Essay
On rocks, pebbles and deep time
Julia Murphy

In recent years, peculiar forms have been discovered on Kamilo Beach in Hawai’i. These solid specimens are a conglomerate of mineral deposits and particles of plastic, which have become fused together by bonfires burning on the beach.1 Since its invention in the early twentieth century, the production of plastic—and its characteristically slow decomposition—has resulted in massive microplastic pollution of the natural environment. Kamilo Beach, infamous for the quantities of rubbish that wash up on its shore, is strewn with plastic particles and larger detritus such as fishing lines, rope, bottle caps, lighters, and any number of other brightly coloured, disposable trash that has circulated through the oceans. Researchers have named these new compounds ‘plastiglomerates’ and argue that their existence provides tangible evidence of human intervention into geological processes: a potential marker of the proposed new geologic epoch known as the Anthropocene—though this definition is hotly debated.2

In her installation and sculptural practice, New Zealand-born artist Kate Newby uses a combination of materials drawn from urban environments—concrete, bricks, found pieces of glass and metal—and natural materials such as clay, plant-derived fabric and thread. A central theme of her practice is the creation of ceramic sculptures, using clay moulded and fired into forms that resemble rocks, pebbles, sticks or fossilised objects. These sculptures are generally produced in multitudes, with their distinctive features grouped together, recalling taxonomic modes of classification. Brightly coloured pebbles might fill a crevice in the gallery floor, while slender rods are strung together like a wind chime. One continuing body of work sees the artist creating clay and concrete puddles embedded in the ground—for example on the footpath or courtyard adjacent to a gallery space—filled with small ceramic pieces or shards of glass she has collected on walks throughout the city. These puddles could be found on the city streets, but instead are positioned on the periphery of a gallery environment, left to be weathered by the elements and collect rain, leaves and debris.

Kate Newby, 'Wild was the night’, 2019, Concrete, oxide, ceramics. Installation view: Kate Newby, Wild was the night, Institut d’Art Contemporain, Villeurbanne, France, 29 May - 11 August, 2019. Courtesy the artist and Fine Arts, Sydney.

In the catalogue to her exhibition Let the other thing in, the result of a studio residency at Fogo Island Arts, the artist discusses with geologist Paul Dean the process of kiln firing her clay sculptures. They describe this practice as reversing the geological process that has broken down mineral deposits over thousands of years, from solid rock to clay, which can then be moulded and shaped. Dean notes, “You’re taking something that was a very soft, very light mineral and making a solid object out of it over a short period of time. You’re accelerating geological time in doing that.”3 Geologic time, or deep time, describes the approximate 4.5 billion years in the Earth’s history, with layers of rock strata used as a measurement of epochs. Deep time is an unimaginably vast concept relative to the subjective human experience of time. Through the simple act of firing clay, Newby’s sculptures enact a human interference in the geological process—disrupting the natural trajectory of organic materials by reverting them back to their initial solid structure, to be, yet again, broke down over time. In a conversation with the artist, Newby described how she plays with time as she plays with scale throughout her work,4 where a simple process can lead to an immense material transformation, while a sculpture that appears small and unassuming can alter a space and elicit a shift in the viewer’s perspective.

Kate Newby, 'Wild was the night’, 2019, Found glass, silver, bronze, ceramics, cut concrete floor. Installation view: Kate Newby, Wild was the night, Institut d’Art Contemporain, Villeurbanne, France, 29 May - 11 August, 2019. Courtesy the artist and Fine Arts, Sydney.

Though many of Newby’s sculptural forms are seemingly inconspicuous, they are generally embedded in a larger installation or spatial intervention that engages with the architecture of the building. For instance, in a recent exhibition at the Institut d’Art Contemporain, sculptures shaped like coral were placed in a long line cut from the concrete floor of the gallery as though sprouting from the earth, while soda fired ceramic discs were scattered amongst the rocks in the courtyard outside. Having the appearance of pebbles or organic matter, these forms seem to disrupt the built environment of the gallery with natural life. In other installations, objects are strewn across a platform constructed from bricks, or perched on a windowsill, or positioned on the rooftop of a building, exposed to the weather, the wind and the rain. These installations are made in response to the site in which they are shown, and therefore only exist for the duration of the exhibition. They subtly permeate the peripheries of the gallery space—as in a recent body of work where the artist has been replacing panes of glass in the gallery windows with new ones that are frosted and pockmarked with holes. Creating a direct line to the outside, the glass panes reflect light onto the walls, offer an opportunity for considered looking, and quietly dissolve the boundaries between inside and outside.

Kate Newby, 'Wild was the night’, 2019, Glass. Installation view: Kate Newby, Wild was the night, Institut d’Art Contemporain, Villeurbanne, France, 29 May - 11 August, 2019. Courtesy the artist and Fine Arts, Sydney.

Within the process of their creation, Newby’s sculptural works contract and expand time. The appearance of plastiglomerates as a new category of rock indicates the impact of human behaviours on the natural environment through an alteration to the geological process, and the fusing of synthetic material with natural minerals. Newby’s ceramic sculptures similarly form a type of ‘rock’, imitating stones, pebbles, coral, or organic matter. They appear within structures built from the materials of industrial development and urban growth, and thus elicit a kind of slippage between natural and urban spaces. By creating new environments in this way, Newby’s work reflects on human presence within the environment: our city streets, buildings and parks, and the way these structures intersect with the vagaries of weather, nature, and the vastness of deep time.

Kate Newby, 'Wild was the night’, 2019, Salt and soda fired ceramics. Installation view: Kate Newby, Wild was the night, Institut d’Art Contemporain, Villeurbanne, France, 29 May - 11 August, 2019. Courtesy the artist and Fine Arts, Sydney.

  1. <p>See Patricia L. Corcoran, Charles J. Moore and Kelly Jazvac, ‘An anthropogenic marker horizon in the future rock record’, <em>GSA Today</em>, 24, no. 6 (June 2014) and Kirsty Robertson, ‘Plastiglomerate’, <em>e-flux</em> #78, December 2016.&#160;<a href="#fnref1:1" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">&#8617;</a></p>
  2. <p>The term Anthropocene was popularised by Paul Crutzen in 2012 and, though it has not been officially accepted as a geological definition, has been used widely in cultural studies. It is important to note that when referring to human impact on the environment, this is bound up with the histories of colonisation, industrialisation and capitalism that have resulted in the mass production of plastic, pollution and carbon emissions.&#160;<a href="#fnref1:2" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">&#8617;</a></p>
  3. <p>Kate Newby, Paul Dean and Daniel Wong, ‘Tell me about how your art gets destroyed’, in <em>Kate Newby – Let the other thing in</em>, ed. Rosemary Heather and Nicholas Schafhausen, Fogo Island Arts and Sternberg Press, 2013, p. 87.&#160;<a href="#fnref1:3" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">&#8617;</a></p>
  4. <p>Kate Newby, conversation with the author, 29 April 2019.&#160;<a href="#fnref1:4" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">&#8617;</a></p>