QofR: Materiality in contemporary Art

Updated: Apr 14, 2021

In my last blog I presented a potted history of materiality within visual art, today, I want to consider a few unanswered questions:

  1. how does materiality feature in contemporary art?

  2. why is materiality important anyway?

  3. how can materiality be manipulated?

I watched a fascinating lecture by artist and educator Warren Seelig about the importance of materiality within modern culture.

In the lecture, Seelig argues convincingly that human existence has become increasingly isolated and that our senses have been anaesthetised by our reliance upon the digital and virtual.

Communication increasingly occurs digitally rather than face-to-face and in the flesh. Our bodies are hermetically sealed by, glass encased, triple glazed, climate controlled and halogen lit apartments, houses, offices and automobiles. So many of the objects we live with are synthesized, reconstituted, with their surfaces neoprene-coated, plasticized, veneered and laminated creating materials which are so homogenized that they are ultimately un-recognizable.

The language he uses feels suffocating, as though our nostrils and throats are coated in a tasteless plastic, making it impossible to breathe, let alone use our senses. Seelig argues that engagement with the physical world is an instinctual need, one that can be highly emotional, particularly when we have been deprived of these interactions.

Haptic experiences aren't just emotional, they affect our cognitive processes and are key to our development. Recent studies have shown how our early ancestors’ capacity for building a comfortable bed increased the amount of REM sleep they got, consequently leading to faster cognitive development than other species. In other words, our propensity for ‘making’ - or using our hands - is key to our pre-eminence as a species.

It may be possible to infer the ocularcentrism that has defined Western art criticism is misled. The belief that an embodied experience of art is somehow lesser than a cognitive one, adheres to an archaic dualism that overlooks the vital role our other senses (and our bodies more generally) play within our intellectual, cognitive experiences. To bring back the Petra Lange-Berndt quote I used last week:

For some, to engage with materials still seems the antithesis of intellectuality, a playground for those not interested in theory, while material studies are defined, at best, as an auxiliary science.

The digital age has shifted us further into an existence reliant on ocular and aural information, further compounded by a year spent in lockdown. Embodied experiences have become rarer as we rely on Zoom calls for social interaction, YouTube for learning skills and apps for entertainment. This has exaggerated both the significance of materiality within art, and the choices artists' make about the materiality of their work. As Christina Murdoch Mills wrote in her 2009 thesis Materiality as the Basis for the Aesthetic Experience in Contemporary Art:

At present, art provides a much-needed anchor for embodiment—a manifestation of human touch, of recognizable effects of human endeavor—during a time that could be largely characterized as an age of disembodiment, a time when many of us are disconnected from the vast amounts of information to which we are privy, the very information that, from a distance, informs our world.

While early 20th Century artists were drawing attention to the materiality of their work in order to break down the 'fourth wall' as it were, many contemporary artists choose their materials because of their symbolic significance. With Braque and Picasso's assemblages came a recognition that you needn't be restricted to certain materials when creating art. Instead, the materials you chose to create with, could take on an important voice within your creative intention. Just like linguistic signifiers giving additional meanings within a poem, material choices can hold symbolic value. A really simple example would be if you are making a piece in which you wanted to explore motherhood, it would make more sense to work with clay rather than say, steel. The symbolic resonances of clay include Prometheus moulding man from the banks of the river, or Parvati making Ganesh from clay into flesh and blood. Steel might be used if you want to evoke themes of industrialisation, environmental issues or the power of humanity.

I've gathered together a few examples of contemporary artists who have made conscious decisions about the materials they create with for their symbolic values:

Kara Walker

Kara Walker’s sculptural installation A subtlety, or the Marvellous Sugar baby is made almost entirely out of sugar. The centrepiece is a giant sphinx coated in refined white sugar, which is accompanied by smaller sculptures of children carrying baskets, made from a darker molasses. I say installation because the works were displayed in the Domino Sugar Factory, which in the 1890s produced more than half the sugar in the US, serving as 'a locus of activity and consumption in America for more than 100 years.' So the location is intrinsic to the experience of the work. When discussing the unusual (non-traditional) choice of material, Walker states:

One of the selling points for me was the plant itself, along with this amazing history of sugar and its attendant legacies of slavery. There are decades of molasses that cover the entire space; it’s coated… This desire for refined sugar and what it means to turn sugar from brown to white and how that dovetails into becoming an American were fascinating to me.

So both the physical and chemical properties of sugar – its various colours and its melting point, its sand-like ability to be moulded - as well as its symbolic links with slavery, gluttony and consumerism, all work together to inspire and voice the intention of the work. Walker has created a symbiosis between concept and materiality. As the artist puts it: 'It’s like the gooey, sticky manifestation of America’s original sin.'


Kristin Morgin

Kristin Morgin is a ceramic artist, whose use of ceramics is very different to what we traditionally associate with a format of refined perfection, kiln fired clay and over glazes. She builds large scale corroding sculptures, often of vintage cars or musical instruments using a mixture of clay, cement and glue overlaying an armature of wood and wire. The piece above is identifiable as a Cadillac, recognisable as that iconic American brand, but it has been transfigured into a relic of some ancient civilisation. The dusty, cracked nature of the clay makes it appear like a survivor from a carbon emissions apocalypse.

The choice to leave the clay unfired was key to Morgin's artistic intention: 'I wanted my work to be dangerous,' while fired clay is dependable and archival, air-dried clay required constant maintenance. 'Depending on how you cared for something, it could either break down or still exist.' This ever-present threat of extinction makes the decay more than just an aesthetic choice.

Another of Morgin's pieces - a grand piano that matches the size and shape of a piano Beethoven once owned - is built out of a wooden structure, to which a mixture of clay, cement and salt are glued. The use of salt not only varies the colour and texture of the surface, leaving a deposit once the water from the clay evaporates, but adds a further conceptual dimension:

Salt is the second most corrosive material on earth. It was once a very precious material that was highly sought after. Wars were fought over it. It was a symbol of luxury and the upper class. All of this seemed appropriate to tie into my version of Beethoven’s piano.

El Anatsui

The Ghanaian sculpture and textile artist El Anatsui is known for his massive wall hangings made from recycled materials like bottle caps and nails. The hangings evoke the history and spirit of traditional Kente cloth of the Ashanti people of Ghana, appearing to have both the delicacy of lace and the strength of chain mail. Anatsui's choice of recycled materials from Africa highlights the necessity of reusing items in certain areas of the world, rather than as a ethical choice. However, not only does Anatsui transform the discarded into the beautiful, in doing so he hints at broader topics such as global consumerism and its historic links with slavery.

I saw the bottle caps as relating to the history of Africa in the sense that when the earliest group of Europeans came to trade, they brought along rum originally from the West Indies that then went to Europe and finally to Africa as three legs of the triangular trip…The drink caps that I use are not made in Europe; they are all made in Nigeria, but they symbolize bringing together the histories of these two continents.

For Anatsui, meaning is therefore embedded in materiality on many levels: providing critical commentary on the social ills of alcoholism, alcohol's connection to slavery, and the adverse impact of consumerism and waste. However, by transforming these materials Anatsui achieves a kind of transcendence, the sheer quantity of bottle caps actually obfuscates their original baseness, they become jewel-like and precious.



  1. Amy, Michaël. 'Nothing Outlives Mortality: A Conversation with Kristen Morgin', Sculpture, 29 (2010), 46-51. Available from: https://www.academia.edu/8493597/_Nothing_Outlives_Mortality_A_Conversation_with_Kristen_Morgin_in_Sculpture_29_3_April_2010_pp_46_51

  2. Mills, Christina Murdoch. 'Materiality as the Basis for the Aesthetic Experience in Contemporary Art' (unpublished MA thesis, University of Montana, 2009). Available from: https://scholarworks.umt.edu/etd/1289

  3. Seelig, Warren. 'Materiality and Meaning', YouTube.com [online] updated 13 April 2012 . Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dq8LK83Shbk

  4. Tate, 'Who is El Anatsui?', Tate.com [online]. Available from: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/el-anatsui-17306/who-is-el-anatsui

  5. Tate, 'Materiality coursework guide?', Tate.com [online]. Available from: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/student-resource/exam-help/materials

  6. Wagley, Catherine. 'Kristen Morgin', Ceramic Arts Daily (15 September 2010). Available from: http://www.anthonymeierfinearts.com/attachment/en/555f2a8acfaf3429568b4568/Press/555f2b08cfaf3429568b5a2a.

  7. Walker, Kara. 'In conversation with Kara Rooney', in Materiality: Documents of Contemporary Art (London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2015), 57-59

  8. Walker, Matthew. Why We Sleep (London: Penguin Random House, 2017).

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