The Making and Unmaking of the World • A conversation with Carmen Winant

Nov 10, 2021 / by Rica Cerbarano / Vogue

The new exhibition by Carmen Winant explores the dynamics and politics of craft work. On display at PATRON Gallery, Chicago, until November 27, 2021.

Today I was reading about Marie Curie, 2021; Steel, paint, jewelry wire, found images, gold chain; 57” x 32” in | 144.78 x 81.28 cm



The creative practice of American artist Carmen Winant treats the photographic image as a raw material, an object to be analyzed, surgically broken down and explored in its linguistic structure. Well-known for her massive workMy Birth, exhibited at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, in 2018 as part of the showBeing: New Photography 2018, Winant literally plunges her hands into the images she finds on books: she cuts them out, breaks them down, and puts them together looking for meeting points, dialogues, and conversations that take the form of contemporary mosaics. In her mind, the images become an ingredient to be physically kneaded, something within which to seek answers to questions of a social and ideological nature. Her photographic work employs strategies of collage and installation to embrace forms of making associated with craft: a category of creating that has been historically relegated to a status below art with a capital “A.” This interest takes a concrete form in her first solo exhibitionThe Making and Unmaking of the Worldat thePATRON Galleryin Chicago. On display are nine mobiles and eight large framed collages that incorporate photographs cut out from 1970s instructional books on the subjects of craft (e.g., pottery, mask-making, weaving, puppetry, and basketry).

For the first time, Winant conceived an installation where the images detach from the wall and occupy the exhibition space in all of its three-dimensionality. In this case, the instructional images that Winant collected from various manuals on craft are mounted to steel plates with archival adhesive, suspended from the ceiling and reanimated into a visual interplay. These graceful compositions are inevitably reminiscent of Alexander Calder’s abstract art, or Wassily Kandinskij’s colorful forms. But more subtly, they stage a reworking of the domestic, family space — that place where Winant’s creativity is intertwined with the everyday life of being a mother and an artist. The playfulness of the mobiles clearly collides with the images that they cradle in addition to the two other visual installations that occupy the walls of the gallery. In fact, during her research Winant found that there was a predominant white male presence of hands among the images published in the instructional books, despite the visuals explaining the traditional crafts were from the cultures of people of color or craft occupations normally associated with women. Winant, whose practice situates itself within a lineage of feminist art production, has been interested in exploring the hierarchies of making with the aim to answer the question “who exactly makes the world.” The works exhibited emphasize the idea of photography as an object located in reality – something that exists and has an effect on us. By highlighting the visual and thematic patterns that recur in the photographic narrative that is part of our daily experience, Winant unmasks the unspoken burden that photography carries on its shoulders: the responsibility in strengthening a paternalistic and white-centered vision of our Western society. Faced with the age-old question of the relationship between photography and truth, Carmen Winant’s work highlights how photography does not bear witness to reality, but rather creates it.

Read my conversation with Carmen Winant about the ongoing exhibitionThe Making and Unmaking of the World.


How did you develop your interest in the subject of craft work?
For a very long time I have been interested in feminist life, practice, and history. For decades, feminist art historians and cultural critics have been invested in craft, talking about the manner in which it is deemed less valuable, less worthy, less interesting, and less serious. In that sense, this is not a new idea: the people who engage in craft work are largely women, Indigenous people, people of color, and children. In other words, classes of human beings who are taken less seriously by patriarchal metrics. That was my way of thinking about the potential of craft; I come to it from a feminist perspective.
Furthermore, I’ve always considered myself to be a craft artist, someone who is endlessly cutting and pasting in the studio. At least in the States, we consider this to be a “low” art form. I am interested in the way in which my own practice is allied with a history of people who were making creative artwork within a ‘less serious realm’.

While doing the research for this project you mostly found hands of men, or the subject was very often man-based. How is this connected with your research and your practice as a feminist artist?
One of the things I love so much about craft art is that the conventional hierarchies of the classroom are so often broken down. Crafts are handed over intergenerationally, sometimes across years. I think of all the crafts I did with my own mother as a child, for instance. Those relationships are less stratified, you know? And much more tender than what I experienced as an artist student in school.
It took me about a year to collect all of the material for this exhibition, including all the material that I didn’t use. I was collecting books of craft art, some trade magazines, but mostly books — some books for children, books for adults, a lot of how-to instructional books. I thought, however naively, that I would find a lot of books on the classes of people I mentioned earlier: women, people of colour, Indigenous people, and children. That material was there, but as it turns out, so were images of white men, sometimes teaching Navajo pottery techniques and so forth.
I work in this particular way where I don’t always know what I’ll find. That is the joy and struggle as I move through the research; it is like a discovery process. This is not the first time I have been surprised by what I found and pivoted the project in response. But it never gets easier – it can be really hard to let go of what I “think” the project is about, to loosen my grip. I initially pushed these images to the side; they were not convenient. Finally, the pile just became so big that I felt it was dishonest to not center on that material.
I’ve been working inside of feminist image collecting and practice for a long time, and I have reluctance to center whiteness as a critique of the way in which whiteness has centered itself. I was worried about re-inscribing those values. It’s always been a negotiation for me: how do I critique this racism, this default whiteness, without doing or reinforcing it? This was the first time that I took a leap, understanding that to critique these intensely white, paternalistic values I had to make them visible; to demonstrate the ways in which white, male supremacy takes up so much space and assumes so much authority in the first place. This is not the entire show, but it’s an important component.
I finally might add that looking so closely at craft helped me to understand the way in which different forms are gendered in different directions. Ceramics, for instance, is masculinized whereas soft, fibre arts like quilting and papier-mâché are still entirely feminized. Or, as I like to think about it, not-yet-claimed-by-men. It has everything to do with what we can do at home, I think, and what is associated with children.

FromMy Birthto this exhibition, even in different ways, human creation seems to be a recurring topic in your work. I’m curious to know where this interest comes from.
No one has ever asked me that before. I love that question. There are a couple of ways to answer it. I would say first of all,My Birthwas a really useful project for me in the way it helped me to crystallize my own interests in social networks and how we build families of all kinds – biological or non-biological. Does that make sense? Another way I could say it is, through the process of makingMy Birth, I thought quite a lot about how we build intense, ongoing, and often intergenerational, kin networks. In addition to being about how we become connected and disconnected from other human beings, as you pointed out, that project was also labor, both productive and reproductive labor. So many of those ideas spilled out in subsequent projects.
A project like this one is ostensibly really different fromMy Birth; it looks different, it takes on a different subject matter. But in my mind, and this is where I really appreciate the question, it has lots of connections. Looking closely at craft arts is another way of asking the questions, “What is labor?”, “How do women, in particular, build out intergenerational points of connection through making?” and “How do we picture-making, and how is that making valued differently?” In this country we’re having this enormous fight now about whether childcare is a right, whether paid, postnatal family leave is a right, and whether we should, god forbid, have more than six, unpaid weeks after giving birth before women go back to work. The insinuation here is that “work” – the work that is ascribed literal value – is not what we do at home. I find it so painful and degrading, what we insist on in this culture as being invisible and worthless. All of my work – this exhibition included – is about making women’s labor visible and serious.

How do you work in terms of displaying your works? How do you conceive the installation?
It’s an evolving process. In my former life I was a “proper” photographer and for a long time I made photographs of other people’s photographs. Slowly, I took my own camera out of the equation and released myself from this sort of masculine idea that I had to be the author, and that I had to make some original thing. Ultimately I started making smaller collages; I would put up all my material with blue tape on the wall and see it all at one time. It was a functional solution as it is much easier for me to see everything at once. I really had a revelatory moment one day, around 2015, where I looked up at the walls and I thought “Oh shit,” and what was happening in the studios seemed like it was vibrating or on a different frequency than what I was making and presenting as “finished work.” I remember that day asking myself “How can I retain this? Why do I need to package this; to make it slicker in order to move into the gallery or museum?” From that day, things changed for me. I was committed, though I thought it would be the end of me showing my art again. And yet it’s always the most vulnerable things that are most privately courageous that resonate with people; I wish I’d learned that earlier. From there, I started making installations that behaved the way my studio behaved. I didn’t make them feel more palatable for the white cube, so to speak. I took to filling the space that I was offered, and kind of circumnavigating compositional or design decisions that way. That was the strategy at MoMA, for instance. It was like, here are these two facing walls, and that’s what I have. There was no predetermined scale plan for the found photographs to be shown in a certain sequence. I showed up with a box of images and, with the help of several preparators, filled up those walls in four days. It’s not the most convenient way to install, but it is a way of working that suits me.
It’s hard to say why we have the affinities that we do, you know? I’ve always felt that this was my way of living with and relating to images. My teenage bedroom was layered with so many found images that it was like an archaeological site. When my parents moved out of that house, my mom cut into the wall with a blade and peeled off the layers. I had this proper art education and it took me a long time to find the confidence to circle all the way back around to my curiosity and intelligence as a teenager. Which I think has something to do with this craft show too: taking seriously what we do in our homes, as kids, is far away from art markets.

And what about this exhibition? For the first time the pictures “have left the wall,” aren’t they? Why?
I’ve been scheming about making mobiles for years. I tend to think of photographs as objects – things that exist in space, with dimension. Because I work entirely with found photos, I think it is important to note that they’ve often had many lives in circulation before they come to me; books arrive with notes in the margins, sometimes part of a photograph will be scratched out, ripped through, or aged. That is really exciting to me and I’m always thinking about how else I can animate that charge. How I can continue to breathe life into them without my intervention ever feeling like a gimmick or a trick.
When my first son was born in 2016, the first thing I made for him was a mobile to hang above his bassinet. He was transfixed by it for months. I followed directions from a book to make that object and used that same book for material in this exhibition. In this sense, collapsing the space between art and life is not a conceptual project for me but rather a really practical one. My studio is at home, my kids are in and out, I’m interested in what they’re interested in, we make things together, and talk about what’s on the walls. It’s not hard or a big leap for me to import that thinking into the studio. In fact, it is a kind of necessity, or a way to manage and make sense of it all.
That said, it was a process to build these mobiles, and it was sort of intimidating. I’m not an object maker in a conventional sense and I have no engineering skills. I knew that I wanted them to spin, to hold photographs on both sides, and to feel transfixing for an audience the way they had for my infant child. I used instructional books to learn how to design and construct the mobiles. Many of those books also were eventually cut up to go into the mobile. The design comes from the book, and then the book also ends up in the design.

Looking at your practice, for me it’s quite natural to think about the work of Aby Warburg, but I was wondering what the visual artists or researchers that inspired you the most were.
There are so many, as you might imagine. When I was student I was particularly interested in radical feminist performance art in the 1970s and largely into the 1980s and beyond, such as Adrian Piper, and Carolee Schneemann and Valie Export (I was obsessed with Valie Export and I still am). Looking back, I think I was really moved by how brave feminist art can be, how bold and how radical. I think I was also formally interested in how photography functioned for those women; the way in which it so often became a vehicle to express an idea or capture a performance, rather than its own end or about its own seductiveness.
To tell you the truth, now I don’t look at as much photography or artwork as I once did. There are some contemporary artists that I love a lot, people like Laia Abril or Sara Cwynar, but to tell you the truth I don’t look at a lot of art. I read more. Sometimes looking at contemporary art yields making contemporary art, you know what I mean? I think that, at least speaking for myself, it can be a kind of detriment. I want to make art that looks nothing like art as we know it.