Things do not know whether they exist or not

Emery and Lever are makers of precarious things. Some rest on the gallery floor, few on sheets of glass and others on softly dressed plinths made of cardboard. There is a photograph sandwiched between cardboard and glass, an interior shot of a glass house growing palms. Two more photographs hang on the walls depicting wood and metal beams submerged in blue-green sea. There is an upturned moss-coloured flask, or perhaps it is a ceramic vase with a thin neck but rather large jowls. There are cavities, folds and fractures. Asphalt, plaster, unfired clay, polymer clay pins, and few colours like cerulean on gold and aqua on cream.

Emery describes the process of bringing these things into being: “I take the material in my hand and warm it up. I move it around my fingers, roll it in my palm. I don’t yet know what I will shape it into, if anything. I feel calmed by its existence, its here-and-now-ness, its flexibility. I stick my finger into it, and push out a space. Now it is a thing.”[1]

These things are not simple objects, inert or passive. They do not appear to us with an identifiable gestalt or a stereotypical template. There is a vital materiality to them, to borrow Jane Bennett’s phraseology. Things do not know whether they exist or not, still, they fully participate in the ritual of making, re-making and un-making, somewhere between the pause and the pulse. “Traces of some prior action are held; at the same time further action is provoked.”[2] They are the source of action that can alter a course of events. Actants, in Bruno Latour’s terms. They are efficacious and are endowed with thing-power: “… the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle.”[3]

It is not a case of anthropomorphism, but something more real. A single Chinese word, shi, renders the ambiguity of thing-power. It helps to “illuminate something that is usually difficult to capture in discourse: namely, the kind of potential that originates not in human initiative but instead results from the very disposition of things.”[4] Shi is the dynamism emanating from styles and sensibilities. The pale echoes of limbs leaning against the corner wall, the third variegated orb following a sideways trajectory outside the glassy surface, and the ruptured tube posing ambiguously as an artifact. Shi is the propensity of Emery and Lever’s things.

However much meaning one imposes on things, however much things are ritualised, they are never entirely exhausted. They exceed language with a return to being. Things are not created, so much as born of dispositions. However, they do not exist for themselves, in and of themselves. They are upāya: skillful means for a certain realisation. It is the totem for the shaman, the ceramic idol for the Brahmin. Things are always and already vibrant, their pouvoir perceptible. This, one could say, is the main concern of Emery and Lever: to rediscover vibrancy in all matter.

[1] Philippa Emery
[2] Ziggy Lever
[3] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 6.
[4] François Jullien, The Propensity of Things: Toward a History of Efficacy in China, trans. Janet Lloyd (New York: Zone Books, 1999), 13.

Things do not know whether they exist or not. A catalogue published on the occasion of Un-making, an exhibition by Philippa Emery and Ziggy Lever at RM Gallery, Auckland, 6 – 22 June 2013. Image: Courtesy of the artists.


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