McArthur’s exhibition is a single installation with two main components, the first of which is a series of sculptures made from wholesale-size polyurethane foam. This type of foam, including high-density acoustic foam and a more flexible foam used for soft furnishings, is designed to absorb sound and impact. Positioned within the gallery, the foam composes space as much as it absorbs space – offering itself, and what surrounds it, to be sensed and felt. At the same time, the foam is affected by its surroundings; it is not impervious to light or atmosphere. Foam degenerates, or, put another way, undergoes its own generation – evidenced by alterations in colour and texture.
The second component of the exhibition engages the properties of superabsorbent polymer powder, a substance developed to soak up large quantities of liquid relative to its mass. With the introduction of liquid, the powder swells to hundreds of times its size by changing into a gel. An invention of post-war materials science, superabsorbent polymer is widely used today in disposable hygiene products such as incontinence pads, bed liners and sanitary towels. For these new works, McArthur combines superabsorbent polymer with traditional papermaking processes. The polymer powder acts and reacts to the processes of papermaking as well as to the conditions of the gallery.
In McArthur’s work, processes that register a material’s permeability across time call into relation seemingly bounded things: gallery wall and powder, concrete floor and foam, art exhibition and current events. McArthur
uses the materiality of foam and powder to draw out processes of absorption as they are experienced physically and psychologically. Less interested in the body as sovereign unit than in the flesh from which it is composed, McArthur asks what the materialities of polymer powders and foams have to do with flesh. Even further, she asks what flesh has to do with absorption – and absorption’s sibling – expulsion.
McArthur’s investigation of absorbent materials, and the qualities of absorbency and expulsion, relate to questions of maintenance and resistance important to her work as a whole. Past installations have paired polyurethane foam sculptures with loading dock bumpers made of moulded or laminated sheets of rubber. Found in warehouses and production facilities worldwide, these rubber bumpers are installed to protect a building’s loading dock by isolating and cushioning any vibratory contact between vehicle and structure.
In addition to her use of readymade industrial objects, McArthur is interested in objects that result from what she describes as ‘the work necessary for life’– work that is also known as reproductive labor or living labor. Examples of such objects used in previous work include the artist’s own pajamas, worn and altered by processes of care and sleep, as well as twenty temporary access ramps, made or purchased at McArthur’s request, in order to enter and exit buildings by wheelchair.
McArthur’s work, which includes both visual art and writing, emphasises the viable conditions of life and the ways that such conditions can lead to critique and criticality. Like the bumpers, the pajamas, and the ramps, the polymeric substances of foam and powder show what it is to insulate, isolate and soak up; what it is to bear, to accommodate and to cushion. At the root of each type of object is a particular obstinacy of material that allows for an analysis of the inseparable material relations of art to life.