Dwelling with Mystery

Mystery, mind and art

I am occasionally asked if I “listen” to the material while sculpting it. The question isn’t actually particularly extraordinary – especially because I mainly sculpt wood – since sculptors every now and then describe their working process to be some kind of a dialogue with the material: the material guides the sculptor throughout the process. This kind of slightly romantic assumption about the spirit of my working might feel even more accurate due to philosophically attaching to both phenomenology and the EcoJustice framework that emphasizes holism and the equity of all life. I usually answer to the question slightly hesitatingly yes – partly because that is obviously anticipated.

Some badass tools

Some badass tools

However, the more I have pondered this question, the clearer it has become to me that I really don’t listen to the wood. Most times I’m using different kinds of really badass machinery, axes and torches to shape the wood. One can hardly call that a dialogue. Of course the material brings along some limitations that I have to respect, but many times I am working on those limits, trying to stretch them. Consequently, gluing broken parts together is quite a familiar part of working for me. Either way, I am not having any mystical conversations with the wood.

axesInstead, my working is guided by something else outside of me, an idea that I am trying to follow. This is the case especially when I’m working on a non-figurative sculpture, and even more so in the occasions when I don’t have a vision of the final outcome. Let us call this guiding force ‘a form’, since there seems to be no better word for it.

So, sculpting a piece is dialogue with a mystery, but it isn’t guided by the material but a form.  mystery is present because when I’m sculpting I don’t know, where that form comes from or where is it heading to. I am following the progress of the sculpture through details, working on it part by part, fitting the current part only to the parts very next to it, without looking for the big picture before finalizing the work. Working this way allows me to have fresh eyes to look at the final piece that is trying to tell me something about the unspeakable that has guided my sculpting.

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Even though I in no means do recognize myself as a mystic or a keeper of some great secret – it’s all just floundering in wonder – I regard artmaking as interacting with a mystery. It is not occultism and does not require any specific mystic’s talent. It takes only to let oneself to dwell with a mystery, and trying not to guide or force it to some particular direction, but just trusting that something will be born. And accepting calmly that sometimes you end up like a cat trying to catch a bird: all you get is a mouthful of feathers.

Encountering a mystery takes only volition and readiness to spend some time dwelling with it. Anyone can do it with some practice. For mind is like a muscular system: the parts one trains get stronger while the unused ones degenerate – but they still exist. And we shouldn’t forget that mind reaches way out of our physical body. Mind is the part of us that dwells in the world, that radiates into the space and through which we encounter the others. If we delimit the focus of our mind inside of us, on our own navel, seeking our own good, the outreaching sphere of the mind degenerates resulting to the increase of our selfishness. Then will we less and less encounter the world, the others (and the mystery) and more and more just ourselves.

However, it is possible to train oneself out from this kind of absolutely pitiable state of affairs. Everyone can do it their own way; there is a suitable form of dwelling by the mystery for everybody – music, dance, visual art, poetry, contemplation… What matters is the will to allow this encountering some space and time. Art, dialogue with a mystery, is natural for us, but we are grown – or actually shrunken ­– loose from it, when we are schooled to be useful ja to focus on rational productivity.

Stop. Wait. Every human being IS an artist.

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Jussi Mäkelä
Jussi Mäkelä

Jussi Mäkelä (b. 1973) is a researcher, an artist and a teacher. His master’s thesis in education (University of Tampere 2002) was about Kierkegaard’s existential philosophy. After graduating as a teacher Mäkelä started to focus more on art and art education, ending up doing an arts-based hermeneutical research as a master’s thesis in art education (Aalto University 2010). Mäkelä is interested in arts-based phenomenological research as a method of understanding the complex relationship between an individual and the surrounding world. In his PhD project Mäkelä is applying Joseph Beuys’ social sculpture to the perspectives of perception, freedom and capital through which he is scrutinizing the human-world relationship. The main questions in his research deal with the fundamental responsibility of a free creative human being. Mäkelä’s arts-based oeuvre is built on various artistic techniques including making sculptures of felt, beeswax, copper and wood, acrylic paintings and small conceptual compositions.

All stories by: Jussi Mäkelä
Jussi Mäkelä