Objectivity, otherness and abstraction.
Advocating for investigation, London-based artist Amba Sayal-Bennett draws from her divergent academic background to probe methods of making. Her works have a visible absence of human touch, baring neither narrative or representation. Instead, they are built upon geometric forms that are constructed with precision, painted with a muted palette and stacked in a delicate equilibrium, giving the illusion of being beyond material. Though she began her venture into abstraction with an interest in notation, where she drafted pen and ink compositions, she now utilizes 3D modelling software to predicate the manufacturing of her pieces. Working predominantly in drawing, sculpture and writing, the fallibility of these practices informs her metal fabrications, believing that the limitations of all methodologies contribute to the construction of the visual language that surrounds us. Designing geometries which reference diagrams, she reflects on systems of communication which appear objective but never escape being inherently subjective. Looking at broader mediums such as language, she considers the presence of applied “otherness” and hidden biases within them, just as her objects disguise their embedded humanness. Through a deployment of industrial aesthetics, Sayal-Bennett throws a critical gaze on the superficiality of objectivity. Her metal artifacts are painted, printed and planned by computer processes yet they are still based on creative decisions made by individuals. Though realized as objects, the digital is imprinted within the internal logic of their physicality, at once heavy enough to sink through the earth, and light enough to be deleted by a single click. Evoking the fragility of oppressing infrastructures, their evasiveness suggests that they may be more precarious than they perform.
Having studied a Fine Art BA at Oxford, an MA Art History at The Courtauld Institute of Art, an Art Practice and Learning PhD at Goldsmiths and an MA Sculpture at the Royal College of Art, how did your varied education, consisting of practice and theory-based learning, inform your perspective when it comes to production?
I think it’s clarified my interest in methods. Whether it’s written research or studio-based work, methodology invariably affects what’s produced. In my BFA we had a really good contemporary art theory course which helped us develop a language around our practice. I applied for an MA in Art History because I had some interests within my studio work which I wanted to explore in a more rigorous theoretical context. I studied under Mignon Nixon and the course was called ‘Sex and Violence in American Art: 1960’s to present’. It had a focus on psychoanalysis which was the main framework that we used to look at artworks during this period. I think it gave me a really good introduction into academic inquiry, but there was no discussion of methodology, or how constructing the research impacts the findings, and we often analyzed artworks from secondary sources. I found this split between theory and practice at odds with my BFA where often my engagement with materials tested and disrupted theories that I was working with. I wanted to do something that integrated theory and practice, so I applied for a practice-based PhD at Goldsmiths in the Education department. I was interested in how my studio work could be a form of research: how it could be theory generating rather than something to which theory is applied. What struck me was that the approach to research and methods at PhD level really resonated with my BFA where we invented methods to investigate specific research problems. Obviously at the time it was never framed in those terms, but I think it is quite unique when thinking about forms of self-directed learning, especially at BA level. My relationship to my studio practice also changed a lot during my PhD, it became a kind of meta-practice, as I was looking at learning through making by learning through making. I also found that in writing my thesis the need for clarity, coherence and structure directed how the research developed and at times undermined my investigations into plurality, super positionality and affective rather than representational registers. It was the first time that I encountered writing as a medium with its own agency, and the process as a kind of material negotiation. In the context of my PhD thesis it was expressing but performing two different ways of being. Since then, in response to these realizations, I have been working on more experimental forms of writing, one of which will be published soon with PINK Manchester’s research journal OFF_CENTRE and focuses on this performativity.
You noted your parents’ occupation being psychologist and engineer; one relating to thinking whilst the other to making. Did this binary upbringing arouse your interest in systems, both in a pragmatic and analytical angle?
I have an inherent interest in how things work, and maybe somewhere between their two focuses lies my curiosity in relationships within human and non-human systems.
Considering your captivation with Chandigarh, a utopian city in Northern India with a modernist aesthetic in addition to your abstract enquiries, are you unearthing your Indian heritage through research, work and writing to communicate with the other in a way that doesn’t fetishize your identity?
I think there can be an expectation for artists to perform their identity and sometimes this can limit the work to a closed or fetishistic reading. I recently had a conversation with curator and writer Murtaza Vali which has been generative in thinking about relations to otherness within my practice. We spoke about painter Doug Ashford’s ideas around abstraction and its relationship to contemporary politics, specifically how its openness and non- referentiality enables both instability and multiplicity, providing other ways to commune with difference whilst resisting its instrumentalization. Obviously, abstraction plays a big role in my work, but I have also been thinking about affective encounters in these terms. As pre-subjective intensities that are distinct from emotions or feelings, affects are experiences of otherness that are not predicated on identity.
During your undergraduate studies, you produced photorealistic paintings of figures, gestures and reflections. Drastically shifting from this intimate practice to a manufactured approach, what prompted this deviation characterized by its voidness of personal touch?
Having gone straight from school without completing a foundation course, at the beginning of my BFA I was painting figures and objects. At the time, I think I was preoccupied with achieving a kind of superficial realism within my work, but this quickly became a dead end in terms of research and developing my practice. I started working from the photographs that I had taken as reference images for the paintings which were moving towards a sort of abstraction anyway. I stopped using paint altogether and started making quite modest geometric drawings. These generated a preoccupation with abstraction, architecture, diagrams, language, notation and space. It was also the first time that I felt like I was developing my own formal language with which to investigate these concerns. I haven’t painted in that way since, and any paint finishes in my work now are much more industrial, such as powder-coating, and the occasional use of spray paint. In my sculptures, I like there to be an absence of touch in relation to the colour or paint finish of the component parts. This is to not draw attention away from their composition, physical relation and placement. With powder-coating, although it is a surface finish, it feels like it could almost be the colour of the metal.
It took me a while to get used to Rhino as I was using SketchUp before and importing that working logic. Rhino has completely changed how I conceptualise making forms. I have been using it to design sculptural works, however during lockdown when I had no studio access, I started to work with it more freely. Without thinking about material constraints, such as access to facilities, gravity and tolerance, I used it to create digital drawings that were never intended for production. Ironically, one of these drawings will in fact be realised as the design was accepted for the London Bronze Editions Open Call. It’s going to be printed in a burnable mould, cast in bronze and then patinated. It’s the first time I have worked with any of these processes, so I’m really excited about it.
Language has a strong presence in your art, from the research that you conduct to the software that you operate. How do alternative modes of communication, as for instance technologically enhanced language, compliment your method of converting digital sketches into physical sculptures?
With Rhino there is the potential for a physical and tangible output to my digital drawings which isn’t the case with SketchUp. As Rhino can be used to create files which communicate with other machines, the digital models can be printed in different materials, milled using a CNC machine, and plasma or waterjet cut. Rhino also has its own language conditioned by its specific way of creating and articulating forms, traces of this can be found in our everyday environment, from the filleted edges of iPhones to the shapes on Reebok trainers.
Whilst completing a doctorate at Goldsmiths, your research was informed by physicist Karen Barad’s doctrine on quantum physics in relation to matter and meaning. Building on her inquiries, what’s your take on the relationship between artist and object?
Barad suggests that apparatus are the conditions of possibility: they enact what matters and is excluded from mattering. For Barad, the world exists in an entangled state and apparatus of observation make agental cuts between observer and observed. Agencies of observation are therefore performative; they do not passively represent the world but rather are actively involved in its ongoing production. Within the context of my studio practice, I have been exploring the notion of the performative cut through a radical formal simplification of this process, using geometry to explore how drawing a line on a page or within a digital program is a simple and constitutive act of separation.
I was very struck by the vast subterranean architecture used to find the Higgs boson, a particle that was believed to exist some time before its discovery. The repetitive experiments used in its detection felt almost ritualistic and the material infrastructure of the Hadron Collider seemed to enact this belief. Repetition in science is a means of verifying hypothesis, it can be an industrial and mechanized act, but it can also be meditative, ritualistic and performative.
Recently you ventured from making use of wood to metal. Given the malleability of the latter, do you consider a connection to previous pieces on paper?
I started working with metal in 2018 and before that I was working with found objects and wood. I find that metal has a stronger relation to paper, which makes sense in the context of my practice which is very drawing-based. As a sheet material, it bends and folds, and through joining parts by welding or slotting together it can shift between two and three dimensions almost instantaneously.
The multi-layered works you create fuse specialist fabrications with rigorous concepts. Is there any room for changes, improvisation or mistakes? Do your designs ever get lost in translation when teaming up with fabricators and technicians, or when turning a 2D rendering into a 3D object?
Changes, improvisation and mistakes are integral to the work. It’s funny because a lot of people assume from the clean lines and ordered forms that I am quite careful and controlled when I’m working, but actually mistakes play a really huge role. Deviations from the plan in the form of material push back make me respond more to what’s at hand, and less to a specific idea of what the work could or should be. I learn from mistakes which make me aware of alternative ways to use materials. I never ‘correct’ anything but always incorporate it back into the work by responding to it directly. For example, in my works on paper, if there are smudges, or ink splashes I might circle them or create a structure or form around them. This is the reason that I think pieces that I’ve had fabricated have always been less successful, because there isn’t this back and forth, adjusting and responding to the materials, but rather a complete adherence to a plan. These deviations are what I think makes the work and the working process more interesting, it’s really a collaboration with the materials.
Based on your enthusiasm for architectural plans, divergent buildings and scientific investigations, is your decision-making process informed by organic ideas, precise propositions or the synthesis of both?
Decisions change and evolve through my process of enquiry. I enjoy the potential for materials to disrupt plans or ideas that I’ve had for the work, affecting how it develops.
Keeping in mind the costly nature of accessing fabrication, materials and transportation, what solutions do you implement when choosing the components, supplies and locations that you bring into action?
Learning Rhino has given me autonomy as well as keeping costs down. It means that I’m not reliant on someone else to prepare the files for cutting, printing or milling, or to help me with the digital modelling. Some processes are more expensive than others. When I was at the RCA, I used CNC milling because it was so accessible and relatively cheap. Outside of college it’s really expensive, so I have to be smarter in terms of design and thinking about what materials to use. Now that I don’t have access to welding facilities, I’ve designed new work that slots together. It’s been good in a way, because not only is it flatpack and easy to store, but it’s encouraged me to develop a new way of working. Laser or waterjet cutting metal isn’t that expensive. The individual shapes might only be a few pounds because they are made from offcuts of bigger orders that the company processes. It’s actually the transportation of the pieces that I find is one of the most expensive things. So for things like taking parts to the powder- coaters, I’ll try to limit the amount of trips or share the transportation with a friend.
Neutral tones dominate your sculptures, a choice you compared to the execution of writing in the third person. How does this tonal preference relate to the adoption of objective language? Is this indication perhaps a direct reference to your academic framework?
From pastel colour pallets to ideological positions, neutral tones display a cool and detached sensibility. Claims to objectivity are often delivered in the third person which favours universalism over positionality. Recently, I’ve been interested in the ideas that Professor Brian Rotman puts forward in ‘Becoming Beside Ourselves’. He suggests that disembodied concepts such as the psyche and God can be understood as the media effects of alphabetic writing systems which communicate through the removal of the embodied and speaking subject. The work I’ve been developing for my upcoming show at indigo+madder explores the more sinister aspects of the scriptural economy, and how its processes of disembodiment and sublimation function as mechanisms of power. I wouldn’t say it’s a direct reference to my academic framework, but it has certainly been informed by my experiences. Until I got to Goldsmiths, I was writing in the third person. I quickly became aware of how by not accounting for your position you are only doing half of the work.
Keeping a notebook of potential names, what is your course of development for titling exhibitions and works?
My process for titling is very associative. When I am drawing, I find there is this constant movement outside of the work, as the forms generate multiple and often contradictory associations. Similarly, I want the titles to have this promiscuous quality, alluding to many references without being fixed to any one.
For the upcoming group exhibition ‘Relics’ at A.P.T. Gallery, you’re planning to showcase both floor and wall-based work. When preparing your installations, what relations do you observe between the space and your compositions?
My works are very affected by context. The projection pieces change drastically when installed in different spaces. They aren’t autonomous in that way but need to be re-worked in dialogue with the space. I have collaborated with artists Emma Papworth and Anna Hillbom before. We are all very focused on material relationships and placement, so installing the exhibitions always becomes like a collaborative piece in itself.
What topics are you exploring in the new piece for your solo show, ‘A Mechanized Thought’ at indigo + madder? Noting your interest in post humanist theory, is there a place for anthropomorphic components in your sculptures?
The work explores the performativity of technology and relations to alterity through our use of language, scientific methods, and my own encounters with materials in the studio; specifically how these different instances stage relations to otherness in the form of the non- human. Connected to this is an interest in Posthumanism. Language serves as our dominant cognitive technology, it’s an inherited and culturally contextualised object that uses our voice as its host. It’s used by humans but it’s non-human. I have been thinking about language as a kind of prosthesis that enables different extensions, or an interpolative system that instils a certain way of being. Language is other but it also others in that it has been used as a tool of colonisation. I’m interested in what biases are built into the infrastructure of the technologies that we inherit (language included), what inequalities they enact and perpetuate. I think some of the work does have anthropomorphic elements and I enjoy these slippages between human and non-human, organic and inorganic forms.
As a member of the Cypher BILLBOARD curatorial collective and having been a part of numerous academic groups as well as sharing your studio with other practitioners, what importance do you give to collaboration, community and networking as an artist?
I think these are all vital as an artist. Your artistic network provides personal and working relationships that are sustaining, whether it’s for moral support, learning from others, providing opportunities, or just a safe space to give and receive feedback on work. Artists Holly Graham and Erin Hughes, who are the other two thirds of Cypher BILLBOARD, are a constant inspiration. I always learn so much from them through each project that we do, and our events have a real community feeling to them. I think that building a community around the project has been much more generous than just putting on shows, as there’s more scope for things to grow organically and develop in different ways.
Painting, welding and woodworking are just a few of the methods you’ve studied. Would you be open to introduce kinetic components? What would such a mobile transition bring to your work?
I would love to introduce kinetic elements, either through digital animation or in the sculptural works themselves. Movement, change and transition are integral to my experience of how the works develop though the making process, however that may not come across in the final display. I want to find a way to incorporate movement into my practice, but without it becoming gimmicky.
During lockdown I had more time than usual to apply for opportunities. I was not consciously choosing things that were dissimilar but wanted to explore my work in different contexts.
In light of the evolution of your practice, which has consisted of drawing, painting, writing and sculpting, is there an area, subject or technique that you would envisage learning or embarking upon after you graduate from the Royal College of Art?
I had never worked with recorded footage before a recent collaboration with artist Moad Musbahi. I really enjoyed framing the shots and also the editing process. I found that it was a similar experience to when I am arranging sculptural works, it felt quite intuitive. This is something I would like to work with again along with trying animation. I started teaching myself Maya during lockdown, but it has quite an intimidating interface.
Words by Vanessa Murrell