Art reviews: Milestone | Rough Cut Nation
MILESTONE **** EDINBURGH COLLEGE OF ART ROUGH CUT NATION **** SCOTTISH NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY
YOU can't write usefully about a musical performance until it is over, but with art there is no such constraint. The exception might be performance art – it is generally short, if not often sweet, but like music can only be written about after it is over. So when I was faced with a bit of a dilemma about when to write about Milestone, the stone-carving project at Edinburgh College of Art, I thought the best way was to treat it as a performance which is why I am now writing about it after the event. Indeed, as Joel Fisher, one of the sculptors participating remarked, at 31 days it was the longest performance in the history of the Festival.
The idea was that a group of sculptors would carve works on site, starting from the raw stone. If I wrote of it at the beginning there would really be nothing to see – even at the end there was work that was not quite finished. The sculptors worked under tents in the open air; the public came to watch them at work, asked them questions and were generally part of it.
I won't say that after 31 days there was a suite of masterpieces to admire, but there was much to enjoy. One thing that came across from all the work was the importance of the character, the personality even of the stone itself, and in several cases this was very much a matter of it being an individual stone. Susanne Specht, Carlos Lizariturry Moro and Atsuo Okamoto all chose Glacial Erratics, huge basalt boulders, dragged for miles by a glacier long ago, rounded off by the battering they received and then dumped when the glacier melted – in the case of Susanne Specht's stone, at the spot now occupied by the Gogar Roundabout. Atsuo Okamoto's stone was thrown up by the similarly glacial progress of the city's tramworks. Perhaps it should be installed as a monument somewhere to the quiet exasperation of the people of Edinburgh.
Susanne Specht cut into her stone and polished the exposed surface to reveal its gleaming inner beauty and also, by leaving a paper-thin, ragged edge, suggesting its hardness. Carlos Moro has split his stone, cut a spiral inner chamber and then rejoined the two parts. Holes on the outside allow you to see into this mysterious inner space. Atsuo Okamoto has also concerned himself with the inside of his boulder, drilling a series of holes so that it is effectively hollow. When you bang it, it rings. The Ringing Stones found around Scotland are generally just such basalt boulders, but Atsuo Okamoto added another dimension. When he blew into his hollowed-out stone with a pipe, it made a deep, reverberating trumpet sound. As a second project, Atsuo Okamoto split a small boulder into neat pieces. These pieces have then been distributed to a random selection of keepers to be reassembled in six years' time, the point being that the different pieces will change in different ways according to how they are kept. The reassembled stone will look very different from its original appearance.
Hayashi Takeshi, also Japanese, used a hard sandstone, cut into it and created an inner dome of polished black stone, so he likewise revealed something unexpected and inward. Stone is not simply inert, therefore. Indeed, its unexpected inner life seemed to be a theme. Others expressed the life of the stone in different ways: Joel Fisher follows lines of drawing that lead him into the stone where at its centre he has cut a hole, as though the stone had its own system of gravity. Jessica Harrison found the lines of the palm of a hand in her stone. Peter Randall Page working with David Brampton-Greene created a composition from close-packed spheres that suggests the fundamental unity of the forms of geometric solids. Sybille Pasche took a great piece of Kilkenny limestone, a grey stone that polishes to black and even dark blue, and cut it so that it is roughly spherical. Its main surface is rough hammered and grey, but protruding from it are a series of highly polished bosses that have a distinctly human feel. Stone, she says, is "full of the history of the earth and its genesis". Kilkenny stone is indeed full of fossils, but her polished shapes also suggest the bosses on Pictish crosses or even ancient images of genesis like the neolithic Venus of Willendorf.
Jake Harvey used the same stone to create a composition of more masculine elemental forms, a vertical pillar of stone standing above a horizontal one, both on a wide base and all cut from a single piece of stone. At first sight it looks architectural, geometric even, but that is deceptive. None of the lines are straight, nor are the angles right-angles. If it is architectural, like the Pictish arch from Forteviot cut from a single stone, it is architectural form reached by the intuitive methods of sculpture.
Of the 11 sculptors, only two produced directly figurative work. Daniel Silver from Israel was inspired by the classic pose of Theseus from the College's Parthenon casts. Though he has used the pose, the rough finish and skull-like head he has given the figure make it look sinister. It is like a charred corpse from Hiroshima, or one of those strange Pompeian figures made from casting tragic human shadows found in the volcanic dust. Gerard Mas, a Catalan, carved a very beautiful sheep. From the front it is shorn, but at the back its coat is lush. In a pun on the whole process of carving as a kind of revelation, the sheep is in the middle of being sheared. When it is displayed, the chippings cut away will be scattered on the floor like the cut wool.
This performance was part of a research project about stone-carving. Led by Jake Harvey, head of sculpture at ECA, the idea was to produce a kind of inventory of stone-carving techniques and traditions around the world. Some of the results were on view in an accompanying exhibition. Photographs of stone carving and quarrying in India and China were particularly impressive, especially a short film of a woman in sari and sandals whacking rocks out of a mountain with a sledge hammer that most of us would barely be able to lift. It looked as though the huge hole she was standing in had been hacked out by her own solitary efforts. Now that really is performance art.
A little of that energy and scale was seen in Rough Cut Nation at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery – another performance. In an inspired move, prior to its being stripped out for renovation, the gallery's director, James Holloway, handed over the ground floor exhibition room to a group of young graffiti artists, led by Richard Cumming. There were around 20 of them most of the time, but the number seems to have been fluid.
So was the painting. They worked in and over each other's compositions so the result was vivid, multi-layered and brilliantly informal. It was all kicked off by Pete Martin writing Do Not Be Afraid in huge letters around the top of the wall, an injunction that was followed enthusiastically by his companions over the following weeks. At the end the whole thing was chopped up and auctioned off in bits to try to recover the costs.
It reminded me of Gulley Jimson in Joyce Cary's novel The Horse's Mouth, a crazy painter who spent his life searching for walls that were due for demolition so that he could paint enormous pictures on them. That is apposite in a way, too. Joyce Cary was an art student in Edinburgh exactly 100 years ago. His spirit lives on.
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