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4 Stone and Touch

Tea bowls are part of the culture in Japan and Korea, where these simple cupped ceramic vessels are given great respect. They are not ornate or singled out in any showy way. A tea bowl, we could say, is humble, but it has a secret.

There is sometimes the sensation, when holding a particular bowl in two hands that one's whole body is being pulled into the hands, collapsing into the space of the bowl. It is not possible to tell from looking at a tea bowl if this will happen. It is possible to go through dozens of bowls before feeling anything. Whatever activates this sensation clearly exist in tactile terms alone. The successful bowl might also be beautiful, but frequently a beautiful bowl is tactilely mute.


Japanese tea bowl Traditional Japanese tea bowl and Japanese tea


Smoothness has been called the silence of touch. This implies that smoothness is neutral, which is not the case. The sensation of smoothness is closer to immersion.  We can experience smoothness, paradoxically, as submersion inside the surfaces. The experience has more to do with forgetfulness, but we are not cut loose as we might be with normal forgetfulness. We don't abandon place. While experiencing roughness, by contrast, we are kept outside. Roughness can probably be miniaturised. A rough texture can often be 'felt' vicariously with no contact at all. As far as tactility goes rougher textures tend toward an imaginative experience. It is possible to know that the brickwall is rough without our fingers making contact. We acknowledge certain rough textures as we do a warning. With texture there is a kind of scale shift.

In any experience of extreme texture we seem to visit briefly and then return with that memory. The split between the experiences of smoothness and the experience of roughness is quite apparent. Smoothness is known through repeated touching. It grabs us and pulls us toward it. Smoothness exists in real time and on a one to one scale. It cannot be confirmed by sight. We must experience it directly. Stone lives through its haptic qualities. We don't just want to see a stone; we want to touch it. Whether a stone appears hard or soft has more to do with its surface than with the natural hardness of the stone. Marble or limestone, both relatively soft stones, can be made to feel warm, cold, soft or hard depending on the surface. Granite, a particularly hard stone can be finished with a soft silky matt surface, or glossy and hard, or roughly flaked.


Naturally riven Shap granite, Cumbria, England Lewissian Gneiss outcrop, Assynt, Scotland


Tactile pull is evident in some of Karl Prantl's stone sculptures. His smooth work is characterised by modulations and bumps. It is impossible to imagine experiencing his work without touching. We are likely to close our eyes when we experience a sculpture but we almost always close our eyes when remembering the experience. His sculptures seem to alter our weight, not unlike the way that a strong wind seems to alter our weight and our relationship to the earth. Sound passes through us, and for an instant we are sound. Tickling seems to be multi-directional; it shatters directional perception into fragments. We can talk about a feeling of texture. We can equally talk about a texture of feeling. This texture of feeling grows from little disturbances born out of conflicting sources of vibrations. Active difference is common to all tactility. Slight differences are a kind of enrichment, the surface gets more depth, and the line becomes richer.

Despite the impression of immersion that tactility gives, it is often the entrance and exit, the on and off, that makes it intelligible. The most common experience of tactility is through extremely slight differences. We recognise sequence because it maps changes and transitions. Our mind notes breaks in pattern or alterations of speed or frequency.

The senses work with intervals. The smallest differences of sound allow us to locate an object in space. It is possible to know its position and whether it is advancing or retreating. The very slight slippage in image that happens when our eyes record something from slightly different places allows the perception of three-dimensional space.


Karl Prantl touching one of his sculptures at his studio and sculpture garden, St Margarethen, Austria STONE film maker Noe Mendelle sitting with Karl Prantl on one his sculptures at his studio and sculpture garden, St Margarethen, Austria


A tiny space opens within each interval of difference. Many tools are able to project distant intervals from more intimate intervals. They take the known and amplify it. Navigation or surveying devices, for example, can use barely perceptible differences to map bigger, more distant relationships. Triangulation keeps proportions but changes scale.

The difference that registers most harshly is the absolute differences of alternating opposites — the on and off we find in electric current, binary systems, or Cartesian coordinates. Differences do not have to be absolute. Relative difference in temperature or height can generate energy. It is sometimes a very small difference that makes a tool so effective. Even the smoothness of wave action, which is apparently seamless, has a power that has something to do with difference.

Touch cannot create image but it can transport us to another time. A few years ago when there was a fire that destroyed much of the Cutty Sark in Greenwich, one of the curators was interviewed on Radio 4. "If you lose original fabric, and lose the touch of the craftsman; you lose part of history itself." A craftsman can feel the presence of a fellow craftsman even over great time spans by seeing nuances in the work. It is usually possible to re-live the sequences the work has passed through while being created. This is a particularly living way to experience the work. It is clear when the work had been going well, hesitations can be particularly poignant like little nuggets of thought. There is a fuzziness that corresponds to those moments when the craftsman's concentration slips and connection to the work is lost. Everything that is needed to evoke a living person in absence is embedded in the work's tactile intervals and finish.

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