The artist on why she avoids artspeak and considers herself more of a medium than a creator of her work.
Manal Kara doesn't think her art has much to do with her. It might seem like an odd perspective for an artist, but Kara insists that she's nothing more than a medium for the creative energy that realizes itself in her works. While stationed in rural Wisconsin at an artists' residency, she spoke with Platform about the dangers of magical thinking, not using art-specific language to discuss her process and starting to write poetry.
How would you describe what your work is about and do you feel that's different from how other people perceive or talk about it?
I don't like the aboutness thing. I don't think my work is about anything. I get asked that all the time and I just I don't even believe in it. Even when it comes to a lot of other people's work, when they say, “This is about this,” I'm just like, “How?” I don't have any art background as far schooling. I know that those are ideas people learn in art school. Obviously, there are different things in the artwork, but I don't think that I have any more authority to say what the artwork is about than anybody else. I don’t have to give someone permission to interpret. That’s just how it is.
Is there any place in your everyday environment or museums you go to for inspiration?
No, I'm not a very visual person. I don't really engage with art other than just making it. I would say that my engagement with art is more on a level with non-artists. I get most of my inspiration from ideas, words – I'm more of a word person. When I'm making something, I'm not even making it to match what I imagined it looking like. I don't really have a visual sense at all. I'm less likely to go to a museum than I am to just walk around in the woods, which is what I do most of the time.
From what you've described, it seems like you have a pretty different vocabulary for talking about your work. Is that difficult to articulate in more traditional art spaces?
I think that there's an expectation put on me to talk about the work in those ways, and I just refuse to because it doesn't make sense to me and I don't need to. I have plenty of opportunities without having to do that. I have a complicated relationship with specialized language because I went to school for philosophy. There’s a lot of jargon and a lot of specific usage of words that aren’t like how someone not in philosophy would use them. I feel that the same is true of artspeak.
Are there any habits you have as you work in your practice?
The ideas for the work arise from the ambient environment. I'll see different things and want to put them together or just think something like, “Oh, a worm and a rotted out tire would look really cute together.” A lot of the ideas come from my dreams. There’s the part when I'm thinking and doing research and then there's production. I only produce work when I'm working on a show, and then I'll do so much stuff and be in the studio all day and make a whole show really fast. Most of my time, I would say, is spent doing research activities, like walking around. It’s not even on purpose. It's incidental research, basically. I live in the middle of the woods, so I walk around in the woods all the time. I also like to go to junkyards and abandoned buildings and look around and see interesting stuff.
I don't know if it's possible to pinpoint, but what about those spaces in particular really speaks to you?
I don't know [laughs]. It's just pretty and there's interesting stuff there. I don't like to be around a lot of people most of the time, so I guess I just go to more secluded places.
What are some of the things you're most passionate about outside of your practice?
I've been getting into writing poems. That's been really nice. I also like driving long distances on the highway. I’m out here in rural Wisconsin at ACRE Residency right now and it's just beautiful.
Is there anything you've recently tried for the first time?
We just did some aluminum casting, so that was really cool. I come to ACRE every year – I’m the ceramics tech – but we started a new metal program last year. We had a pandemic session where it was a staff-only retreat, so we tried out a new metal machine. This was our first year doing it and it's so fun. There are these weird rusty nails all over the property out here, so I put those into molds.
On the inverse of that, is there anything you’ve been hesitant to try in the past but you’d really like to at some point soon?
I want to do a book. I've always wanted to write things and just never felt empowered to do that. I think poetry is a good starting point, but I've always just wanted to write long research. I have all these philosophical theories that are so expansive and I don't even know where to begin. I think that's a lifelong project. Maybe I won't even be able to do that until I'm 60, but that's fine.
Do you have any superstitions?
I've historically had issues with magical thinking and I've sort of had to train myself out of that. You know kids who think they can't step on cracks? I have lingering ones into adulthood like when you're eating a bag of Cheetos and you have to eat them in a certain order. I used to have all types.
Are there any habits that you're trying to break?
I say yes to too many things. I need to learn to do less because for the first time in my life, I'm actually butting up against the finality of time. I'll have seven projects going at once and think that I could devote 10 hours a day to each one. I don't have that many hours in the day, so I think I just need to learn how to say no to cool-sounding things.
You love spending a lot of time outdoors in nature. What's your relationship with technology like?
I'm not very good at it. It takes me a long time to do anything on a computer. I like making videos, but I'm not very good at it. I would really like to be less reliant on it for making a living. I have this joke with all my artist friends which is you know you've really made it as an artist when you don't have to have an Instagram anymore.
Is there anything you wish you were asked more often?
Not really. I don’t like speaking about myself, I don’t think it’s necessary. I don’t think I have anything to do with my artwork. I’m just the medium through which it comes into existence. I feel kind of out of pocket saying anything about it. I guess it has something to do with me because I shape it, but I'm just a container. It's not up to me to explain it. I'm trying to be more open to questions about it. I just want to be really emphatic that I'm not an authority on anything.