est eng

Fresh issue still on sale! "I will leave this page open, looks like it's not loading. Let me know when it's working again." – Taavi Eelmaa & InferKit, "Triaad" (4/2022)


New materialism – under diagnosis

Kaire Nurk (2/2019)

Based on the theory of new materialism, Kaire Nurk analyses the shifts, turns and changes taking place in the Estonian art scene.


Materialism? Why?

How did the birth of the theory of new materialism and a turn towards the material in the (social) sciences and art practices in the 2000s become possible after more than a century of the cult of consumerism making ever greater strides, which every self-respecting intellectual pursuit attempted to ignore or oppose through criticism? How is this turn towards materialism manifested? Is this the end of the opposition between the majesty/divinity of ideas and the spirit and the banality/mortality of matter as such, which has been dominant throughout human history? Or are these historical values now suddenly changing places due to some fatal – global – power?

The art of the 20th century either ignored the material object and interest (e.g. abstractionism) or deformed, destroyed or expropriated them (e.g. (neo)dada). In addition, psychoanalysis and performance kept the aspirational nature of the human spirit in conflict with society at the centre of attention. Matter has no place in all of this. Although pop art could be suspected of objectifying the person, depicting them in a rather passive and inert manner, it didn't approach the consumer object as active or creative either. A greater mixing of the contextual and conceptual only starts with postmodernism.

Postmodernism, as such, should be more emphatically connected with the striding development of methods of mass communication and the formation of the means of production in the information era. The internet and the global economy connect the local and the global, but before that we notice the cultural differences between different peoples; material culture is regrettably that which captivates the "tourist" glance in us as contemporary people; communication with spiritual culture inevitably remains initially in the background.

During the 1990s, seemingly exotic-ethnographic signifiers of various origins started to pile up at the biennales of the art world. New materials and objects that were foreign to art (and we are no longer referring to ready-mades) bring their local consumer traditions from everyday life, introducing the distant areas of the global village and bringing them closer. Ethnography, ethnology, anthropology, archaeology, history and other similar specific sciences become an inseparable part of art communication. An art world that has broadened with quantitative suddenness is bathed in an abundance of colours and forms – until our eyes can acclimatise and are capable of orienting, and until the profusion of objects start to provoke the structured intervention of the analytical mind. The object then separates from its cultural context, it becomes an object of research – as an object in itself as well as in its relation to people. This would perhaps be one potential procedural sequence that has distinguished itself.

In the edition of the Vikerkaar magazine devoted to the material turn in the social and cultural sciences, Bjørnar Olsen describes in his essay "Reclaiming Things: An Archaeology of Matter" (2013) the absence of things in the analyses of society and culture in the 20th century as follows: "As technology they were too dangerous, false, and inhuman; as everyday artefacts they were too trivial, dusty, and epiphenomenal to contribute in any meaningful way to the fields and issues which held the social scientists' concern – cultural processes, social institutions, human intentions and actions. [---] On the main social scene they might provide a context, a setting, but were otherwise denied any purpose or agency," and indeed, it is strange that although "humanity begins with things; animals do not have things: they played no role in the study of this humanity".1

Olsen also doesn't justify the rise of the material turn in contemporary humanities and, indeed remains critical, finding that things have been "allowed back into the academic room" only selectively and provisionally – as quasi-objects, and not as things themselves, in their materiality: "At least these trivial artefacts, broken things and dusty museum objects are not quite in the same league as Boyle's air pump, the body, Second Life, prostheses, Henry James' novels about things, and intelligent design"; things are always "blurred, unstable, porous, scattered and mobile, always in flow. And this also complies well with the current dominant and morally loaded intellectual hierarchy, where change, dynamics, flow, is at the top, and persistency, solidity, and in-placeness are always at the bottom. According to this regime, there are no intrinsic values or essences (everything is produced in relations, hybridized or "quasi"), no secure centers, and of course stability is reactionary and out of the question."2

Olsen's pathos as that of an archaeologist of new materialism is that we should avoid comparing stability and change, that materials themselves contain the potential for change and perfection, that the "stable reserve" of things makes society as such possible, that "things, animals, natures, did not just sit in silence waiting to be used, formed, or embodied with socially constituted meanings. They possessed their own unique qualities and competences which they brought to our cohabitation with them."3


The (new) materialism of art?

How can we find, recognise and apply new materialist tendencies in our contemporary/young/new art? Are they expressed rather in the existing wildly changing forms of expression in art or do they form/express entirely new artist positions behind which a completely different worldview exists – belonging to the new generation? Was it inspired by the lush abundance of things, which was smoothly channelled into becoming an extension of the material basis of art? Is this direction, perhaps, strictly field-specific, thereby art-centred? Or have the developments of the world by now cropped the wings of ideas, and confronted them with the practical needs of people? Could people have inconspicuously become a normal component of the consumer environment or has consumerism, in fact, become so routine for them that it has become invisible, and thereby the consumer object has lost all its negative connotations? Indeed, what feeds this (artistic) empathy for things? How is the intellectual challenge of things and matter expressed?

The material carrier has historically been the forgotten side of the noble artwork, even when it comes to the most material of the fine arts – sculpture. It could be said that it has only been present in applied art and guild artisanry. Architecture is also primarily space, thereby institutional space, and not matter. How is new materialism expressed in painting, where the genre and subjectivity have seldom allowed for a materialist motif, the still life, and where the matter of colour that formed the body of the image was invisible until modernism? And what about new materialist printmaking or new materialist drawing or photography? Can Mihkel Ilus and Kristi Kongi both be described according to new materialism? Who is more serious as a new materialist, Alina Orav or Katja Novitskova? Mihkel Maripuu or Jass Kaselaan? Where are the differences? Is Taavi Suisalu's work with "invisible" matter also (new) materialism? Etc., etc.

In retrospect, the spread of the term "new materialism" among the local art public can be traced to the magazine project "New Material" (2014) produced by master's students of the art history department of the Estonian Academy of Arts. It included the essay "Posthuman exhibitionism" by Niekolaas Lekkerkerk, which has remained a central text of new materialism locally. In Lekkerkerk's description, the new materialist artwork, similar to Olsen's object of scientific study, is not a signifier of man-made language and concepts, that is, an object subjected to gnoseological dictation, but an autonomous self-sufficient, self-referential agent that functions and speaks itself and is represented by an ontological aspect. People, other objects and entities are all observable at an equal level, in an "object-object" relationship. Things exist with people, not for people. Therefore, passive consumerism is replaced by partnership, the relationship between people and the world changes, humans start to work together with the continual and eternal potential of matter in and behind objects, through which the language of the things themselves is expressed and strengthened.

Hito Steyerl explains this central moment in her essay based on Walter Benjamin, "The Language of Things" (Die Sprache der Dinge, 2006) from the perspective of the documentary form as follows: "To engage in the language of things is not equivalent to using realist forms in representing them. It is not about representation at all, but about actualising whatever the things have to say in the present. And to do so is not a matter of realism, but rather of relationalism – it is a matter of presenting and thus one of transforming the social, historical and material relations, which determine things as they are."4 Therefore, not representation, but – presentation.

The first pure-breed theory-conscious curatorial project has also appeared in the Estonian art scene, Brigita Reinert's "Chatty Matter" (2019, Kogo Gallery). In elaborating on the concept of the exhibition, Reinert relies somewhat on the aforementioned essay by Hito Steyerl. The basis of the work of the artists chosen for the exhibition is research into material culture and working practices, working in archives and physical experiments connected to the body. Their method is the creation of artistic objects, similar to consumer objects, but still unusual, balancing on the borders of abstractionism, their functionality is cryptic and provocative. This internal potential offers both the public and the artists themselves the joy of discovery.

The set "Waterlily" (2018) by Kati Saarits fashions a reference to Claude Monet onto the surface of the gallery's floor as a self-sufficient observable object. The parallel forms that simultaneously suggest pond flora as well as platter-like vessels are therein made of remarkably different materials in terms of their tactility – porcelain, textile and paper – directing the viewer to initially perceive their "flowing" unstable materiality. On one hand, this is an artistic device for drawing the viewer's attention to the material, on the other, it relates to the exclusively relational stance in contemporary social sciences, as criticised by Olsen, actor-network theory according to which entities are produced in relations, thereby their identity and significance are not perhaps appropriately grasped and something central to their character may be lost.5 The analogy of a product catalogue created by Saarits, which advertises the various surprising functions of the "waterlilies", enforces the doubts concerning the apprehension of the objects' self-ontology and the interpretative correlation between the artist and the viewer. It seems that this is not simply a question of the difference between scientific and artistic methods; for example, on an objectivity-subjectivity scale. However, it does seem like a very intriguing contradiction and perhaps an opportunity to move forward in the theoretical framework of new materialism and speculative realism by comparing the apprehension-discovery of the ontology of the artistic and the scientific object, which also demands – emphasising Lekkerkerk once again – that we avoid implementing an epistemological approach.

The other artist in Reinert's project, the Belgian-born and German-based Nora Mertes complements Saarits with a certainty as to the apprehension of the ontology of the object – with experimental and performance-like practices, where the human physique, the capabilities of its hand and muscular force, are measures of the applicability and physical characteristics of artistic (reminiscent of sports and gym equipment) as well as mundane objects (e.g. cork-screw, tape, thread, hammer). In this instance, the ontology of the object is tested experimentally, causing the characteristics of the object to become directly and, in scientific terms, neutrally visible, bringing the object out of its silent state. In Mertes' experiment, which the public are expected to join, the measure of subjectivity increases inevitably with the addition of experimenters, and therefore, the actual nature of the ontology of the objects remains ambiguous. Is the functionality of the object something that reveals the character of the object, especially if every viewer-participant invents (?) or discovers (?) a new possible application? The doubt as to the epistemological opportunity for contact remains.

In reviews, this project by Reinert has been reflected upon from two positions: from the aspect of "interpretations of possible existences" of the aesthetic "semi-functional" objects separated from everyday experience6 and the aspect of the fundamental ontology of the material's "ability to express itself" and "the creation of meaning"7, that is, as the person apprehending-receiving in the first instance, and rather as someone breathing together with matter in the second.


Undeclared new materialism?

A phenomena in the Estonian art scene that moves with its own synchronicity with new materialism is Mihkel Ilus' deconstruction of painting that intensifies from exhibition to exhibition, where for some time now "the picture itself no longer exists".8 "Dead End" (2016, Tallinn Art Hall Gallery) executed with Marten Esko, mainly tackled procedurality, succession and pauses, and although I have myself interpreted this as centred on painting,9 its focus was perhaps rather more general. The subsequent "Stick It In Your Wall" (2017, Hobusepea Gallery) defined the conscious and subconscious qualities of painting, but seemingly inversely, organising conscious/public structural games with the otherwise hidden frame of a painting on the ground floor of the gallery and hiding "the works that played with the personal nature and intimacy of panel paintings on the lower ground level as if referring to the unconscious".10

In earlier interviews Ilus has stated his aims: to free the painting from telling stories, from the illusory, "the cosmetic surface layer", to achieve a more direct physical connection with the work, to record more physical experience and psychological material in the work, to achieve a situation where instead of consuming space the work has the roll of symbiotically creating space, to reach the point of deconstructing the painting into its parts and, in his own manner, by putting it back together again coming closer to the core of experiencing a painting, to test "where the painting starts and where it ends. What we receive in the same way as a painting? Is it an object that can be moved from one point to another? Is it a situation in space? Is it a way of describing seeing?"11

With the last great staging "Negotiations/Facade Works" (2019, Tartu Art House) he denies his desire to reach the original components of paintings, the atoms of painting, "I would rather like to get back to whether I can use colours again."12 Indeed, the exhibition has quite a long list of entities connected to paintings and painting, starting with easels, canvases, various painting surfaces, dovetails and more dovetails – a whole armada of dovetails – and ending with light and shadow, surface and line, various textures, painting styles and formats.



Mihkel Ilus
Detail from a solo exhibition "Negotiations/Facade Works"
14. III –7. IV 2019
Tartu Art House
Photo by Kaire Nurk
Courtesy of the artist



Fragmented, demolished and deconstructed elements have been connected into new storytelling (!) ensembles according to the best compositional rules (plenty/little, strong contrasts, asymmetry, harmony, order/disorder). Most of the demolition work emits a strong emotional tension. The contradictory nature of the whole seems to be based on precisely the fact that the fragments taken in isolation seem like a medium-specific act, but combined into an ensemble, they speak about the artist, tell his life story, are almost illustrative. For example, the constellation of "Hiking Trail" (2019) which builds tension accompanied by a magical incantation, "Direction of the Curve" (2019) fixed in the corner of the ceiling and "instructed" from below by a "hedgehog" (a panel of dovetails, "Hedgehog", 2019), and another piece in the same exhibition room that consists of numerous parts, "Self-Portrait with Tensions and Fractures or Facade Works" (2019), almost leave no room for different ways of interpretation. 

In accordance with the canon of new materialism and post-humanism, the entities at Ilus' exhibition lack a hierarchy, including the fact that there are no preferences in terms of placement, similar elements are at times hoisted below the ceiling, "forgotten" on the floor, destroyed or exalted. Another question is whether presenting paintings using such disparate surfaces, formats, materials and styles helps us get closer to perceiving painting as such, or does it rather serve the logic of the narrative. Does the narrative as such help us get closer to the core of painting or does it instead impede us?

And the greatest question: how does the exclusion of the main form of expression in painting – colour – affect the painter's perceptual processes? Ilus has removed all of painting's beauty. Of course, the other elements have become a lot more visible due to this. But the tonal combination of natural wood, white and grey are as yet so neutral and still non-colour that returning to colour from this zero-point is complicated. The plentiful exercises with structural and compositional perception in the spatial environment prepare the surface of the painting for unimaginable ruptures, but colour, yes colour does not seem to be emerging from anywhere. With this in mind, Ilus is prepared with the only possible and long-term strategy.13 However, one can indeed become addicted to such continual developments in painting strategies and they can start to deconstruct the local painting scene more extensively.

For Kristi Kongi, an apparent antagonist for Ilus, colour presents all the problems. At the inaugural exhibition at Kogo Gallery (2018) she exhibited the painting "Topography of Broken Dreams" (2018), where colour, remaining purely and obviously colour itself, fulfilled a remarkable number of different roles. In art history, since the Renaissance, the main role of colour was to create the illusion of other materials (flesh, gold, velvet, fur, etc.). With modernism, when brushstrokes became legible and illusion retreated, the emancipation of colour began. The culmination of this could be considered to be the 1960s, for example, with the works of Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg and Lynda Benglis, which made visible and perceivable the materiality of colour. However, Kongi presents an uncanny answer to this: in her paintings, the environment as well as the objects within it consist of colour itself. The whole world consists of colour. Light also consists of colour, as well as distance and proximity. This colour has special qualities: transparency, a coating/solidity, a multitude of levels of intensity. Kongi's colour avoids materiality, it seems to be more like an essence, transcendental, otherworldly. Such a quality, to such a degree, is probably unheard of in the history of panel painting. Usually, colour either speaks or is silent, shouts or melts, is mundanely banal on the canvas or is bright and fun. Kongi's colour also dematerialises the canvas.

The discourse surrounding matter among young artists undoubtedly has a special place for the technological reality in the practice of Taavi Suisalu; he makes contact in his installations with the data carrier moving along the super-speed optic cables and transforms this type of information that is otherwise directly imperceptible for humans into a spectacular performance. In a dark exhibition space, the reliance of real plants on light communications in an electronic communication network becomes visible. The same happens with the mirror-lighthouse on a seashore awash with light: its affective rotation here and there betrays its reactions to a network of light information, which indeed is not visible as light. Suisalu has found a format with which to present the materiality of electronic communications.

It seems relatively more complicated to find radical new strategies in sculpture, which is already focused on the material and innovative and which would divulge the original inspiration for the work from the matter itself or some other new form of communication between matter and form. Generally, these seem to be work with new, special, specific materials and arrangements and the messages they contain.


What the future holds?

Let us make a list: Kris Lemsalu's globalist material spectacles that fill the Estonian Pavilion of the 58th Venice Biennale; Laura Põld with her sensitive dialogues with the organic; Eike Eplik's highly diverse and multidirectional connection with the world of materials; Jevgeni Zolotko's chrestomathic authorisation of cellulose insulation and his operations conducted in the attic of Tartu Art Hall with the forgotten, broken and dusty "Things" (2012); Urmas Lüüs who tests the independent performative nature of forged objects on his own body; Eva Mustonen's ability to synthesise a new reality from the second hand of everyday life; Alina Orav's polyview paintings, where the victory of colour and "the physical, heavy, present"14 matter amplify a spatial installation – all these artists (and many of those mentioned earlier) undoubtedly possess a new materialist accent and are sufficiently unique.

The new materialist discourse is still being formed, and the theoretical starting concepts have as yet not been developed by art practices. The new materialist curators and artists are still interpreting the first experiments, to develop the subsequent strategy. That said, we could already now attempt to express new materialism as a qualitative turn in the material formalism of an artwork. This direction really doesn't want to remain purely within culture. What will the thesis for the participation of new materialism in restructuring the societal power relations and the ideal post-humanist worldview actually look like is also rather a question for the future, which further relies on many conditions. The development of new materialism allows us to see and judge in a new light the invasion of the art scene by materials foreign to art during the second half of the 20th century.

The first local retrospective exhibition of new materialism is still some way off.


1 Bjørnar Olsen, Asjade tagasivõitmine: mateeria arheoloogia. – Vikerkaar 2017, No 1–2, pp 75–90.

2 Ibid., p 81.

3 Ibid., p 89.

4 Hito Steyerl, Die Sprache der Dinge, 2006;

5 Olsen, pp 79–80

6 Eva-Erle Lilleaed, Conversations and monologues with matter. – KUNST.EE 2019, No 1, pp 66–68.

7 Tenno Teidearu, Asjadest tagasi mateeria juurde. – Sirp 23. III 2019.

8 Urmas Lüüs, Arvustus ja vestlus. Algosadeks lammutatud maalikunst. – 17. VII 2017;

9 Kaire Nurk, What Colour is the Edge of a Painting? – KUNST.EE 2017, No 4, pp 37–46.

10 Press release for the exhibition "Stick It In Your Wall" (Hanno Soans).

11 Lüüs, Arvustus ja vestlus.

12 Video post by Tartu Art Hall, see

13 Ibid.

14 Press release for Alina Orav's solo exhibition "Transformation" (2018, SIP, Tallinn).


Kaire Nurk is an artist working in the fields of philosophy, (art) history and art, as well as a teacher.

< back

Serverit teenindab EENet