top of page
  • Writer's pictureSuzy Costello, workbooks

MFA, March 8-13 2021

Masterclass, presentation of our artworks responding to Site, creating second response to Recalibrate (materiality), tour of Textile department and discussion on Materiality based on Susan Santog's Against Interpretation.


Definition from Oxford dictionary -

  • suffix - ITY : abstract noun expressing state or condition

  • Materiality noun : - the quality or character of being material or composed of matter - in law, the quality of being relevant or significant.

  • Material noun: material; plural noun: materials - the matter from which a thing is or can be made - information or ideas for use in creating a book or other work Material adjective: material - denoting or consisting of physical objects rather than the mind or spirit. - significant; important.

Class discussion on materiality -

  • materiality - the state of the instance of a design, quality or condition

  • physical properties, behaviour, character, essence

  • tactile, specific senses, sound has its own materiality

  • everything has its own name, not generic/ reductive

  • social, cultural, political meanings

  • love

  • light is material

  • immateriality of materiality

  • environment - Aurum Stroll 'surface'

  • are thought materiality? (Julieanna, no)

  • accounting and cataloguing

  • Aristotle 4 specificities - form, function,...?

  • Julieanna - the materiality of a cup ..does function hold a materiality?

Readings on Materiality -

Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation, and Other Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966.

Susan Sontag (1933-2004) was a significant American writer, filmmaker, philosopher, teacher, and political activist during the 1960's and into the late 20th century.

Her essay Against Interpretation is written in 1966 and influenced by the feminist revolution and process art movement that were sweeping through Europe and America. The principal focus of process art is not the end product, but rather the process of making art which "remains a prominent aspect of the completed work" (Bernard Cohen. Floris 1964). Significant American artists of this movement are Jackson Pollock, Richard Serra and Robert Morris, as well as a growing number of prominent female artists like Eva Hesse, Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell and Lee Krasner.

The essay analyses our propensity to intellectualise art through a layering of content and interpretation which, she believes, is separate from, and at the expense of, experiencing the work itself. She describes 'interpretation', as "a conscious act of the mind which illustrates a certain code" (Sontag 97) and places the origin of our obsession for this process of interpreting art at the feet of the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, who proposed art was merely a mimesis, or an imitation of reality, lacking its own purpose. This purposelessness has meant that art has been challenged to justify itself ever since!

Sontag implores us to revisit how we encounter art, to "cut back content so we can see the work", "to recover our senses, to see more, to feel more, to hear more". She asks us to appreciate the "transparency of the work, its luminous-ness", so that "the aim of all commentary on art should be to make works of art - and, by analogy, our own experience -more, rather than less, real to us ... rather than to show what it means" (Sontag 104).

These are words true to my own heart. There are times when I feel that interpretation of an artwork sucks the life out of it; that we live in a world where semiotics dominates form and our sensual, sensory, non-language experience of it.

However, meaning is a vital component of art and I wonder if Sontag's desire to toss content out the window is at the expense of meaning. The importance of art as a means to understanding ourselves, our place in the universe and how we treat each other are fundamentally essential elements of art. While it is a pity Sontag didn't tease meaning from content before she tossed it all away, her challenge to us, to experience the luminous-ness, is even more important in our technological age now than it was nearly 60 years ago.


Given the high level of technical craftsmanship in the Recalibrate show, my response to its materiality is a little more challenging than site. The artworks have been created in order to sell for large sums of money and so the evidence of materiality (i.e. its vital matter, physical properties, and the process of making) seem to have been neatly and tidily cleaned away.

Brett used MDF panels and Leonnie black building paper - both everyday building materials. These were painted and carved, or folded and cut, using symbols from their culture(s). Kelcy and Roger used oil paint and charcoal on canvas. Kelcy's marks were painted in a hard-edged abstraction style, while Roger's were more loosely painted with some edges between paint and charcoal blurred. Joyce captured tonal images of places and objects which were then handprinted on to large sheets of high quality photographic paper.

Apart from Kelcy's use of an exquisite blue-purple colour (cobalt?) and Roger's gold paint, the rest of the show was monochromatic which allowed for a visual cohesion between all the works. It also created a quiet, restful (almost meditative) space in which to enjoy the art.

I found the meticulous 'tidying up' of the physical material produced a surprising response in me of both admiration and irritability. While I was awed by the artists' technical abilities, this meant the vitality of the maker's marks, and his/her mistakes, were hard to see. I felt at times that the works lacked an honest response to the materials chosen - why was the MDF hidden behind paint? Was it to hide the low quality of wood used? Where were the symbols that Leonnie had cut out of the builders paper? What did she do with them?

All artists made use of mark making and symbolism to express the meaning of their work. Brett and Leonie used a reductive process on their chosen materials. Brett removed wood by carving his works with whakairo (a Māori wood carving technique) which embued the object with a power and mystical sacredness that charged the space around them.

Leonnie cut out negative shapes of flowers and symbols specific to her heritage on folded black building paper which made the symbols a little difficult to decipher. Similar to Brett's work, Leonie's art practice is about the hidden meaning within the symbols that is only understood within the Pacifica community.

Roger used navigation maps, Māori place names and celestial markings and symbols while Kelcy employed graphic modernist form and colour to describe his journey up the mountain as dawn was breaking over the horizon. Joyce used photography, lighting and chemical processes to capture the essence of a special material or place. I think these methods of mark making, and the symbolism used, are an important part of the artworks' materiality.

My response?

  1. Employ an honesty and transparency in the materials and processes I choose to use

  2. that would counteract the sophistication of materials and processes in the show

  3. Source materials from a location that is significant to me - my local beach

  4. Reference the materiality of the blue-purple colour used by Kelcy in addition to the monochromatic palette

  5. Discuss the materiality of symbolism visible in the show.

This is my response to Kelcy Taratoa's beautiful artwork from the Barkley & Co Art show. We have been asked to respond to the aspect of materiality - the physical properties of a material.

All the greywacke rocks and burnt wood are sourced from my local beach on the eastern side of Te Whanganui-a-Tara. This is a place I walk every day, which echos Kelcy's painting inspired by his daily walks up Mt Maunganui.

First I formed a tetrahedron with the greywacke pebbles - triangular shaped stones were placed as cornerstones to maintain the shape and the pebbles decreased in size with each layer to suggest perspective. Three 8" rows of pebbles were then created using a diminishing pattern of 6", 4" and 2" to again suggest perspective. The marks were made using folded paper to guide the laying of pebbles,

I was surprised by the strength and dominance of the rock art and how much space it filled. I guess this is all part of the materiality of rock - its weight and permanence even when just a pebble.

The burnt wood was initially going to be placed in ever expanding ripples to discuss its journey from forest to seashore, but I was undecided on whether to use charcoal or pebbles and how to respond to the wave patterns that would be formed by intersecting with the pillar. Given how much space the mountain work took up I decided just to leave it simply leaning on the pillar. I think the burnt wood is exquisite, with its density of carbon black pigment and fractal patterns.

The colbat blue colour so dominant in Kelcy's work is incorporated into mine as well, and testifies to the materiality of colour. While the blue colour obviously references sky and sea, I was interested in discussing the properties of the pastel too. I placed 3 colbat pastels between a folded and cut sheet of white pastel paper then hammered them till the pastels turned to dust. One sheet was hung on the wall and the other on the floor.

I feel the simplicity in the way I have chosen to treat the materials allows a transparency and honesty that evidences the biological processes that have occurred in transporting the material onto the seashore.

Greywacke Rock Formation Prior to the 1855 and 1853 (New Zealand's strongest known earthquake) earthquakes, the eastern shores of Wellington harbour were sand dune covered beaches. They are now covered with greywacke pebbles (see G. Eiby article NZ Journal of Geology and Geophysics).

Greywacke is a sedimentary rock formation and is the dominant rock found throughout New Zealand. It is formed from sand, mud, gravel, and silt "that was eroded off existing land and dumped by rivers into the sea, there to be compressed over tens of millions of years. Most of the sediment was muddy sand, and most of our greywacke is now muddy sandstone. Its age varies from about 280 million years to 120 million years" (NZ Geographic).

However, recent research suggests greywacke is more than just a sedimentary rock like mudstone. Christopher Adams of the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences states, "it has undergone some degree of metamorphism by burial, and the combination of pressure and heating has both hardened the rock and produced new minerals(...)but the greywacke also contains minerals from the original detritus that have resisted metamorphism, and which can be dated". They indicate that our greywacke formed along the coast of north-eastern Queensland "from granitic rocks 230 to 290 million years old, with a minor mica schist component that was somewhat older, at 425 to 450 million years". Detailed analysis of the rocks have found rare traces of extremely old minerals dated up to 3,100 million years which indicates "their nearest ultimate source is thought to have been the Precambrian core of south-east China". Wow!


We started the week with a group critique of our response to site.

My initial idea of presenting the artwork on the table where it had been worked didn't allow the top of the work to sing given the dynamics of fluorescent lighting so I repositioned it in the hallway outside our studio room and placed it on a plinth in front of an internal window (the plinth being a nod to the white cube and the window being an ironic reference to Geoff Park's reading on landscape scenery).

These were the comments from the crit:

  • references Recalibrating

  • culture sited on a white cube, is it the perfect place for your work? "we have too shortcut"

  • rules to live by

  • drawing? Thread? is it sculpture (plinth?)

  • attach it to different histories

  • fold it up and put it on

  • tissue paper transparent, temporary, fragile, can be damaged like culture

  • working from both sides

  • one side privileged over the other

  • femininity, domestication

  • maori culture weaving

  • working at a table

  • Mata Ahe - sewing together

  • cultural appropriation vs appreciation

  • "craft" art

  • Pakeha - commercialising Maoriness

  • grid western

  • grid and weaving

  • playing within the grounds

  • embroidery - what would happen if it (tissue paper) was washed away?

  • punching through surface, sexual innuendo

  • needles, fingers, blood veins and whakapapa

  • hanging it over the window - lets the light go through

  • thin skin

  • what is hidden, what can we see? what is truth?

I enjoyed the critique and it offered readings of the work than I had not considered i.e. is it a sculpture or a drawing?, reference to craft and domestication, and the privilege of one side of the work to another.

People seemed to understand the link to culture and I was intrigued by Jacqueline's suggestion to wash the work and what might happen if the paper dissolved.


bottom of page