The book ‘Synthetic Worlds’ by Esther Leslie has plenty to interest the sculptor, and in particular I’ve found it has galvanised some of the intuitive ideas I have about the poetics of synthetic materials. The books traces the development of synthetic dyes and other ‘ersatz’ materials by German chemical companies in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Chemists and researchers broke down barrier after barrier, cracking the code of expensive natural commodities. The synthetic versions were cheaper to produce and the raw materials required to make them, coal and gasoline, were practical for a country that was seeking self-sufficiency: ‘Coal deposits, shiny black, have locked inside them a previous world of life, and all its colours. Coal is the primal material out of which imitations of nature, based on carbon, can be made. Coal is the beginning of everything.’
I particularly enjoyed the logic applied by some early apologists of synthetic materials: ‘this imitation of the chemical processes in plants and animals is superior, because it has been chosen consciously.....When suddenly a material appears out of invisibility, in an instant, the miracle and secret of creation are revealed.’
I feel an impulse to embrace the inventiveness and surreality of substitute materials, admiring the satisfying way they puncture the overblown cult of the ‘natural’ or ‘genuine’, whilst at the same time there is a sense flatness and generalisation, where the specificity of raw materials such as madder root is lost as it becomes yet another mathematical fraction of coal.