Wandering among the apparently random scattering of objects, assemblages, videos and photographs that populate Sculptural Matter, you get the distinct feeling that the latest show at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art may well attract the ire of many a traditionalist. The show’s title, after all, is a fairly pragmatic statement of intent.

Running alongside a stunning survey of leading Australian photo artist Pat Brassington, and featuring a host of leading international contemporary artists, Sculptural Matter corrals a body of work that doesn’t so much trace contemporary sculpture perse, but points, hints and gestures in its general direction. Whether historical examples in the form of famed US artist Richard Serra’s 1971 video work Hand Catching Lead or Gabriel Kuri’s 2012 work Untitled (Extra, Extra Safe) – in which inflated latex condoms seemingly prop-up bulky rusted steel and aluminium structures – these works err towards what might be described as sculptural propositions or, as curator Charlotte Day does a better job of articulating in her gallery notes, “a sculptural way of thinking”.

Indeed, what Day and her happy hotchpotch of works – courtesy of the late Polish artist Alina Szapocznikow, Georgian artist Thea Djordjadze, New York-based Carol Bove, UK artist Sarah Lucas, Berlin-based Shahryar Nashat, Nairy Baghramian and Tatiana Trouve – does so well is invoke and deconstruct the devices, expectations and relationships that make sculpture what it is, rather than present realised sculptures as such.

Szapocznikow’s suite of monochrome photographic prints, Fotorzezby (Photosculptures) (1968), for one, captures proposed or hypothetical sculptural gestures made with pre-munched chewing gum, while Djordjadze’s vast 2012 work comprises a roll of turquoise carpet that not only lines the floor but scales the wall, two slabs of high-density foam punctuating the horizontal surface. Our interpretation of the materiality – the kind of foam that used in cheap mattresses and cushions – leads us to question the work’s credence, but monolithic proportions and considered spatial arrangement angle towards a sculptural reading.

A similar dynamic marks Trouve’s vast arrangements of copper piping, blown-out tyres and other metals. What might have been a tangle of junkyard refuse becomes almost elegant; a pair of shoes placed at the base of a precarious, towering arc of copper piping hints at the possibility and limits of figuration. Lucas’s works also test the boundaries of the human figure. Wrapped around makeshift concrete block structures, her anthropomorphic stuffed stocking sculptures (which recall Louise Bourgeois as much as more recent works from Polly Borland) are like a stripped back allegory for our relationship with the built environment, the disparity between soft and hard making the works uncomfortable and jarring. Baghramian’s slick, glossy latex and wire sculptures also partake in a kind of material jamming, one form cutting and submerging into another.

There are some other strategies at play. Not unlike Nashat’s sculptural, photographic and video works, which describe empty or barely adorned plinths and slabs, Bove’s stunning La Traversee Difficile (2008) draws upon notions of both presentation and expectation. Set atop a should-height platform, her scattering of tiny found objects, sculptural castings, broken jewellery, photographs and keepsakes recasts otherwise inanimate fragments into a scene laden with symbolism, nostalgia and potential narrative threads. Bove’s preoccupation, it seems, is with the devices and the power of presentation rather than the individual objects themselves.

It’s an apt summation of Sculptural Matter’s resonance. By reframing everyday materials, objects and propositions in the context of sculpture, this exhibition explores not only the cues that guide us in our reading of art, but elevates the supposedly humdrum. Objects, copper pipes, rubber and generic bits and bobs can be just as darn engaging as marble and bronze if you afford them the same consideration.

Sculptural Matter shows at ACCA until September 23.