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Artist Room | Seeing with a Listening Ear



29.09.22 - 21.11.22

Artist Room


Text By Sean O’Toole

Amy Rusch’s abstract fields of energy

In the first extensive presentation of her wide-ranging artistic practice, Amy Rusch is showing a suite of textile works linked to her diverse interests in drawing, sewing, sculpting, sailing, mapping and archaeology. All the works in her exhibition Seeing with a Listening Ear are composed from salvaged materials. The thread is a mix of inherited fibres – passed down from her maternal great grandmother Nouchi, a milliner, maternal grandmother Johanna, paternal grandmother Sunray, and great aunt Jill – gifts from family and friends, as well as bought threads. Rusch sutures these diverse fibres onto found plastics that she has been collecting since high school. The ensuing compositions present as largely abstract fields of colour.

In purely formal terms, the works in Seeing with a Listening Ear can be categorised as embroidery. However, Rusch’s unusual choice of found plastics as underlying material, coupled with her liberated use of the sewing machine as a drawing implement, points to the limitations of reading these deliciously haptic works as – merely or simply – textile pieces. They aspire to be more, to be received as “kinetic fields of energy” and “patterns of force that seem exuberantly and sensuously alive, not bloodless, cold, or static,” as the art historian W. J. T. Mitchell wrote in 1977 of William Blake’s majestic figural works. I will return to Mitchell often as a means to parse the richness of Rusch’s skilfully coordinated pools of colour that vibrate with their own unique energies.

Rusch’s compositions vary between more elaborately stitched pieces and more schematic pieces dominated by line and stippling. The former are executed using three or four dominant. While abstract, they variously evoke topographical maps, shuttle-woven brocade fabrics, marbled endpapers in books and even the abstract landscapes of Walter Battiss, Eric Laubscher and Clive van den Berg. Printed geographical maps are an important reference in Rusch’s practice. She describes Seeing with a Listening Ear and a Question of Time II (2022), a densely stitched composition dominated by pink and brown, as a “topographical landscape”. This large work translates her experience of time spent on a koppie at an archaeological site in the northern Cape.

In the manner of the great impressionistic mapmaker Moshekwa Langa, Rusch’s uses apparently poor materials, the castoffs of our industrial civilisation, to produce enigmatic maps that frequently encompass aspects of her biography. Seeing with a Listening Ear includes three pieces from for her Ocean Contours series that reference blind contour drawings made during a sailboat crossing of the Southern Atlantic. These minimally stitched works eschew the top-down topographical view preferred in many of Rusch’s other compositions, a view that blissfully stipulates no fixed orientation and – like with a paper map – allows many points of entry.

The blue ground of the Ocean Contours series is also chromatically and materially distinct. Rusch salvaged the material, PVC tarpaulin, from the site of scientific fire experiments in Jongensfontein. This coastal settlement is located near Blombos Cave, an archaeological site on a private nature reserve that is known for its vivid deposit of engraved ochre fragments featuring abstract designs. Rusch was part of a team tasked with making professional display copies of these important archaeological remnants. Rusch’s beginnings as an artist – as distinct from accomplished artisan and fabricator – are relatively recent. Rusch marked this transition in the middle of the last decade by building a wooden kayak. She also produced three stitched works that revisited her teenage experiments on her mother’s sewing machine.

Plastic is a vital component of Rusch’s textile works in Seeing with a Listening Ear. Although long fascinated by the material, it was only in 2014 that Rusch began to purposefully experiment with the plastic bags in her personal collection. Interested in discovering what this plastic might become when deployed as an artistic material, she twisted, cut, ironed and generally deformed various samples. These experiments were generative. Over time she resolved to cut and flatten the plastic into a compliant substrate for her sewing compositions and collages. The accumulated tension of her stitches frequently warps and deforms the flattened plastic. It is a reminder that plastic, an ostensibly banal material linked to our current eco-climate apocalypse, possesses attributes in excess of its assigned function.

This excessive behaviour, richly figured in the creased, overlapping and asymmetrical form of the underlying plastic, gestures to something fundamental for Rusch: objects have their own metaphysics. Implicit in this proposition is the idea that lifeless and inert things, whether polluting plastics or an accumulation of rocks with unique inscriptions, possess their own vitality and agency. Over the past two decades, scholars have increasingly argued that nonhuman materials – be it a garbage mound or an electrical grid – are not simply objects, but vibrant things. Art and the thinking it sponsors have been crucial in the evolution of this new critical theory.

“Objects are the way things appear to a subject – that is, with a name, an identity, a gestalt or stereotypical template, a description, a use or function, a history, a science,” proposed W. J. T. Mitchell in 2005. “Things, on the other hand, are simultaneously nebulous and obdurate, sensuously concrete and vague.” This capacity to be both sensuously concrete and vague is a hallmark of Rusch’s textile works with their sublimated histories of travel, experience and transformation. The political theorist Jane Bennett appreciatively quotes Mitchell in her influential 2010 book, Vibrant Matter, which argues for “more intelligent and sustainable engagements with vibrant matter and lively things”.

Although principally an attempt to advance political philosophy, Bennett’s book has been appreciatively read by artists and archaeologists. They include the painter Penny Siopis and archeoacoustic researcher and writer Neil Rusch, who is the artist’s father. During the making of her textile pieces for this exhibition, Rusch listened to a recording of her father reading his recent essay about the Christian Xhosa prophet Ntsikana (1780-1821). She describes this essay, which expansively discusses Ntsikana’s use of ironstone rocks to sound the call to worship at Mhlangeni in the Eastern Cape, as “a very big aural undercurrent” to her textile works.

Dolerite rocks, tells the artist’s father, “flowed” when they were extruded from the molten core of the earth to its surface. “Much, much later with erosion they became the familiar Karoo koppies,” he elaborates. “These rocks make ideal rock gongs because of their high metal content, borrowed from the centre of the earth.” Neil Rusch invokes Bennett and her energetic thinking around how “inanimate materials gain agency” as a prelude to discussing the new and evolving field of paleosonics.

Grounded in recent scientific advances, paleosonics is a sound practice that has enabled researchers to hear prehistoric environments, or at least to recreate sounds trapped in material form, for example, from the fossilized voice box of a bird.

“To think of a sound fossil,” explained art historian Amelia Barikin in a 2017 essay, “is to grapple with dialectics of life and non-life, organic and inorganic, animate and inanimate.” This tension is also central to the operation of Rusch’s textile works, which contend with the idea that seemingly inert materials can be alive with sense memory and narrative. Far from being simply inactive constituents of her artworks, the layered stitches that make up each of Rusch’s textile pieces are – like the sonorous bell rock of Ntsikana – suffused with “thing power”, to quote Bennett. The act of recognising this power is sensory, not magical; it involves corporeal awareness, not mystical powers of divination.

In a conversation with the artist, Rusch described the making of her textile pieces as embodied experiences that involved a constant negotiation with stimuli. The act of sewing is repetitive and rhythmic. It is characterised by distinctive vibrations and aural undertones. “Hands, feet and body-motion must respond to changes in direction, alternating colours and variable machine speed, constantly shifting between detail and overview,” says Rusch in reference to her large work Seeing with a listening ear and a question of time II, (2022). “The outcome is mediated by physical movement and a listening ear that is responsive to primary and present impressions.” Making is a multi-sensory activity for Rusch, a joyful labour that encompasses – as well as blurs the boundaries between – looking, hearing, feeling and remembering.

Can the viewer experience the same jouissance?

The imperial rule of sight in the experience of art objects has, in the main, subordinated the other senses, rendering hearing, touch, smell and taste, if not irrelevant, marginal. So we receive Rusch’s abstract fields of energy with their unique kinetics as mounted things to be looked at, not touched and moved. Art objects, though, possess a concrete materiality. Consequently, argued Mitchell in 2002, “this compels attention to the tactile, the auditory, the haptic, and the phenomenon of synaesthesia”. The title of Rusch’s exhibition distils Mitchell’s elegant injunction to explore the intermingling of distinct senses, as synaesthesia is defined, into a gentle invitation: listen with your eyes. Maybe, if the senses co-operate, the eyes will intuit trace memories of the vibrations, sonics and other sensory vibrancies that informed their making and meaning.

Text By Sean O’Toole

Amelia Barikin (2017), ‘Sound Fossils and Speaking Stones: Towards a Mineral Ontology of Contemporary Art’, in Christopher Braddock (ed), Animism in Art and Performance, Cham, Springer/Palgrave Mcmillan.

Jane Bennett (2010) Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, London, Duke University Press.

W. J. T. Mitchell (1977) ‘Style as Epistemology: Blake and the Movement toward Abstraction in Romantic Art’, in Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 16(2): 145-164.

W.J.T. Mitchell (2002) ‘Showing Seeing: A Critique of Visual Culture’, Journal of Visual Culture, Vol. 1(2): 165-181.

W. J. T. Mitchell (2005) What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Neil Rusch (2022) ‘Soundtrack of the World, Sonorous Stones and the Rock of Ages’,


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