Material/Immaterial: The lives (and afterlives) of objects

Lynn M Somers, Independent Scholar & Drew University

Recent work on matter, materiality, and materialisms has enriched the study of objects in the aesthetic, and more broadly, cultural spheres. Beyond formal considerations, artists have mined materials as complex, affective carriers of communication (as recent exhibitions of Hilma af Klint, Henry Moore, Ruth Asawa, Claire Falkenstein, and Doris Salcedo suggest). But what precisely is the relationship between medium and materiality, the latter of which Michael Ann Holly has called ‘the meeting of matter and imagination’ (The Art Bulletin, March 2013, p. 15)? Panofsky wrote that the melancholy task of humanists isn’t ‘arresting what would otherwise slip away but enlivening what would otherwise remain dead’ (Meaning in the Visual Arts, 1983, p. 24). How might we understand the powerful tug-of-war between tangible surface and the immaterial – psychological, emotional, and memorial – that the ‘stuff’ of objects transmits?

The materiality of the works we study, collect, and exhibit are both lost and found, past and present. Equally important, they are embedded to varying degrees with the lives of their makers, carrying their own narratives across time and space in ways that are often difficult to untangle from the stories of people who produced them. Perhaps scholars needn’t shy away from their desires to recapture the ineffable that imaginative endeavours offer. What, for instance, makes one object forgettable and another arresting? There’s a difference, both psychoanalysts and connoisseurs say, between an ordinary object and an evocative one, but the aforementioned questions are open to other sociocultural, anthropological, and theoretical inquiries. This panel explores dialogues between material, materiality, and making viewed through the lenses of history, philosophy, museology, political theory and practice.

Speakers and Abstracts

Inside the Black Museum: Evidence, imagination and the testimony of things

Lela Graybill (University of Utah)

In 1877, The Spectator ran a detailed account of a curious collection located in Scotland Yard, which it ominously dubbed ‘the Black Museum’. Here was an eclectic mix of material things: pieces de conviction, instruments of crime, and common objects transformed into relics by virtue of their proximity to a murderer, or a victim. Established c.1875 as a subdivision of the Prisoner’s Property Office, the Scotland Yard Crime Museum purported to function primarily as a training collection for the Metropolitan Police. Yet the strict criminological pretext of the museum was belied in its overt courting of the public; the museum hosted non-police visitors from its earliest days, and also had a significant life in the public imagination through journalistic reports and engraved imagery that circulated in the popular press. This paper will examine the tension between the material and the immaterial in the early history of the Black Museum. I will situate the emergence of the museum in a watershed moment of transition in Western juridical practice, when the value of direct testimony in the courtroom was supplanted by a rising faith in the importance – and supposedly superior reliability – of circumstantial evidence, the testimony of things. Through a close consideration of the museum’s objects, modes of display and popular representations, I will explore the ways in which the Black Museum not only reflected but was also instrumental in producing a modern investment in evidentiary truth that catalysed the imagination even as it courted the real.

Decentred Space in Claire Falkenstein’s Suns

Elizabeth Buhe (The Courtauld Institute of Art)

This paper examines conceptions of space in 1950s art in which formal configurations of material and immaterial emphasised the real, contingent space of lived experience. Artists articulated this new understanding of space as a counterpoint to the fictive, static, limited dimension of Renaissance perspective, which rooted viewers firmly in front of a work and opened onto a fully preconceived spatial arena. By contrast, art that eschewed linear perspective enabled a mobile viewer in open-ended experience through which the relationship between viewer and artwork produced the same affective and mutually constitutive subject–object relations of everyday experience.

Although the spatial expansiveness of 1950s art has been seen primarily through the mural’s large scale, the capacity of abstraction to transcend the frame, or collage and performance art’s merging of art and life, this paper demonstrates the philosophical foundation for new conceptions of space in the work of American sculptor Claire Falkenstein (1908–1997). By 1953, Falkenstein was producing airy, cocoon-like abstract sculptures made of metal arcs strung with spiderweb-like knittings of wire. Falkenstein was clear that her work required a new sculptural technique in order to address new ideas of motion and relativity. The works’ mobius-strip-like continuums of exterior and interior frustrate either term’s firm designation.

Focusing on Falkenstein’s 1950s Suns, this paper takes her insistence on sculpture as at once material and immaterial as a metaphor for the denigration of other inside–outside distinctions, such as imagination and matter; earth and universe; subject and object; thus creating a correspondence between the present-tense of perceptual apprehension and the afterlives of spatial relations that the material object enlivens.

The Matter of Darkness: Rothko’s late works as transformational objects

Lynn M. Somers (Independent Scholar)

In 1969 Mark Rothko made eighteen, untitled acrylics on canvas dividing rectangles of cumbrous blacks and brushy alloyed greys. Without intermediary space between the horizontal fields—and all but one circumscribed by a thin border of white—the ‘Black and Greys’ emphasize objecthood, summoning opaque walls as much as spatial voids. Associated with the ‘black paintings’ of postwar modernism, Rothko’s late works occupy a slippery place both inside and outside his canon (and were considered aesthetic failures by many critics). This paper examines the materiality of these painterly (if not melancholy) experiments that unfold as dense, paradoxical objects, registering endless nuances of repetition. Irresolvable, inscrutable; empty, yet full: these descriptions gesture to a dialogue of material and immaterial presentness. Yet while many critics agree that the paintings stage encounters that often exceed apprehension, few explore the nature of this irreconcilability. Still, as Lawrence Alloway noted of Rothko’s reductivism, ‘what remained was a great deal more than nothing’ (Artforum, November 1973, p. 39). My paper considers the ‘Black and Greys’ as imaginative analogues for what D. W. Winnicott in 1953 called transitional objects—those at once immaterial and material, subjective and objective, inside and out—that contour relationships with ourselves and others (Playing and Reality, 2005). John Elderfield first posed the psychoanalytic “transformational object” to approach the effects and affects that Rothko’s canvasses yield (Seeing Rothko, 2005, p. 113). I extend that analysis along aesthetic and psychodynamic lines, reconsidering the works as transitional and transformational, on the margins of sameness and difference, which, in Winnicottian terms, is a profoundly generative place to be.

Immaterial Matter: The politics of subverting ‘feminine’ space(s) in Francesca Woodman’s Some Disordered Interior Geometries
Márcia Oliveira
(CEHUM – Centre for Humanistic Studies of the University of Minho, Portugal)

As with most of Francesca Woodman’s work, her book Some Disordered Interior Geometries (1981, published by Synapse, a Visual Art Press), is one perfect synthesis between material and immaterial. This object, the only book that was published during the artist’s lifetime (only some days before her suicide at age 22), convokes a complete reflection that can be made around the intricate relations between body, book and dwelling. The book is constructed in layers: photographs of herself and fragmented, uncanny objects are printed over an old geometry textbook written in Italian, to which Woodman added some hand-written comments. These layers – an ‘odd geometry of time’, as she writes on page 7 – perform a pendular movement between the material dimension of the images and the immaterial, intimate world of the artist – her feelings, her memories or, in short, her constructed reality. Space(s), objects, images, words: all these elements exhale the (dis)harmony of (temporal and spatial) contrasts that expose and debunk not just an individual sphere but also, and most of all, a collective complex web of gendered politics that restrain women, their bodies and experiences, inside certain limits – be they the formal limits of art objects and concepts, the limits of the house, or the limits of the body. So, with this paper, I intend to draw a wider reflection on the way gendered bodies and books are ‘inhabited’, focusing on the material specificities of the book as an artistic medium. A medium that serves as a vehicle for the expression of political acts, or acts of subverting the spaces ascribed to ‘femininity’.

Materiality and Double Disappearance in Doris Salcedo’s Atrabiliarios

Jamie DiSarno (University at Buffalo)

Materiality is oft-cited as one of the principle affective vehicles in the work of Doris Salcedo. Authors such as Mieke Bal and Mary Schneider-Enriquez, for example, wrote book-length expositions of the power of Salcedo’s material choices to speak to universal audiences. And yet, a close analysis of the discourse surrounding her work demonstrates that what is left almost entirely to the wayside are the ways materiality in her practice speaks at once to broad audiences and simultaneously to a highly particular and local context of political violence. I offer a meticulously historical interpretation of one of Salcedo’s most famous installations, Atrabiliarios (1992), to establish how the specific uncanny and affective forms this installation takes are inherently linked to the social and historical circumstances of its locus of enunciation. In fact, this work was inspired by the particular experience of women who were disappeared by the Colombian state, a state that was in turn influenced by the Cold War containment policies of the US. My investigation demonstrates how Colombia’s history is refracted through Salcedo’s particular forms that enrich the possibilities of their meanings. I show that despite her intent to make political violence visible to global audiences, US and European discourse doubly disappears the already disappeared by pervasively universalising its content. Rather than understanding the multiplicity of ways Salcedo’s installations speak across different locales, namely to a Colombian audience amongst others, a discussion of her work’s materiality circumvented a larger discussion of the social-historical conditions that helped foster those precise forms.





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