Essay by Rose Whitlock-Whyte for Contextualising Practice
I grew up in a part of semi-rural Victoria outside of a small town, where the bush was my playground. At the age of eight, my family experienced the Black Saturday (2009) bushfires, which profoundly shaped the way I viewed the world. I witnessed my home changed and burned beyond recognition. My memories of the bush before that – of it being a safe, almost spiritual place where my sisters and I would make fairy rings with stones, dig for quartz, or compete to find the shiniest beetles – were turned on their head. The place I had once considered a refuge was now a wasteland of charcoal-black tree trunks and grey dust. However, being that close to environmental destruction, I saw the way that the bush worked as a collective organism to heal itself. The process of secondary succession (the ecological process through which an ecosystem recovers and regrows after a natural disaster) became parallel with my own process of healing. My exploration into phenomenology within my art practice is an attempt to contextualise these experiences.
My approach to materiality in my work is largely influenced by the Mono-ha art movement. Mono-ha, or ‘The School of Things’ was an art movement that emerged in Japan during the late 1960s in response to the rapid industrialisation of Japan post-World War Two. Pioneered by artists such as Lee Ufan and Nobuo Sekine and closely tied to the Gutai group, Mono-ha was interested in the relationship between natural and industrial materials, and the affective qualities of these materials. The philosophy behind the movement was influenced by Japan’s Buddhist and Shinto religious traditions, and it incorporated elements of movements we now call Structuralism, New Materialism and Phenomenology, including concepts such as embodied encounters, material agency and the relationship between objects and space. In her 2017 essay “The world that reveals that it is a world”: On The Art of Mono-ha and New Materialism, Ionit Behar states; ‘Mono-ha artists express a great respect for materials presented as parts of the universe, functioning within and entangled with larger natural orders.’1 This way of thinking is mirrored in the philosophies of Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, which I will explore later.
This material engagement was realised in my video work Secondary Succession (2021), as seen in Figures 1, 2 and 3. First, the viewer sees the hands of my sister light a gum leaf on fire. With the background of a burned and regrown tree, her pale hands hang pieces of bushfire charcoal wrapped in bandages from a branch. Cut into this are shots of the bandages swaying in the wind created from the movement of the human bodies surrounding them. The final shot is the flame on the gum leaf being blown out, and the smoke coming off it in the darkness. The charcoal, bandages, burned trees and even my sister’s hands all have a material resonance. The hands act as a mediator between the material and the environment, and the movement of the bodies activates the work. The repetitive act of hanging, as well as the repeated forms, is intended to make the viewer question who and what is being acted upon – the artist has acted upon the environment by tearing the coal out of the trees and wrapping it in bandages, however, the environment’s influence on the artist is what encouraged this action. In his 1970 essay Beyond Being and Nothingness, Lee Ufan states:
‘…the repetition of an act constitutes the duality of the living function of perception, wherein at once it is acting and being acted upon and at once being acted upon and acting.’
In this analysis, Ufan alludes to a blurring between subject and object, and suggests that in the process of perceiving and acting, one is simultaneously influenced by the external world and is also actively engaged in shaping their own experience of it. This idea is mirrored in the phenomenology of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, in which human beings are not the sole agents of action within the world.
Heidegger’s concept of Being is his way of understanding and exploring the nature of existence. Being is a dynamic process which seeks to position human existence as ‘Being-in-the-world’, integrated within and inseparable from the environment. Being is informed by the temporal nature of human existence; how our understanding is shaped by an intertwined past, present and future. It involves an awareness of death, or ‘Being-towards-death’, which highlights the finite nature of our existence. It is a call for authenticity – being true to oneself, rather than conforming to social norms. Being is not a fixed entity but an ongoing process that shapes our understanding and experience of the world. Being is not limited to humans, rather it encompasses all entities and phenomena. Dasein, or ‘Being-there’ is how Heidegger refers specifically to human existence. It is Being characterised by a self-awareness of one’s place in the world, and the human capacity for understanding, care and interpretation. The Clearing (or ‘Lichtung’ in German) is the place where Being unfolds and Dasein encounters and engages with the world. ‘Dwelling’ in the clearing (engaging with and experiencing a deep connection, receptivity and attunement with the environment) is how Heidegger believes Dasein can achieve oneness, belonging and interconnectedness with the world, and can engage more meaningfully in uncovering the truth of Being.
In his article The Clearing: Heidegger and Excavation Matt Edgeworth recalls Edmund Husserl’s archaeological framework for phenomenology, and offers excavation as an alternative metaphor for the space of the Clearing, Edgeworth states:
‘[Dasein] is both embodied within the clearing, as defined by the edges of excavation (the edges of the trench, the limits of the trowelled area within the trench, etc), while simultaneously opening it up, through the use of trowels and other tools to work the ground surface.’
This concept inspired my work Self Excavation (2023), in which I filmed myself using my hands to dig a pit of my own height and width. I then lay down in it, meditated in it, and eventually cast the pit in plaster, hauling it out of its place in the ground with metal hooks. At the conclusion of this the plaster was displayed in the studio – a foreign environment (see Figures 4, 5 and 6). The act of digging can be seen as a manifestation of Heidegger’s concept of ‘Clearing-away’ (Räumen); a process of freeing spaces from the constraints of cultural conventions and fixed thought patterns to create new Places for art to engage with the world. As Heidegger states in his 1969 text Art and Space, ‘Clearing-away brings forth the free, the openness for man’s settling and dwelling.’3 The act of meditating in the pit, inhabiting the pit, feeling and experiencing the resistance, texture, smell and other qualities of the soil with my body can be seen as a form of Dwelling; ‘I dissolve into them. I am of the world, inextricable from it; I radiate through it.’3 In digging the pit, I Cleared-away a Place for Dwelling. In Art and Space, Heidegger states:
‘Sculpture would be the embodiment of places. Places, in preserving and opening a region, hold something free gathered around them which grants the tarrying of things under consideration and a dwelling for man in the midst of things.’
While Heidegger differentiates Dasein’s existential, bodily nature (Leiblichkeit) from the instinctual corporeality (Körperlichkeit) of animals, Merleau-Ponty approaches the body and the world as interconnected and inseparable. In his 2015 thesis The Lived Body in Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Derrida, Manhua Li states:
‘Merleau-Ponty defines the body as an intending subject, as pre/personal existence who/that constructs the world. Instead of separating the materiality of the body from the lived experience (as in Husserl’s and Heidegger’s accounts), Merleau-Ponty rejects the Leib-Körper binary through his notion of the body (le corps) as a hybridised synthesis – the body is both an intending subjective consciousness and a material object.’
To Merleau-Ponty, the body is not only the medium through which we experience the world, but is also inseparable from the world itself. The lived body is not in space, but of space. In a posthumously published collection of Merleau-Ponty’s writings The Visible and the Invisible, Merleau-Ponty argues that our perception is not limited to a Cartesian view, an intellectual engagement with objects, but is rather a holistic bodily engagement with the world. In this book, he introduces the concept of the ‘flesh of the world’, or ‘la chair du monde’, a concept which represents an intertwining and unity between the body and the world, a shared and reciprocal relationship – ‘The flesh is at the heart of the world.’ For Merleau-Ponty, the Visible refers to what we can directly perceive through our senses, the tangible and observable aspects of the world. The Invisible refers to what is not immediately observable; the subjective, embodied, and experiential dimensions of our perception and understanding of the world. In The Visible and the Invisible, he states:
‘Meaning is invisible, but the invisible is not the contradictory of the visible: the visible itself has an invisible inner framework (membrure), and the in-visible is the secret counterpart of the visible, it appears only within it, it is the Nichturpräsentierbar which is presented to me as such within the world-one cannot see it there and every effort to see it there makes it disappear, but it is in the line of the visible, it is its virtual focus, it is inscribed within it (in filigree).’
Returning to my work Self Excavation, the embodied act of digging and the sensory experiences which constitute it can be seen as an exploration into the Visible, which in turn will reveal the Invisible. The act of digging with my hands became an act of embodied perception; through this bodily engagement, the viewer also becomes aware of their own physicality and spatial orientation. Through inhabiting the pit, meditating in the pit and being aware of the bodily sensations I was experiencing, I attempted to align myself with the Invisible, exploring the hidden dimensions of existence, entering a state of heightened awareness and attunement to the environment.
This state of embodiment and oneness has allowed me to contextualise my own experiences with nature’s destructive forces as being part of a larger oraganism. I no longer see myself as an isolated being, making work to ‘heal from’ or reckon with these forces. In my work, my experiences become a vehicle for growth and introspection rather than painful memories I want to forget. Through digging and other repetitive, intentional movements, the physical sensation of my embodied encounter becomes a Place to Dwell, to contemplate my own positionality in a world which acts with its own agency, just as I act upon it. Through the lens of Mono-ha art, Heidegger’s concept of being, and Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, I have delved into the relationship between body, space, and the visible and the invisible. By examining the concepts of dwelling, the lived body, and the intertwining of subject and object, I have gained insights into the ways in which my works Secondary Succession (2021) and Self Excavation (2023) express the place where ideas of existential experience, phenomenology, trauma, and artistic expression intersect. The exploration of themes such as the rejection of the Cartesian Body-Object, the agency of the natural world and Dwelling has provided me a deeper understanding of the complex dynamics between the self, the environment, and the process of becoming.
Behar I (2017) ‘“The world that reveals that it is a world”: On The Art of Mono-ha and New Materialism’, Revista do Programa de Pós-Graduação em Arte da UnB, Vol 16 (1): 66-80.
Edgeworth M (2006) The Clearing: Heidegger and Excavation, Studio Michael Shanks Stanford, accessed 7th June 2023. https://web.stanford.edu/group/archaeolog/cgi-bin/archaeolog/2006/09/01/the-clearing-heidegger-and-excavation/.
Heidegger M (1973) Art and Space Man and World, ed 6: 3–8, https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01252779.
Heidegger M (2002) ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’, in Young J Haynes K Heidegger: Off the Beaten Track, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Manhua L (2015) The Lived Body in Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Derrida, Louisiana State University, accessed 7th June 2023, accessed via Proquest.
Merleau-Ponty M, Lefort C, Lingis A (1968) The Visible and the Invisible, Northwestern University Press, Illinois.
Mitchell A (2010) ‘Heidegger among the Sculptors : Body, Space, and the Art of Dwelling’, 1 edn, Stanford University Press, Redwood City.
Nixon D (2020) The body as mediator, Aeon, accessed 7th June 2023. https://aeon.co/essays/the-phenomenology-of-merleau-ponty-and-embodiment-in-the-world.
Ufan L (1971) and Reiko Tomii (2013) Beyond Being and Nothingness: On Sekine Nobuo, Review of Japanese Culture and society, Dec 2013: 238-261.
Yoshitake M (2012) Lee Ufan and the Art of Mono-ha in Postwar Japan (1968-1972), University of California, accessed 7th June 2023, accessed via California Digital Library.