STONE project.

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1 What is Reductive Thinking?

Sculpture is traditionally divided into modelling and carving. Despite immense changes in art during the past century, this division is still useful shorthand for the designation of much larger issues.


Louis Bourgeios 'Eye Bench' in black marble, 2007


Modelling is additive: as it follows the logic of assembly, it accumulates substance toward achievement.  Modelling can be taken to represent all methods of addition or rearrangement. This would include shaping a form in clay, assembling a construction, gluing things together as collage, or setting up an example.

Carving, as a subtractive process, is the opposite of modelling. The effects of carving can be seen whenever meaning is created by stripping something away, or where a new form takes shape by means of removal. The subtractive (reductive) method we associate with carving can be a tool for creative destruction or a means of refinement and intensification.

Modelling and carving are distinct ways to engage with material and as such they are also contrasting approaches to the world. Each requires different sets of sensitivities which in turn create their own opportunities.

Today the additive approach is so pervasive that it has a monopoly on almost every discipline. We are conditioned into it. The examples of working processes that we are given as children are nearly always predicated on growth. The additive is implicit in every idea of increase, including the establishment of value. Human beings are so attached to increase that quantity (whether in amount or cost) is substituted for quality.  Excess is taken to be a kind of protection. The expansionist tendencies of modelling have so thoroughly conquered the world that there are few other options.

The reductive or subtractive method would be able to offer the world an alternative approach, but it is difficult to find any place where it is fully active.  It has no effective advocate and no regular usage. When the subtractive approach can be found at all, it is usually fragmented, distorted or hidden.


Quarry worker chopping soapstone with an axe. Ouro Preto, Brazil 


The STONE project [see profile elsewhere] began its research with a sense of urgency. One of the central aims was to document endangered skills so that they could be saved for later generations.  It became quickly evident that with this task came an obligation to preserve the subtractive mode of thinking. The effort required to preserve craft skills turned out to be relatively easy in comparison to documenting a process that was also a way of thinking.  Thinking is not easy to document. Techniques and sequences can be recorded more easily.

The subtractive or reductive way of thinking is more complex and less streamlined than the elegance of technique. In the subtractive can be found pockets of inharmonious ideas existing side by side. There are vectors that when followed propel those trying to understand from differing perspectives.  A simple skill is so streamlined that it does not have any places to hold such confusing and residual ideas.  If it were possible to apply a psychological analysis to these differences, then simple skills would have fewer unresolved issues than are found in the complexities of the subtractive approach. The contradictory tangents in the reductive mode are what make it particularly interesting and challenging. In that sense it resembles human culture in general. The roots of carving stretch back to prehistoric times but an efficient assessment of carving’s insights has never been successfully articulated.

Most skills are really collective efforts. The knowledge that comprises them is cumulative. The sequences have been slowly perfected as they are passed through generation after generation. Over the centuries everything superfluous has fallen away and differences are harmonized until everything is pulling in one direction.  Theoretical and philosophical understandings are embedded in the fixed procedures of such actions.  Deeper understandings are so securely attached that there is no need to articulate them in order to preserve them. Craft skills are more or less understood.  That is not the problem. Skills are only disappearing today because the lineage is breaking. Many skills are no longer being passed on to younger workers.  

A discussion of skills is inevitably a discussion of technique, but understanding is also a skill. It too needs to be kept alive with all of its nuances but its complexity makes this more difficult.  It is not always possible to see everything from a single perspective. Yet some kind of inclusive overview is needed.  If the subtractive or reductive approach is simplified for the sake of preserving it, we risk discarding something very important.  

The task is to uncover everything that could lead toward a general principle of carving and do so in a way that is able to preserve its present and potential richness.  As a beginning, six distinct points of access can be identified. These are: a respect for margins, an appreciation of loss, the pull toward refinement, the thrill of exploration, the discipline of keeping to the core, and the ability to ‘re-live’ the sequence of an object’s creation while looking at a finished object.  Looking deeper into these qualities might reveal some preliminary principles of reductive thought.

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