Tending and Attending:
Rituals of care in Asad Raza’s Absorption
by Saskia Scott
The scent of damp earth fills the dark and cavernous warehouse of the Clothing Store, Carriageworks. Inside is the latest Kaldor Public Art Project by New York-based artist Asad Raza. Absorption, if reduced to its base material, is three hundred tonnes of soil.
The soil has raised the floor level, making the doorways low and disorientating. A father and child use a spade to fill a paper bag with soil to take home. Tiny green shoots spring up in small patches. People – the artist’s ‘cultivators’ – are busy tending to the soil; watering, adding nutrients, digging and turning the earth. The soil is soft and loose underfoot. It becomes compacted in pathways by the footfalls of visitors and cultivators alike, only to be loosened again and turned by the cultivators’ trowels.
The cultivators are volunteers: many are artists, others are scientists from the University of Sydney's Institute of Agriculture, but here, dressed in reflective vests by artist Agatha Gothe-Snape, they share in, and are made equal by, the repetitive tasks of care, measurement and explaining the project to the public.
Raza’s site-specific installation sits within a tradition of relational aesthetics defined by Nicolas Bourriaud as “a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.”(1) Here, participation is encouraged and the relationship between the art, the artist and the audience is porous.
Raza offered Absorption as a venue for public events, concerts and discussions. Composting, a feminism and environmental humanities reading group, hosted a reading of Maria Puig de la Bellacasa’s article Making time for soil. Raza’s work mirrors Puig de la Bellacasa’s theory: decoupling soil care from human agriculture and its instrumental value, instead it invites us to “engage with soil as a living community rather than a receptacle for crops.”(2)
The soil itself is an amalgamation of organic elements from disparate sources. Sand, clay, cuttlefish bones, lime, barley, coffee grounds and green waste all entered the mix. Raza describes the result as “Anthropocene soil … only be created through human intervention.”(3) While this is an arresting metaphor, the work is as much an example of what Donna Haraway has called "the Chthulucene and its tentacular tasks".(4) Formed by more than (mere) human intervention, the soil is a product of collaboration across time, space, scale and being. Raza's work demands that its participants and cultivators embrace not only each other, but also a multi-species story.
In Absorption, generosity becomes generative. Raza has created a collaborative and inclusive community space where many people contribute to the whole and where their contributions shape the work’s direction. The cultivators enact a kind of radical generosity, tending to the soil and attending to the public; offering their time, experience and bags of soil. In so doing, they cease to be ‘participants in’ and become ‘creators of’ the work. Importantly, by drawing our attention to the role of the cultivator, the repetitive and often overlooked labours of care come to the fore. As Puig de la Bellacasa suggests, “focusing on care draws our attention to glimpses of alternative, liveable relationalities, and hopefully contributes to other possible worlds in the making.”(5)
Bourriaud, Nicolas, 2002, Relational Aesthetics, Paris: Les Presses du Réel.
Puig de la Bellacasa, Maria, 2015, Making time for soil: Technoscientific futurity and the pace of care. Social Studies of Science. 45 (5). p. 1.
Haraway, Donna J., 2016, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Duke University Press, Durham and London. p. 42.
Puig de la Bellacasa, Maria, 2015, Making time for soil: Technoscientific futurity and the pace of care. Social Studies of Science. 45 (5). p. 2.