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Shaving horses and other stories of the home
text written by professor Hilde Heynen (KU Leuven)
“The shaving horse (…) is a tool used in carpentry and timber framing to carve wooden elements which are difficult to fasten/clamp otherwise. It is a form of seat (used like a saddle) where one presses down the pedals connected to a mechanism which then holds the piece of wood. In such a position, the worker shaves the stick with a draw knife – a specialised blade with two handles (for a firm grip).”
This is how Olga Micińska introduced me to the object that gave its name to this exhibition. The horse was, at that moment, still an idea on paper, but has since materialised into the centrepiece of this room. It has become this adorable animal-con-seating-machine that brings to mind various images: a child’s joy in climbing a rocking horse, an adult’s memory of riding through the woods, skilled gestures producing smooth shapes of wood, teenagers hanging out on lazy afternoons (refusing to sit straight or to position their legs symmetrically), a sewing machine operated by a pedal, a person engaging with things in order to make a world.
‘Making worlds’ is what we do. Our human endeavours are meant to transform natural resources into usable objects that enhance our comfort and give meaning to our lives. Most of these endeavours are put under control of what we call the ‘economy ’, meaning that they are regulated by the rules of capitalism and the market. Under these rules, ‘time is money’ and all other things likewise have a price. Although we know very well that some things are priceless, we generally do not succeed in changing these rules and therefore find ourselves obeying them in order to make our daily lives possible (we need an income, don’t we?).
There are nevertheless a few areas that escape the ruthless dominance of the money economy. Traditionally, housewives have been operating outside of this economy – they perform a ‘labor of love’, a notion that Adam Smith did not recognise as producing anything of economic significance (he infamously mentioned farmers, butchers and brewers as economic agents instrumental in getting him his dinner, but forgot to take into account the work of his mother, who cooked it). Also, artists largely operate outside of the market – they supposedly do not produce works of art in order to sell them for a living, but are driven by creative energies that are not an answer to any identifiable ‘demand’. If their works do sell, it is assumed to be a side-effect of what they do, rather than its main objective. There is a third area that has a weird relationship to the economy: craft. As Richard Sennett reminds us, it takes on average 10.000 hours of devoted training before someone really masters a craft – be it woodworking, playing the violin or sewing haute couture. Hence a lot of woodworking, violin playing and sewing is done without somebody paying for it.
This exhibition brings together these three areas of caring, thinking and making that do not strictly obey the rules of capitalism - domesticity, art and craft. Olga Micińska relies on her experiences as a homemaker and a craftswoman to ‘perform’ her art. She explores the secret interconnections between these areas, using her woodworking skills to produce a unique shaving horse that is unlike any other, and surrounding it with objects of craft and domesticity that turn a gallery space into something homely (Heimlich) yet uncanny (Unheimlich). The objects perform some aspects of domesticity – drawing the curtains, making a bed, stabilising a shaky cabinet – yet their constellation is not really inviting inhabitation. They are proof of high levels of woodworking and sewing skills, yet the resulting artefacts lack functionality. Someone seems to be caring for something in this room, but it remains unclear why and how and to what end. The installation is thus urging us to explore the gaps between the economy on the one hand and making, thinking and caring on the other.