All art forms, even music and literature, are partially dependent on the material world. The visual arts, however, are more linked with materialism, as the field is primarily defined by objects, which are made of physical matter. Even digital media is contingent on matter, whether it is the silicon that makes a microprocessor, or the lithium that comprises the battery in a cell phone. For thousands of years humans have speculated on what the world is made of. “Prima materia” was a concept first put forth by Aristotle to describe the primitive, formless base for all matter. Later, Plato in his treatise Timaeus, wrote “The body of the world is composed of four elementary constituents, earth, air, fire, and water, the whole available amount of which is used up in its composition.” The alchemists of both medieval Europe and those of the Islamic Middle East and North Africa were the first who began to doubt the primacy of the ancient four elements and their speculation led to the transition from alchemy to chemistry that began in the Renaissance. The names given to the eras in human history–stone, bronze, iron, and now silicon, are indicative of how our understanding of matter has transformed culture.
Prima Materia: The Periodic Table in Contemporary Art is conceived of as a group exhibition that links individual works of art with an element from the periodic table which each work incorporates. Superficially, the exhibition’s foundation is science, but through expansive curatorial choices the project will reveal the material basis for sociological, emotional, political, and even spiritual subject matter. Artists use specific materials for a reason, quite often for their metaphoric potential, and Prima Materia will explore hard facts as well as alchemical conjecture. There are currently 118 elements in the periodic table, many of them extremely rare or man-made. The exhibition will not try to be inclusive, but rather will focus on approximately twenty common elements that are linked with significant and diverse works of art. A subtext that will be explored in the project is resource extraction, which will be incorporated through works that speak about the mining and refining industry and its legacy. As a society we are woefully unaware of the trail followed by common materials as they go from the earth into our hands, and the goal of the exhibition and its associated programming will be to give the viewer a greater appreciation of the basis of the material world, reveling in both the beauty and convoluted history of our understanding and manipulation of physical matter.
Participating artists confirmed as of May 31, 2022:
Matthew Barney (copper)
Edward Burtynsky (cobalt, lithium, uranium)
Rachel Berwick (cobalt)
Dove Bradshaw (mercury, sulfur, arsenic, copper)
Julian Charrière (carbon)
The Dufala Brothers (carbon)
Ashley Epps (helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon)*
Philip Grausman (aluminum, zinc)
Bryan McGovern Wilson (uranium)
Myra Mimlitsch-Gray (iron, silver)
Cornelia Parker (gold)
Simon Patterson (The Periodic Table)
Beverly Pepper (iron)
Winston Roeth (cadmium)*
Allison Smith (tin)*
Eleanor White (lithium)*
Carlos Vega (lead)
*Artists commissioned by the Museum to specifically make new works for the exhibition.
Prima Materia: The Periodic Table in Contemporary Art is curated by Richard Klein.
Top image: The Dufala Brothers, Anvil, 2020, Anthracite coal. Courtesy of the artist and Fleisher/Ollman Gallery, Philadelphia