Zaena Sheehan (UCL) - 2022-23 Students

Ecology and the Dynamics of Mattering in Contemporary Art

This project examines how the use of biological materials in contemporary art produces a porous understanding of the body, personhood, and interspecies relations. As such, it will analyse and contextualise one of the most significant tendencies of art produced over the past decade. My analysis centres on artists whose practices incorporate active chemical and organic substances – ranging from endocrine disrupters to bacteria, fungi, and moulds – situating their work in relation to the ecological crisis. Subject to unpredictable biological processes, these artworks fundamentally challenge interpretive frameworks based on individual intention, agency, or causality; presenting a compelling parallel with the unstable boundaries of the body itself. Offering an innovative reading of the relationship between matter and meaning in these artists’ work, I argue they stage a ‘porous’ account of the body that subverts anthropocentric hierarchies.

I study a group of artists, which includes Anicka Yi, Jenna Sutela, Candice Lin, and Mary Maggic, whose work is rooted in an ecological sensibility and an expanded conception of subjectivity. Notably, the human body is rarely represented in these artists’ work. Rather, it is invoked through somatic processes that draw attention to the permeability and malleability of bodily frontiers. This persistent refusal to image the human form subverts the taxonomic impulses of figuration, demonstrating that the bodily is not synonymous with the anthropocentric. Further, in emphasising the sensorial over the spectatorial, these artworks encourage a visceral response that de-stabilises mind / body dualisms. Situating this changing status of figuration in relation to the ecological crisis, this project examines how the body is experienced at this point of epistemic rupture.

This project contributes to an urgent research agenda focused on the role of the visual arts in confronting the ecological crisis. Extant literature in this field has largely overlooked how the materiality of the work of art shapes its affective potential. I address this oversight, by asking how materials and material praxes are implicated in the process of mattering. My use of the term ‘matter’ in this instance alludes to its verbal usage, denoting something of consequential importance. How the human body ‘matters’ therefore has a direct impact on interspecies relations. At its core, my research seeks to better understand how representations of the body intervene in this dynamic. To this end, I advocate a ‘diffractive’ approach that, in reading matter and meaning through one another, questions interpretive frameworks based on individual agency and positions knowledge as an ongoing process of world-making. I argue for artistic practice as an immanent mode of analysis, which is not simply illustrative, but potentially productive of ecological consciousness.

Primary supervisor: Cadence Kinsey, UCL
Secondary supervisor: Helia Marcal, UCL

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