5 The Judgment of Margins
The Margin of Amount
The expansionist approach represented by modelling is accompanied with an unstated assumption that there can be no limit to expansion. This ‘euphoria of increase’ is everywhere in the world today. The ground of carving is the opposite of this. The subtractive approach is built on the assurance of its limits. Carving has an ‘identifiable absolute’ built into its character.
The ‘judgment of margins’ rests firmly on the assessment of amount. Carving exists entirely within the stone. The artist is created within the stone because that is the place where the best of what she or he can offer is manifested. The stone has its mass, but the artist makes personal space within its margins.
At exactly the moment when it becomes evident that margins create the sculpture is the moment when it becomes possible to visualize how any block might be carved simultaneously from all directions. In carving, old surfaces are constantly being replaced by new ones. The progress in carving moves slowly from fuzzy to precise. The action to take off more from some places than others continues until a form is materialized within that space. Carving teaches that as the stone gets smaller, focus and form intensify. As the intensity of the stone increases, it incorporates more of its surroundings. Carving is less about something being diminished than it is about the creation of space. A sculpture often functions as the nucleus of a field of influence that is larger than its apparent boundaries. This extended area is the real boundary of the work, but it must be identified by feeling rather than sight.
Stripping things away is not to be confused with serious loss. All forms of loss, however, may have much in common. The action goes in both directions at once.
The space that a sculpture shapes is almost tactile. Sculptures in general and carving in particular create auras of influence both inside and outside of its apparent boundaries. An awareness of these relationships and a sensitivity to this extension into space can be anticipated and brought into the working process. Most of the sculptural experience can be equally shared by sculptor and viewer, but there are privileges for those who work with their hands. The craftsman in the midst of intense work can develop a sensitivity to space which is not easily shared: it is as if he has extra eyes looking at the stone from angles positioned well beyond the edge of the carving. In this case it is not theory but activity that transports awareness beyond its normal boundaries. As Albert Einstein said ‘Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them.’ This is something more than metaphor. For the carver the peripheral —the marginal—once again becomes a central concern. At the same time the sculpture is sending a presence into space, its edges are reflecting back energy.
The Margin of Context
In the quarry a stone block is removed from the central matrix of the earth. It is a fragment of the planet itself. This bit of stone had been in the same position for millions of years; now it is split from a single mass and moved from darkness into the light. The orientation at the time of this ‘birth’ is forever afterwards a quality that stays with the stone, part of what it is. Once it is removed from its original mass of the quarry it becomes raw material again. From this stone now smaller things can be quarried.
Every matrix regardless of its size has the solidity of place. That is how a fragment taken from the quarry can become the unquestioned ground of carving. This block has shifted easily from fragment to monad simply by moving place. Just by being moved from the periphery to a central position it begins to set itself up like a separate consciousness. The displaced becomes place.
Context is considered to be a relationship with what is directly adjacent. A quarried block of stone has a double context. Extractions from an originating matrix exist within a context that is not contingent. Consider the way a human garden restructures wild nature. The context is in contrast to the steel and concrete skyscrapers that surround it, but its other context is its existence within the entire orchestration of nature. A block of stone is similarly ‘tamed’ by its removal from the earth. Each reproduces something of its place of origin but on a smaller scale. Both the quarried stone and the garden are new ‘places,’ and yet they have inside of them the immensity of their pre-tamed state. A garden’s context is not defined by the wall around it, or by its urban contrast. Its context is not found in its geography but in its deep history, in the wilderness from which it was separated. The quarried block is no different.
To a lesser degree this is the case in scholarship when a few lines are separated from a longer text. The original manuscript is the originating matrix and the quotes are fragments quarried from it. It is not unusual for a quote to seem more complete than the original text ever was. When further editing removes a few internal words for clarity it might inadvertently juxtapose phrases that had been more distant — an act of carving that can expose hidden meaning. How is it possible that additional meaning, and in extreme cases even identity, can be created by removing parts of something?
Every photographic image, regardless of whether it is still or moving, is a fraction of a second snipped out of the day from which it was taken. A photo is also a fragment that can develop a sense of place. It is in a sense already carved.
The film editor’s task is to further carve the initial carving. Editing film is closer to the way a horticulturist will prune a tree. The raw footage is shaped by clipping off what doesn’t support the narrative. Occasionally a removed scene is grafted back into the story out of sequence. Such a displaced image or sound can be used to tune, to focus or to expand the scene to which it is added. The inserted clip becomes a reminder of a larger outside world or of parallel processes. To what extent does the altered object preserve a relationship to its earlier self or to the matrix from which it was extracted?
Some sculptors intentionally preserve a bit of unmodified raw stone as part of the finished work. They keep a bit of the matrix because it contains sleeping energies. Reductive thinking uses these energies as a foundation upon which everything else is built. The talismanic residue is a reminder to the artist that the power of what has been done is always linked to what has not been done. By preserving some of the raw stone the experience of the work is kept up-close and tactile, and the memory of the work that went into the carving is kept active. Tactility has a higher priority for many sculptors than the streamlining of the form as silhouette. Silhouettes distance form; tactility keeps it up close.
An important part of the ‘margin of context’ is the way that the work’s sense of being stretches back to the quarry, back to a contact with the earth itself. The importance of contact with the earth was not lost on the ancients. Antaeus is the powerful character from the Greek myths who could only keep his strength as long as he touched the earth. Someone like Antaeus could be the patron saint of stone sculptors.
Sculptors are fundamentalists. They find their best nourishment in irreducible basics. The first matrix is the quarry: it grounds the sculptor in the earth. The second matrix, the extracted stone, is where experience is concentrated. For a carver the place of experience is the place of achievement. Achievement for the sculptor is not something that is floating in the clouds. In one way or another, the work is earth-bound, always below the surface. The summit to which sculptors ascend for achievement is never really above them. A sculptor may try to carve a high mountain, but the work stays always beneath his feet.
Carving is held between the stone’s two distinct margins. The ‘margin of amount’ is a combination of mass and dimension. The ‘margin of context’ is a complex frame of alignments, intervals and expansions emanating from what is inherent in historical, contingent and associative qualities. Carving is framed by a restraint.
A block of stone when it has been removed from the quarry is somehow able to both keep and exceed its boundaries. The sculpture is able to extend beyond apparent boundaries in two different ways: ‘historical’ and perceptual. Like a person who is more balanced with feet apart than together, there are two ‘feet’ that stabilise the margins of context. The first ‘foot’ extends back in time; the second ‘foot’ expands into perceptual space. The core of the work is secured between these positions.
It is possible in the right situation to feel how the physical edge of a sculpture is not its real boundary. A sculptural object has the ability to ‘carve’ the space around it. These extended boundaries come into play just as it appears that the work is finished, pulling the work back into the realm of action. It is starting over once again by initiating a new aspect.
For a work that was always functioning from the edges to the center this enters a different perceptual space. The sculpture begins to function as a tool. Stone sculptor Lenore Thomas Straus believed “The correct positioning of [the]… stone upon the earth will be the final act of carving.” Careful placement can carve space. In some clear cases the space and the object can be experienced as locking themselves together. The object ‘holds’ space. The ability to recognize this is what makes some people better at placing sculpture than others. Like other skills this too can be learned.
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