1 Attraction to the material
"Life has grown from the rock and still rests upon it; because men have left it far behind, they are able consciously to turn back to it. We do turn back, for it has kept some hold over us."
— Jacquetta Hawkes, A Land (1951)
For many centuries human beings have been adjusting and readjusting their understanding of stone. And during this time stone has taken part in many adventures ranging from the mundane to mythic. Whether it is viewed geologically or culturally stone is a shape shifter and game changer. Stone can adapt, and it does, but it does so slowly. Despite the centuries of interaction with stone, we do not seem to have come to any conclusions about what stone is for us and how we should use it. Stone is always in the background, always reminding us of one thing or another. Whether it is resistant or compliant, whether we are aware of it or not, stone always has some hold over us. Just that is enough to make the conversation about stone relevant today.
The word 'Stone' can refer to either igneous or sedimentary rock. It makes no concession to what is really a big ontological difference. Some sedimentary rocks (limestone and marble) were once alive, and others (sandstone or slate) never were. The way we define stone is for category-of-use rather than origin or composition. For the most part, the word 'stone' designates any natural material used by masons and sculptors. Even within this apparently inclusive definition the distinctions and exclusions can be confusing. In Britain the designation 'stone' excludes marble but does not always exclude limestone. It is as if stone is split in a geologically confusing place. Marble is clearly posh; limestone and sandstone common. There is marble in the British Isles that people have decided to call limestone, in an apparent attempt to avoid prejudice.
It was with the return to Gothic architecture in the 19th century, marble really became an alien material, associated with Mediterranean invasions and pagan classicism. 'Stone' on the other hand was domestic and honest. In the early years of the 20th century sculptors like Adolph von Hildebrand, Eric Gill, Jacob Epstein and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska revolutionise the ways stone could be seen. These sculptors, and others, brought stone into the centre of a critical debate. While writing his entry for the Encyclopedia Britannica, a resource normally limited to fact, Eric Gill managed to slip in a one sentence manifesto: "What we ask of stone carving is that it shall look like stone." This plea for honesty in stone is a long way from how stone had been viewed in Ancient Greece, where it was not valued for itself but served as a less valuable material in which to copy sculptures that had originally been made in another material. Marble was anything but posh. To the ancient Greeks, stone was the plastic of its day. And it was painted.
The debate is still alive about whether stone should be seen as a neutral transformable substance — as the hyle of the philosophers — or as a material with its own character and influence. Some contemporary sculptors try to make stone look like some other substance, preferably as unlikely as possible. Stone has been made to look like milk, metal, wood, ink, plastic bags, leather, cloth or even food. The sculptors who do this are interested in image and surprise. Another group of sculptors sees such illusion as trickery and want their material to retain a sense of its origin. This group explores dynamic form for its ability to make stone seem alive. When Adrian Stokes speaks of this approach, the stone itself almost becomes the content of the work.
"...fine carving is when one feels that not only the figure but the stone, through the medium of the figure, has come to life."
— Adrian Stokes
The implications of these two approached are not insignificant. Each values and needs the substance of stone: one for what it is and one for what it isn't.
Even though quantifying stone helps to give us a clear idea of what stone is in comparison with other substances, it does not sort out what it is in relation to us. Stone use, everyone agrees, is going out of fashion. Stone used to be indispensible for buildings, tools, and weapons. It was used for burials and memorials, for coronation stones, and weights. Now stone is delegated to quaint history and nostalgia. It is no longer central to contemporary life. That, however, is only how it seems. Stone has gone invisible. We are reminded of stone when we see illusionary stone Formica and even real stone sliced thin for cladding. Stone, as we imagine it, is no longer there but it has left behind a smirking ironic visibility. Visual stone is now more likely to be a parody of itself. All this time, though, quietly and invisibly, the entire world's economy is being constructed with stone. Most people do not realise the vast number of products in daily use that come from stone, because by the time it reaches the consumer any resemblance to stone has been obliterated. Stone disappears into a kind of posthumous existence.
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