German artist Wolfgang Laib lives in a remote village in the Black Forest. Each spring and summer he wanders the fields and forests near his home, patiently collecting pollen from dandelions, hazelnut trees, and other local flora. He uses the deep orange and yellow grains, stored in glass jars, to create powerfully simple, elegant artworks.
The Five Mountains Not to Climb On is a row of five small piles of hazelnut pollen sitting on the floor. Pollen from Dandelion is an enormous glowing square of, well, dandelion pollen. Laib’s works are about as low-tech and DIY as possible; he hand-gathers ubiquitous, but seldom seen (if often sensed!), materials in enormous quantities, and then presents them in unexpected contexts.
British artist Andy Goldsworthy works with similarly simple, unprocessed materials, although his creations are even more labor intensive. He often creates temporary, site-specific works from color-sorted leaves, stacked and ordered rocks, masses of twigs, and so on. While Laib collects materials and transports them to new contexts, Goldsworthy typically reorganizes them in place. (The documentary Rivers and Tides is a great introduction to his work.)
The force of these works derives largely from the friction between their simplicity and their striking physical presence. Laib’s pollen is luminous; it smells good, and even in very small quantities it seems like a mysterious, precious substance.
Goldsworthy’s materials often seem highly unlikely, out of place, yet clearly they’re literally of the place. There’s something subtly disconcerting, but thrilling, about seeing a rock completely covered with a smooth gradient of color-sorted leaves, like a physical Photoshop filter created and applied entirely by hand.
Aside from their physical strangeness, there’s another aspect of these works that makes them even more compelling to me: Laib and Goldsworthy seem to have reached a kind of DIY nirvana. They use nothing purchased, nothing manufactured, nothing shipped from halfway around the globe.
They literally walk into an environment, collect their materials, and get to work. Both have various conceptual and aesthetic reasons for working as they do (Laib is broadly concerned with spiritual/ritualistic questions, Goldsworthy with environmental issues), but in practical terms they’ve spent their lives taking the DIY ethos to its limits.
There is something about the DIY spirit that often leads to a wonderful kind of infinite descent into extremism. There’s always a way to take things a bit further, to cut out another middleman, to make things just that much more difficult for yourself, but also that much more fun. Some people spend months hand-collecting pollen, others make their own metals by smelting ores in a homemade furnace, or spin their own yarn from tumbleweeds and dog fur.
Doing things entirely yourself isn’t a negation of technology, or some sort of Luddite accusation; it’s more of a thought experiment made real. It can help clarify what, exactly, the technologies we’re using are good for (and many of them are, of course, very good), or when they’re simply wasting resources and adding unnecessary complexity or cost.
Now, to someone trying to build, say, a self-replicating 3D printer, collecting grains of pollen or stacking some twigs and then calling it a day might not seem like such a glorious DIY achievement. (And I bet Laib doesn’t even fire his own glass jars, the lazy sod!) But don’t underestimate the difficulty you can face, nor the satisfaction you can feel, when working at an extremely base level with manual techniques and simple materials.
MAKE mycology maestro Philip Ross has recently been teaching art classes that focus on super-basic skills like making stone tools, fire starting, salt harvesting, and so on. These aren’t exactly typical topics for an art class, and while most of his students probably won’t end up using the skills directly in their creations, the experience of learning how to do such things, and the realization that they are often exceedingly difficult, will certainly help them approach their work in new ways.
Artist/inventor Natalie Jeremijenko’s students are following a similar thread, but in reverse. On howstuffismade.org, students attempt to trace the component parts of a manufactured product back to their raw material origins. For some products, the path is simple: wine giants Ernest and Julio Gallo make their own bottles directly from silica, limestone, and soda ash. Other paths are much more complex, and even nearly untraceable.
Check out Michael Pollan’s recent book The Omnivore’s Dilemma for a food-oriented take on the surprisingly complex and morally ambiguous task of tracking the sources of four different meals (fast food, Whole Foods, boutique organic, modern hunter-gatherer).
Yet even the most complex technologies are ultimately reducible to their component sources. We don’t (yet) have alien technologies that just fell off the back of the spaceship; in fact, NASA has some great videos of spacecraft parts being laboriously hand-machined. Singularity-induced, hyper-nano-cyber manufacturing has not yet made human ingenuity redundant, although hyper-global-miniaturized-CAD-driven manufacturing has certainly made reverse engineering a lot more difficult than it used to be.
It’s clear that we can’t all be full-time hunter-gatherers, or home-smelters, or dog fur spinners. And there are good environmental and social arguments for not doing some things yourself. (Please don’t start a backyard mercury mine!) There’s no going back to a mythical pure state where we’re all self-sufficient, environmentally pure master makers. But we can search out interesting points on the paths between high-tech and no-tech, mass-produced and handmade.
There’s always another way to do things, and there’s great joy (and sometimes, great virtue) to be had in exploring complex ideas via simple means. It’d be pretty boring if all art were made from pollen and twigs, but that doesn’t mean that “simple is good” and “less is more” aren’t still powerful ideas. So, a challenge, a thought experiment, waiting to be made real: how low can you go?