The Material Point

Kathleen Wyma

Indeed, it is only by means of the rigid and regular web of concepts that the waking man clearly sees that he is awake; and it is precisely because of this that he sometimes thinks that he must be dreaming when this web of concepts is torn by art.

Friedrich Nietzsche 1


The Material Point: Reconsidering the Medium in the (Post)modern Moment

Indeed, it is only by means of the rigid and regular web of concepts that the waking man clearly sees that he is awake; and it is precisely because of this that he sometimes thinks that he must be dreaming when this web of concepts is torn by art.

Friedrich Nietzsche 1

At the end of the 19th century Friedrich Nietzsche (with profound prescience considering the rise of late 20th century postmodernism) railed against the ossification of thought and the petrifaction of innovation through what he saw as the advance of mindless repetition.  It was, according to Nietzsche, the artist’s job to tear asunder the veil of dissimulation and abandon the hackneyed concepts that lead us down the blind alley of reiteration.  The pride of knowing, that smug place afforded by the confidence of assumed understanding, is our proverbial Achilles’ heel.  Yet, if we take Nietzsche at his word, art can cancel our hubris and perform a redemptive function.  The shock of new materials and new artistic applications serves to awaken us out of our languid stupor and to make us momentarily aware of the hall of mirrors that imprisons us.  Indeed, if one glances across the expanse of history, one realises that art has often assumed the role of standard bearer leading the charge of cultural and political insurrection.  Past examples are easy to find.  The avant-garde salvos fired by the Dada performances of Cabaret Voltaire, the explosive collage work of Picasso, and the surgical (yet scatological strikes) of the Arte Brute movement not only awakened an intense questioning of modernity but also served to hint at the possibility of disinterring artistic practice from the stale grave of traditional materials and methods.

Without a doubt, the issue of “material choice” reverberates in the spaces between the past and the present; and also echoes through this exhibition, which focuses upon the employment of atypical materials in the creation of art objects.  One could argue that the contemporary reconsideration of artistic medium dates back to the post Jackson Pollock moment in the United States when Alan Kaprow asked the question, “what now?” [2] Kaprow opined that the “gesture” of Pollock’s action paintings universally emancipated painters and allowed creative individuals the freedom to adopt the more generalist appellation “artist.”  Newly minted “artists” shifted the conceptual terrain by employing methods and materials that were unmoored from the constraints of academic tradition.[3]  To be sure, in the 1960s artists like Allan Kaprow, Eva Hess, Robert Smithson and Kazuo Shiraga used diverse and unusual means for making the artistic mark; but, is the current move toward new material practices in any way connected to what happened almost 50 years ago?

In answer to my own question I have to say both yes and no.  I beg your indulgence as I first address the affirmative.  In his essay, “Entropy and New Monuments,” American born artist Robert Smithson considers the introduction of new materials into the artistic practices of the 1960s vis-à-vis minimalism.[4] Smithson sees the adoption of ready-made objects (such as Dan Flavin’s fluorescent tubes) as participating in the creation of anti-monuments – works of art that do not speak of space but rather of time.  Smithson observes that when an artist casts off traditional materials (marble, wood, paint and canvas) in favour of less durable mediums – time begins to function differently.  Unlike stable monuments, these objects are not meant to endure the ages; their fragility speaks of the passage into inevitable obsolescence.  It is Smithson’s evocation of time versus space that I find particularly productive and worthy of consideration in light of the new materials adopted by contemporary artists.[5] Issues of the temporal and how it registers in the artist’s choice of material is the preliminary operating assumption of this exhibition, which seeks to investigate (or at least bring to the fore) questions of whether or not our post-modern, post-industrial moment positions time as a blind spot.  Or, more specifically, do artists reveal this blind spot through the dispensation and deployment of everyday materials in the making of art objects?

If Smithson’s argument about anti-monuments and the role of time proposes the possibility of a historically based investigation — it also potentially hinders dialogue about the contemporary in India.  By this I mean, the pendulum of artistic trend hangs upon a cultural fulcrum, so while it may be interesting to consider the rise of new material practices against the backdrop of history, it is equally important to investigate the contemporary cultural pivot.  By this I mean, the use of everyday objects in artistic practice may reflect historical antecedents but how does their use reflect “real time” social and cultural inclinations.  That said, I believe it is critical to understand how the work functions and resonates in the locality beyond the space of the gallery and ideally, the exhibition should encourage an exchange of ideas in the “marketplace” of social and cultural circumstance. In bringing together a cutting edge quorum of artists, this exhibition seeks to encourage a larger conversation about what is at stake in the embrace of ubiquitous ready – made materials.  Without a doubt, the materials speak a vernacular language; yet, by repurposing them, do the artists tear the Nietzschean “web of concepts” and allow a fleeting glimpse of the art world as it is?  It seems to me that the material point of this inventive artistic method is to ask the viewer to not only critique the fetishistic tendencies of the art world (which valorizes and promotes the singular “fine art object”) but also to catalyse a more careful consideration of the politics of materials and our consumptive relationship to them.

-Kathleen Wyma, Curator.

[1] “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” (1873), in The Nietzsche Reader, eds., Duncan Large and Keith Ansell Pearson (Maldan Mass: Blackwell, 2006), 114-123.

[2]Allan Kaprow,  Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life  (Berkeley,: University of California Press, 1993), 1-9.

[3]Kaprow states, “Pollock, as I see it, left us at the point where we must become preoccupied with and even dazzled by the space and objects of our everyday life…”  Ibid., 7.

[4] Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, ed. Jack Flam  (Berkeley University of California Press, 1996).

[5] Ironically, many late twentieth century theorists would have us believe space is the blind spot; the thing that is often overlooked.   For example see; Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans., Steven Rendall (Berkeley University of California Press, 1984), Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans., Donald Nicholson-Smith.(Oxford: Basil Blackwell,1991).

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  • Sachin George Sebastian
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  • Vibha Galhotra
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