Hester Reeve

Sculptural Substance

Hester Reeve - 'Burning to Speak'

Hester Reeve 'Burning to Speak' (2015) - Thought Positions in Sculpture, Huddersfield Art Gallery

The artist lives, long live the artist!

I came to the ‘Artists’ Lives’ archive already preoccupied with the possibility of hitting upon what I am terming ‘sculptural substance.’ Sculptural substance – a hypothetical conjecture – is pertinent to any individual subjectivity, but it is made more tangible through the ‘practices of being’ arising out of certain artists’ practices (I use the contentious term ‘being’ here rather than becoming because I want to talk of capacity rather than potentiality in this account). I am not sure if I would have come up with this term if it were not for my own art practice and the form it has made out of me so far (I mean less my physical form and more my conscientious life). This is to evoke the human being as an evolving landscape where conscious creative action with matter on the surface somehow effects openings for forces to traverse and alter the orientation and receptivity of that being’s non-mental substrata. Sculptural substance activates in the latter. I arrived, therefore, to the ‘Artists’ Lives’ archive needing to rule out the relevance of biography (a little ironic given the archive is predicated on artists telling their life story in order to situate their work in its social context) and with the intention of looking at the artists not in relationship to art objects but in terms of forms of life.

So, instead of prioritising the voiced content, I strained my ears for the reverberation of larynxes that had been inked with a non-linguistic thinking-ness. By this I mean a human being’s muscular aptitude for being shaped by life as opposed to the habit of assuming one is a container enclosing a tiny part of it. Whilst we are all shaped as persons by our life experiences, this is not the level of ‘moulding’ that I am trying to get at. I mean more a capacity within an individual subjectivity that is activated in the first instance by that subjectivity – if unknowingly – out of an open ended experimental encounter with the world (it is as much about letting life live you as it is you living life). Whilst this can never be a conscious project, it can neither be an unconscious one; concerted effort is involved via, for example, art making to engage materials, ideas and conscience (somehow):

Who am I, now that I am thinking? The answer to the question depends on its indetermination. Either I think, or I think something. I think does not mean that I think something. I think means the very activity that thinks, moves, grows and awakens me, which develops like ivy in a place hard to assign that appears to have some collocation in me.

(Serres, 2009: 30)

It is in such a kind of ‘place hard to assign that appears to have some collocation with me’ that I ‘poethically’ locate sculptural substance or, rather, the muscular anti-wall of this place. Do not assume substance as in something one can find in the ground and handle like clay (unless it is in the flavour of the parable of Care who bends down in the river of life and shapes the first human out of a fistful of clay granting the essence of humanity as care)1 or as in a philosophical category created in order to understand the composition of the world. By substance, I mean to engender something that is malleable yet indistinct, the conduit for conceptual form, an open-ended forming process that needs the combined action and abstract thinking of the human in order to have its affect via that human: a sculpting via Art attempting to establish itself somewhere between the human being and matter itself, and in this sense we are speaking of something which is of the world and not strictly personal.  The being-made-back I refer to is like a re-bound effect from a certain type of creative and care-full experiment with the world which constructively interferes with the subjectivity process of the individual. An ontological carving if you will.

This is going to be hard to write, I can tell.

I know that people do think I talk gobbeldey goo when I’m trying to get an abstract idea across, but it’s always that the starting point hasn’t yet been written out.

(John Latham interviewed by Melanie Roberts, 1998-2000, NLSC: Artists’ Lives © British Library,catalogue reference C466/69)

I am using words to try and grasp something that I can only fully feel through thinking. This is actually harder than making a work of art but not because it is writing, but because it is a working towards Art. There is more of a burn involved via this sort of ink somehow. Aesthetic sensibility can play no role here so it cannot take over and cover up the nub of the matter; I allow the nub of the matter to burn right through me.

1 This is an example that appears in Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, 1962: Section VI, § 41: 252.

The artist lives, long live the artist!

I learned a lot from listening to the tapes of artists talking about their lives, but detecting the possible reverberation of sculptural substance via artists’ vocal chords proved rare. But then isn't it Alain Badiou who claims that, contrary to standard philosophical accounts, arriving as a subject is actually a rare phenomenon in its own right? Sculptural substance is the matter of such arriving and writing philosophy is a type of artistic practice that can affect sculptural substance, philosophers are in the mix here as much as artists.

I have had to reckon with the slightly uncomfortable fact that sculptural substance may only be possible via a heightened singular sense of (non-ego centred) being, the heightened sense that comes from, for example, drawing with no intended end result in mind. To avoid a mis-reading of sculptural substance as reducible to individuality (on the contrary, it is about Art in the broadest sense of the word which means it encompasses ethics - the relationship between self and non-self), I therefore find it better to refer to the existence of the artist (qua human being) in this scenario as a ‘creature,’ more specifically as a ‘creature-made back.’ The term creature is important because it implies the animal-elemental level as well as the fantastical-linguistic one; sculptural substance is as responsive to the abstract dimension as it is to the physical (although ultimately it is moulded via the immanent dimension). There is also something right about the way, formally speaking, that the word creature shares a kinship with the word creativity. But to recognise singularity here is not to infer a solipsistic level of reality. Something in the creature’s capacity, if activated, can get sculpted, so to speak, from without and this corresponds with an imagination-production of life in some sense.

Considering sculptural substance in relationship to what an artist does and becomes via their practice taken as a whole is to move beyond the standard art-life debate which has always looked for its reckoning in terms of artworks (or non-artworks). Instead, I am reckoning, less directionally, at a capacity on the spot of (human) life that is unavailable for public consumption and yet foretells communal treasure.

I get this feeling that I need to give something back, make an acknowledgment…

(Ian Hamilton Finlay interviewed by Cathy Courtney, 1993-1997, NLSC: Artists’ Lives © British Library,catalogue reference C466/14)

The spot where Art-invested-life or life-invested-Art inscribes into the possibilities of the artist as a subjectivity-in-formation (who also, tangentially, makes artworks). Again, this is not a self-willed process (this is not, for example, quite the same thing as Friedrich Nietzsche’s ‘life as art’, Johann Gottfried Herder’s Bildung or Michel Foucault’s ‘Technology of the Self’ which are all orientations of self-mastery), but the artist does have to create the conditions that allow for the activation of sculptural substance. This will not merely be through the making of artworks but through an attendant risk of the self-in-the-world. For the artist-creature, every conscious creative act outwards is as much an invitation, perhaps invocation even, for self-formation but not in service of any preconceived ideas or values. Such an open ended plasticity between maker and made has long been the concern of artists (usually those for whom the practice of thinking was as important to their practice of Art as that of making).  The Neo-Concretist movement, for example, recognised the human being as a type of responsive material. In 1937 Naum Gabo wrote:

Shapes act, shapes influence our psyche, shapes are events and Beings. Our perception of shapes is tied up with our perception of existence itself…By the influence of an absolute form the human psyche can be broken or moulded.

(Gabo, 1937: 109)

Sculptural substance may not be empirical but it has force. Our capacity to activate such a force has always existed, certainly before there was such a thing as ‘sculpture.’ Whilst working on my sculpture ‘Burning to Speak’ I became drawn to the case of argoi litholi (literally ‘unworked stones’) and baitulia (rocks from the sky, i.e. meteorites) which were worshipped as divine presences in many ancient cultures. It would be faulty thinking to view such phenomena as merely primitive steps that paved the way for a more sophisticated sculpture proper in later civilisations. It turns out that many such ‘raw’ stones were encased in finely crafted frames as in the famous case of the sacred stone of Pessinus. This meteorite, which fell from the sky on to Anatolia (current day Turkey) was revered as a great protector and brought to Rome (‘sanctioned by the Oracle’) in 204 BC. The stone was positioned in the centre of the face of the statue of Cybele, the Great Mother,1 enshrined on Palatine Hill.2 There is something sophisticated going on here, letting the stone speak in all its chaos, a be-thinging in action eons before Heidegger would write his evocative treatise on behalf of our co-relationality to the world’s potential (Heidegger, 2001). There is some sort of acceptance too of being shaped by the terror of chaos; the rock is left as chaos and yet welcomed in to the ‘house’ so to speak to be daily confronted and revered.

I am not backtracking here to trace an origin – sculptural substance can have no start or finish – but wanting to recognise traces of our capacity to generate thought-manifestations for experiencing existence that in return carve our capacity for ethical responsiveness. There was no need in those ancient and specific instances of  ‘fundamental contact with the world’ to place a human mark upon matter to effect transformation. The process of primal excitation resulted in a co-creation with the phenomenal world on the idea level in order to subliminally produce aesthetic experience out of our being alive (literally carving an excitation of being alive). The key point here is that the placing of the stone upon the Cybelene face is not essentially an act of knowledge, understanding or communication. It seems more an allowing of the confirmation of chaos and the associated force of the inhuman (an experience, paradoxically, of that which cannot be experienced which is to be touched by the boundary between the known and the unknown) within a social system that functioned in terms of power and representation.

1 No contemporary text or myth survives to attest the original character and nature of Cybele's Phrygian cult. Images and iconography in funerary contexts, and the ubiquity of her Phrygian name Matar ("Mother"), suggest that she was a mediator between the "boundaries of the known and unknown": the civilized and the wild, the worlds of the living and the dead.

2 See Freedberg, 1991: Chapter 4, section V.

The artist lives, long live the artist!

As I listened in my studio to the recordings of artists relating their stories it was hard not to lapse into enjoying the subjects of conversation (many were both interesting and heart warming). But then I would replay the tape and let each voice itself address me. I wanted to get to the ink well and the ink stain of that inked voice, not the concrete practice or story where the writing parades (hence my ambivalence to formulating this artist statement which, as I read it back to myself, seems fated to stand as a series of abandoned starts). This is less to speak of hearing a sound proper, it’s more like the felt sense of a signal within the voice that loudly resists the task of carrying information (the rock in the face of Cybele). There were only a few such discoveries in the ‘Artists’ Lives’ archive (each ear will discern differently, I have the ears of a creature; this is not a judgement). Something in and outside of me registered the mark of sculptural substance as certain artists spoke. Here the sounding in the voice flowed over a grain of something actual yet not empirical (life, they flowed over life but that has to be as much over the idea of life as it is over the flesh of the world) hence the burning, the entry of the in-human through the atmosphere of the habitual. This mark of sculptural substance’s operation is not determinate, the mark is more of a singe and somehow a singe in space itself; the artist creature does not carry the mark even if its possible becomings and doings are restructured via it.

Margaret Mellis – her voice is charged with it. Something about her may make you feel uncomfortable (in which case it is not quite her you are hearing). She is thankfully disobedient, she cannot keep to the biographical questions, she seems informed by the same energy as an unworked stone (somehow).

The thing gives you the idea to do the thing that you want to do…The whole point of painting is that I find out by doing the painting, that’s the only way I can find out what’s true and what isn’t true.

(Margaret Mellis interviewed by Mel Gooding, 1993-1994, NLSC: Artists’ Lives © British Library,catalogue reference C466/20)

In comparison to the interviewer, who like the other interviewers is incredibly sensitive yet shackled by the pragmatics of their role, something in this artist’s voice seems to come from deep within her and yet simultaneously lands like a call out from outer space. A twinkle of the inhuman (meant philosophically, not as a pejorative adjective)? An aspect of her artistic doings has allowed her to become creature (as opposed to staying static as a subject; my framework for the creature does not kick out subjectivity per se, more it looks to the entity of the artist existing as a singularity which is open to becoming criss-crossed by non-culturalised phenomeona).

Sculptural substance has carved deep through her as if through the interpenetration of ontological processes of form (thinking Art/the idea of life) and matter (the human being in the world). As I continue listening to the voice of Margaret Mellis, I feel the shape of a clay geometry pressing into my oesophagus (from within; this is not forced upon me). I am handled in some unfathomable way, reminiscent of the ‘thumb prints’ found all over the surface of many meteorites, the result of fire as the entity falls through Earth’s atmosphere.

To discuss Margaret Mellis in terms of the creature-made-back is not to throw a light on personality or figure. This ‘bleep’ of extra-ordinary singularity is somehow linked to life itself imprinting its signature in terms of Margaret Mellis (and this has no link – aside from linguistically – to ‘bio-graphy,’ to some degree it has no direct link to ‘Margaret Mellis’ but more to her unconscious yet committed agreement to be other than herself, an experimental version of Margaret Meteorite Mellis). The effect is like a crater, far broader and more physically far reaching than the shape of the small mouth-sized rock which caused it.  

The artist lives, long live the artist!

But to start yet again: I listened to the archival recordings for a very long time. I listened as I worked, as I cooked and as I did my morning exercises. How to get artists to really talk about Art? It seems no one gets this, no one lets this important event happen. I hardly heard Art emerge in any of the interviews (I acknowledge that this was never the interviewers’ intentions – but that is also something to consider here). Artists do not need to tell, they need to speak in the present tense in order to sound form, to find out what can be thought. Here is their difference from philosophers and yet also one of their most significant contributions to philosophy. Art is burning to speak via sculptural substance and a corresponding creaturely capacity for ontological communication. It can’t speak through the facts of a life.

Any time I have had to re-tell the events of my life, I’ve always felt awful afterwards but I’ve also felt that this doesn’t give a true picture of myself at all and any “true” (in quotes) picture of yourself would have to be entirely fictional. It would have to be created to make an impression or whatever which the real facts of one’s life wouldn’t do.

(Ian Hamilton Finlay interviewed by Cathy Courtney, 1993-1997, NLSC: Artists’ Lives © British Library,catalogue reference C466/14)

Not ‘Artists’ Lives’ but life itself is the concern of the true artist who is ‘made back,’ realised as or realising sculptural substance via conducting an art practice where life itself gets a say in the matter. You won’t like the word ‘true’ but I mean it in the sense of Foucault’s use of truth in relationship to his term ‘spirituality:

[Spirituality] postulates that for a subject to have right of access to the truth he must be changed, transformed, shifted and become, to some extent and up to a certain point, other than himself. The truth is only given to the subject at a price that brings the subject’s being into play.

(Foucault, 2001: 15)

Artworks do count but are not the primary concern here, they smell of too much completion. The artwork cannot be seen as the starting point of Art, nor its end point (the artwork is more like an exquisite furniture to invite others into thinking-becoming within their own terms and on their own time).

I have attempted attention on some capacity within the human-become-creature to be affected through an engagement with Art-thinking entwined with Art-making that leads to an experience of the idea of life. Here the idea is not straight forwardly abstract or linguistically held, something escapes back into the experiencing creature; one is caught up in such a thought – caught out perhaps – and ‘muscles’ develop, creature molecules get supplied with blood from the universe and activate. But this is not to evoke causal relations but to point to the capacity for this within the individual (which is not to suggest a self-expressivity). Knowingess has to be bypassed, the term sacrifice seems more apt because sculptural substance is activated outside of the ego’s decision or determination, it is a type of mental gymnastic where one gets ‘fingered inwardly by something else’ (the idea of life), one’s creative process is an orbit of energy and force where a type of generative-affective space is summoned right in the centre of the creature-aspect that the creature itself can't touch or develop directly.

There is an underlying unifying event that is far more important than your thoughts.

(John Latham interviewed by Melanie Roberts, 1998-2000, NLSC: Artists’ Lives © British Library,catalogue reference C466/69)

The meteorite is in his mouth, he speaks as a blaze of being, blasted into a ‘nobody’ and his voice betrays this. In response, what I am melts around the edges. This is too vast to talk about, I almost have to loose my cultural presence – my so-called mother tongue – in order to come clear here.

The artist lives, long live the artist!

Larynx 1: ‘Ian Hamilton Finlay interviewed by Cathy Courtney, 1993-1997, NLSC: Artists’ Lives © British Library,catalogue reference C466/14.’
Larynx 2: ‘Margaret Mellis interviewed by Mel Gooding, 1993-1994, NLSC: Artists’ Lives © British Library,catalogue reference C466/20.’
Larynx 3: ‘John Latham interviewed by Melanie Roberts, 1998-2000, NLSC: Artists’ Lives © British Library,catalogue reference C466/69.’

Emphasising the above refrain, as I have done throughout this artist statement, underscores why I chose to work with the ‘Artists’ Lives’ archive in the first place, even if my methodology was to negate much of its solid content in order to get to the matter of something important to my thoughts on Art. What if the type of conceptual and action based space opened up by an artistic practice (which is to imply conscientious practices of making-thinking as valuable private life experiences in their own right rather than those practices of operating-designing in specific relationship to the public art world) opens up the possibilities of life – for everyone – in relationship to inhabiting otherness and becoming un-recognizable? Remember: the salt dust of the centuries cares not for the microphone; it is burning to speak and requires sculptural substance in order to enter our fathomability via Art.


Foucault, M. (2001) The Hermeneutics of the Subject. New York: Picador.

Freedberg, D. (1991) The Power of Images. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gabo, N. (1937) Sculpture: Carving and Construction in Space. Cited in. Bailey, R. (2015) Concrete Thinking for Sculpture. parallax, 21 (3): 241-258.

Serres, M. (2009) Genesis.  Michigan: The University of Michigan Press.

Heidegger, M. (1962) Being and Time. London: Blackwell.

Heidegger, M. (2001) The Thing In. Poetry Language, Thought, New York: Harper Perennial Classics: 161-180.