We can think of ghosts as fragments of the past that still possess an agency and degree of influence on the present. With historical notions of human-made, linear time as opposed to a more cyclical and intermingled understanding of the universe, such lingering presences become othered and pushed into the realm of fictional horror. But the world of ghosts – that of past and present entanglement – can also teach us about not-quite-human agency and responsibility.
It’s this ghostly presence (or absence) that dwells in the installations of New Zealand-born Miriam Austin, who spoke to me about her recent solo exhibition at Bosse & Baum gallery in London. Populated by elegant metal artifacts, corporeal silicone moulds and organic membranes that host various plants and minerals, ‘Andesite’ suspends haunting traces of the Anthropocene within a ritual of interconnection.
Sonja Teszler ‘Andesite’ engages with your New Zealand heritage and the imperial and mythological history of the place. How did your research for this evolve?
Miriam Austin ‘Andesite’ is the second part of an ongoing project that explores intersections between colonialism and environmental crisis. The project allows me to build on a line of enquiry about the relationship between ritual, myth, ecological fragility, and the politics of the body, which has emerged within my practice over the last four or five years.
I draw on these interconnections to develop narrative worlds that explore kinship as a means to imagine new ways to address ongoing forms of imperialism and ecological degradation.
The works are structured around an imagined dialogue with my great-great Grandmother, Annie Kelly, one of the early European colonists of Aotearoa (Māori name for New Zealand). She was born in Ireland and emigrated as a servant to a wealthy English family when she was 15. Later, she was chosen to settle the town Taihape, and after the death of her alcoholic husband, she brought up their eight children in a tent. Channels for this dialogue include visualisations and rituals that I’ve devised, writings and drawings, alongside research into early colonial history and industry, and the impact on New Zealand’s landscape and ecosystem. These inquiries have given rise to figures connected to both real and fictional vernacular landscapes that became the narrative structure of the work. The exhibition is set at the threshold between two zones: Selvaga – a kind of fictional underworld or underground city in which organic technologies are manufactured, and a more terrestrial zone, the space of the ravaged New Zealand bush. Selvaga is inhabited by three figures: Adoh, a blind but prophetic matriarch with a hundred unseeing eyes, Ehusea, a cyborg figure of technological sacrifice and Alset, a rider moving between zones.
ST The body and the event as such are absent from your installations, evoked only through imprints and objects inhabiting a kind of ghostly temporal vacuum. Can you talk about the concept of time in your work and its relationship to the body?
MA I’m interested in establishing temporal disjunctions and ‘worlds’ that fracture linear notions of history to institute alternative relationships in which deep time, recent histories and images or voices from the future coalesce. The sculptures rest heavily on anthropomorphic forms and materiality. The use of silicone allows me to create forms that encompass physical, material relationships and juxtapositions that allude to psychic and subjective slippages. I hope that these open affective currents that point towards new forms of relatedness and interdependency.
The absent body leaves space for the viewer to imagine themselves into the sites established within the installations so that there is a sense of both memory and waiting. The installations become imaginatively provocative and invite viewers to bring their own embodied experience to their response and imagined participation in the work.
ST: Could you give some background to the rich array of materials that you incorporate into your works?
MA I choose materials for their associations with specific sites and histories. For ‘Andesite’, I used synthetic materials – wax, silicone, resin, jesmonite – in combination with organic matter and minerals that include plants, fish skin, minerals, volcanic sand, salt and spirulina. I’m using both plants native to Aoteroa New Zealand and others imported from Europe by the settlers. One of the pieces, Gimmel, Rangitikei (2020) incorporates blossom from an imported shrub that has been successful in New Zealand’s ecosystem, as well as parts of foxgloves, poisonous plants that are embedded in silicone forms cast from body moulds.
I researched colonial extractive industries in New Zealand and their (ongoing) ecological impacts. This led to the incorporation of minerals – obsidian, opals and other volcanic rocks into jesmonite and silicone casts. The exhibition title, ‘Andesite’, refers to a kind of black volcanic rock. I’m interested in the ways volcanic landscapes often render human interventions futile and ephemeral; I thought of ‘Andesite’ as evoking a kind of disruptive geological force that asserts the power of the landscape to upend and radically reconfigure things.
In this project, I’m not trying to return to some romantic vision of nature, uncorrupted by technology or artifice, but rather to think in new ways about what is possible for us as beings bound to each other in myriad networks of agency and matter.
ST Kinship and intimacy between different communities, generations, and species is a prominent theme in this project. In what ways are you thinking about kinship and why do you think it’s important?
MA In general, I explore the relationship between kinship, embodied experience and ecology, considering the ways in which ideas of relatedness within our own communities inform our relationship with the environment. Within this body of work my intention is to establish a form of ancestral communion that explores the uncomfortable dynamics within my own kinship lineages – a network that encompasses the violence of the colonial project, the inhibited agency of women within it, and the oppression of the Maori people and their symbolic and mythological traditions. In drawing out this dialogue, I’m attempting to trace passages or loops of subjective and ontological fluidity between generations, communities and species. I think of this practice as the performance of a haunting, unearthing personal history in order to call up embodied histories of violence, marginalisation and tenacious survival. I hope this will allow me, through the work, to reimagine notions of intimacy, care and responsibility.
ST In terms of kinship, it’s interesting how you play with different textures of skin in your work. Skin can be perceived as both, the physical and symbolic boundary between the external world and our individual self. It’s a barrier that defines relations of intimacy and responsibility towards anything on the outside…
MA I’ve worked with latex and silicone for a really long time within my practice and I’ve always been drawn to the possibilities those materials present for exploring questions about slippages between the self and the other, the human and the non-human. I often think about Donna Harraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto (1985) and the concept of the cyborg as representation of subjectivity that erases the notion of the separate self, highlighting instead our interconnectedness within networks that may be structured through technological prostheses or empathetic social relations. I also think a lot about Julia Kristeva’s theory of objection  – our response to materials that represent a threat to the integrity of the physical and social body.
These figures such as Gimmel: Rangitikei (2018), Sinter (2017) and Sinmara 4 (2019) among others are transgressive in the sense that they erase boundaries. They draw the abject in, so that it is caught under the skin, whilst at once seducing us with their colours and textures. Using silicone skins to encase disparate organic and inorganic materials, I try to catch things between living, budding, fruiting and decay, while holding them uncertainly outside or between times, so that they become ghostly and have the power to haunt us.
ST What figures of mythology and folklore are you interested in? Do any of your mentioned perspectives on feminism, ecological thought or postcolonialism guide your methodology within this landscape?
MA Through my research on specific landscapes – The North York Moors, sacred wells in London, sites in New Zealand, among others – I have gathered a number of folkloric and mythological figures and narratives that have become reference points for the narrative architecture of future works, particularly figures associated with bodies of water. Stories of selkies, Norse and Celtic mythological beings capable of changing from seal to human form by shedding their skin, as well as the water hag, Peg Powler, a figure associated with rivers and lakes in Yorkshire who was believed both to lure children to their deaths, as well as to offer her protection to the drowning, are important sources for me. I did a lot of research into a figure called Sinmara, associated with a sacred well in Yorkshire where the Norse God Odin was believed to have sacrificed his eye in order to achieve knowledge of the future. It’s often difficult to find much information about these female figures – they are frequently relegated to the margins of stories dominated by male protagonists – but I use the details I discover as a starting point to imagine and flesh out fuller identities.
Alongside my research into folkloric and mythological narratives, I draw heavily on feminist science fiction and Angela Carter’s reworkings of folkloric narratives. I’m concerned with how these texts depict relatedness as situated within historical, material, futuristic or imagined contexts that cut against dominant approaches to landscape, environment and kinship formed within patriarchal Western societies.
ST Why do you think individuals and subcultures are increasingly drawn to magical or non-anthropocentric thinking?
MA I think there is an acknowledgement that corporate capitalism structures our lives in ways that often lead to extreme forms of individualism and excessive consumption. ‘Magical’ thinking is a way of attending to alternative modes of consciousness, a recognition of our desire for shifts in our spiritual, poetic and imaginative relationships with the world around us and the ways these shifts can open our eyes to different parameters of the possible.
ST Perhaps there can be a contradiction between one’s localized identity and a more fluid and interconnected sense of belonging. Do you feel the need to reconcile these two kinds of identities in your work?
MA I think this dichotomy is one of the engines that drives my practice, and I’m not certain that reconciliation is an ambition I hold for the work. I am in dialogue with a figure who was herself born a subject of English colonialism in Ireland – she was denied access to her language, to political or religious freedom and as a woman was highly constrained in her life choices – but then she herself became a coloniser, a figure implicated in an overtly white-nationalist, violent colonial project. In this she transitioned between marginal states and navigated, perhaps unwittingly, strata of oppression, violence and hope.
ST Do you think of your artistic research as a kind of alternative ethnography? What would you say are important aspects to representing vernacular culture in a way that isn’t appropriative?
MA Within my research for this current project, I have drawn heavily on post- and decolonial thought, considering the ways in which ethnographic research often historically reinforced racist imperialist structures. At the moment, I’m very interested in the feminist anthropologist Marilyn Strathern’s ethnographic research in Papua New Guinea that explores kinship structures and gendered relations , as well as cultural theorist Elizabeth Povinelli’s collaborative work with indigenous Australian artists as part of the Karrabing collective  I think it’s crucial to alert to the entanglements of privilege, oppression and representation that always already accompany Western interest in indigenous or folk culture and myth, and the harms done by ongoing histories of co-option and appropriation. Because I grew up in Aoteroa New Zealand, certain aspects of Maori myth and culture are embedded quite deeply within my imagination. Part of my motivation for doing this project is to find ways to take responsibility for the complexity of my relationship with this material; to honor it and also to explore ways to account for the legacies of colonial violence that underpin my inheritance of it.
It feels important to conduct this exploration in conversation with others and my intention for the project is to develop an ongoing dialogue with a small group of Maori artists and researchers that will explore the possibilities for settler and indigenous researchers to generate new forms of kinship as a ground for working together. My plans have been delayed by covid restrictions, but I hope to visit New Zealand before the end of the year to begin this work in earnest.
ST Alongside the implicitly violent force that colonization represents, it also recalls Anna Tsing’s more constructive idea of “friction”– a cultural clash resulting in new networks and narratives of survival. Do similar ideas inform your approach to New Zealand’s colonial history?
MA I establish narrative environments, and it’s important to me that these are grounded in an attempt to sensitively account for the realities of the physical, psychic and cultural losses that are the legacies of the colonial project. This is extremely complex territory and I’m very aware that in trying to establish new imaginative parameters I risk reinscribing existing ones and doing further harm. I hope by working in dialogue with others, to establish frameworks that help to make my own blindspots visible, as well as developing methodologies that draw on existing indigenous activism and decolonial research and practice in New Zealand.
I hope the methods we develop may allow for the emergence of new forms of relation to land, and new ways to perceive our kinship with other species. In this sense the project will bear traces of these new (post-)colonial encounters, which may allow new "frictional" conceptions and representations to emerge.I hope the methods we develop may allow for the emergence of new forms of relation to land, and new ways to perceive our kinship with other species. In this sense the project will bear traces of these new (post-)colonial encounters, which may allow new "frictional" conceptions and representations to emerge. I think it’s very important however that these encounters and the material generated by them are not dislocated from an awareness of the legacies of colonial violence and the ongoing cultural, social, economic and ecological imbalances it engenders.
ST What are you working on at the moment?
MA At the moment, I’m working on a series of performances and videos that are connected to the sculptural objects and installation developed for ‘Andesite’. These works are also set in the underworld of Selvaga, and thread the sculptural objects into sequences that further expand the narratives I allude to within the show. The project will develop into a further three chapters, each of which is located within different imagined and real ‘cities’ or zones – the next one is set between Ireland and New Zealand - I’ll shoot video for this during my research period in New Zeland, COVID-19 restrictions permitting, and I’ll be developing a body of work for each of these sites in the coming few years.
 Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, 1982
 For example Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber, 1979
 For example: Marilyn Strathern, Partial connections. (Savage, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 1991)
Miriam Austin – Andersite 9 December 2020 – 31 January 2021 Virtual Tour
Bosse & Baum Unit BGC, Bussey Building 133 Rye Lane SE15 4ST London
Miriam Austin (*1984, New Zealand) is an artist, living and working in Oxford, UK. She is currently doing a DPhil at Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford, Oxford. Austin studied at the Royal College of Art, London, UK and The University of Brighton, Brighton, UK. Recent exhibitions include ‘Future Primitive', Gossamer Fog’, London; UNO Allegra Projects, London; ‘The Oval Window’, Gerald Moore Gallery, London; ‘The Domestic Landscape’, Jupiter Woods, London; ‘Listen to the Hum’, Alice Black Gallery, London; ‘Materials Gestures’, Art Licks Weekend, ‘The Old Police Station’, London (all 2019).