Materials-based Art Practice


This paper aims to address the why and how of this material focus through a series of examples of sound installations in which the materials themselves are the focus. A material-based practice, as I will be using it here, is one in which the materials stand for themselves. That is, they do not represent things that they are not, nor do they act as an abstraction in which representation or critique plays no part. Landscape painting, for example, might entail the employment of oil paint to represent a scene from nature. Here the green paint used to represent the leaves of the trees and the blades of grass have no physical relationship to the landscape itself; one would have to draw a long bow to link the pigment itself to the land. Thus, we do not look at a landscape painting and consider the materials of oil paint, its variously sourced pigments and the linseed oil in which the pigment is suspended. Instead, we consider the scene that is laid out before us, perhaps looking at its composition and the traditions and conventions it draws upon in illustrating the scene.

A materials-based practice operating within the genre of landscape painting might allow various elements of the landscape to stand for themselves. Rather banally, the grass would be represented not by paint, but by real grass, perhaps affixed to the canvas itself. While this example would be clumsy, to say the least, it provides a way into my distinction. More to the point: a rock is represented by a rock within this approach.


Sound art has often been discussed under various conceptual frameworks allowing for the investigation of sound “as itself.”[1] Here the general approach is one in which various phenomena of sound (physical, spatial, psycho-acoustical) are employed to give the audience an experience of sound. An example of this practice is the work of Swiss artist Zimoun who installs large quantities of cardboard boxes into the gallery and activates them with a multitude of DC motors that spin, shake or swipe objects across the boxes’ surfaces. These actions create an orchestra of similar sounds that build on repetition to produce a complex sonic outcome. Various sound arts commenters have discussed this type of approach as either representing a positive way to employ materials within art (most notably Christoph Cox) or as a negative approach lacking conceptual rigor (Seth Kim-Cohen). Sound art is not the object of this paper, in part because this practice is too heavily focused on “sound as itself” and not about the implications inherent in any material that is employed in making the installation or performance.[2] Similarly, the current debates associated with the “new-materialisms” and so-called “sonic materialism” should not be confused here with the materials study of the arts. My approach is not through an imagined materiality of sound itself, but rather a close investigation of the materials that cause the sound and thus can be aligned with theoretical approaches used in the investigation of contemporary art.


The theorizing of sound art is almost always aligned with music, with most of the canonical figures having explicitly produced music. While it is difficult to think of concrete examples of figures from the visual arts who have prominently contributed to the discourses that surround sound art, it is simple to list the music composers who have had direct influence. As such, the developing canon of the sonic arts is represented almost entirely by composers, including John Cage, Alvin Lucier, La Monte Young, Pierre Schaefer, Pauline Oliveros, and R. Murray Schafer. In the paragraphs below, I examine some recent approaches to gallery-based installation art to discover what contemporary art practices might bring to the developing discourses around sound art.


The materials-based approach discussed here is more closely aligned with the conceptual than with the abstract and is not only interested in the sounding element of the work but in the historical and political, especially regarding the materials themselves. Materials, after all, are never innocent. For example, Sydney-based electronic artist Emily Morandini produces electrical components out of raw materials rather than the highly refined and often minute objects that we expect. Her series Components (2017) explores the materiality and history of electronic technologies. The sculptural objects that comprise the installation are made from raw materials, delineated in their titles: Inductor: copper, magnetite; Capacitor: copper, quartz; and Resistor: copper, bushfire carbonised rock. The works were developed out of a deep interrogation of the histories of these minerals and their connection to the mining industry. Morandini states,


While most modern electronic devices obscure nearly all discernible connections to their source, they are always intertwined at multiple levels with the energies and materials of the environment […] The artworks themselves consist of handcrafted, open, raw, functional, and hypo-functional electronic circuits using a minimal collection of substances such as fabric, rocks, salt, and minerals. (Morandini 2017: n.p.)  


Through the work of Morandini we are made aware of the materials of electronic components that are usually hidden from us, both in their miniaturization as well as in their encapsulation within the black box. 


There are also various critical reasons that the emergence and flourishing of sound within the arts and academic fields coincide with a return to various philosophies of materialism (cf. Eng 2017: 316-329). The artists that are discussed here all produce works that, through the sounding of their materials, deliver a series of outcomes that call on us to think about where these materials have come from and where they will end up. In doing so, these works provide a critique of media art by turning their attention to the underbelly of matter and the flows of energy that are ever present.


The paper will first look at two shifts in the approach to materials within art and media. The first is a renewed understanding of materials in sculpture through their dematerialization and the second is a rethinking of where the materials have been, including their often dirty history. The paper suggests that we are currently being offered a variety of new understandings of materials as being comprised of matter that has both a history and a future that is not always positive. This understanding is further developed by various artists working in Australia within the context of contemporary art and specifically with works that use sound to investigate our assumptions of materials.