Writing prompt: a transformed found image of mitochondria. 

Intimacy’s Spaces and Times: Bergson’s Spirit in Sculptural Processes


Benjamin Woods

This research paper was presented at the Australian Society for Continental Philosophy Annual Conference held at Deakin University in December, 2016.


This paper explores the artwork Cunjevoi(1) (2016) by Isadora Vaughan, and, in particular, its inspiring affects in me, feeding my actions as a “viewer” and practitioner. It frames particular observations of the artwork to articulate some of the forces that connect processes of viewing with processes of making. Henri Bergson’s text Matter and Memory soaks this paper with notions of spatiality (perception), temporality (recollection) and centers of indetermination (bodies/life). Bergson’s notions are put to work with the aim of acting out and getting closer, in theory, to a feeling encountered in practice: the feeling of the distances and influences, the negative spaces and times, and the virtually possible futures, that define the intimacy of encountering artwork, and the forces that condition the capacities and textures of seemingly immediate contact.

And so I’ll begin to get in touch with Bergson, he writes:

‘Whether we consider it in time or in space, freedom always seems to have its roots deep in necessity and to be intimately organized with it. Spirit borrows from matter the perceptions on which it feeds and restores them to matter in the form of movements which it has stamped with its own freedom.’(2)

A center of action

This situation, here [at Deakin], consists of: a person recalling an encounter with Vaughan’s artwork Cunjevoi in June 2016, and, writing with practice at heart in the context of a philosophy conference. And yet, this situation here and now cannot be said to be immediate at all – it is an ongoing process with its roots in preparation that opens to contingency. It’s a work in process. Perhaps we think of writing as a reliable score, but I cannot anticipate how these words operate through everybody else’s nerves. That’s exciting. 

A necessary condition of freedom for Vaughan’s work, in attempting to write about it here, is that it is framed through its location in time and space – Vaughan’s work, localized then and there, cannot be represented. I can say it happened at Station Gallery in South Yarra, Melbourne from June 4th to July 2nd 2016. But, really, here at this conference, it can only exist otherwise, and so become more-or-less inconspicuous in other movements, other things – transformations (images are on the less inconspicuous side). Strangely, and counter to my expectations, writing about this work requires that it become situated internally to my own ideo-motor reactions, my memories of Cunjevoi’s forces of physicality and materiality as they are prolonged, in the manner of Bergson, only by the functions they fuel for me as I meet more forces of physicality and materiality, like this page and this conference room.

No matter how selfless or impersonal I might dream sculptural processes of formation to be, or my poetic and philosophical writings about them, my bodily encounters remain a center of this written work. As a creature – even in the most dispersive or distant of explorations there is an internal mechanism operating through the middle of perceptions, extracting from encounters with the material universe all that is of interest, discarding that which is not, feeding off embodied interests in these more-or-less distant events, as they are absorbed into the self-producing motor of life. And yet, even as the centers of these memories are arguably bodies, the materials, spaces and rhythms we encounter and use are marked and formed in ever fascinating and differing ways by necessity and refuse.

And I need to add a note of caution here: by looking to bodies as a center of the idea-motor memories of an artwork encounter, I am by no means intending to take focus from, as Terri Bird writes, the ‘insistent provocations arising from matter’s agency’(3) as a defining force in the work of art. I am aiming to pull these provocations into the scale of bodily needs to better understand the role we play in taking up these provocations. This multiplication of the site of the work might seem to denote an inevitable separation between the material presence of the objects made by Vaughan and a viewers’ body. However, I wish to show their inseparability. The site of the gallery and the objects, and the site of the body of the viewer are always already amalgams, extractions and contractions of innumerable elsewhere’s and elsewhen’s.

The material objects of art practice are free in their specific becomings only to the extent in which viewer is free to capitalize on the functions they ignite inside – for better or worse – as they leave them behind. But as a viewer I might not just cut and run. I have the option of feeding back into the material presence of the work by practising and taking part in a discussion of practice. I can willfully direct my actions towards the vitality of creativity. The inseparability of artwork and viewer is registered by the chosen or determined trajectories taken, acknowledging and innovating as part of the ongoing production of practices, actions and intentions. Relatively brief encounters with art leave vast, more-or-less full spaces and marked times surrounding them. This starts my fascination with the so-called “negative” spaces and times of proximity.

A thousand tiny furnaces

Had I eaten and consciously digested the objects in Vaughan’s project, it would have made my task, here at Deakin, much simpler. Organs of nutrition would have labored automatically; the thousands of mitochondrial furnaces that flood my body with energy would have fired and redirected the nutrients of the materials.(4) I’d have been able to use that energy to other ends, either voluntarily or by reflex action. It would have saved me from the troubles of (mis)representation in theory, as it is common sense that the digestive system produces transformations. Without overdoing it, this metaphor of nutrition is useful in that it registers a difference in the rhythms of what has really happened.

Following Bergson’s suggestion that ‘our senses require education,’(5) the idea of the work as a nutrient burned in the mitochondrial furnaces of bodies has produced a need to attend to the visual, tactile, auditory, olfactory, all of the motor-sensory reactions to Vaughan’s work that I can recall, as if they involved “eating” the materials as nutrients. By theoretically educating each organ in the temporality and rhythms of other organs, I might begin to approach, or even better, touch the distances between perceptions of a time and space (food), their digestion as affects in the body (tastes, carbohydrates, proteins), and their prolongations as current movements (energy) in a vital fashion. I speculate that Bergson’s call to us, that we must educate the senses, is because the range and complexity of our world and the diversity of the modes in which we function, require the senses to be always learning, mutliplying. Without this capacity to slow down and discern our sensitivities, I may miss opportunities to choose the actions made, or notice the formations that unfold all around us. What if our manifold sensations could be thought about through the rhythms of nutrition?

A reading of Bergson’s text Matter and Memory in terms of my relatively brief experiences of Vaughan’s work provides me with a way of reconciling the works’ materiality with my capacity to process the scale or exactitude of the affects that those material provocations produce, their reverberations that join the body’s power to act and choose.(6) Using Bergson’s words at length, I might also approach reading with this metaphor of nutrition at heart. To help comprehend these reverberations, I have been reading the following from Bergson a few times to allow for digestion:

‘The distance which separates our body from an object perceived really measures… the greater or less imminence of a danger, the nearer or more remote fulfillment of a promise. And, consequently, our perception of an object distinct from our body, separated from our body by an interval, never expresses anything but a virtual action. But the more distance decreases between this object and our body (the more, in other words, the danger becomes urgent or the promise immediate), the more does virtual action tend to pass into real action. Suppose the distance reduced to zero, that is to say that the object to be perceived coincides with our body, that is to say again, that our body is the object to be perceived. Then it is no longer virtual action, but real action, that this specialized perception will express, and this is exactly what affection is.’(7)

Following Bergson, I wish to move into a written expression of some mixed-up recollections from viewing the work Cunjevoi: a transformation. In this manoeuvre I hope to get closer to the complexity of idea-motor memories at play in encountering sculptural processes found in Vaughan’s work.

A close and distant response

I am one temperature among many in a room spanning virtually a thousand degrees. The objects near me are variously forming, more-or-less holding together, more-or-less disintegrating. The field they make is on the edge of a spectrum of cohesions and fallouts, and I’m already joining in – perceptions are always already being drawn into affects. Everything is too hot to touch, too cold to touch.

In my looking it's not as though I'm trying to net together connections between objects from outside, I can’t seem to do that, critical distance does not function here. I’m in the middle of a process of acclimatizing, calcifying and saturating. The objects are stitching themselves into the block of sand, taking me with them. They are eerily quiet happenings, listening and perky: a steering wheel ready to turn, the skin that is always ready to touch. 

A sharply cutout slab of cold and rusty orange sand, stuck together by its wetness in the wintery climate of the gallery, reaches knee high. I anticipate the block dispersing dryly in summer, each grain of sand making new surfaces. Like Robert Smithson's non-site, the block of sand is an extract from a place away from here, both spatially and temporally.(8) Central desert, soverignty never ceded – somewhere immensely hot and cold. Am I alive after the anthropocene? A virtual place and time. Some objects bare marks and patinas that spark associations, but with virtual projections – they are the compressed fabrication in an all-too-human world of the protracted time of geological, non-human rhythms.

Oesophageal terracotta pipes, touched by fingers, smoked and petrified. Sea squirts without water, cushioning steel wool with seemingly endless threads – if I sat to untangled this material I’d miss our lives. I’ve made the earth into the air, the desert into an ocean, and the ocean into salty, bleached plastic. Scooping and curving along edges, things are sliding and wriggling, restlessly making grooves where they rest – the foothold of an invisible creature that tries to covers its tracks.

The cool wet air is rushing through all of the materials, shivering their differences in temperature – virtually, this terracotta was in a red gum forest fire, and this disc was in the suns glare for centuries. The air is striking each surface evenly and then differing in pace: air eases its way through the squid ink soaked porcelain; breathing through me and my friends – I think if I waited long enough here, the tiny grapevine alveoli of my lungs would turn to stone and join the textures of the field; air is wending through the singed clay flutes, frosting the glass, sharpening clumps of hair into needles, cracking a bowl into bits, the air is discovering fossilized gourdes and pumice ornaments.

Many of the objects seem like organs that were once automatically useful to different animals. Like Heidegger's tool analysis attributed to the laborious parts of entities – fingers, hair, tubers, stomachs, thick skin – now perceived as their material stuff. (My teeth feel larger in my mouth; I rub my tongue over a tooth that is eroding because I keep feeling it with my tongue.) A giant scalp of ceramic rests on raw oily wool and oozes slick silicone pus.

There is a hole in the ground that is healing, developing a skin like hot milk in smoke-filled air. Pulling coolness and hotness closer to each other, the tar particles in the air oxidize the fat in the walls of the hole (the colour of charcoal). There is a thick tin lid closing over nothing, an erupted land mine, an un-burst bubble of lava set in its concave shape, and those are disembodied ears. These porcelain ears are listening for predators, gaping open for sound. There are large thin shells that are still hell bent on protecting the creatures that they’ve been housing for millennia. The flesh, decayed, or the prey of some other distant animal, is gone. The negative space of the shells remain open.

After before

Using the above poetic writing as a reference point, I’d like to propose that the dynamic of influence and necessity active in the prolongation and transformation of viewing is contracted in processes of making. In making, sculptural actions register the flows and stoppages of affection within the dynamic of formation, which becomes overlapped and thickened all the time by closer and more urgent perceptions. Whether promising or threatening, these perceptions pass into real reactions so quickly that it becomes a special practice. Action is charged with a closeness to perception, which, as Bergson says if we were protozoa, rather than human, would denote a mechanical response akin to touch. But immediate touching has other necessary influences running through it.

Something very practical shapes the slight differences in this connection between viewing and making: while the negative space and time of viewing emerges from the nexus of the gallery (at a set time) and the body (which departs and so transforms what it views in a barely visible fashion); the negative space and time of making, within studio conventions, exists in the meeting of two centers of indeterminacy: the body (that returns) and the practice (which continues). Writing is one mode of expressing these reverberations of affect among many other modes. So I want to bring this idea to sculptural processes of formation, to make a proposition with making at its heart:


Before we can get to the studio it might be useful to travel through an example. My body remembers the Craigieburn train line. Having lived along it for several years, I can stand in the middle of the carriage and sway with the shifts in terrain. I now live along the Hurstbridge line, and, after several weeks, am still being thrown around the carriage by the new topologies. The fact that this activity is centered on differences in motor reflex in my body does not make it any less about the agential forces of the terrain, the speed of the train, or the more or less smooth contact between the wheels and the track.(9) Standing on two different trains makes motor-memory visible as it begins to vibrate with new topologies. Recollection is registering a new terrain to which the body must attend in the process of holding center – which it must do. If it doesn’t hold center, it falls over.

Intimacy’s negative spaces and times

Sculptural processes of formation are useful in looking plainly at this reverberative relation between materiality and memory. Activities such as sanding wood, carving plaster, and modelling clay offer up a relatively straightforward view on the functions of immediate contact. I’d like to argue, that when you bring Bergon’s notions of perception and affection to sculptural practices, immediate contact might become more consciously charged with the influences running through the body as it encounters materiality, as Bergson says: ‘the body, placed between objects which act upon it and those which it influences, is only a conductor, the office of which is to receive movements and to transmit them (when it does not arrest them) to certain motor mechanisms, determined if the action is reflex, chosen if the action is voluntary.’(10)

In this paper, there has been a privileging of voluntary action, that is, a preference for developing the ability to choose when, where and what reverberations influence practices of action and response. This preference shows up in the educating of the senses: the need for sensitivity to the workings of materiality and to the ideo-motor recollections of the body. Sculptural processes such as sanding and carving can offer a special expression of the buzzing or whirring of past and virtual perceptions and formations, curling into those that are coming into being. This whirring feeling of immediate contact is only possible if it is charged with multiple needs expressed over time.

A furnace

Sculptural making provides a situation where both the material provocations of the studio and the worldly reverberations of bodies can, practically, become centers of action in continuing proximity. It might be that a practitioner does not think of their actions as either reflex or voluntary in this situation, they may have a set of responses that blur such a difference. However, by training a temporally and spatially charged manifold sensation – in other words, by working with the notion of intimacy’s negative spaces and times as they reverberate through our bodily memory – an understanding of what we need from the matters at hand might more precisely surprise and excite.

This approach to touching in sculptural practice can be driven by the ongoing production of conventions or needs that join different practices. Isadora Vaughan’s furnace offers a way of articulating some of the needs that might be at play in sculpture practice. In the process of firing an object in a furnace, it is not only the thing that remains which can be of interest, it is the heat and the air that is produced, the fluting along the surface of the furnace, the holes and gauges, minute alterations of openings and closings that determine what happens to forces of temperature, patterns of smoke and steam, mixtures of materials; evaporations, bendings, instabilities, bindings, expansions, reactions and patinas. However, once the objects cool, and can be touched; in this action a whole world of reflexes or choices decide what it is that must be included, registering necessity. It is what remains in the relations between practices of viewing and making that deciphers necessary reverberations, a voluntary exchange-entanglement of matter and memory. This is not a linear set of decisions always made consciously, or a gradually weakening influence over time, but a mixture of events and connections that are inspired by the imminent situation and relation.

Two interrelated conventions or preferences (among many) can come alive in the temperatures of Vaughan’s furnace for Cunjevoi: the choice to work with matter’s own provocations in the fire; and, a privileging of specific forms without predetermined, familiar or anticipated qualities. 

I propose that these conventions might mark the spirit of a practice (just as freedom stamped its marks on matter, in the early quote from Bergson). So, the ongoing vibration of the practitioners needs emerge simultaneously with matter’s imminent relational forces – which, here, are structured by the touch of writing. Affects derived from specific bodily encounters with artwork can become ingredients in the way we move, inspiring us in ways that we really, do not always need to track – unless they conflict or strengthen our ability to stand and move in ways that nourish and challenge. 

Preparing this paper has been a drawn out process of viewing, aimed towards teasing out the complexities of a big hand in sculptural processes of formation – immediate contact, and the intimacy with the material forces of artwork. By reading Bergson’s Matter and Memory through memories of Isadora Vaughan’s work Cunjevoi, I sought to find out how, if at all, the reverberations of memory in our actions define the way that touch operates, and the choices we need to make as practitioners participating in forces of formation. By engaging more sensitively with past and distant reverberations, we could come to acknowledge more fully the forces that inspire us into acting on what is most vital, here and now.


(1) Vaughan, Isadora. Cunjevoi (2016), Station Gallery.
(2) Bergson, Henri. Matter and Memory (2005), Zone Books: NY, 249.
(3) Bird, Terri. ‘Figuring Materiality,’ Angelaki (2011) 16:1, 5 — 15.
(4) Bergson, 78. ‘But already we may speak of the body as an ever advancing boundary between the future and the past, as a pointed end, which our past is continually driving forward into our future.’
(5) Bergson, 48.
(6) Bergson, 57.
(7) Bergson, 57. ‘… Our sensations are, then, to our perceptions that which the real action of our body is to its possible, or virtual, action.’
(8) Smithson, Robert. A Provisional Theory of Non-site’s (1964), https://www.robertsmithson.com/essays/provisional.html.
(9) Bergson, 77. ‘… in the form of motor contrivances, and of motor contrivances only, it can store up the action of the past.’
(10) Bergson, 77.

Isadora Vaughan, Studio documentation, 2016, images courtesy of the artist.