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Sensitive Object

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Animism: to be animated, life like, animal-like, person-like. But also, to blur the boundaries between life and non life; to fracture the understanding of what it means to act or to be acted upon. The subject of animism is attached to a long history, which bends, blends and folds around cultural practices (and the mainly imperial-colonial-anthropological study of them). Writing on the subject of animism for E-Flux journal, Anselm Franke states ‘that inanimate objects and things act, that they have designs on us, and that we are interpolated by them is a quotidian reality that we all implicitly accept- just as we accept, and indeed are animated by the very milieus and contexts in which we operate.’(1) Within the art world, the concept of animism often deals with the way that people relate to works of art (and their milieus and contexts). But more than that, animism also allows an entry point for interrogating how works of art do what they do. Within this piece of writing I would like to speak about animism via Affect Theory. I will be discussing the affective relationships that occur between objects of art and question what it means for an object to have force and agency that is animistic.

I want to talk about what happens in the gallery when there's no one there. Not in a ‘Johnson and Friends’ or 'Night at the Museum' kind of way, but in terms of the lives that artworks live when no one is looking. Animism is often related to objects imbued with spirituality, or spiritual significance; a totemic object that has the agency to act out an otherworldly life or task. What I am interested in is worldly, but not necessarily visible. I'm going to try to speak about it plainly, because that is what feels most comfortable for me, even though it feels difficult to explain.

When I walk into a gallery space, I am acutely aware of the pushing and pulling that occurs between the objects within the space. There is invisible energy that runs throughout. It's not about what works of art mean, but rather, what they do. What are they doing to each other? How does one thing stand next to another thing? How does one object unfold in relation to its neighbour, or in relation to the object on the other side of the room. Who is pressing against whom? Who or what is acting?

Affect theory has grown out of a psychological tradition that investigates how people are moved to feeling, or, how they are affected. Within the art world there has been some recent focus on the subject of affect from scholars including Susan Best, Simon O’Sullivan, Eve Meltzer and Brian Massumi. The theory shifts away from the idea that artworks convey ideas, or contain some kind of hidden meaning and instead focuses on what artworks do. Seeking to address what she considers a blind spot within contemporary art history, Susan Best’s Visualising Feeling (2011), presents a reinterpretation of art history via Affect. Best frames anthropomorphism and animism in art works as being ‘not about the attribution of human qualities to inanimate objects, it is a more general question about how subjectivity is presented and constructed in art.(2) Affect theory focuses on dynamic exchanges, bringing to the forefront relations between bodies.

In affect theory there is this idea that bodies press against each other. In their introduction to Affect Theory Reader Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Siegworth describe bodies as ‘human, non-human, part-body and otherwise’.(3) A body, within this understanding, being anything that has the ability to affect or be affected. A body being my physical lump of human flesh and beating heart and growing hair. But a body can also be just an object in a room. This idea, these objects in rooms, these are the things that I am interested in.

I think it is easy to recognise that works of art have the ability to move people (to press against the body, to make people stammer, gasp, laugh, sweat, stoop). And so, acknowledging that works of art have the ability to affect people, and understanding that affect is an exchange between two bodies, then it must be reasonable to posit that works of art also have the agency to affect each other. And surely they must do that whether a person is there or not. Things don't stop happening when you step out of a room. Simon O’Sullivan puts it eloquently, ‘Art, whether we will it or not, continues producing affects’. (4)

Sometimes the ability for objects to affect each other is obvious, tangible and real. Take jeweller and installation artist Dan Bell. His work, Condensense, shown in Pretty Air and Useful Things at Monash University Museum of Art in 2012, presented three vessels containing Kimchi, a Korean fermented cabbage dish. Throughout the length of the exhibition the elements within the work were constantly in a process of fermenting, the raw ingredients act upon each other in a slow, almost imperceptible performance. The transformation creates an awareness of the processes that occur when no one is watching. An awareness that an exhibition is not a static space, where everything is the same at the beginning and the end. The Kimchi is breathing, fermenting, becoming-other. The work makes visible forces in action within the gallery space.

And it is in this process/performance that the work becomes animated (albeit a slow and unenergetic form of animation). Bell isn't the first artist to exhibit this kind of thing, but the alchemy of Condensense has a beauty to it.

It is more difficult to look at artworks where on first glance quietude, silence and static are at heart. No moving parts, no obvious event, no making-things-happen. But instead, a pointing towards the invisible energy, the magnetic pull, that exists between objects. A different kind of alchemy.

Here I want to describe the sensitive relations between objects within the work of Adelaide based artist Julia McInerney. Within McInerney’s practice objects (bodies) are arranged with precision. Her 2013 solo exhibition White Air Anatomy at FELTspace saw an installation of collected materials in dialogue. Avocado skins, mirror, marble dust, ash, foam were placed, hovering an inch above the ground, on panes of glass which had been painted white on one side. There is no obvious meaning imbued in the objects and nothing particular about the way in which they are arranged (McInerney describes the work as having been ‘arrived at’). But there is a visual presence; a space created by the complex assemblages composed between bodies. Gertrude Stein called it ‘pretty air’, this space that sits around objects and makes them breathe.

I remember being in the gallery and navigating the space, the painted white panels of glass filling much of the floor, creating a physical awareness of my own boundary as I walked around the work. The objects (bodies) pushed against each other with their physical force; a drying avocado skin hung from a string, floating mid air and reflected in a mirror below. Light, transparency, opacity, dust, ‘nerves, air, dust, sheets, layers, lung, well, wet, cold, north, remains, frozen, net, eye, black’.(5) For me, the interesting thing within McInerney’s work is the agency that the objects have on each other. White painted glass sits next to mirror and is forced to be opaque, non-reflective. White painted glass hovers above the ground and is visibly weightless, but also structurally heavy, fragile. On top sits rocks; rough, dense, dangerous. Watermelon seeds, coated in dust, arranged in a pattern; the artists hand made visible. These objects affectively relate to each other through subtle and sometimes invisible forces. Objects speak through material language, commenting on each other’s texture, form and surface. It is a non-human interaction, a kind of object-life without cognitive thinking. An object-life of feeling, proximity, force, receptivity and sensation.

In her review of White Air Anatomy, Linda Marie Walker discusses the idea that the objects in McInerney’s installation are in the act of waiting, she writes ‘it’s a proposition of fragility, of tenuousness, of temporariness, of passing – as if for a moment; a moment might manifest as this'.(6) The objects embody a quiet passage of unfolding, the act of waiting is something that they do. There are so many possibilities, and so many ways that the artwork could change. All of these potentials are part of the action. Gregg and Seigworth describe the promise of affect as ‘increases in capacities to act (expansions in affectability: both to affect and to be affected), the start of "being-capable", resonant affinities of body and world, being open to more life or more to life’.(7) In the act of waiting there is a build up of possibilities and agency to act. The ongoingness of the process of affect is presented as many virtual layers of possibility all stacked one on top of the other. In this, the objects are in a web of relation to the world and their bodies are life-like.

I see Bell and McInerney’s artworks as bodies capable of participating and reciprocating in passages of affect. They are sensitive towards other bodies, environments and context. They push and pull. Sometimes they collapse and withhold. They enter into subjective relations with spectators, and subjective relations with each other. They open up possibilities and show difference. And in their agency, they make visible their irrefutable energy/force/life, which is non-human, non-animal, but exists in relation, somewhere between objects.