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Jess Harrison's Introduction to STONE

Jessica Harrison was the PhD associate for the Stone project. 

What follows is a rare account of an accomplished artist’s first experience with carving stone.  What follows is an account of how someone who never imagined she could be interested in carving stone becomes committed to the process. 


Tactility, the Body and the Senses 

by Jessica Harrison 

1. Introduction | Body and Stone

In the spring of 2009 it was suggested that as the sculpture PhD affiliate of the Stone project, it might be a good idea for me to actually try and learn how to carve stone. This sounded like an interesting and exciting prospect at first, but as the time drew closer for me to launch forth into this new venture, I began to grow a little concerned – what was I going to achieve with this unfamiliar material? Was it going to be an unnecessary distraction from the other sculptures I was working on? Would the knowledge that I was working in stone lead my peers to look at my practice differently? And how was my body going to cope with such a physically demanding practice?

I had initially joined the STONE project not because I was a stone sculptor or because I particularly wanted to become one – I had studied sculpture at art school and had been a practicing sculptor for a number of years but had never yet felt the urge to pick up a hammer and chisel and learn how to carve.  Even as someone used to working with their hands, to me stone carving seemed quite disconnected from the normal body, obviously a very physical process, but a practice that I thought necessary to dedicate your life to from scratch in order to achieve anything worthwhile in what seemed the most challenging and unwelcoming of materials.

This introduction sets me up as an unlikely edition to the STONE project team, but the following text is testament to my changing attitude towards stone and to the process of working with it, one that I hope will contribute to the argument of stone as a contemporary or traditional medium, as a nostalgic pastime or an important sculptural process.

I became affiliated with the project because of a parallel and mirroring of ideas and interests between my own sculptural practice and that of the STONE research team, not in the material itself, but in process and theory. The STONE project was an opportunity for me to explore sculpture from an alternate angle to how I had approached it for many years, but fairly unexpectedly I was now faced with being thrust into a fully operational stonemason's workshop.

It was not compulsory that I take on the challenge of working in stone, but it was a tempting opportunity to access foreign skills, processes and methods from within the heart of the tradition; the masons workshop. I was curious to witness skilled masons at work, using techniques that have been applied and developed over centuries to shape and transform stone, alongside our perception of it. Knowing that it takes decades to master this tricky material, however, I was a little nervous about taking on the task in the time that I had.

It was more than a little embarrassing to introduce myself to half a dozen masons in the stone yard of Gloucester Cathedral that summer, trying to explain how after spending several years studying sculpture at art school, I had never been taught how to carve. The workshop attached to the Cathedral in Gloucester is where I had come to learn the basic techniques of carving stone, where I would be for the next two weeks, with the hope of picking up some of the knowledge of these highly skilled practitioners, who seemed a little perplexed by my ignorance of the very basics of carving.

Expecting to spend the first day observing, I was surprised to find myself by 8.30am face to face with my own 3-foot square block of limestone, tools in hand. 'It's too big' I protested, comparing its massive size next to my fairly short stature – surely as a beginner I should be working on something nice and small, not something comparable in size to my own body that weighed 5 times as much? 'Actually, the smaller the stone, the more difficult you will find it to carve' countered Pascal Mychalysin, the head stone mason at the cathedral, who had been given the task of teaching me how to carve.

Accepting that Pascal must know what he was talking about, I stood back and watched him demonstrate how to begin. I was set the task of carving a perfectly flat surface on what was a roughly rectangular block, creating a plane of stone from which other sides could be measured, the first skill an apprentice mason must learn. We marked out a line around the edge of the stone that would become the flat plane, not using spirit levels and measuring tapes as I has expected, but instead using lines of sight, levelling unmarked straight-edges, relying on the physicality and processes of the body rather than the science or mathematics of numerics. Once this line was scratched into the stone, Pascal picked up what he informed me was a 'pitcher'; a large, unwieldy, heavy tool that had looked like it had seen a lot of stone. This was no chisel that I recognised, but a great square of steel protruding from a sturdy handle, with one sharper edge; not blade like, but almost at a 90 degree angle. This was the edge that Pascal carefully positioned against the surface of the stone. With one strong, solid hit with the hammer, a perfect fracture shot through the block, right above and along the scored line of the plane, breaking off a whole shelf of stone.

I find it difficult to describe how unexpected this was to me, especially now that I have become so familiar with this process myself. Although it was really nothing spectacular, the directionality of the rupture from body to stone seemed so perfect, so surprisingly geometric from what had on first appearance seemed such a clumsy tool. I was not prepared to be surprised by stone, a material so familiar it is often ignored or dismissed as a traditional medium, but here the translation from body to stone in one action, one hit penetrating so deeply and directionally transformed my perception of stone with equal impact. Maybe it wasn't so dense, so impenetrable, solid or disconnected from the body as I had assumed.

After removing a considerable amount of stone with the pitcher, Pascal introduced me to the 'point', a tool that essentially looks like a giant nail. I was told that above all else, I was most definitely not to nail it into the stone. Pascal began to work across the rough plane, using the point to knock away large chunks of stone. With each impact of hammer against point, point against stone, his whole body moved into and with each strike, so fluidly and easily, each time sending hefty chunks of stone spiralling through the air, gracefully following their intended trajectory.

The tools were passed to me. I threw myself into the impacts, trying to translate Pascal's bodily connection with the stone into my own body but I found my limbs rigid and tight, displaced and poorly aimed, confirmed by the growing bruise on my left hand that was now beginning to bleed from a few too many misjudged hits from the mallet. As a sculptor, I was used to manipulating materials, of expressing ideas through shape, texture, form and pattern much more easily than I could in words or conversation, and had become perhaps a little complacent with my ability to do this. I found that faced with trying to control the stone, I had lost control of my body, my rhythm erratic and inconsistent, my limbs literally flailing around in an attempt to command the material and tools. I was completely unprepared by the inability of my body to do what I wanted it to do.

This quite awkward, and also quite painful introduction to working with stone, rather than discouraging me, I was surprised to find, motivated me to carry on with great passion. My difficulties did not confirm my notion of stone as disconnected from the body, but instead revealed to me a surprisingly significant relationship between body to stone, way beyond the traditional representation of the figure that many associate with stone sculpture. I found that stone, more than any other sculptural material I have worked with, provoked questions about the body in sculpture – the body of both the artist and the observer. In the carving process and material itself, I became acutely aware of the physicality of both the stone and myself, the differences and surprising similarities between flesh and rock. In those introductory moments, of frustration, loss of control and the initial feeling of a great void between the stone and my body, formed the foundations of my fascination with the material, something I am still exploring through working with stone, 18 months later.

This was my introduction to stone, and serves as the preface to my exploration of stone from the body, by the body and through the body. I am looking to stone from the human scale, from the body itself as perspective and reference. For me, coming to understand and interpret stone from the body led me to experience it in an entirely new light, so in beginning an exploration from the body, re-describing a bodily connection through stone and sculpture that for myself was once detached, my hope is to reintroduce for others the sensory qualities of the material, leading to possible new perceptions of stone. To find the intimacy of this solid material is to discover the potential of stone as a sculpturally expressive medium rather than as a neglected classical tradition.

You might have noticed I am somewhat of a convert.


2. Breaking Apart

To begin to unpack the connections between body and stone in writing rather than by carving, I will break it into three different spatial configurations;

- Moving/shifting

- Handling/holding

- Hitting/cutting

I have chosen these titles as a way to break down an active involvement, to readdress the body; both in, of and around stone. My research lies in the space between stone and the body and the spaces within the stone and the body itself as areas of action and of happening rather than as static objects. Before my introduction to stone in the mason's workshop, I had not considered this aspect of the active relationship of the body to stone in sculpture, but is something that I believe is fundamental to the special relationship we have to stone, and where its potential as a contemporary sculptural material lies.

To focus on this active aspect between body and stone, I believe it is important not to approach the subject from the purely visual, optical bias that has structured art history over the centuries. The framework that holds together this discussion of stone is that of the tactile: this is not just about a body that sees, but one that touches, feels, senses and moves, both in the making and in the perceiving of sculpture. Rather than examining sculpture from a structure based on the figure, a visual, optically biased approach, the structure I adopt here is based on the active environment of the body. My focus is on the doing in sculpture, both in carving, observing and in interacting, exploring the action and movement in stone, the material that is considered to be naturally one of the most inert and solid. I will look to how the action of the body in working stone affects how we perceive it, and also how the way we perceive it can affect our actions toward it.

The following sections describe a moving together of body and stone, examining the changing space in-between when moving/shifting, moments of contact in handling/holding, and the transformation of both body and stone through hitting/cutting, discussing different kinds of contact between body and stone, exploring different tactile 'spaces'.


3. Moving/shifting

I am not interested in separating things in order to analyse; things work together, things bleed into one another, this is the way our bodies function and the way the world works. To separate mind and body, body and stone, stone and sculpture is to take a backward step instead of looking forward to discover new things. This is why I would like to look first at the space in-between body and stone, the physical space that connects the two before we touch, before we carve, before we handle. This is the space in which we judge scale, weight, texture and temperature before we verify through our fingertips. This is the space of movement, as we walk around a stone, or as we watch a stone roll towards us, or as we pass through a tunnel cut through rock.

The way we move in relation to stone is dictated by several factors; scale, accessibility, location, purpose. We move around stone everyday, going about our business, without particularly thinking about or noticing this material that surrounds us. However, for some artists working in stone, movement is key to understanding and interpreting their sculpture. This isn't just about walking 360 degrees around a sculpture to view it from all sides, but a different kind of movement intertwined with the body, one that is integrated into the stone, into the way we perceive it.

Movement in stone sculpture is not something that is often considered – perhaps because stone sculpture is so phenomenally dense and heavy in comparison to the body, we accept that it does not move, it is still, silent, stationary. Stone outlives us by thousands of years: in comparison to our bodies, it is more grounded in time than anything else. Things that are still can last forever. But stone does move. It changes, it breathes, it grows hot and cold; it is affected by us and by the world around us. Stone is immovable to the body, yet our relationship to it is defined by movement of the body around it and inside it.\


4. Moving stone: Splitting and returning 

The Japanese stone sculptor Atsuo Okamoto has created a series of sculptures in which movement is central to the concept and realisation of the work – a series he calls his 'turtle' pieces. Using the traditional Japanese wari modoshi technique, translated as 'splitting and returning', Okamoto breaks apart shaped granite blocks into approximately 50 pieces. Each piece is sent to various collaborators around the world where the individual section of stone lives alongside that person for 5 years. After this time, each stone is returned to the artist and reassembled into the original complete form.

Having been kept in different places and environments, exposed or concealed from the elements, each individual section of stone takes on a unique colour and texture. Okamoto (2010) describes this as an 'infiltration of life' on the stone, each stone 'breathing in personal colour as a personal memory.' When reassembled, the stone forms a patchwork of colours, a visual reminder of the diverse movements each piece has undertaken. Compiled together, it becomes apparent how alive the stone is, its porous skin absorbing whatever moves around it.

When complete, the stone is very beautiful, retaining in its shape individual movements and traces of contact, something normally lost in layers upon a single stone. Some of the stones are never returned, leaving gaps in the shaped block. Rather than spoiling the work however, this intensifies the notion of movement in the piece, one that seems to be continuing, that may always be unfinished.

The method of splitting allows Okamoto to break apart what would be a large, heavy stone into something that is moveable, something that can be dispersed through people, distributed between bodies. Most stone that we come into contact with has of course been split from larger stones or cut directly from the quarry, but Okamoto's stones are different. The distinction lies in the intention, the intention that the stones be reunited again after many years apart. Like an explosion caught on film and then rewound, when all the stones lie together the movement of each piece is vivid, coloured by the lives of the people that have touched it.

Okamoto has made several 'turtle' pieces with many different collaborators, the scale of each piece differing in both dispersion and time. The scale is beyond that of any normal sculpture, spread out over a whole country, sometimes the whole world. This reflects the relationship of stone to the environment, both human and geographic, revealing an intimacy between body and stone in each individual piece.


5. Inside stone

Okamoto's 'turtle' pieces show how stone can move through us, but it is also possible in sculpture for us to move through stone. In 1996 the sculptor Eduardo Chillida proposed a site-specific artwork that was so challenging, conceptually, logistically and environmentally, that it is still in the planning stages several years after his death.

He began with an idea rather than a location; an idea of a carving on such a scale it would change the internal structure of a mountain. Chillida had proposed to empty out the inside of a mountain, to carve a huge cubic void measuring 40 metres along each side, extracting approximately 64000 cubic metres of rock [1]. The carving would be almost invisible from the outside, accessed by a small passageway outside and lit by two skylights formed by long tunnels from above. At 401metres high and 186 hectares at the base, Chillida chose Mount Tindaya on Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands as the site for his proposal. A mountain that was already considered sacred by the island was an ideal location to create his 'mystic' space inside– a sculpture that Chillida hoped would 'protect' the sacred mountain [2].

Whether the proposal will be built or not is still under debate in the Canary Islands, but just the idea of the piece for me contributes to a more exciting view of stone sculpture, pointing towards the potential of this medium. Although, physically, quite a simple geometric carved void, the concept of the work is more connected to the body for me than a figurative carving could ever be. To view and experience this work, one would have to enter the sculpture itself – to move into the stone, to walk within the carving.

Quarries are like enormous carvings, that for some it is possible to enter, where stone is shaved from the earth by plug and feather, explosion and machine. They are open to the eye, the stone removed, leaving behind voids in the ground that can be observed from a great distance, or from the edge of the precipice. Unlike a quarry that can be observed from the outside, Chillida's carving involves movement into the sculpture itself. Like entering a cathedral, where the temperature drops and the sound echoes or disappears completely – this would be a whole bodily experience.

We judge on a human scale, and to be able to move inside of something we consider an anonymous object in the landscape – the mountain – is to turn our perceptions inside out. Unlike a mine, this emptying out of the mountain would not be to hunt for nature's precious treasure or a tunnel to create access to another side – it would be to facilitate movement to within the very heart of the earth, to feel the density of that space, to move underneath the skin of the stone.

Chillida's mountain proposal is fascinating because of its relationship to the human body – both in its scale and in the collaboration of the body in movement.

In movement, our 'concrete' dimensions of above/below, up/down, in front/behind, to the right/to the left are constantly changing in relation to the body, described by anthropologist Christopher Tilley in his text The Materiality of Stone (2004, p.4). According to Tilley, these dimensions do not end at the skin but extend beyond the body, connecting it to the world. We relate to place and landscape through these 'relational coordinates' of the body, the body embedding itself in relation to what is above/below it, in front or behind it, to the left or to the right of it (Tilley, 2004).

In Chillida's description of his proposed space, once inside the sculpture you are able to see the sun and the moon from inside the mountain, from a hollow with no horizon. Tilley describes the locus of our dimensions as between the body and the world, a form that Chillida has used to imagine a space by which there is no line to judge between ourselves and the world, a space where our dimensions are suspended.


6. Falling stone

The most obvious movement to discuss in relation to stone is perhaps that of the falling stone, the boulder that tumbles down the side of the rock face, or the carefully balanced stone that topples from the top of a dry-stone wall. Stone has been moving for millions of years within the earth's tectonic plates and carried across countries by the slow shifting of glaciers. We only notice the movement of stone, however, when it moves at a rate that is comparable to our own body, when it becomes something frightening, unnerving and unfamiliar. In comparison to our own bodies, stone is so heavy, dense and solid that when it moves unexpectedly it can be utterly terrifying.


7. Handling / holding

Vision has always held a privileged place in our concept of knowledge, but the act of touching, of handling something, is unrivalled in giving us information. Good sculpture, I believe, challenges the hierarchy of vision, tempting us to touch what is in front of us, to experience through the whole body, from our fingertips to the souls of our feet rather than stopping at the eyes.

Stone sculpture is often left in this visual, almost two-dimensional category, as something predominantly representative or optical rather than as an art that can and does involve all of the senses. This was my general opinion of stone before I began working with it, but over the last 18 months I have come to regard it as one of the most tactile materials out there, with huge potential to entice that compulsion to touch from the observer – a haptic compulsion that I feel is a measure of successful sculpture.


8. Handmade

Most of us share a compulsion to handle sculpture, often whether we like the piece or not, we still want to touch it, to know its surface through our skin. It is generally regarded that art should not be touched and this is usually the case so that things can be preserved and enjoyed by future generations. Even the most gentle touch of the human hand, when multiplied, can have incredibly damaging affects to all materials as traces of our natural oils are left with each touch of the fingertip, fragile surfaces gradually worn away or polluted beyond recognition. Stone has an advantage over other materials when it comes to our desire to touch, in that it is more durable to the human hand. Like any other material over time, however, stone begins to change through touch, both in colour, texture and shape as the trace of our curiosity builds upon the surface. Rather than being avoided, some artists working in stone have used this shared quality in the observer of the compulsion to touch as part of their work, intertwining the body within the idea and process of making the sculpture itself.

Atsuo Okamoto is one such artist, urging recipients of pieces of stone from his 'turtle' series to touch the stone at least twice a day. This results in, as I mentioned earlier, a discolouring of the stone dependent on the person touching it. It echoes the beauty of stone that has been touched many times that over time changes shape; stone stairs in old buildings, trodden dozens of times a day over hundreds of years, or statues of worship or veneration worn down by the hands of the faithful. This is sculpture that in time fits into the shape of the body that touches it, the stone becoming malleable to the human form without the need for tools or machinery. The bodies that touch, walk on or handle this stone slowly become visible through their trace on the stone itself. To me, it is perhaps the most beautiful thing about stone.

The moment we touch is the moment where through the tactile, boundaries defined by the visual become blurred and information is passed uninterrupted through surface and skin. As well as gaining information about the thing we touch, our consciousness moves, or becomes apparent, at that point of contact. The French philosopher Michel Serres describes this sensation:

'When I lift these bricks, stones, concrete blocks, I exist entirely in my hands and arms and my soul in its density is at home there but, at the same time, my hand is lost in the grainy body of the pebbles.' (Serres, 1985, p.25)

Serres is describing an ambiguity of boundaries in the moment of touch, imagined boundaries becoming fluid, allowing us to connect with objects and the world, opening up that which is closed (1985, p.55). Touching, holding something changes our idea of boundaries, to the point where the hand and stone become intermingled. Serres believes our 'soul' is not located somewhere deep in the brain but instead moves around the surface of the body, depending on where we touch; that our consciousness is located in contact.

In our culture, we have learned to value the handmade in a different way to the machine made; the touch of the craftsperson's hand sometimes adding value to an object in the case of the art object, sometimes making it difficult for people to trust in the case of machinery. In our mass-production culture, when we venerate the handmade, it is perhaps because it offers some kind of connection to the maker through touch, to the idea and creative source. The trace of a tool mark or a fingerprint on an object implies a presence, an interaction - access to the artist or craftsperson's consciousness and thoughts. Okamoto's turtle pieces invert this process, giving the artist access to the traces of the sculpture's observers. The touch of the observer is imprinted in the stone before the artist 'makes' the sculpture.


9. Drawing Touch

The anthropologist Christopher Tilley describes participation as a fundamental part of perception, where there is an active interplay between the body and that which it perceives (Tilley, 2004, p.19). One sculpture that seems to attract this participation in droves is Peter Randall-Page's work 'Seed'; an enormous 4 metre high granite carving at the Eden project in Cornwall.

Seed' is an egg-shaped stone, covered in a complex pattern based upon the geometric and mathematical principles that underlie plant growth. The sculpture was commissioned by the Eden project as the centrepiece for its new building that Randall-Page himself contributed to in working alongside the architects in the design, the structure of the building based around the idea of the sculpture. The building radiates from around the sculpture, the complex roof echoing the pattern carved onto the surface of the stone.

'Seed' is an immense carving, the largest I have seen and one of the most spectacular. Housed in a circular room, not much bigger than the sculpture itself, it is impossible to stand back in order to see the stone all at one. The stone fills the space almost entirely; giving the impression it is bursting with life, that it is about to grow even bigger. Once inside the circular room, you are right up against the stone, overwhelmed by the solidity, pattern towering down upon you. The space and the stone collaborate to choreograph the body in moving around the sculpture, keeping the body close to the stone all the time. In his work examining Neolithic and historical sites, Tilley describes never being able to see all the sides or surfaces of a stone at the same time, but the necessity of experiencing them one by one, showing how experience is based on a structure of encounter (2004). Randall-page has choreographed the structure of our encounter with the stone 'Seed' by the design of the space around it, so we cannot see it until we are almost next to it, almost touching. Tilley describes how stone changes as you approach it, that the true size and shape of an object is only known when it is in reach, when it can be touched. 'Seed' is thrust upon us in such a manner that we have no option but to reach out and touch it, to know its true size and shape with our very first encounter.

I saw the work after it had been in place for less than 2 years and by this point, many thousands of people had already passed around the stone, making at least one full circle to enter the room, walk around the sculpture and then to exit. As people walked around the stone, everyone reached out and touched it – tall and small, old and young, passing the palms of their hands over the carved pattern, losing their hands in the grainy body of the stone. The effect of this almost continuous touch over the surface had resulted in a darkening of the skin of the stone, giving the huge form a strange two-tone appearance; the carved, paler colour remaining above, at the height where hands can't reach. In time, the stone within reach will become even darker and smoother, polished by millions of fingertips.

I do not think this transformation through touch was an intended part of the work, as Randall-Page's stone sculptures are often exhibited outside, where the weather keeps the stone a fairly constant colour and texture, or if shown inside are often already polished. Inside, carved stone will stay pale if not polished, but touched by huge numbers of visitors each day in the popular Eden project, the affects that normally take many years are accelerated, the piece changing month by month.

Walking around 'Seed' with my fellow visitors, running the tips of my fingers along its surface, I was reminded of the bronze statue of St Peter in St Peter's Basilica in Rome where the outstretched foot of St Peter is worn down to a stump from the hands of the faithful pilgrims as well as many curious tourists. Like the monument to St Peter, that creates long queues of toe-touchers in the Basilica, the static stone seed that choreographs the movements of bodies that encircle and caress is a curious site to behold.


10.  Activating stone

Throughout history, stone sculpture seems to be the type of art we are most comfortable in making contact with, probably as we are certain of its solidity, we feel that as a material we know it, that it will not break with our hands alone. Sometimes however, stone is activated by our touch, moving, breaking, falling.

The Japanese sculptor Hayashi Takeshi works with stone, creating amongst other pieces, sculptures that are activated by the human body. One such work is 'Ishima', a sculpture installed across a floor, carved from Scottish sandstone. The dimensions of the installation reference those of a traditional Japanese room and is comprised of two layers of carefully carved and hand-polished sandstone, appearing from a distance quite flat, but on closer inspection, are dotted with anthropomorphic undulations, lumps, bumps and pockets.

To experience the sculpture, you are requested to remove your shoes, step onto the stone and walk across them. As the stones take the weight of the body, they begin to move, hidden carved undulations on the underside of the stone causing them to rock back and forth, dependent on the movement of the body, knocking against one another. Through the soles of the feet, the carved surface feels much more apparent and exaggerated than the eye suggests, as scale is transformed through sensation, small bumps feeling like they could topple you; 'sight is cancelled by contact' (Serres, 1985, p.35).

The work goes beyond the eye, beyond the visual, being made for the body as a whole. As well as touching the work through the feet, the installation incorporates a kinaesthetic collaboration in movement and balance of the body. Once activated, it is a sculpture of sound, sensation and movement; the clacking of stone against stone, the sensation of stone against skin and the movement and balance of both body and stone. This is a sculpture into which bodies fit, that can only be realised and activated through the tactile, through contact with the body; a reminder that the whole body is open to touch, not just the hands and fingertips.

Takeshi's sculpture describes to me Tilley's statement that our knowledge of a thing is grounded in our bodily relationship with it (Tilley, 2004, p.11). Tilley is following on from Merleau-Ponty's phenomenological philosophy, working from the belief that everything is implicitly connected to the body. Tilley's descriptions of his experiences of examining stone and archaeological sites from this perspective appeals to me as a sculptor as he is working from the body as an 'environment' rather than as an object or as a tool for the mind. The phenomenological body is a multi-dimensional filter for what we experience, rather than a vessel within which our eyes sit. 'Ishima' serves as a reminder that we can only truly know stone through the body, the filter that structures the manner in which we experience things, places and landscapes (Tilley, 1985, p.4), echoing the reciprocity between body and world that must be there in order to perceive, in order to structure consciousness


11. Hitting / cutting

Humans have been hitting stone for thousands of years; the earliest things we know about the human race are told to us through man-made marks on stone. The act of marking stone is tied to objects, objects that we would describe as tools, as external to the body. When used, however, the tool becomes an extension of the body; it becomes part of it.

The theorist Michael Polanyi describes this act of incorporation of tools into the body, moving beyond this idea to describe an incorporation of the body into the tool itself:

"The way we use a hammer or a blind man uses his stick, shows in fact that in both cases we shift outwards the points at which we make contact with the things that we observe as objects outside ourselves. While we rely on a tool or a probe, these are not handled as external objects. We may test the tool for its effectiveness or the probe for its sustainability, e.g in discovering the hidden details of a cavity, but the tool and the probe can never lie in the field of these operations; they remain necessarily on our side of it, forming part of ourselves, the operating persons. We pour ourselves into them and assimilate them as parts of our own existence. We accept them existentially by dwelling in them."

-Polanyi, 1958, p.59

The first tools that were used to hit and cut stone were made from stone; stones that on one end were sharp, for cutting, and on the other, round to fit within the palm of the hand. These stone tools that are observed in museums today serve as a retrospective connection between those bodies and stone, but also help us to make connections between stone and our own bodies, to recognise that we were shaping stone long before tungsten tips and air-powered tools. To successfully use these stone tools, the user must have incorporated the stone forms into the body as Polanyi describes, body and stone coming together in a very different way to how we experience it today. The marks that are left behind from the hitting and cutting of stone tell us about the tools that made those marks, but also of the bodies that used them. This applies to contemporary stonework as well as to archaeological finds, the marks made by sculptors serving as a language between artist and observer, a language that is translated through the body.

Hitting stone is about leaving a permanent trace of an action, whether in shape or surface, something that will last much longer than the body or the action itself. The 'Naming stone' in Orkney is a contemporary example of the compulsion of people to leave their trace in stone. Located on an exposed rock face on the wave-beaten coast of the northern Scottish Island, the 'Naming stone' is a small section of cliff, tangential to the sea, in a deep rut cut by water and weather. It is an isolated cliff, access to which is challenging, and is not on the regular tourist trail. Regardless, the stone has clearly been visited by a great number of people, as hundreds of marks are cut, carved, scratched and rubbed into the soft, dark stone. From marks, to initials to full names and dates, the 'Naming Stone' is a record of the movement and action of many bodies that have made the journey to view, touch and leave their own mark on the stone. By cutting into the stone, each person has described an action and a presence of a body in that space, in that time. The trace of a mark on stone is not always descriptive of a forceful, hard hit, but sometimes a careful climb across a rocky coastline, a translation of movement that can be followed as you read each mark left behind on the stone.

All carvings are in some way a trace of a body or an action upon a stone, a record of contact, of impact, of intent. In creating sculptures by removing, by essentially creating voids in space, what is left behind is the action, the movement of the artist – this is where the sculpture itself exists. We are left to imagine the tools used, the material that is gone, the space in time when the mark was made. Our bodies are the language by which we understand the carving, what is left behind after the hitting has ceased.

In discussing observation and participation, the anthropologist Tim Ingold describes one as a condition of the other, that in observing we are not spectators, but participants.[3] As observers of these marks of action, we are joining in the movement, the action; travelling forward with it, following the material and force[4]. In observing the carved surface we become participants as we are reunited in the process through the body. Carving is a movement and process that links body and stone, comparable to Merleau-Ponty's decription of the painter in his essay 'Eye and Mind' (Merleau-Ponty, 1964a, p.167, cited in Tilley, 2004, p.18). The sculptor impacts the stone, but the stone also impacts upon the sculptor, dictating what is done to the material and how it behaves. The movement of the making lies orthogonally (to use Ingold's expression[5]) to the body and stone, the action of impact existing as the sculpture rather than the shape of the stone.


12. Impact on Stone

The artist David Silver uses these marks of impact in the stone sculptures he makes, creating beautiful sculptures that are pitted with tool marks, their forms camouflaged by the movement and actions of impact. Working with found or rejected classical marble sculpture from a marble quarry in Italy in the series 'Make Something Your Own' from 2008, Silver carves his own sculpture onto the shape of another, creating forms that suggest a figure, but one that is carved beyond recognition. In the pieces it is not clear which marks are made by the artist and which ones were there already before his interaction with the stone began, coming together as a collection of marks rather than as shape, form or figure.

Most things we handle and touch are mass-produced objects that see little contact with another body before belonging to us or before being used – the things we use and buy rarely have the mark of another left on them. Contrary to this, stone sculpture is usually the result of a great deal of touching and mark making, leaving behind evidence of this in the stone. Even when carved by machine like some commercial stone sculptures today, the stones are still necessary to finish by hand. Carving is an extension of the body, its movements and its intentions, and through carving the body becomes visible, it leaves a trace. In Silver's marble works, there is a layering and blending of different bodies, actions, time and intention upon the stone, becoming apparent through the quality of the marks within the stone. This draws a similarity to all sculpture in stone, as a continual journey of the material; trace of contact with bodies left by impact, frozen at the moment that we see it as sculpture.

When carving stone, you can more accurately tell the undulations, curvature or flatness of a surface through the fingertips than by the eye. For my first stone carving trying to carve quite rounded shapes, my fingerprints all but disappeared on both hands from rubbing my fingers across the surface of the stone too often to check the regularity of the curve. Like the body, stone remembers touch, reacting in response. One of the stonemasons explained this concept to me whilst I was working in the stone yard at Gloucester. He was describing how when carving, the masons working on new sections of the cathedral had to be aware of how the stone would react in 50, 100 or 200 years time to the impacts that they were making now. Hit in the wrong way, a section of stone that seemed solid could in 30 years time split in two along the line of a poorly judged hit. One curious example of this at the Cathedral is a small group of carvings around one of the windows on the exterior of the building. The cathedral is beautifully and intricately carved from top to toe, featuring a repeated pattern based on a floral design. In this particular section, discovered by the masons restoring the cathedral, the pattern deviates and becomes erratic, wonky, uneven and quite bizarre. The section of carving is quite old and has been attributed to what the masons can only explain as a drunken mason – the influence of the body upon this particular stone suddenly becoming very clear. The stone from the section has not survived well, deteriorating more so than the surrounding carvings, most likely due to the unthinking impacts of the guilty mason.


13. Body and Stone

In this brief exploration of the relationship between body and stone, I have touched on some of the aspects I believe draw us into sculpture made from this simultaneously over-used and neglected material, aspects that describe a shared curiosity in stone sculpture. I only discovered these aspects of stone for myself when I began to carve, pointing to its continuing importance in contemporary sculptural practice and for its continuing interrogation within an artistic context. Before working in stone, I was the first to dismiss stone sculptures as somewhat lifeless, static shapes but after getting to grips with the material, stone sculpture is suddenly full of movement; growing, shrinking, collapsing and swelling, a complete turnaround that came from considering the active relationship we have with stone, thinking from the tactile rather than the visual. This interest is not a case of looking back, trying to work out how something was carved, but instead is about being caught up in the action of something, being carried forward by it in that bodily connection.

I believe it is important to think about stone from the body as it is only through the body that we can know and experience stone. As Tilley describes, by understanding and interpreting stone from a sensuous human scale, it is possible to shed new light on old monuments (2004, xiii). Tilley is writing about Neolithic and archaeological stones in the landscape, but his philosophy of approaching the material from the multi-sensuous body is one that I believe applies as much to contemporary stone sculpture as historical archaeological sites. The body affects our use of stone, how we have come to know it and now how it has been put somewhat aside with the development of man-made materials. The artworks I have discussed here hopefully translate a part of this engagement we have with stone as observers, participants and makers in a way that will make you rethink the body's relationship to stone. I believe the most interesting interchange between body and stone can still only be achieved through sensation rather than language but it has been an interesting challenge trying to describe this in words as well as in stone.



[1] These figures are taken from Giles Tremlett, 2011. Spanish Island allows Massive Cave to be bored into 'Magic' Mountain, The Guardian [Online], 20th Jan 2011

[2] Chillida, quoted from

[3] Tim Ingold, Lecture at Edinburgh College of Art 17th November 2010

[4] Deleuze & Guattari, 1980, quoted by Ingold, Lecture at Edinburgh College of Art 17thNovember 2010

[5] Tim Ingold, Lecture at Edinburgh College of Art 17th November 2010

Chillida, quoted from

Deleuze & Guattari, 1980, A Thousand Plateaus. Translated from French by Brian Massumi. London: Contiuum

Ingold, T. Lecture at Edinburgh College of Art 17th November 2010

Okamoto, A., 2010. Faraway Mountain. Edinburgh: Corn Exchange Gallery.

Polanyi, M., 1958. Personal Knowledge: Towards a post-critical philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago press

Quasha, G., 2006. Axial Stones. California: North Atlantic Books

Serres, M., 1985. The Five Senses: A philosophy of Mingled Bodies. Translated from French by Margaret Sankey and Peter Cowley. London: Continuum

Tilley, C., 2004. The Materiality of Stone. Oxford: Berg.

Tremlett, G., 2011. Spanish Island allows Massive Cave to be bored into 'Magic' Mountain, The Guardian [Online], 20th Jan 2011

Available at:



Ahmed S. and Stacey, J eds., 2001, Thinking Through the Skin. Oxon: Routledge

Classen, C., ed, 2007. The Book of Touch, Oxford: Berg

Connor, S. 2004. The Book of Skin. London: Reaktion Books

Howes, D. ed, 2005. Empire of the Senses. Oxford: Berg

Ingold, T., 2007. Lines: A brief History, Oxon: Routledge

Marks, L. U., 2002. Touch: sensuous theory and multisensory media. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press

Pallasmaa, J., 2005. Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses

Paterson, M., 2007. The Senses of Touch: Haptics, Affects and Technologies. Oxford: Berg

Polanyi, M., 1966. The Tacit Dimension. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Revesz, G., 1958. The Human Hand

Sallis, J., 1994. Stone. Indiana University Press

YSP, 2009. Peter Randall-Page at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Yorkshire: YSP



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