CRYSTALLINE MATTER | DR LAURA WOODWARD
Take a substance – some matter – produced for use in mass-scale agricultural fertilisation. Dissolve it in water. Submerse an aluminium substrate into the solution. Over several days, the substance – the matter – arranges itself, crystallising into tetragonal prisms. Hundreds of these prisms cling to the substrate, building both from and upon each other, “growing” as long as the substrate is submersed. These are the processes that Emme Orbach harnesses to generate these artworks.
Encountering Orbach's works-in-studio, I was struck by the correlations between these chemical processes and the early years of an artist's practice. Orbach, having recently completed her honours studies, is in the first stages of independent practice. As I heard her speak of the challenges in understanding the idiosyncrasies of her material partner – the monoammonium phosphate from which the crystals grow – I was struck by the resonance between the unknown aspects of these processes and the unknown spaces of artistic practice. This is particularly pertinent to the young artist, who is gradually feeling out artistic developments, ways of practising, ways of understanding.
From the same mixture of monoammonium phosphate, one surface may grow large, chunky crystal prisms whilst another emerges with hundreds of fine, narrow spears. Densities vary across heterogeneous textural surfaces, as light refracts through the prisms in differing rhythms. The variables that cause these divergent results may, in appropriate conditions, be apparent to those studying the reactions at a chemical level. But to this young artist in her studio, these variables are part of the unknown space – the sense of working-without-knowing – of artistic practice. One can articulate no more specifically why the surfaces of these two artworks differ as one can articulate the embodied (some may say intuitive) experiential knowledge that we rely upon as we step through the development and emergence of our artistic practices.
Many artists have written of the sense of working-without-knowing, of making without yet understanding why, of the sense that the artwork and its materials are driving its emergence whilst the artist is merely a means to this self-generation. In embracing such a material as monoammonium phosphate, Orbach explicitly exposes herself, and her artwork, to such a space of not-knowing.
In this space, where the artist rescinds control, facilitating situations in which she opens up to the chemical's inherent need to generate its own forms, we can begin to visualise and comprehend the ways in which matter plays as much a part in the formation and experience of our world as do we, the humans. This is not an artistic space in which Orbach can control the emergence of form. Even if she refined her processes – removing variables, exerting control – the artwork's coming-into-being, its ontology, will always rely upon a collaboration between artist and chemical – between artist and matter. Through collaboration, this matter-as-chemical, facilitated and coaxed by Orbach-as-artist, builds its own structures, self-forming as per its understanding of what it means to exist.