Cold rusted steel meets fleshy pink plasticine? That’s one way of describing Sam Petersen’s vivid contribution to Overlapping Magisteria, an ambitious new exhibition at ACCA that encourages notions of the material and immaterial to intersect in fascinating ways.

Imprinted directly upon the Corten steel entrance to the gallery at Southbank’s Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), the Melbourne artist’s flesh-toned plasticine installation aims to explore Petersen’s recurring themes of disability, visibility and sexuality.

It also honours the greater Overlapping Magisteria’s goal to “unsettle the divide between science and metaphysics.” Curated by Miriam Kelly and ACCA artistic director Max Delany, the exhibition sees participating artists responding to biologist and author Stephen Jay Gould’s argument for the separation of science and spirituality. The resulting five new works see the artists take vastly different approaches, from Robert Andrew’s merger of tree branches and robotics, to Sidney McMahon’s mourning-inspired kinetic sculpture, to Isadora Vaughan’s multi-sensory sculptures and Mimosa Echard’s layered hybrid of painting and sculpture.

When asked to contribute, Petersen was originally offered the interior foyer. But the rough red steel exterior was more enticing. “I really wanted to work on the rusty metal,” says Petersen. “Though it was important the oil from the plasticine didn’t stain it.”

The simple solution tied into the exhibition’s theme. “I decided to use cling wrap as a semi-sexual substance,” says Peterson, “[as well as] a film between me and the world that I often feel,” the cling wrap being, “safe yet suffocating.”

The separation Petersen refers to is a result of living with a disability, the movement disorder dystonia. Addressing disability – and often society’s limited views of it – is a key theme that runs throughout Petersen’s work, whether visual art or spoken-word and written pieces self-described as “rants.” In fact, Petersen will deliver a new piece I’m still feeling it at ACCA in 13 March, just before the exhibition finishes.

“I’m drawn to working with space because so much of it is cut off to me,” says Petersen. “I need more spaces, both physically and mentally.” The piece for Overlapping Magisteria addresses “want[ing] to envelop and seep into … the space I do have.”

As for working with plasticine, Peterson says it’s a medium full of opportunity and meaning. “I enjoy taking this childish substance – because that is what many people see me as – and then owning it big time,” says the artist. “Something soft within something so hard. Plasticine also has an oiliness, which can relate it to skin, and it works best when it has been handled. It takes on body heat and reflects it back to us. I see it as an extension of the body, a substance that lives.”

The material’s fleshy colour was part of the appeal for the new piece. “It’s pink, so much pink,” says Petersen. The colour and texture also alludes to sexuality, something that is as important to Petersen’s work as themes of access and visibility.

“Sexuality is a subject that is very personal,” says the artist. “Unfortunately the disabled body is seen as problematic by society, and the sexual disabled body even more so. So this work is literally fucking the space.”

Overlapping Magisteria runs until Monday March 15, 2021. Sam Petersen and Isadora Vaughan will speak about the exhibition at ACCA from 6-7pm Thursday February 4, 2021.

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