New Materialism and Me

My initial reaction to being asked to consider ‘materialism’ was to equate it to consumerism, and the damage that our current capitalist society reeks on the environment, with so much waste, pollution and exploitation. But my research delivered completely different definitions …

What is ‘new materialism’? 

It seems to mean different things to different people and in different contexts: so philosophers, spiritualists, artists, physicists and social scientists will have a variety of perspectives. But fundamentally it seems to reflect the INTERACTION between things (people, stuff, sounds, air, etc), rather than the thing itself. It is active, dynamic, chaotic and unpredictable. It is exciting. 

Untitled, charcoal and ink on paper

It involves exploring relationships and interactions, observing them, learning from them and exploring again. It is about process rather than outcome. It means not having pre-conceived assumptions, but freeing ourselves for discovery. It involves paying attention. Nothing is absolute.

How does this reflect on my work?

My art practice is about the process as much as the outcome. Inspired by found objects and images, through exploring the natural world, I draw, print, mould, melt, tear, sculpt, layer, photograph, paint, layer again, write, perform and discuss… I use found objects as tools, working instinctively, with no preconceptions, until something appears that speaks back to me, and I feel that it might have something to say to others… 

I might be contemplating the fish looking at me through the glass of the National Marine Aquarium, swimming around the tanks in large circles. I sketch, then throw water on the work, then use inks on soaking wet cotton. The eyes haunt me… they become huge and abstracted. I become a ‘fish’…

Untitled, inks and acrylic on plastic sheeting

But new materialism is also about community: interactions and relationships between people. Working together is vital for the future of the ecosystems of the earth and ultimately for human kind. But more than that, it is the reason for our being. Relationships with others feed our souls as well as our minds and bodies. We have learnt how important relationships are through the isolation imposed on so many vulnerable people during the COVID pandemic. The power of a community is more than the sum of its parts. 

Performance art is a powerful way of connecting with people, as they become part of the work. Through interacting with an audience in a way that is immersive, perhaps emotional, requiring complex contemplation, a performer can create a lasting impact. A TV scene or picture frame creates a barrier with the viewer, but the intimacy associated with handling a piece of plastic during an interactive performance work, or moving through an installation where packaging brushes your shoulder, implicates and entangles, connecting through the senses. 

Photo from All At Sea – a 3 day evolving art performance by Rhizome Artists Collective
for Plymouth Art Weekender Sept 2020. Credit: Fotonow.

What does it mean for the environment?

We tend to treat the world as something outside of us. It is in the interests of capitalists and big corporations for us to believe that techno-science is the answer to global warming and that destruction of vital ecosystems can be ignored. But we are part of the ecosystem and depend on it for our survival. We must attend to the needs of our communities and nurture our relationships with the natural world, stop polluting, give back, interact and learn. 

Prof Tim Ingold states in a TEDx talk:  Thinking through Making, 2013

‘Art… enables ourselves better to perceive the world… and respond to it’

‘We must close the gap… between the experience of the environment of our everyday lives, that is the world around us, and the projected environment of science and political discourse.’

I agree. We are part of something much greater than ourselves. We share DNA with microbes, and depend on them for the function of our bodies. We exist because of interactions and relationships with our environment. As artists we are bound to explore that, and communicate to others how vital these relationships are, for our future existence and societal evolution.

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