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  • Writer's pictureSuzy Costello, workbooks

From process art to [no] [art] [object]

In 2018 I was a student at The Learning Connexion in Taita. The Advanced Diploma I studied focused on the Process Art movement that emerged in America during the 1960s. It's an art movement celebrating the process of making art rather than any predetermined composition or plan. We looked at artists from 1960-70s who explored concepts of change and transience, and for the first time I found inspiration in female artists such as Eva Hesse, Linda Benglis and Helen Frankenthaler. Their intuitive, sympathetic use of material was particularly notable - there seemed a willingness to allow the material to be itself rather than to dominate it and I found this very appealing. [Process art coincided with the feminist movement, both of which would influence New Materialism's ethos of the early 2000's.]

I was also impressed with Jackson Pollock's spontaneous abstract paintings and a little confounded by Richard Serra's efforts to cast molten metal by throwing it at a wall! Serra went on to create a list of 84 verbs that helped define the Process Art Movement, so he did know his stuff.

At the beginning of the course we were asked to choose two of Serra's verbs to explore. I chose ‘to drop’ and ‘to layer’ as these actions resonated with both my bronze sculpting and printmaking practice. For four weeks I set about ‘dropping’ molten wax in the hot arts workshop and ‘layering’ inks and paper in the printmaking room. I was mesmerised when a gentle wind drew molten wax, dropped from a height outside, into gossamer strands that looped and fell to the ground; to see wax swirl as it dropped into a vortex of spinning water; and explore the different textures of wax as it was cast into tubs of oil, vinegar, talcum powder and dry ice. Printmaking inks were layered systematically over and under each other to explore blending and the build-up of pigment; layers of tissue paper were inked and pressed together to conceal, and reveal by tearing, what lay underneath; and a variety of printmaking techniques were layered over and over till more than 50 layers crowded the paper with the least thought to composition or plan that I could muster.

Other course modules investigated conventions of artmaking with the purpose of disrupting them, and we explored real space and phenomenology (how we experience our consciousness). The Eyes of the Skin, written in 1996 by Juhani Pallasmaa, was especially poignant for me; the notion that we experience space and atmosphere through the 'eyes' of our body's skin enflamed in me a desire to explore real space more fully and led to enrolling at Massey University in 2019 to do a Graduate Diploma in Fine Arts.

I discovered Process Art offered an immediate freedom from representational object making as well as an appreciation that the artistic value was in the making rather than the outcome or resultant object. It taught me to pay attention to, and trust more deeply in, my engagement with processes and materials. The beauty of the works that emerged continuously surprised me - how in their naivety they seemed to describe that indescribable force of nature flowing through and within all living things. These insights would significantly alter my art practice in the years ahead at Massey.

Noticing a growing disquiet about the commodification and objectification of art, and an increasing attachment to the things I had made festering inside me, I decided at the outset to finish my study at Massey with no art objects - my learning would be the art.

Moving away from traditional artmaking materials I instead engaged with ready-made, low-valued detritus materials like cardboard boxes, thread, tape, tissue and wrapping paper which I would recycle upon completion. I became increasingly aware of the materials' narrative i.e. where and when the material was made, who made it and what the material was used for, and I could no longer ignore humanity's relationship with these materials nor, more broadly, humanity’s relationship with nature; it was a provocation to look more closely at my relationship with nature.

During the summer of 2020 I began collecting natural, discarded debris from my local area - stamen from the crimson carpets under nearby pōhutukawa trees, cicadas' shells from the forest across the road cast off in their final transformation into adulthood, and wood from two 100 year-old trees chopped down around the corner from where I live.

Covid also flourished in the summer of 2020 and beyond! For me it not only strengthened my focus on the space, the place and the site where I live but also revealed my interior landscape more clearly. As I turned to the mountains, forest, and sea that surround and contain me, I questioned how I came to be here and what my relationship to mana whenua meant to me? In my first year of MFA in 2021, I determined to stop using natural materials sourced from the environment - it just felt right on so many levels, it respected mana whenua as well as the right of all living things to live and to decompose. Life nourishing and perpetuating itself - me a participant in and of this cycle of Life, inescapably and willingly - things forming unforming forever interconnected

And this is how I feel about art - it is a state of perpetual becoming and unbecoming - a flowing - and it is this that I would hold in the palm of my hand rather than an object. It is this the eyes of my skin wish to reveal. Like other Environmental artists who eschew the permanence of art objects, I choose to finish my masters with no art objects so to speak of. I imagine water washing away the marks of my process, materials disintegrating and decomposing, and me free, non-attached, and unfetted to just be in this ever-nesting of nows.


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