Promissory Things

20-22 June 2019

DEMO: 21 Shaddock Street, Auckland

It has been an engaging process developing a solo show and responding to the DEMO  environment.  The DEMO space is shed-like, with an apex height of 5m and comprises a core 9m x 7m area that is approached via a 7m x 3m corridor. As such it provided space for experimentation at moderate yet super-corporeal scale.  As the penultimate in a concentrated series of shows, catalysed by the imminent demolition of the building for public transport needs, it’s been intriguing to occupy DEMO for a week.  The space bears defiant traces of recent shows, and it has provided an opportunity to contemplate ways that space, and work within it, can be understood.

For Promissory Things I worked with kaolin, water and canvas. Experimentation prior to the show had confirmed my suspicion that increased scale would allow the materials more degrees of freedom to create and offer a range of tensions and resolutions.  I also have an intuition that object scales both beyond and below bodily scale encourage a more contemplative experience.

Why contemplative?   A companion of mine for almost two decades has been the book Straw Dogs.  Straw Dogs pithily delivers political philosopher John Gray’s broad attack on the concept of progress (1).  In puncturing the notion, Gray places progress firmly within the context of a misguided humanist faith.  Gray then asks how are we now to live?  For Gray the answer is not a course of action; rather he suggests his subversive truth that “in order to see the world rightly” we should aim for contemplation.  Contemplation seems a suitable response to the illusion of explanatory depth, the widespread human delusion of understanding complex phenomena with far greater depth, coherence and clarity than we really do (2, and widely confirmed since).

My intention was to extend the scale to the maximum the space allowed, and allow the material to have architectural presence. The two works comprised: Promissory Things (Wall), in which on one side of the entrance corridor an entire 6m x 2.5m gallery-type wall was coated with kaolin & water paste and dried: Promissory Things (Canvas) in which three hanging canvases, one face of each covered in a kaolin & water paste (each canvas 4.5m high x 2m wide) were winched* into place as an array across the core space.

The canvases initially occupied a predominantly two-dimensional format that evolved, as the water evaporated and in response the canvas and kaolin contorted, into three-dimensional space.  The materials, as presented in Promissory Things, were shown when evaporation was complete. The three canvases had an architectural effect of dividing the room, manifesting distinct but complementary faces from the divide.


The source of kaolin has been covered elsewhere in this blog. For the canvas, extensive trialling with various unprimed artists canvases revealed 10 oz weight to be most revealing of the interaction with kaolin. In a subsequent quick test of an idea using a new painters’ canvas drop cloth, the history of the drop cloth (its stitching & folding/pleating) became evident in the drying process and entered into dialogue with the drying kaolin. For this reason I continued with drop cloth canvas in the install.


Kaolin on canvas, drying

The title of the show derives from the phrase Promissory Materialism, coined by the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper.  Promissory, as in conveying a promise, is most frequently heard in the phrase promissory notes, e.g. banknotes, bearing a promise to pay.  Promissory Materialism was Popper’s somewhat scathing description of the taking out of promissory notes against future findings to understand phenomena in the world, and in particular to explain human consciousness.

Drying kaolin, canvas & floor

The statement accompanying the work read:

In the neurosciences it is becoming increasingly evident that human beings’ day-to-day perception of the world and our place within it is a self-fulfilling perceptual prophecy. That we are, in effect, experiencing a controlled hallucination largely based on internal assumptions about the world. As the neuroscientist Anil Seth has characterised it, this hallucination is built on small amounts of data the senses provide in real time, which the brain uses to generate a rich perceptual environment (3).

And what of the data those senses are providing to the brain?  Mathematical modelling of the senses strongly suggests that, by virtue of being the products of evolutionary processes, those senses are incapable of relaying any truth about the world (4). That whatever the reality of the world may be, it is nothing like it appears to us.

Material is changeable, compliant, dominant.  It persists before and after form and can be experienced via cosmological and geological histories, anthropic beliefs and expectations.  Responding to the possibilities in the world revealed by these recent developments, ‘Promissory Things’ frames materials at thresholds of dimensionality, functionality, and fragility, recording interactions, forces and responses to possibility.  Perhaps such environments allow reimagined qualities beyond the known, free of anchoring assumptions.

1) John Gray (2002) Straw Dogs; Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals. Granta Publications, London

2) Leonid Rozenblit and Fran Keil (2002) The misunderstood limits of folk science: an illusion of explanatory depth. Cognitive Science 26: 521-526

3) Anil Seth (2017) Nothing to be afraid of.

4) Donald Hoffman and Chetan Prakash (2014) Objects of Consciousness. Frontiers in Psychology 5: 577


Kaolin on wall, drying

*with thanks to Peter Walsh and Jonathan Kennedy

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