Annie Graham, MLitt Sculpture

Winner 2021 Sustainability Degree Show Prize

For as long as there have been humans on Earth, we have used wood. Making tools, weapons, religious idols, and so on. Yet the materiality of wood is constrained by heteronormative logic that has been shaped by the colonising, patriarchal influence of the West. Through the ontological questions of both woodcarving as object and as practice, my work aims to open up the phenomenological territory. Thus creating a space where orientations can render even when “queer” may not be part of the immediate scope. Queer ecology seeks to reimagine societal understandings of labour, identity, gender, and environmental politics.

Referring to Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure, it is understood that there can be no universal human apparatus for perceiving objects as “neutral”. Further, my research posits that the same can be said for figurative sculpture. The temporal act of woodcarving becomes an analogy for how ‘matter’ is not simply given but is formed or materialised through time. Carving is characterised by a subtractive and destructive process. The inherent capitalism and power of anthropocentrism is also established through processes of removal; the appropriation of land, the removal of civil rights and of identity.

Before I have even begun carving, the tree itself from which the sculptures are made is an effect of labour – transplanted by commerce, felled, and processed into timber. Applications of Queer Theory allow the labour in the background to slip into the foreground where we can witness capitalism fragmenting. Like branches sawn off from a tree, the conditions of an artworks arrival are often detached and discarded from view through the dissimulating power of commodity fetishism. Marxist undertones in Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology raise questions of the conditions of liveability for those people in the background of the wood industry. The importation of exotic woods is predominantly unsustainable and unethically sourced. Violating the rights of indigenous people, deforestation is harmful to the planet and is historically engrained with the slave trade.

The valuing of ‘nobler materials’ such as marble or exotic woods is rooted in colonial ideology. Reflecting on the marble carvings from antiquity, eurocentrism has privileged the patriarchal paradigm for white male sculptors. As an extension of the research, I began the Queering the Workshop archive to dislodge this hegemony of heteronormative representation. This development allowed me to develop a more socially engaged practice, showcasing contemporary creatives and establishing an online community during this period of isolation. The newly formed collective aims to connect those who are exploring their own personal enquiry in woodwork; and then share that enquiry to advocate for intersectionality and the multitude of queer methodologies. It is my hope that by viewing oneself as the “work in progress”, one might develop critical awareness of the ethical issues of the wood industry. Like links in a chain which power the chainsaw, collaborative research through Queering the Workshop project can mobilise socio-relevant sensibilities.

Queering haptics can operate to undermine gendered assumptions about the practice of woodcarving. Referring to Halberstam, the chainsaw is not an inherently gendered object in itself. However, societal expectations of gender norms perpetuate a ‘preferred’ heterosexual reading which equate ‘strength’ or ‘capability’ in operating the chainsaw with heterosexual men. Therefore, queerness manifests through my operation of the chainsaw in order to destabilise this ‘preferred’ heterosexual reading. The speed and force of the chainsaw demands attention in the here and now with the essence of a manifesto, charging the wood with emotional force that the solid form can endure. By embracing the temporal or fragmented aspects of the body, my figurative works resist binarised categorisation with no clear gender or defined level of completion.

My approach to woodcarving refuses to assimilate with just one ‘authentic’ method of woodcarving. My use of the chainsaw and the mixing of mediums through casted concrete elements is a queering of the ‘authenticity’ of the mallet and chisel which was so valued by the Western woodcarving purists. The processes of woodcarving are similar to the rules and structures of a game. Strategies are employed to navigate the inherent limitations of the material and there are consequences should one deviate from the path. My playful approach to carving is inspired by Sister Corita Kent’s method of ‘plork’ which advocates for an amalgamation of the methods in-between the poles of the work/play binary. It is this playful engagement and orientation towards tools that led me to create the second artwork which is using a band saw as a hula hoop. “Playing” brings the body back into the forefront by concentrating on the haptic experience of woodcarving.

Recycling debris and undesirable wood is not just a means of sustainability but a means of decolonising the field of woodcarving. My decision to carve only discarded material is significant when one considers the connotations of filth or uncleanliness. Heteronormative society has historically linked queer orientations or bodies with ‘abjection’. According to literary critic Julia Kristeva, the abject (or “Other”) body is characterised by the impure, fragmented body which threatens patriarchal notions of propriety. The abject stands in opposition of heteronormative ideals which value one body over another. The colonial ideal of the unmarked body is adhered to a falsehood and is therefore a failure. To dismantle the hierarchy of form over matter I leave visible tool marks and textured surfaces as evidence to the objects construction. The matter of wood and the matter of the body are both dynamic fields of relations.

Both classical marble sculptures and modern monuments have always been used to enforce political structural violence and societal expectation of bodies. The conditioning of bodies through heteronormative ideals leads to racism, ableism, transphobia, and so on. But these monuments are in constant need of maintenance and restoration over time. Without the intervention of unseen labourers in the background the sculptures would surely collapse. Showing that nothing is eternal not even marble, metal, or the powers of capitalism. My carvings are raw and unvarnished. Eventually the wood will crack, the metal will corrode and the concrete will crumble to reflect this idea of temporality.

The chainsaw is a dangerous tool with the potential to function both as a means of destruction and creation. By using it for constructive rather than destructive ends my work aims to stimulate a more mindful use of the seemingly static and inanimate material by contemporary artists. The conservationists, labourers, slaves, and marginalised people behind the woodcarving industry come to the forefront where we can observe how materiality is the dissimulated effect of power.

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