 6.5” x 7.5” x 7.5”. Ken Price.
- 2. Prepared Floor Crack, 1999, gold leaf, cleaned floor crack, dimensions variable. The author.
- 3. Migration Grid #26, 2006, 120” wide, porcelaneous stoneware, cables. The author.