8 Exploration (Splitting / Projecting / Groping)
"If you really look at human experience the truth is that we are all living a life of experiment."
—Lindon J. Eaves, Geneticist and pioneer of twin studies
In the subtractive method, what is learned is immediately incorporated. Different ways of exploration establish their own relationships with the material. This affects what can be learned. Experiment, like exploration, is a search within defined limits, a way to learn about what is hidden.
Exploration suggests that some part of the process occurs while the searcher is in motion. It only lingers over incident. In exploration, as intention changes so do results. One intention can reveal things that another intention will not. When exploration is linked to a purpose anything discovered is limited by that purpose.
Over time, a stone sculptor will make increasingly accurate guesses about how the material will behave, especially when working in stone from the same deposit. Even so there may be surprises hidden in the stone. The exploration that is part of the subtractive processes does not guarantee security. A split stone can reveal almost everything along that one single plane, but except by inference it cannot reveal what it is like elsewhere.
The tendency of exploration is toward penetration, even when most of the activity remains near the surface. Exploration is always throwing out hints that suggest what will be discovered when a particular action is performed or the depth is increased. The discoveries that are made become as open-ended as exploration itself. When Bernini was in France, he was commissioned to carve the bust of Louis XIV. He ordered several blocks of stone and began to work on each of them, before choosing one to use for the carving. He didn't know the quarry and he wasn't sure of the stone. He was experienced enough to be insecure.
Before beginning a carving, the sculptor tests a bit of the stone to know how it breaks, but exploration is not limited to preparation. In fact exploration makes preparation continuous. For the most part, every action prepares for the next action. Each stroke carves a new platform from which allows something else to be seen.
Limestone, marble and sandstone are all granular, but the size and nature of those grains determines what the stone can do. Some stone is too brittle or 'sugary', or slippery to take hold of a specific form. Discoveries that do not appear to be immediately useful may become so later. Every discovery reveals one more reference point that can help to establish a kind of 'map' of the stone's characteristics.
Exploration assesses the orientation of the stone and determines the orientation of the explorer. For the explorer it is as if he steps back to position himself outside, better to see and to explore further. Exploration is a relational position. The process incorporates less the margins themselves than the awareness of the margins as a position from which to assess. Exploration, as a way of thinking, establishes perspective.
This is contrary to the sculptor's ability to mentally inhabit his material. These two, almost opposite positions can both come into play in the process of carving. The fact that divergent approaches are possible enriches and strengthens the process.
Splitting is the ‘cleanest’ of the exploratory tools; it is decisive and revelatory. The speed of splitting stone is one of the fastest actions in sculpture. Most of the time it takes to split a stone is taken up in preparation. The actual splitting occurs at lightning speed.
The instant of splitting is a kind of epiphany. The moment just before the stone splits is full of anticipation. Natural stone is almost always obscured by a weathered crust or bruised exterior. Splitting is zooming into the center of the stone. Sculptor Jene Highstein insists that the beauty of stone is most evident in the split surface. When a stone is split we might discover interior ‘drawings’ or stratified color variation. The texture reveals if the shape and size of crystalline structure is consistent.
The sculptor’s search for a form can be experienced as a constantly shifting surface. Insights are seldom found on one surface alone but on that surface in relation to adjacent surfaces.
Exploration is a kind of progressive diagnosis where one insight leads to another insight. It is also an action that merges with carving where one step also moves toward a further step. In both carving and exploration each time one action reaches a solution it uncovers a new territory that is explored in turn. It makes sense to see carving and exploration together, in each case discovery changes the light, sometimes literally, and a change of light determines how far it is possible to see. Comparing two surfaces slightly apart or two surfaces of different heights or depths can reveal more than any singular surface. To be able to look at a surface response and see in it evidence of some hidden event or action is a useful skill. Concealed structures can be intuited from the surface. Clues may need to be enhanced to be deciphered Polishing is an activity of the surface, but may reveal things about the stone that neither splitting nor carving can do. A successful polish might show microscopic changes that cannot usually be seen. What can be seen may be evidence of something that is only shallow or something that continues deep into the stone. Polishing takes so much time that it cannot be used regularly as a tool of exploration. Wetting the stone is sometimes a shortcut to polishing and can bring out variations of coloring or texture. Because water evaporates at different speeds on the surface or in the depths of a crack, a wet stone can show flaws that would otherwise be harder to see.
Splitting is insistently planar as it reveals the inside of the stone top to bottom. It is not the same inside of the stone that carving reveals. Carving is far less restricted than is splitting and can never be limited to a single plane. Carving requires that the carver touch different depths in different places. As a result of searching for a specific form, some things become adjacent that would otherwise stay distant or hidden.
Carving is not production; it is discovery. The form arises only through the action. Because the exact form is not certain in the beginning, the related shapes are slowly tested. The result is recognized. Carving is a kind of groping toward discovery. What characterizes a groping action is a sequence of many small ‘tastings’ of position.
Like the probing white cane of a blind person or the focusing of a camera lens, carving starts large and gradually arrives at its achievement. The goal is to arrive at an exact, sharp, condensed point. A concentrated form is recognized because it is ‘dark’ in the sense of an increased presence. An imprecise image takes more space, and is fuzzier, foggier and lighter. Focus implies condensation. We move toward a crisp resolution.
The slowness of exploration in archeology is a perfect example of explorative groping. The archeologist needs to be alert for things that are not specifically being looked for. Clues can be found in subtle changes such as a pattern or a break in the pattern. As archeologist Nick Card explained when he talked about his work in Orkney “As an archeologist you always wonder if you are missing something.” The hardest skill is to look for something that is not known to be there. The searching action in archeology, and perhaps in sculpture, takes place within a world of potential always just short of the final form.
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