Discursion: an utterance of sugar and plastics

Featured image: Stephen Yuen, Perfect Space? 2018, digital prints of VR environment, installation view at Testing Grounds, Melbourne. Image courtesy of the artist. Photograph: Rachel Marsden

This text was commissioned for RIFTS: Particulate Matter, co-curated by Kat Kohler & Dr. Rachel Marsden, Testing Grounds, Melbourne, 4–14 July 2018. This article was first published by Art+ Australia Online, September 2018 at http://www.artandaustralia.com/online/discursions/utterance-sugar-and-plastics

To enter the Testing Grounds, it’s a barely perceptible transition out of the urban miasma. Rumbling carriageways punctuate on-foot passage, within and outside this loosely hemmed exhibition space in the Southbank location of Melbourne. The open mesh fence makes only timid enunciation of rupture between the art on display and a metropolitan thoroughfare. Picnic tables and coffee offerings further beget such ambiguity, outposts of respite not unwelcome given the biting winter chill.

RIFTS: Particulate Matter conjugates the work of three designers, six artists and two curators in a precipitating array. There is no linearity to the viewing, that ties their ‘particulates’ to one another as would links in a chain. The works are disgorged among concrete and gravel, abutting undulating mounds spiked with plants. There is a skyline view of the Arts Centre, which officiates over one boundary, shifting under a zephyr of projected red light. The exhibition is spread over cubes with austere, functional titles: Clear Box, Black Box. In addition, banners line one walkway (Open Box), taciturn before their full virtual reality activation at the closing event.[1] In the exhibition notes, I read through narratives that ascribe environmental, diasporic and historical reflexivity. Much of these follow the psyche of contributing artists through flows of pliability and transition, adapting with their experiences of the sensible world. These encounters are represented by constituent minutiae, in the bits and the pieces of each artwork. In duelling the ‘built’ versus the ‘natural’ world, co-curators Rachel Marsden and Kat Kohler posit a framework of separation in objecthood. This is certainly sufficient when taking an anthropocentric position, but emergences in nature-culture theorisation continue to bestow objects with a spectrum of valences. These complicate the dichotomies between built and natural, human and nonhuman. In Karen Barad’s theory of agential realism, for example, influence is not a closed circuit of actors, actions and the acted upon. It springs from the quantum level, in the propositional spaces of things that have happened, will happen, are happening—or haven’t. In this performed reality, a thing cannot really be extracted from its nexus of arbitrations: all that is being is entangled astronomically. Space, time, phenomena and matter.

All bodies, including but not limited to human bodies, come to matter through the world’s iterative intra-activity—its performativity. Boundaries, properties, and meanings are differentially enacted through the intra-activity of mattering…That is, differentiating is not about othering or separating but on the contrary about making connections and commitments.[2]

Regardless, we humans cannot hear the full utterance of objects. There lie unbroachable straits between us and our designations of ‘it’, emanations and interactions of materials operating outside of dialects accessible —lexicons of sentience and consciousness. Outside broader narratives, I approach each of the works in this exhibition through their speculative microcosms. My sympathies find themselves aligned with certain material apparatus; objects threshed out along dimensions variable. Excised, splattered, melted or made caricature.

Sugar/ Clear Box

Where better to start than with the tenebrous reflection of my own face, glassy and swelling under a long, elastic drip? From one phase to another, a band of melted sugar performs its environment through the tenor of viscosity. Yoked to the ambient temperature of the Clear Box, it drapes voluptuously over replica fruits and vegetables, coating them in a dark exudate that spools to the floor. This forms a pendulous mass slung from one end of a red gum branch, itself suspended, with a TV monitor hanging from the opposite end. Gold paint frosts the branch and flecks the pool of sugar below, embellishments at the hands of Siying Zhou. Zhou’s mixed media installation The Consequences of Success (2015-18) ties these objects together with a video of Australian native plants, stained by almost imperceptibly slow drips of the black sugar. There is something slightly abominable about these languorous agglutinations. I think of sugar carbohydrates coursing through the vascular system of plants. Vital ambrosia driving growth at the sun’s touch. As if in antithesis to this idea, an endless circuit of brutal uprooting runs on a nearby screen. A small mandarin tree is pulled from the earth by intervening human hands. It quavers tenuously towards the end of the loop, and there lingers an ambiguity to what might have come next in Nikki Lam’s video Uprooting Mandarin (2015). Just outside the door of this Box, there are decorative living trees intended to elevate the site’s landscaping. Kept untampered, some are anointed with a bath of soft light. They are spared such insults of excavation and reconstruction. Their subaltern associates appear to lay interred in exquisite tessellation, surgically cut and adjoining the third cluster of work in the Clear Box. Pristine white tiles interject in this zone, centrally marked by an inky adulteration. In Yan Yang’s installation 理智入睡引来恶魔 (2017), the entanglements of sugar are absent. The formal resolution in her work alludes to past violence, but with such opacity to context that it renders itself entirely bloodless and incomprehensible. With contrary irreverence to all this, one side of the Clear Box’s internal façade profligates a disease: Molly Chen’s softly flagellated discs of ceramic, some haloed with a black tar of strong resemblance to Zhou’s sugar. As would a skin, the walls fester with this dermatitis, aptly titled Scabbing/Cicatrice (2018). Chen’s delicately placed sculptures affect a sense of contagion to Zhou’s pooling molasses, like a vertical pollination of materials bridging separate practices, unbidden.

Plastics/ Black Box, Open Box

That most challenging of aesthetics: presenting an amicable relationship with plastics. Ubiquitous in popular critique, ever contentious, these materials are the ouroboros of our advanced oil industries. Polymer loops cycling between ecological decimation and an undeniable convenience to society. As medium and subject, I find plastics to be the lynchpin media for the other two Boxes. From darkness, Yandell Walton’s simulacrum of plastic waste Foreign Objects (2018) emanates, as if mechanically conveyed towards the viewer from beneath a solid wall. Up close, these spectral deposits lose all resolution, shedding their perspectival conceit through the degree of my proximity. Grit and detritus litter the floor beneath this looping projection. Left to wander through currents of oceans and be buried in the earth, discarded plastics resist breakdown, making a mockery out of our species’ transience. Youjia Lu’s shattered self-portrait sears the emptiness of the wall, Time Experiment No. 2 (2018) rendered by the beam flung out from another data projector. This instrument comes enrobed in plastic, another example of consumer electronics that will one day join a flow of garbage so laconically illustrated opposite. As Lu’s video strobes between blackness and self-image in a manufactured staccato, the glow of Walton’s virtualised waste fills in the empty moments. The two video works entwine impermanence and relentlessness in a reciprocal tension.

On the closing night of RIFTS: Particulate Matter, I don a heavy VR headset: temporal conditions align, and the bucolic fantasias of the Open Box banner imagery are vivified. Like the portal in H.G Well’s Door in the Wall, VR application Pilgrimate offers the participant a similar escape from the topographies of the known world. Guided through sequences of Stephen Yuen and Stephanie Liddicoat’s impossible architectures, I feel that ‘plasticity’ here takes a semantic turn, out of its material aspect. It signifies something integral to our own neuroanatomy. Each fractal dreamscape of Pilgrimate runs like a gamified carnival ride. Plunging from nested staircases or coursing through subterranean labyrinths is confronting and exhilarating at every turn. Through sequential exposure (I am informed via a chaperone) the restructure of my neurons could well permeate lived reality. Unfixed and still palpable, storied yet utterly banal, objects institute universes of their own.


[1] RIFTS: Particulate Matter featured artists I-Yen Chen, Nikki Lam, Siying Zhou, Yan Yang, Yandell Walton & Youjia Lu, and spatial designers Stephen Yuen & Stephanie Liddicoat.

[2] Barad, Karen Michelle. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. E-Duke Books Scholarly Collection. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007, p. 392.