The Material as Agent

Silvia Noronha, Shifting Geologies, 2020-2021, mixed media, 38,5 × 27 × 17,8 cm. Courtesy of the artist. Foto: Brisa Noronha.

Silvia Noronha’s practice combines material research and transformation. Focussing on geological and environmental subjects, the artist imitates and enhances natural transformation processes. Employing both natural and artificial substances, her work investigates visual habits as well as time layers and the mutual informing of different materials. 

CM: Your material by times is very special, or rather specially combined. Where do you find or take it from?
SN: Sometimes I find the material, sometimes the material finds me. I often bring found material to my studio and incorporate it into my work, or let it inspire me to experiment with techniques and material processes. What especially interests me is the vitality of different materials: natural and humanly-modified. I simulate processes as well as using the untouched material I found. Working with a material always constitutes a form of encounter to me and I have specific relations to the matter I work with. 

CM: Good point: your work constantly shifts between the natural and the artificial, stones meet brick work and glitter. Is there a conceptual approach behind this?
SN: Crucial to my work is the term and concept of “geology”. What geology will we have in the future; what kind of landscape might emerge from our current actions? These are questions I am concerned with and which guide my current artistic practice. I like to think of it as a geological speculation, both in terms of the material reference and the way of thinking as a holistic and transformative act.

CM: Could you explain this concept of “speculative geology” a little further?
SN: I started using this term in 2016 in my project The Future of Stones – speculation on contaminated matter. I often use geological processes to research on communication and adaptation processes between materials. Throughout my process, I always leave space for the material to perform and take unexpected steps. I regard materials as agents and in a way, my artistic practice is a constant exercise of how to interact and leave space for them to perform.. Each material is always subjected to different processes, both natural and human-made, by which a temporal element in the matter can be discerned. By mixing scientific thought with “alchemy”, i.e. intended transformation procedures, I examine these processes and try to communicate something different and suggest other readings.

CM: Interesting! What was your initial project, The Future of Stones about?
SN: I made an extensive collection of soil samples at the site of the Mariana mining catastrophe in Brazil. I brought the collected samples to Berlin, where the toxicity was analyzed by the Science Laboratory of the TU Berlin. I then applied high temperatures and pressure to this material with the idea of simulating geological processes which normally would happen over a very long period of time. In the particular work “The Future of Stones”, through a case study, I speculate on the consequences of such an event, how materials that have been added to the soil by a catastrophe may transform in a deep time scale.

CM: How do I have to imagine your artistic practice?
SN: My work is a lot about transformation, “making move”. I often use high temperatures to melt different substances. I’m interested in how different environmental conditions affect the state of the materials and the interactions between them. In that sense, I do not distinguish between the natural and the artificial: all matter is “naturally” transformed in physical processes, and always has been. I see my artistic practice as a collaboration between me and the substances I work with. Hereby, my intention is to keep the processes as non-hierarchical and open as possible and to create a dialogue with the materials.

CM: In July, the group exhibition What the eyes cannot see, the heart cannot feel opened at Kunsthaus Dresden. What were your concerns behind your installation in the show?
SN: The exhibition addresses the concept of human coexistence with the natural environment. The work I present is  about how the stratifications that record our anthropogenic effects may stack up; the process of adaptation, symbiosis and communication between materials in geological processes. It consists of a series of pieces that I present in the form of an installation: Shifting Geologies. It is an ongoing work, of which parts were presented at Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien as part of the show  SIRENE – Goldrausch in 2020. The work is a continuation of my 2017 research with the Speculative Geology. I do not study a specific catastrophe here, but choose a more general focus on the ability of materials to adapt and communicate, mutate and transform in the processes I simulate.

CM: In 2015, you spent a residency at Royal Danish Academy in the Glass and Ceramics Departament in Bornholm Island. Was it there that you turned to focus on ceramics and to a focus on material?
SN: The exchange to Bornholm definitely opened my eyes to the force and vitality material have! There was an old kiln I could work with and for the first time I felt I had a lot of freedom to experiment with high temperatures. I did a series called Cognitive Nature where I push the  matter to its limits and explore its properties.

CM: Another series of your are your ongoing work with Bricks. What inspired your turn to this “artificial” or produced stone?
SN: The  resistance to changes that some humanly modified materials have, and the Bricks are a representation of this. Reactions and transformations have taken place but the Brick form is still very present and solid on the pieces.

CM: You live in Berlin, a very urban landscape. Due to the pandemic, travelling was rather difficult. What are you currently working on?
SN: My most recent project is a study about the water at Floating University, a water collection basin in Lilienthalstraße. The space combines urban landscape and polluted nature, thereby constituting a “third landscape”. It consists in so-called water-prints, which capture information from     the water, namely algae, and the degree of pollution. I place paper on the water surface and let the materials interact with the paper. I see the result as an investigation on alternatives  of displaying  spatial information (Räumliche Statistik). 

CM: All of your works, to me, have some “stony” element in them. What is it that interests you about stones in particular?
SN: All materials, but stones in a very particular way, are archives of time. They are alive and moving, even though they are completely static and look “dead” in our human eyes. Stones stronger than many other beings talk about time – past, present, and future –, and do have a lot to tell. My practice is about creating  a platform in which materials manifest themselves as media in dialogue. I think is important calling forth those conversations  beyond our human linear communication and I believe that stones are a good portal for it. 

CM: Relating to this: Looking at your work, the word “prehistoric” keeps on coming to my mind. What is your comment on this?
SN: I can relate to it. Imagine for example a fu-fu-future, what will be the leftovers of modern societies? I try to imagine such scenarios, involving a deep time perspective, I embrace the past but also the future and everything in between.

You can find more information on Silvia Noronha’s practice on her website and Instagram-account!

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