Essay by Amber Macklin as part of Contextualising Practice course.


I recognise my own positionality as a settler-Australian with Scottish, Spanish and German heritage. I grew up on Gubbi Gubbi country in Southeastern Queensland and now live, work, and write this piece on Wurundjeri country in Naarm. In this essay I will be dealing with ideas surrounding colonial views of landscape. I recognise the discursive dominance of these theories in perpetuating the rendering of rich, highly cultivated landscapes to simply ‘wild’ or ‘untouched’. I seek to engage with such theories as indicative of my own psychological grappling with these themes during the making of the project discussed, rather than to promote these ideas or ignore the muddiness of such epistemologies.

A studio desk with lots of artefacts including ceramic pieces, drawings and photographs
Figure 1: My studio during the making of my graduate project ‘Skye’, Amber Macklin, 2021, iPhone photo.


This text serves as an investigation into the concepts and methodologies encompassing my graduate project Skye (2021), a series of ceramic sculptural works. I will investigate how this project relates to affect theory, Patricia Townsend’s theory of the ‘pre-sense’ (2019,p. 7) and theories of the sublime. Furthermore, I will position Skye (2021) as engaged with New Materialist theory, providing my own reflexive definition through an interrogation of its supposed ‘newness’. Expanding on New Materialism further, I will relate the project to Barbara Bolt’s theory of ‘co-emergence’ (2007, p. 3).

Eminent cultural theorists Gregory J. Seigworth and Melissa Gregg suggest ‘there is no single, generalisable theory of affect’ (2010, p. 3). Seigworth and Gregg argue affect theory’s origins and flavours can be traced across a variety of disciplines; inclusive of philosophy, psychoanalytic theory and neuroscience (2010). They suggest affect can be described as a ‘state of relation’ arising in the midst of ‘in-between-ness’ – a series of ‘vital forces inciting beyond emotion that can serve to drive us towards movement, towards thought and extension’ (2010, p. 2). During the research phase for Skye (2021) I stumbled upon a series of black and white 35mm photographs I had taken back in 2016. Every couple of years my father would fly my sister and I over to Scotland (his birthplace and home since I was seven) to visit him. On this particular trip he drove us along the West Coast of Scotland where we spent our time hiking and exploring various lochs, cliff-sides and islands. At that moment in the studio, as I flicked through those photographs, I was hit with a muddled but strong sense of what it felt like to traverse those places. I remembered how on those walks I was hit with a wave of ‘intensities’, like the landscape had a direct input into my body. I had a strong intuitive sense about these memories and felt the urge to re-contextualise these rich bodily encounters. This distinct affectual experience of the Scottish highland landscape served as the driving force behind my ceramic explorations for Skye (2021).

It is clear these ‘vital forces‘, or ‘affects’, moved me towards ‘thought and extension’ (Siegworth & Gregg 2010, p. 1-2) in the form of a creative project. This phenomenon is further expanded upon in art historian Patricia Townsend’s theory of the ‘pre-sense’ (2019, p. 7).  Townsend suggests the genesis of an artist’s creative project will often begin with a ‘hunch’ (2019, p. 6); a feeling of immediacy coupled with a vagueness of form triggered by an object or experience. To Townsend, this expanded understanding of an artistic ‘hunch’ denotes a pre-sense experience. The author clarifies their findings by relating a story of their own pre-sense experience visiting the lake district of North West England, a site very similar to the landscape I drew upon in my own project. Townsend posits that this pre-sense experience of an environment illuminated both an inner and outer landscape: ‘a felt sense that here in the outer world was a perpetual form that chimed with the inner’ (2019, p. 8). What is most interesting to me is Townsends relating of psychoanalyst D. W Winnicott’s theory of ‘transitional phenomena’ (2005, p. 2) to this idea of the pre-sense. Winnicott proposes in infancy a child will choose an object from which to direct its needs, as it is further separated from the body and breast of its mother (2005). These ‘transitional objects’, often taking the form of a toy, become not only a direct substitute for the mother’s body but are suggestive of the infant’s ability to ‘think up, devise, originate, produce an object’ (2005, p. 2). Townsend argues a pre-sense experience will drive an artist to create their own transitional object – the artwork – as a way to mediate their experience and make material this formless desire (2019).

A young woman stands in front of a large bridge on grasslands
Figure 2.1: My sister, Bronte, somewhere along the cliffs of Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, Amber Macklin, 2016, 35mm black and white photograph scan.

In this sense, I would situate my encounters of the Scottish highland landscape within a pre-sense experience. This affectual encounter drove me to ‘extension’ whereby I created a series of ceramic works that sought to emulate the stark and vast landscape so intrinsically connected with my familial heritage and psyche. I found the making process for Skye (2021) offered me new insights into my own ‘inner landscape’. I understood what I was looking to depict was not just an experience of place.  I was looking for an artwork that would meld the elemental forces and forms of the highland landscape with my own personal relationship to my father. I wanted to create an atmosphere of a distinctly ‘distant’ place that could be suggestive of my relationship with my (geographically and emotionally) distant father. Skye (2021) served as my own ‘processing form’, a transitional object, that created a new sense of understanding of both my psyche and paternal relationship.

Another affect I consciously engaged with in Skye (2021) was the affect of the sublime. Jacky Bowring, a contemporary architecture academic, suggests that ‘landscape is of itself a convoluted term’ (2016, p. 3). This idea is further supported by historian John R. Stilgoe who writes: ‘landscape is a slippery word’ (1980, p. 3). Bowring centres their definition on the conception of landscape as ‘a mirror’ (2016, p. 3). Whereby landscape is a reflection of the cultural attitudes of the time which, in turn, are inherently shaped by dominant colonial discursive traditions. Bowring also suggests this idea is pervasive, observed not just in relation to landscape architecture and design theory but throughout the annals of art history (2016). This idea is further supported by literary theorist Susan Stewart in their theory of the ‘gigantic’ (1993, p. 70). In their book Stewart argues there is a historical inclination of European art to use the aesthetic lens of the ‘gigantic’ in their depiction of landscape. Stewart’s gigantic is an aesthetic device representative of ‘infinity, exteriority, the public and the overtly natural’ (1993 p.70). The article suggests the gigantic shares the same aesthetic principles to the effect of the sublime. The aesthetic principles of the sublime are characteristic of both the artists creation of the artwork and the audiences subsequent experience of the artwork (Stewart 1993). In this sense, as a settler-Australian I am extremely well versed in the culturally perpetuated aesthetics of the sublime. During the making process I was overtly conscious of my own projecting onto the landscape. I remembered how in my primary experience I had viewed the landscape as vast, isolated and empty space.

a mountain covered in fog and surrounded by water
Figure 2.2: My (step) brother-in-law Jack, Loch Duich, Ratagan, Scotland, Amber Macklin, 2016, 35mm black and white photograph scan

The sublime can be seen emanating from almost every manifestation of the project. The photographs themselves, that served as the reference point for my forms, have a strong atmosphere of the sublime within their framing. This can be seen exemplified in figures 2.1 and 2.2, where a small figure in the foreground is framed in severe contrast to the towering forms in the landscape looming behind them. This renders the figure microscopic in relation to the environment’s macroscopic nature, further enhancing a feeling of the sublime. The sublime can also be seen exemplified in the presentation of Skye’s (2021) exhibition. The three final works ranging in heights of 20cm up to 50cm (with a width of similar proportions) were spaced sparsely across a long wooden table of about 2.5 meters in length. The table sat at a low height where the viewer had a sense of distance from the objects in relation to their body. By observing them from this height, these feelings of distance(s) were exacerbated, in turn re-producing a viewpoint of the landscape one would have from a mountain top, an aesthetic trope of the sublime and Stewart’s gigantic.

According to critical art theorist Estelle Barrett, ’[a]ffect and sensation give rise to internal images that are forged through encounters with objects in the world’ (2013, p. 65). I would suggest this could be extended to matter itself – the very ‘stuff’ that constitutes an object. New Materialism is a theory that has been gaining traction over the past few decades with the likes of Barbara Bolt and Estelle Barrett hailing it as a ‘new’ post-humanist understanding of matter as having ‘agency’ (Munteán, Plate & Smelik 2016). Although I align with this notion I would like to engage with a more critically reflexive and inclusive definition, offered by contemporary art theorists Jessica Horton and Janet Catherine Berlo in their article Beyond the Mirror: Indigenous Ecologies and ‘New Materialisms’ in Contemporary Art (2013). This article argues Indigenous voices and scholars believe there is a rich history of Indigenous material cultures pre-dating this theory by thousands of years, providing a dynamic counterargument to the newness of ‘new materialism’. Furthermore, the authors suggest in order to create a more inclusive understanding of ‘new materialism’ we must actively work towards making material based art-practise a ‘meeting ground’ (2013, p. 28) that must, if it is toosucceed, include Indigenous voices. It is from this historically sensitive and holistic concept of ‘New’ Materialism that I wish to position my work Skye (2021).

Although it is clear Bolt did not find a New Materialism, I am interested in how their ideas on ‘co-emergence’ (2007, p. 3) can be used to describe the making process of Skye (2021). Building on theories of New Materialism, Bolt relates there is a collaborative relationship between artists and their respective materials. Bolt suggests this relationship ‘is inevitably characterised by a play between the understandings that we bring to the situation and the intelligence of our tools and materials’ (2007, p. 3). The research phase for Skye (2021) was long and arduous but the making was direct and instinctive, carrying with it a speed and intensity of touch. In the making of the works, I would be standing, moving my body, sleeves rolled up with my arms and torso covered in a thick coat of the blood red clay. I would rip large lumps of clay straight from the block, squeezing them through my fingertips, extruding them outwards with my touch, allowing the clay to find its own form whilst leaving my fingers imprints on the surface. The fresh clay from the bag was the perfect wetness, leaving minimal cracks on its squeezed surface. I found I could instinctually attach them without stopping to properly join them, one on top of the other, building up and out, allowing the form of my coils to dictate the shape. My only guiding principle was to emulate a large monolithic rock or mountain form, alike those I experienced on the West Coast of Scotland. The clay did the rest of the work. This intuitive and rich exchange between the materials and my own body strongly echoes Bolt’s theory of ‘co-emergence’.

Another example of this co-emergent relationship in Skye (2021) was my choice to fire my work in a reductive kiln atmosphere. In a reduction firing, the kiln environment is starved of oxygen, resulting in oxides returning to their metallic form as well as a range of carbon trapping effects (Ceramics Arts Network 2022). At the time of the project, I was aware of how this firing method could be extremely labor intensive and that I would lose a level of control over the surface of my forms. Having experimented with this firing method in second year, I was amazed by the variation in reduction fired surfaces. One could place two identical objects of the same clay body and glaze in different parts of the kiln, and both could have a completely different surface. I sought to harness the chaos of the kiln atmosphere to discover new and interesting results. This willingness to collaborate with my materials, and the elemental forces of the kiln itself, served as a guiding principle for the project.

On the one hand, my graduate project can be understood through the lens of affect theory, in particular Townsend’s theory of the pre-sense and established theories of the sublime. On the other, it is apparent that in the making process I consciously engaged with ‘new materialist’ ideas, in particularly Bolt’s theory of co-emergence.  Looking back, I believe there is a common thread linking these two conceptual frameworks in Skye (2021) – a willingness to interrogate my own epistemologies or ‘ways of knowing’ and to work through them. Skye (2021) became my own processing form, a co-emergence between a grappling with the ways in which colonialism has shaped my values, teamed with a deeply embodied material experience. Skye (2021) offered me a site for great psychological upheaval, an experience that has shaped my art practice into perpetuity.



Barrett, E 2019, ‘Materiality, Affect and The Aesthetic Image’ in B Bolt & E Barrett (eds.), Carnal Knowledge: Towards a ‘New Materialism’ Through the Arts, Bloomsbury Academic, London, UK, pp. 63-72.

Bolt, B 2007, ‘Material Thinking and The Agency of Matter’, Studies in Material Thinking, vol. 1, pp. 1-4.

Bowring, J 2016, ‘Melancholy and the Landscape: Locating Sadness, Memory and Reflection in the Landscape’, Routledge, Taylor & Francis, Oxon, UK.

Coppage, R 2022, Demystifying the Reduction Firing Process: Defining Reduction Firing to Help Improve Firing Outcomes, Ceramic Arts Network, viewed 4 June 2022, <>.

Horton, J L & Berlo, J C 2013, ‘Beyond the Mirror: Indigenous Ecologies and ‘New Materialisms’ in Contemporary Art’, Third Text, vol. 27, no. 1, pp. 17-28.

Munteán L, Liedeke P & Smelik A 2016, Materialising Memory in Art and Popular Culture, Routledge, Taylor & Francis, Oxon, UK.

Seigworth, G J & Gregg, M 2010, ‘An Inventory of Shimmers’ in G J Seigworth & M Gregg (eds.), The Affect Theory Reader, Duke University Press, Durham, USA,  pp. 1-25.

Stewart, S 1993, ‘The Gigantic’, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Duke University Press, Durham, USA, pp. 70-103.

Stilgoe J R 1980, ‘Landschaft and Linearity: Two Archetypes of Landscape’, Environmental Review: ER, vol. 4, pp. 2-17.

Townsend, P 2019, ‘The Pre-sense’, Creative States of Mind: Psychoanalysis and the Artist’s Process, Routledge, Taylor & Francis, Oxon, UK, pp. 6-16.

Winnicot, D W 2005, ‘Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena’, Playing and Reality, 2nd edn, Routledge, Taylor & Francis, Oxon, UK pp. 1-34.

Essay – Affect, Materialism & Skye