Rethinking material knowledge through the formative drive in art objects

Ginny Elston is currently based in the Glasgow School of Art. She is a cross-disciplinary artist, researcher and educator. She graduated from the University of Manchester with a BA Hons in History of Art and French (2010), and gained her MFA from the University of Dundee (2016). Her practice forms an embodied living inquiry into the connections between visual art, philosophy and arts education.    

You can find her on Instagram @ginnyelston and LinkedIn, or contact her at


As a visual artist and researcher, my practice concerns the materiality of painterly and sculptural substances and object-oriented philosophies. I’m interested in how different material languages articulate ideas about visibility, accessibility and the remoteness of objects.

New Materialism and the ‘turn to matter’ is of great significance, now perhaps more than ever, and within that philosophy lies Object Oriented Ontology (OOO), a school of metaphysical thought that explores the relationality of all ‘things’. Critically, OOO proposes a framework that does not place human endeavour and understanding at the centre of its quest.

My interest in OOO, painting and sculpture is the basis for this exploration into the agency of organic and inorganic materials as well as their potential to exist and operate in a land beyond human perception.

I’ve devised a way of working that I call ‘Painting Plus’ – painting, sculpture, drawing and installation. I believe that such a methodology can provide expanded notions of what paintings and sculptures can constitute spatially, materially and theoretically. In turn, this has the potential to answer questions about materials and their inherent knowledge and agency in the world.

3 Research Questions

The overarching question at this stage is identifying how the art object itself is the location of new knowledge and the product of research. In order to respond to this central question, three key areas of research are explored in the following questions:

  1. How can we make sense of what happens in the studio beyond the parameters of logic and language?
  2. What does it mean to grant an ‘interiority’ to the life of objects, and can this serve the planet and its inhabitants?
  3. Can the traditionally human pursuit of making artworks be reconciled with a non-humanist view of the world?

Question 1: How do we make sense of what happens in the studio beyond the parameters of logic and language?

How do we explore materiality on material’s terms, whilst being aware of the anthropological and logocentric constraints that can limit but also can extend our perception of things as humans? New Materialist thinker Graham Harman states that “OOO artworks tend to be more interested in pointing out how objects exist, act and ‘live’ beyond the realm of human perception, a paradox of sorts given the contrived nature of artworks.”[1] Meanwhile philosopher Jane Bennett says of New Materialism, “the aim is to articulate the elusive idea of a materiality that is itself heterogenous, itself a differential of intensities, itself a life. In this strange, vital materialism, there is no point of pure stillness, no indivisible atom that is not itself a quiver with virtual force.”[2]

Rather than forcing materials to service an idea, we can honour the agency of matter and the way it behaves by reorienting our approach to working alongside it as a guide and facilitator. I’ll be listening for the voice and observing the activity of materials, which allows the presence of matter to emerge. My research methods will include using physical materials, representation and metaphor as different ways of considering the perception of objects and materiality.

Question 2: What does it mean to grant an ‘interiority’ to the life of objects and can this idea serve the planet and its inhabitants?

Bennett proposes that “Understanding consumptive practices of humans means we need to understand the non-human components at work that are inside social practices. To experience the relationship between persons and other materialities more horizontally is to take a step toward a more ecological sensibility”.[3]

Central to exploring the vitality of materials and life forces are philosopher Henri Bergson’s ‘Elan Vital’ and biologist Hans Driesch’s ‘Entelechy’ and the notion of Bildungstrieb, or Formative Drive, which I believe can be linked with the idea of Materia Prima in alchemy.

Additionally, I believe that Harman’s theory of ‘black noise’ is of great significance to visual artists through expanding our holistic understanding of materials. Harman asserts that ‘black noise’ is a sort of background noise that ‘encrusts’ a sensual object. It relates to the object’s essential qualities, its accidental qualities and its relationship with peripheral objects. These he relates to the three essential questions in metaphysics, namely examining “how a thing relates to its own inherent qualities, how it relates to inessential traits that skate along its surface and how it relates to other separate things in the environment”.[4] Bennett states: “Such a newfound attentiveness to matter and its powers will not solve the problem of human exploitation or oppression, but it can inspire a greater sense of the extent to which all bodies are kin in the sense of inextricably enmeshed in a dense network of relations”.

Question 3: Can the traditionally academic, mind-based, human pursuit of making artworks be reconciled with a non-humanist way of seeing the world?

If the nature of painting, for example, is primarily about painting, not about the world, in what ways can this be a suitable method to explore matter’s relationship to objects other than humans in the world? Abstract painter Edwin Ruda states “that what one is unable to indicate or designate in a painting is just what provides its generative force.”[5]

Similarly, in the works of Jessica Stockholder, Phyllida Barlow and Katharina Grosse, we can see colour’s ability to set its own agenda, asserting itself simultaneously as an element in its own right alongside being a property of form. Can colour operate as an agentic force, and if so, of what significance is this?

If, as Cezanne said, “All painting paints the birth of things, the coming unto itself of the visible,”[6] then “Painting, for this reason, supposedly involves taking root again in our bodily being in the world, as well as a new revealing thereof: It figures and amplifies the metaphysical structure of our flesh; or again it awakens and brings alive the allusive logic of the perceived world.”[7] A proposition of Painting Plus can be a way of touching, but not grasping at the metaphysical structure of the world, the ever-allusive, indefinable otherness, the other-worldly life-force that maintains a glass upright and that resonates through a shining strand of golden thread.


  1. Kerr, D. What is Object Oriented Ontology? (2016) Accessed 20th November 2019. Return to Text.
  2. Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. (Durham: Duke University Pres, 2010) p.57. Return to Text.
  3. Bennett, Vibrant Matter, p.10. Return to Text.
  4. Simpson, Kirstin. The Distant Real – Showing Not Telling – Allure in Metaphor and Embodied Aesthetic Experience. (Date unspecified) p.26. Accessed 15th January 2020. Return to Text.
  5. Fóti, V.M. (Ed.) Merleau-Ponty: Difference, Materiality, Painting. (New York: Humanity Books, 2000) p.154. Return to Text.
  6. Harr, M. Painting, perception, affectivity in Fóti, V.M. (Ed.) Merleau-Ponty: Difference, Materiality, Painting. (New York: Humanity Books, 2000) p.178. Return to Text.
  7. Harr, Painting, perception, affectivity, p.178. Return to Text.