Common sense would have us believe that metal is tough, impassive and dead. In ancient Greek mythology, Prometheus angers Zeus by gifting fire to humankind. As punishment, the impudent god is tethered to a desolate rock face with indestructible chains, made from the hardest, most durable metal.
to nail the malefactor the high craggy rocks
in fetters of unbreakable adamantine chain
Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound
But in her book Vibrant Matter, Jane Bennett explores how metal is not just a static, lumpen substance exploited for its brute strength. She claims that metal has its own vitality – that this seemingly cold, inert material is in fact bursting with life.
Metal does not simply yield passively to an external force like a hammer blow or the heat of a furnace; rather, these external agitations invite it to reveal its unique properties. Bennett claims that all artists intuitively know how their chosen materials respond to touch. Any fold, crease or puckering is the outcome of an encounter between two active agencies: the maker and the material.
Metal in particular has a dynamic set of physical characteristics. It is a conglomeration of microscopic crystals packed in closely together. But these tiny particles are not uniform, nor do they tessellate seamlessly. At the interface between one crystal and the next is a thin layer of loose atoms in a constant state of flux.
Metal thus never entirely settles; it is an active entity with mutable borders. And it is precisely this idiosyncrasy that triggers the slow emergence of cracks and blemishes on metal surfaces. These unpredictable marks are “expressive” of the restless crystals sliding up against each other, jostling for space.
Over time, I have become intimately familiar with the unique character of bronze. Through many encounters, across myriad forms, I have learnt how to consort with its lively, charismatic presence. And for artists working with metal, it has always been so;
The desire of the craftsperson to see what a metal can ‘do’, rather than the desire of the scientist to know what a metal ‘is’, enabled the former to discern a life in metal and thus, eventually, to collaborate more productively with it.
Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter