Pigment, matter, sensation

Materiality is a key concern for many researchers in the painting field as it opens on a discussion of process and what it is that differentiates painting from other cultural activities. There are many angles from which materiality can be discussed, but the nature of my research is the matter itself. What is paint and what can it be? The exploration of pigments and their origins need not be simply a tabular exercise but can be a multi-sensory experience of the sacred within cultural practices of painting. This brief presentation includes my own practical exploration of what paint can be and experiences researching the origins of pigment and their mythical significance in Western Arnhem Land. My particular focus is on naturally occurring pigments and their collection by hand, rather than synthetic simulations, therefore the traditional significance of a substance is integral. The most sought after natural pigments around the world have economic and spiritual power surrounding their cultural and historical story, which contributes to their innate material particularities in their contemporary usage. All factors attributed to the paint itself infuse and enrich the process involved in the production of a painting, which Gilles Deleuze describes as “a being of sensation,” and what is held in the matter of a painting as a state of “becoming” consisting of materials and space. Thus the artist is not the sole agent of transformation but rather the one who collaborates with transforming substances. As Deleuze states “So long as the material lasts, the sensation enjoys an eternity in those very moments.”

Guattari, Gilles Deleuze and Felix. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.
———. What Is Philosophy? New York: Colombia University Press, 1994.

Gilles Deleuze: Image and Text

Chapter 5 – Sensation: The Earth, a People, Art
Elizabeth Grosz

Grosz begins with some brilliance from Friedrich Nietzsche (Will to Power)
“Art reminds us of states of animal vigor; it is on the one hand a excess and overflow of blooming physicality into the world of images and desires; on the other, an excitation of the animal functions through the images and desires of an intensified life – an enhancement of the feeling of life, a stimulant to it.”

Grosz agrees art is a compulsion of the human animal, a sensation wild and dangerous. “Art is a consequence of that force that puts life at risk for the sake of intensification, for what can be magnified in the body’s interaction with the earth…for the sake of sensation itself.” Sensation sought outside the control of reason. Powerful sensation that consumes reason and regurgitates a stratum of understanding known as superstition. As intensification, sensation is equivalent to magical power so profound is the perception of it and its affect.

Does sensation differ in intensity with an increase in mystery? When the art object reverberating sensation is apprehended in sacred circumstances compared with an encounter with art taken out of context either through time or cultural displacement, or when the process of making is difficult to deduce, the materiality confounding. The “percepts and affects” formed can create a sensation of the supernatural of “inhuman forces from which the human borrows and which may serve in the transformation and overcoming of the human…by his conversion into a being of sensation.” As a connective, radiating and transformational force, sensation generates a relational interpretation of perception often possessing its own form of logic.

“Affects are man’s becoming-other, the creation of passages between the human and animal, cosmic becomings the human can pass through …percepts…are the transformations of the evolutionary relations of perception that have finely attuned the living creature to its material world through natural selection into the resources for something else, something more, for invention, experimentation or art.” The concepts of affects and percepts find parallels with the formation of what the Berndt’s describe in their Anthropological study of Kunwinjku speakers as “the man-myth dimension, which is inseparable from the [man-man or man-land dimension]…It is as if the first two dimensions were combined and resorted, and provided with a series of explanations and relevances.”

Art as sensation can, as intent, be “a premonition of what might be directly inscribed on the body.” Art is then an act of sorcery that conjures and sustains sensation in an art object for the duration of its material existence. “They aim to capture the force of time, opening up sensation to the future, making time able to be sensed, even if that means becoming-other.”

djurra bim

Back in the cold Canberra studio my head is still full of what can only be described as the ‘Gunbalanya sensation.’ My thinner tropical body and expansive thoughts are ill-equipped for icy winds and stale indoor air. In this counter-physical cerebral space I surround myself with cherished djurra and dolobbo bim and lay out delek, garlba and gunnojbe, materials with people and places attached. Memories of freedom and warmth contract into a protective bubble around me. I continue the paintings I had started there, beginning with small ochres on cardboard begun in a painting workshop with Balang (Gersheim) and Nabulanj (Graham). I had purchased their works so I could finish my small copies. Parallel material and stylistic processes produce sensations of a specific nature distinguishable from subjective response or even experiential knowledge (although these are valuable tools in evaluating art as a product of the maker). In Gilles Deleuze: Image and Text, Elizabeth Grosz elaborates on sensation in the Deleuzian sense of the word as, “mobilizing forces…[that] lie mid-way between subjects and objects, the point at which the one converts into the other.” Art, as the producer of sensation is the inducer of becomings and I realise the extent of familial agency now activated by the other.

Hunting and preparing Ngalmangiyi and butchering Manimunak

Mayh, a Kunwinjku term for food animal, opens the door to the most commonly desired cultural activity – hunting, and the most common painting subject, in kunwardde, dollobbo and djurra bim (rock, bark and paper painting). I was as eager as everyone else to go fishing, but especially hunting. Unfortunately nobody that I became close to in the community had easy access to a gun, the weapon now used for most hunting, particularly during manimunak (magpie goose) season which had begun during the second half of my time in Gunbalanya. I did get a taste though after my kakkak obtained one from relatives in Kakadu and she butchered it in half on the kitchen table. My friend Matt and I baked it with potatoes in the oven, but I would have preferred a fire preparation. I likened the taste to rabbit rather than chicken or duck.

Luckily another hunting season began in which guns are unnecessary. Hunting Ngalmangiyi (long-neck turtle) requires a long metal rod with a wooden handle referred to as a crowbar, no shoes, and plenty of endurance. As it was the beginning of the season, often a days search would result in empty stomachs, the end of the dry being the time where big mobs are found, the swamps being at their driest. I went with my karrang and my rdarda and our dje dje walking along slowly in the mud and through kuku (water) with baladj (leech) and birndu (mosquitos), stabbing the rod into the mud until the sound of it hitting the shell is heard. As you can imagine, it’s like hitting the jackpot in such a vast area of possibility. Although I didn’t find one, I shared in the cooking, preparation and eating of the ngalmangiyi caught by one rdarda which enabled me to understand experientially the body parts and their depiction in paintings. I enjoyed the taste of the smokey fatty meat, the fat being bright yellow. It was similar to the kedgebbe (file snake) but less stringy.