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  • Writer's pictureSuzy Costello, workbooks

Materiality and Asian influences

At the critique for our final presentation last year, Simon Morris suggested I read The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia,1860-1989. In my peculiar, pared back artistic representation of the mountains, forests and sea, Simon could sense I was striving to capture the essence of place from a position of meditative stillness of being.

One of the students asked if materialism was an important part of my art practice? And Julieanna questioned my commitment to materialism because of a tendency to interfere with materials. These were interesting observations given I had placed tissue paper in the sea, allowing natural forces to shape the paper.

In the tissue paper artwork I was striving to leave as little of myself as I could in the work by trying not to interfere with the action of the sea on the paper and the paper on the sea. Both 'things' held their own vibrancy and agency, an agency that was distributed between them. There is a poetic quality to this exercise - was the tissue paper wrapping the sea or the sea wrapping the tissue paper?

As Karen Barad describes it, 'here, matter simply “is a doing,” […] matter is what it does or “how it moves”' (Gambel, Hanan and Nail). New Materialism, which seeks 'to challenge the anthropocentric and constructivist orientations of most twentieth-century theory', postulates all things have their own vibrancy and distributive agency and 'challenges longstanding assumptions about humans and the non- or other-than- human material world' (Gambel, Hanan and Nail). It is this other-than-human material world that I am trying to get close to in my art.

So was my installation about the materiality of tissue paper, thread, and masking tape, or something else? I believe the answer resides in the artwork and can be answered by asking two questions - (i)does it investigate the material properties of these everyday materials, e.g. the stickiness of the tape, the fibrousness of the tissue paper, or the strength and binding qualities of the thread?; and (ii)is the work self-referential? These are two cornerstones of materiality.

While the tissue paper work speaks to a material property of encasing and fluidness of shape, the other works shy away from materiality and seem to direct the audience to decode their meaning, as if they are referencing something else.... which is correct; they are referencing the mountain, forest and sea that live beside my home. I chose to use these materials rather than natural materials sourced from the site to respect Mana Whenua and Kaitiakitanga.

A lack of investigation into the material properties of these everyday materials and a lack of self-referentiality breaks from materialism's ethos of referencing only the things used; here materials reference something beyond the artwork itself. This represents a significant transition in my art practice. My exploration into the materiality of things, and efforts to include Kaitiakitanga, has led to a metaphysical exploration of existence and embodiment, albeit one rooted in reality.

Materialism and Asian Influences

Having read the book Simon recommended, I have rediscovered the artistic investigations of American Conceptual artists of the 1960-70s. I was surprised how much their investigations into the metaphysical, through an exploration of materiality, was so heavily influenced by Asian culture. This is described in startling detail in a collection of essays in The Third Mind.

In her essay Buddhism and the Neo-Avant-Garde, Alexandra Munroe relates the Asian influences on artists of the day -

... on Bruce Connor's Mandala (1966),

" 'Connor expressed his interest in 'spirit' through an investigation of light and the nature of dematerialized form. Mandala is one of a series of small black-and-white drawings composed of tiny, felt-tip marks whose accumulation creates an optical field of quietly pulsating energy. He organized these marks in circular images, which represent 'a universal form' that implies infinity. Its title Mandala and hanging scroll mounting emphasize its status as an object of meditation. [...] Connor's particular conceptualism, which influenced what became known as Bay Art Conceptual art of the 1970s, represents a new affinity to Buddhism culled from a syncretic, contemporary spiritualism that resolves around imagery of ephemeral experiences. 'A mystery is something that has value to me,' Connor remarked. 'Many times if something is explained, resolved, the next step is to go to the next layer of experience, like an onion - peel it off and see what's underneath, go on and on until finally it disappears" (Munroe p212).

....on Paul Kos's installation Sound of Ice Melting (1970),

"Kos's interest in 'finding the visceral quality of materials, finding their edges' defines the particular ontology of Bay Area Conceptual art as rooted in the poetics of plain reality. Kos's friendship with poet and haiku translator Robert Haas encouraged his study of Zen poetry, which taught that such actualities 'of the moment seized on and rendered purely' offer an 'irreducible mysteriousness of the images themselves' (Munroe p213).

...on David Ireland's creative philosophy and installation Broom Collection with Boom (1978-88),

"Ireland appropriated Zen's cultivated amateurism and poverty of materials to 'strip away the ranking system' and 'uncover the natural conditions of art that 'occur in the process of life itself'...assembled from the humblest materials 'like a prayer or...a religious object that in itself doesn't contain your salvation or your enlightenment; it only reminds you of your obligation to the philosophy...of trying to see what a Zen master would have it' (Munroe p213).


When I look at these artists' works and their commitment to purity of material 'rendered purely', it is clear that in my work last year I am not exploring materiality as they did. Despite using 'the humblest materials' i.e. tissue paper, thread and masking tape, I've not focused exclusively on their material properties. Also, my need to respect mana whenua and Kaitiakitanga means I don't want to interfere with materials in the forest, nor do I wish to physically 'peel [materials away] and see what's underneath, go on and on until finally it disappears'.

So what am I doing as I draw the forest around it's edges? How am I embodying the forest and its materiality?

Like the Conceptual artists of the Bay Area who strove to see 'the poetics of plain reality', I too am trying to see what is, so that I may feel the flow of energy that moves within nature, and touch the mystery of existence, the essential essence of things in the other-than-human material world. And like the Conceptual Bay artists, my journey is heavily influenced by Asian aesthetics... but that's another blog

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