Conrad Hicks: ‘Meaning is created when form communicates function’

Conrad Hicks’ solo exhibition, Implement, is a paean to the ancient art of blacksmithing and the role of the human hand in toolmaking. Every piece in this body of work by South Africa’s foremost artist-blacksmith has been hand forged using only traditional jointing methods, whose structure he believes is crucial to the symbolic meaning of the finished form.

A student of human evolution and anthropology, Conrad draws a correlation between his process and what drove the earliest tool-makers throughout our ancestors’ history. This Q&A – conducted by Julian McGowan, co-founder of Southern Guild – sheds light on his philosophy and approach. It is an excerpt from a longer interview published in the Implement catalog, available for sale in the gallery.

As a blacksmith who segued from utilitarian work to sculpture, how do you see the relation of functionality to form?

For me, meaning is created in a piece when its form communicates its function. That’s why I don’t use welding in my work. It would be like cheating. The connections between the different components, the way the different pieces balance each other and enable the whole piece to stand upright – this gives integrity to the piece, and lends justification for the way I’m working.

But it goes deeper than that, too. All human expression has a function, a message to communicate – whether it’s a painting, a dance movement or a hammer. They are all tools, some are just more abstract than others. They’re all practical in that they serve the purpose they were intended to serve. If they do that successfully – if they achieve their intended function – then that is pleasing to us and we recognize them as “beautiful”.

My pieces are all functional, be it a message in a piece of sculpture or a beautiful tool that carries the object into a realm that is beyond its initial functional dimension.

The notion of “beauty” has almost fallen out of favour in contemporary art. But it sounds like you have a specific understanding of it. How do you define beauty?

When we call something “beautiful”, we are intuitively evaluating whether it works and is relevant. Over the millions of years of human evolution, we learned to call that recognition of an attractive function “beauty”. It’s in our DNA. It’s Darwinian. For example, the sound of a trickling stream is pleasurable to us because as humans we needed to live close to water, so we grew up with the sound of running water.

What role has tool-making played in our appreciation of beauty?

As soon as we started making tools, we began changing existentially. We attributed value to the tools we made; we embellished and refined them. We made all these intuitive decisions around function, and this knowledge passed from one generation to the next. The result, over time, is that our desire to make beautiful things has become innate.

If we didn’t like the forms of the tools that we made and that were successful, we would have made things that were ugly and consequently, died out as a species. “Ugly” means it doesn’t work and “beautiful” means it works. So obviously we have this desire to make beautiful things. And the theory is that it’s the desire to make beautiful things, rather than anything else, that drives humankind in an evolutionary sense. Like a lion has a desire to chase a buck, we have a desire to make beauty.

How does this come into play when you are working in your forge?

While I work, I am in the same zone that early humans were in, and the recognition of what I want to say when my work is ‘just right’, is the same pleasurable, intuitive recognition of beauty that someone would have experienced, whilst forming a stone hand-axe.

I feel like I’m channeling universal rules of value and quality, but how that actually manifests itself is not clear to me until the piece is done. And then you can recognize exactly what it’s about. There’s a language that humans understand that is pre-written language and pre-spoken language that comes out when you work. The less you interfere with it, the purer it is.

Implement by Conrad Hicks runs from 24 May to 17 July 2019.

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