Ben Caro on performative masculinity, activating objects, and history

Artist and art historian Kathryn Cutler-MacKenzie in conversation with artist Ben Caro.

KCM: Could you describe what you do and who you are as a maker?

BC: I am a sculptor and an art historian, and in my artistic practice I am particularly excited by organic artefacts, in particular the artefacts that exist extra to animal’s lives, that are produced by animals. I have been investigating quails eggs at the moment, and in that sense I guess you could say my practice is quite archaeological. As an artist, as a researcher, I find things that have been potentially overlooked and I think about what significance they could have today.

Found objects, including quails eggs, are often used in craft. Do you see your work as a form of craft?

I don’t necessarily see myself within a craft lineage, but I do also really appreciate the craft aspects of these artistic processes. I think there’s a lot to be gained from craft…craft as the apparatus of things around something, so the equipment being used or the spaces that something is being done in.

What sort of work have you been making with these quails eggs?

At the moment I have been building a medieval cowl…This is the first piece of wearable art that I think I have ever made. This is a new field for me. I have been thinking about clothing and wearable sculpture in relation to a Tilda Swinton performance which happened in 2012 at The Palais de Tokyo called The Impossible Wardrobe. In this exhibition she ‘wore’ items from Napoleon’s wardrobe…[sporting] displays to show items that were impossible to actually put back onto the body.

Is this what made you decide to make something wearable?

Over the past few months I have been working in dialogue with you…and we have been thinking about how objects interact with the body, particularly in the performance we are doing entitled An Archaeology of The Home. We have been thinking about how the body is imprinted onto objects, how objects have been made for the body, so I thought that I could take this one step further and make a sculpture that is activated by the body. I had Tilda Swinton’s work in mind, but it was also part of a wider conversation.

Did you have a finishing point in mind when you began making this wearable sculpture?

Initially I hoped, and I still plan to do this, to make an entire suit of armour out of quails eggs. In my research I have been looking at the history of suits of armour, and in particular suits of armour which were made out of organic substances, like coconut fibres — which I saw woven into a Kiribati piece at the National Museum Scotland — and Japanese armour made out of scales, often emulating the protection that an animal in the [natural] world would have…and putting it onto a human form.

You have made me think of the fragility of the egg shell.

To a bird, it is an incredibly strong and protective shell, but when in the human context, in the context of the human body, the eggs are so fragile, they could be quite easily crushed. When I wear them I am completely still.

Why were you drawn to making a suit of armour?

I was having a conversation with my Dad about suits of armour and he [was telling me that he] has a friend who collects suits of armour from the nineteen hundreds from the Austro-Hungarian Empire…At this time suits of armour got more and more decorated and elaborate, and had eagles on their heads in gold, and spikes on the shoulders — they just got so ridiculous and impractical to use in battle. This was at a time when the men who wore the outfits really never expected that they would actually be fighting, never imagined what it would be like, but it [armour] became a sort of plumage, like a bird’s feathers, that would be a sign of their masculine status. [However,] there is a sense that their outfits got so ridiculously lavish that…they would all look a bit stupid.

With that in mind, how do you see your work in relation to contemporary notions of masculinity?

It’s weird how much masculinity has been neglected, especially by men. My only reference, really, is the Masculinities:Liberation though Photography show at The Barbican. In my history of art course, for example, it is so rarely discussed. There is a sense that it is socially unacceptable to be ‘masculine’ in the traditional, [literally] chivalrous, sense…but then you’re caught in a social bind because we still, as a society, believe in the knight’s tale. As a man you aren’t quite sure how to act or what to do…it’s such a messy, complex situation.

Masculinity seems to be in a constant state of crisis, linked to violence, power, oppression… The business suit is the new suit of armour, whilst the world of business is increasingly vilified for its aggressive, capitalist, colonising approach.

Yes, we still live in an extremely gendered society — a lot of men still want to wear hypermasculine clothing, which is always so practical and impersonal. But why should we [men] always want to wear something that represents, that says we’re performing, institutions or power structures that have shown themselves to be, as you say, violent or oppressive? Something might represent you better because it makes you act differently, unusually, unexpectedly. [For example,] sometimes I like being still, sometimes I like being the support for my cowl. I am its apparatus. Practicality always comes down to being suitable for an expected role, so I think it’s very radical to be impractical.

In this sense I think of you as a feminine maker and art historian…your work is speculative, you are not looking for…historical accuracy, but for the potential of these objects in the present. You have a very performative archaeological approach to history and historical artefacts.

I think that there is something incredibly exciting about creating an artefact or intervening in an artefact with the body that makes people look differently at the whole spectrum of things and objects that are around us in our lives. It [my work] offers a consideration of that. Maybe we have been presuming a lot of things, we definitely have, in that we have been printing our own ideology onto something in the past. Or the present, like the ‘types’ [‘toxic’, ‘fragile’ etc.] that men are expected to perform. There are exciting things [still] to be excavated from time. I hope that a nuanced, necessarily complex understanding of masculinity, beyond gender, is one of them.

Biography: Kathryn Cutler-MacKenzie is an artist and art historian, currently completing her fifth year of a five year MA Fine Art at The University of Edinburgh. Her primary research interests include cinema, collage, gender and historical reenactment. She has previously written for the film production company Neon Eye, producing a series of texts and podcasts entitled ‘Looking at Women: a 101 of Feminist Cinema’, as well as for Lucy Writers, and presented at the Eighth International Euroacademia Conference on ‘The Monstrous Woman: Film, Feminism and Performance Art’ in January 2020. Kathryn’s selected exhibitions include: Cachée at R.E.M Space, Istanbul; Trading Zones at Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh; and Wearing Trousers at Crate Studios, Margate. She shares a collaborative practice with the artist and art historian Ben Caro and her portfolio can be found at Instagram: @geometryforbeginners

Photography copyright Ben Caro.