Dennis Oppenheim, <em>Rocked Hand</em>, 1970. © the artist

A response to Stone - Zara Worth takes a look at AV Festival at NGCA

AV Festival 14: Extraction presents two dynamic exhibitions at Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art (NGCA); STONE and Cathedral (2012)in the NGCA Project Space. For the first time in the festival’s history two group shows have been curated: STONE and its sister show METAL, at mima. Bringing together ten artists STONE considers the physical and metaphorical implications of the raw material. Works included date from 1834 to present, through video to sculptural pieces, the relationship between human and raw material is examined.

Boulder Hand (2012) by Gabriel Orozco, anchors the exhibition’s curatorial focus. Depicting a close-up shot of the artist’s hand holding a stone, we watch as his thumb and fingers relentlessly rub and caress it. It is incredibly haptic, as the repeated motions become part of the stone’s history of shaping, polishing and erosion.

In the near by Project Space, Cathedral; Salvatore Arancio’s single-screen film and sound piece depicts Fingal’s Cave on the remote island of Staffa, part of a nature reserve in the Inner Hebrides, Scotland. The geological formation of Staffa, which makes Fingal’s cave such a remarkable phenomenon, resulted from a lava flow roughly 66-56 million years ago. During this period, known as the Palecene era, the upper and lower surfaces of the lava flow began to cool slowly and simultaneously, causing the amazing hexagonal fracture structures now exposed today thanks to wave erosion.

In both exhibitions, the artist’s encounters with this material does not feel like a dictated historical account of geology, but a homage to the life of a material that they feel privileged to document and be a part of. There is tenderness in Orozco’s embrace and a great respect in Arancio’s recordings.

Both exhibitions reference 19th century scientific and artistic investigations into geology. Fingal’s cave owes its title to the mythological hero featured in James Macpherson’s epic poem of the same name. The cave was ‘re-discovered’ in 1772 and became a popular spot attracting creatives, including Turner, (Staffa Fingal’s Cave 1832), and Felix Mendelssohn, whose overture The Hebrides, (1829) is known colloquially as Fingal’s Cave Overture.

Arancio juxtaposes the sights and sounds of the cave with the yields of his studies into 19th century science mythology. Likewise, STONE’s inclusion of works by Thomas Sopwith, demonstrate 19th century preoccupation with marvellous natural formations. Sopwith’s expertise as a cabinet-maker was transferred to his interest in geology. His 1834 text A Treatise on Isometrical Drawing, enabled 3D depictions of formations beneath our feet. Beautiful objects in themselves, Sopwith’s 3D diagrams appear like minimalist sculptures, providing a fascinating juxtaposition with the naturally formed modernist-esque basalt columns of Fingal’s cave in Cathedral.

Notions of the sublime provide a keystone for many of the works, and at times the human presence in STONE seems overwhelmed by nature. In an interesting and subtle film, Yuri Ancarani follows the extraction of marble from quarries in Carrara. The film’s title Il Capo (The Chief) refers to the head quarryman who leads the excavation of the quarry. Due to deafening noise - rather than attempting verbal communication - the chief directs through an argot sign-language. His gestures carefully choreographed, as though in a ritual communing with his surroundings. Similarly, Thiago Rocha Pitta’s work emphasises a more intimate relationship with nature, bringing raw materials into the gallery in an immediate and compelling manner.

This spiritual communion is felt across both exhibitions. Arancio’s title refers to Sir Walter Scott’s comparison of Fingal’s cave to a cathedral in relation to its appearance and acoustics: aptly summarising the metaphysical significance assigned to stone. STONE’s Transmission (2007) by Harun Farocki is direct in its connection of spiritual importance and stone. Beginning at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington; a giant black stone stretch which bares the name of 58,249 men. Farocki’s film visits sites documenting the use of stone in religious and other non-secular instances. As in Orozco’s film, the touch of the stone seems to be transcendental to people who reach out and trace the names and symbols carved in stone with their fingertips. There seems to be some comfort found by people perhaps due to its venerability. Due to its ancient geology, stone appears to deliver a sense of invincibility and reassuring omnipresence. Who knew stone could be so emotive and moving.

Zara Worth @ZaraWorth