Stories Can Set With Time, Just Like Rock
By Amy E. Brown and Miriam La Rosa
‘The result, therefore, of our present enquiry is that
we find no vestige of a beginning – no prospect of an end’
James Hutton, 1795
Time is certainly one of the most difficult concepts to be fully comprehended even by geologists, who study the composition and evolution of the Earth, investigating the notions of principle and end. In 1795, Scottish scientist James Hutton provided an innovative approach to the understanding of geological time, claiming a much vaster dimension than that commonly acknowledged. In his Theory of the Earth he argued that what we experience on the surface often derives from within, meaning that new rocks overlap and layer on old ones as a consequence of an explosive activity. By observing the diverse composition of strata and the presence of different types of stones in the same place, Hutton intended to demonstrate that the city of Edinburgh was built on rocks uplifted by a power coming from subterraneous heat. Although at the time he could not explain the exact nature of that heat, Hutton had discovered the geological origin of the city – erected upon the remains of a volcano, which fell dormant as long as 335 million years ago. Hence, his theory, now a fundamental principle of geology, revolutionised the thinking around such a science, explaining the feature of the Earth’s crust by means of cyclical, natural processes. In other words, it established that the Earth is perpetually being formed through erosion and sedimentation and that the notions of beginning and end are continually challenged and re-discussed.
We came to know, and developed an interest, in the story of James Hutton when taking a tour with the Edinburgh Geological Society around Calton Hill. From this point it is possible to glimpse Arthur’s Seat, the main volcanic peak of the city, located about 1 mile to the east of Edinburgh Castle. The reason for our visit was the second stage of a journey that began in September 2015, which took the form of an artistic and curatorial residency at artist-run space BOCS, Catania. On that occasion, we invited Scottish artist Stephen Kavanagh to join us in a research endeavour to observe and reflect on the urban configuration of this Sicilian centre, which is strongly dominated by the presence of an active volcano. To this day, Mount Etna, a stratovolcano made of layers of hardened materials, creates and devastates land, resulting in an inescapable influence on the city and its residents. The latter have largely endured the destructive force of what, in local jargon, is often referred to as Iddu (that one) – to suggest its strength and dominating power – overlooking the inhabited centre from above. During the residency, we went on excursions to Etna to see the craters surrounding the main one, as well as taking long walks through the streets of Catania whose buildings are made of the dark, igneous stone expelled by the volcano over many years.
Stephen’s eye is especially attracted by the outcomes of natural disasters and the impact on the local environment, with his interpretations often resulting in the production of performative sculptures. In his work, man-made industrial materials, such as concrete, resin and steel, are employed in the making of maquettes, functioning as studies for larger installations and videos. It is no coincidence that he was immediately hooked by the weight of volcanic sand and its composition: the remainder of a transformative action from incandescent lava and fluid magma to very strong stone. Such an action is the ultimate symbol of both the destructive and creative energy held by the volcano, which can both devour existing space and offer key materials for reconstruction.
In those days of research and experimentation with the local stone, we met artist Marco Maria Giuseppe Scifo, whose artistic intention and process presented a lot of crossing points with our findings and Stephen’s practice. Marco’s work revolves around ideas of the environment and mathematical constructs, as well as the notion of limit in the spheres of flora and fauna. His immersive installations and sculptures are deeply associated with the practice of drawing, which he uses as a method of investigation, preceding – if not accompanying – the making of structured works. Marco has a crucial focus on materiality and choses each element of his installations with painstaking precision. This, in turn, reflects on the poetic nature of his full body of work, based on a scientific approach to natural phenomena as well as cultural manifestations.
Once these connections were formed, we departed from the geographical origin and cultural context of all individuals involved to develop a more comprehensive project, which would embrace the relationship between nature and man, volcano and society. In fact, contrarily to Mount Etna, Edinburgh sits on a volcanic field, whose strata were revealed by the moving of glaciers that covered the area from Hendon to Bristol until two million years ago. In this case, the presence of the volcano is exposed by its absence, its negative space, which shapes the history of the city as much as the rock that was left behind. The second residency took place in Edinburgh in July 2017. The initial thoughts around the tension between presence and absence of the two volcanoes reached a further dimension. Learning about the many layers on which the city unfolds, with, for instance, the New Town erected on top of the Old Town, we were confronted with the notion of time in a much stronger way. The remnants of volcanic rocks and the ancient sandstone composing the many historical buildings highlighted the gap, hence the huge distance in time, between a natural force in action and the development of a city and its civilisation.
From here, the works presented in the exhibition are the initial response of the two artists to the experience gained during their residencies. In particular, the video by Stephen proposes the flowing of black lava over an existing edifice, alternated with shots of total darkness, which recall moments of blackout caused by the activity of the volcano. Such an image is inspired by a photograph taken by the artist on the road to Mount Etna, whilst the layout of the house itself mimics that of his parents, stressing the rapport between the objective – the overwhelming power of nature – and the subjective – the intimate aspect, sheltered by an individual’s own place, as to warn: tragedy can occur to everyone! Hence, if for a moment viewers can forget the artificial composition of the installation, the pervading mechanical sound in the background reconnects them to reality; this setting is far from being an accurate record of the natural phenomenon, rather it is an attempted reconstruction of its process in the artist’s studio. The resulting imagery is enhanced when put in conversation with Marco’s work, which is developed as a site-specific installation in reaction to the space at Five Years and the context of the residency. On one side of the room, a picture of Arthur’s Seat is animated by moving clouds, through the interaction of mirror and light, projecting over a glass. On the other, the same aggregations of clouds float beyond the window, establishing a point of conjunction and juxtaposition between the elements inside the gallery and a conceptual, outer area, where the artist places what resemble the volcano’s ghost. In such a disposition, Marco’s work reflects on the specular relation between presence and absence, whilst objectifying the mountain, which now embodies the characteristic of symbol, on a both visual and metaphorical level. Ultimately, the connection of the two interventions generates an atmosphere that permeates the space, overturning it into an altered, man-made landscape.
In this interim exhibition, the link between humans and nature is therefore explored and questioned from the perspective of the making of images or, to say it in more technical terms, self-contained installations, whose meaning however exists only in the relation with one another: in a condition of perpetual experiencing of the present moment. Thus, to recall James Hutton and his concluding argument, as ‘we find no vestige of a beginning – no prospect of an end,’ we are left with no real perception of time and with no true possibility of speculation around it.