TOOLS AND POWER
2004, by Jón Proppe
TOOLS Exhibition Catalogue
The carefully shaped and polished handle fits perfectly to the hand. The tool has a business-like look to it. The metal hook protruding from the handle is curved for better leverage when the handle is turned. Guðjón Ketilsson’s tools are meticulously designed and crafted, their forms speak of centuries of tradition and industry, each contour taking its shape from the countless craftsmen who have hefted tools like it as they themselves shaped our world, farmed our countryside and built our cathedrals.
Why are these objects so familiar and filled with purpose? Indeed, we wonder at their purpose: How do we wield this and what does it do? Each tool opens up a world of possibilities and a long history where we see working methods and crafts develop from generation to generation. Each tool belongs to a particular craft and takes its form from the world it is meant to modify, carve into shape, shovel away or grind into dust. For each situation a tool has come into being to make our work easier and help us make our imprint on the world.
But the use of Guðjón’s tools is unclear. As carefully as they are crafted we cannot read their purpose or learn how to use them. This raises questions about them, about their role as works of art and about the nature of tools in general.
Tools are not like other objects. They are closer to us than other objects are, closer even than nature. Some tools have become almost a part of oneself. Think of shoes or glasses for those who need them, the hammer for the carpenter, the oar to the oarsman, the pen to the poet and the computer to a rapidly growing number of people.
This means that we see through these tools and use them as though they were part of ourselves. The blind man’s cane is not so much an addition or an appendage as it is a sensory organ. The tip of the cane is like a fingertip and its tapping on floors and pavements fills the blind man’s day. When we become used to a tool, a cane, a hat or a pair of glasses, they come to share in our consciousness and we in turn inhabit them in some sense. The attest to our ability to expand our being into the world, as Merleau-Ponty said. As long as all is well we hardly notice the tools we use; we don’t have to keep our mind on our shoes as we walk. But when the cane or the glasses break they turn back into ordinary things. The magic evaporates and the tools are no longer of use to us. They have betrayed us.
The shape and material of a tool is determined by its use but the history of their becoming is largely hidden precisely because they stand so close to us. They have developed alongside mankind through daily work and everyday association. It is nowhere recorded that a farmer on some hill on some day long past made himself a new hammer, yet that hammer may have been a minor milestone in the development of a most useful tool. This hidden history forms as sort of subconscious to our stories of nations and kings. On every day since long before history began legions of men around the world have been making tools and the rest of mankind has been busy using the tools the others had made.
When we grasp a tool it calls on us to use it. The possible uses of a tool are moulded in its shape and assembly and when we have learned to use it we have gained in power, we can do something that we could not do before. When we grasp a knife we long to test it on a stick of wood, when we hold a hammer we feel like hitting something and when a man takes up a gun it may only be a matter of time before he shoots someone. There are many stories where tools take control of those who use them, swords that could not be unsheathed unless they were to draw blood and daggers that called for murder such as the one that Macbeth saw: “The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.” The tool itself teaches us its use. It is itself a recipe by which we may alter the world in some way and increase our power.
The tool itself, as a crafted object, is thus a picture of our relations with our world. It shows how we grapple with things and to what purpose we work. When an archaeologist unearths old tools they tell him what sort of people used them.
The tools are not only models for their own use but also for each other as the Chinese philosopher Lu Chi reminded us of in the fourth century: “When use make and axe by shaping wood with an axe the model is always close to hand.” We need tools to make other tools and each tool is the model on which the next is crafted. In this fashion the tools develop slowly and gradually become more distinct and more detailed just as mankind divides into nations and families. One hammer springs from another but in the fullness of time each useful hammer will find its use.
As the tools gradually take on their shape, so they are gradually filled with an aura of symbolism which is rooted as much in their usefulness to man as in their obscure prehistoric origin. Tools give great powers to those who make them and use them. In Masonic lore the hammer is a symbol of power though the symbols of the brotherhood are the compass and square, tools that are not used for modifying anything but serve to plan and control the modifying and making of complex things. The tools are not only pictures of our manual engagement with the world. They are also important focal points in our symbolic universe.
Art finds its place wherever man and his world come into contact and its power lies in isolating and exhibiting the forms that our contact can take. The work of art is unique among objects in that it is neither a dead thing nor and conscious being, not useful yet not without use. It sits at the intersection of all those attributes. A painting may show a landscape but on closer look we see that the subject is rather the relationship of shadow and light and the logic of forms and shapes. Instead of granting us immediate access to our world the artwork mediates it and raises questions about it, about ourselves and about the ideas by which we live.
Artworks are always challenging. It’s not the artist’s fault. The work challenges us to look at and possibly reconsider our world. This is why artworks can be very disturbing and can even make us angry. But it is also why every work of art can become a kind of tool we can use to analyse and understand things better. It is a picture of the world, even when it’s an abstract, a new perspective on the situation.
Guðjón Ketilsson’s engagement in the history of tools certainly opens up new perspectives for us. They are a fiction; these tools really do not exist. Are they then – if they are not tools – pictures of tools? How can you make a picture of something that doesn’t exist and can have no purpose?
Guðjón Ketilsson’s answers to this question are hung in the exhibition. Unlike the philosopher, the artist can simply create things without first arguing their existence and can even largely ignore the logical context of things. By divesting the tools of their usefulness, Guðjón raises more questions than we can easily answer and that is proof that he has something to tell us.
Through the artist’s work a new context is created based on his analysis of the subject. Every tool in the exhibition is an exploration of some aspect of Guðjón’s research and we can take as their primary focus the relationship of form and function, of shape and use. This relationship rules in the world of tools and Guðjón takes its various forms as his subject in one work after another. He shows us how fragile this relationship is and how easily it breaks down and leaves us holding a useless object instead of the handy tool we thought we were grasping.
The works in this series are a formal taxonomy of tools, setting the outer limits of any such study. As such, the series is a formal study and has it’s various echoes in the history of art, from Albers’ lifelong investigation of the colour context of squares to Bernd and Hilla Becher’s documentation of industrial structures in Germany. Such research is essential to art, both in a historical context and in work of every artist. What may come as a surprise is that Guðjón’s research has an ethical side to it.
The formalism of tools deals not only with the objects of our senses or with symbols. Its subject is the practical aspect of our existence, the context of our actions. This is perilous ground.
Tools increase our power and allow us to bend the world to our purpose but at the same time tools direct our actions. The tool itself teaches us to use it and to use it correctly but at the same time it is useless for anything else. In this way the tools that we have handy determine what sort of problems we can solve and they also direct our decisions as to which problems we will attempt to solve. “When the only tool you own is a hammer, every problem begins to resemble a nail,” wrote Abraham Maslow and he may have hit the nail on the head. The tools we gather around us become the filters through which we see and understand our world. As the tools are mostly made by others and we ourselves have only a limited understanding of how they work, they bring an element of otherness into our existence. Together they form a field of power that Jean-Paul Sartre called the practico-inert and that limit our freedom to act. The conclusion is almost paradoxical: The more and better tools we have, the more we can do and get done, but at the same time this scope of our freedom to act becomes more and more limited.
“Men have become the tools of their tools,” David Henry Thoreau cried out in the woods at Walden a century and a half ago and this is probably all the more true now. Guðjón Ketilsson’s exhibition is thus a reminder that our relationship with tools is both fragile and perilous. It is not certain that the tool will serve our purpose and not its own and though a tool may be at hand it is not always right to use it as is shown by the case of the gun. We had probably better regard our tools with a degree of suspicion.
TOOLS, 2004. DETAILS, SELECTED WORKS FROM THE EXHIBITION. WOOD & FOUND OBJECTS. VARIOUS DIMENSIONS