Anja Kirschner & David Panos, <em>Ultimate Substance</em>, 2012. Photo: the artist. Courtesy the artist

Extracting Metal and Stone: Re-envisioning timeless matter by Rachel McDermott

The relationship between man and stone, and man and metal, has shaped our history. From Neolithic standing stones to the Bronze Age development of currency, weaponry and the decorative arts, the extraction and application of these materials is wholly entwined with our continual development.

Today stone and metal are rarely bound up within the realm of the spiritual or mystical. We are much more concerned with the application of these materials toward commercial gain, and heavy industry is at the forefront of this. It seems fitting that AV Festival 14: Extraction, presents two group exhibitions; Stone at the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art in Sunderland, and Metal at Mima in Middlesbrough, in locations historically associated with coal mining and steel-working.

In Stone and Metal, exhibited works deal with the historical significance of these materials, and find new ways to reintegrate them with the everyday. They reflect upon these materials in light of their more recent application within heavy industry and bring to the surface societal and cultural impacts.

In Stone, Harun Farocki’s video installation, Transmission (2007) observes people encountering historic monuments of stone. A woman rests her head against a stone supposedly touched by Christ; another places her bare foot in an ancient stone footprint. There is an exchange, through the act of touch, there is the belief that the history of the stone is somehow revealed, or is made more tangible.

Anja Kirschner & David Panos’ Ultimate Substance (2012) in Metal similarly deals with historic associations of this material. Composed of bursts of film, the 35min video-installation is a powerful overview of the history (particularly of the Greek world) and legacy of metal extraction and application. Man cracks and creaks like stone as the sounds of chipping and scraping are paired with imagery of gestural bodily movement. Primitive man chips away in a cave mine and then, fast-forwarding through time, a group of Greek school children debate what it means to be a historian whilst examining historic metal objects. Set within an installation, the work serves to reflect upon the introduction of currency in Ancient Greece whilst nodding toward the inherent abstraction of any historic investigation.

Other artists exhibiting find new uses for these age-old materials. Walead Beshty’s 20-inch copper (various dates) in Metal are a series of copper boxes. Beshty ships these objects to the exhibition space without the use of any packaging. The copper boxes bare the marks of their transportation through FedEx labels affixed directly to their surface, and dints, marks and fingerprints from the handling and shipping process. The material is used as an archival device for its own history.

Marie Lund’s installation in Stone attempts to find new ways to reconnect stone to the everyday. A wine glass balances in a crook of a stone and a clothes hanger emerges from another. These nonsensical interventions reflect the cultural significance of materials, but also create meaning through oppositions.

Intervention, in a physical and political arena, is the subject of artists Hito Steyerl in Metal and Jimmie Durham and Maria Thereza Alves in Stone. Steyerl’s video piece Strike (2010) displays a woman taking a hammer and chisel to an LCD screen. Followed by the word ‘Strike,’ it’s not only a physical intervention but also a political gesture. The hammer and chisel as the labourers tools, implicates both a physical action and a social boycott. Similarly, Durham and Alves Collected Stones (1995-2002), in Stone, is a series of short films in which stone becomes a device of instantaneous destruction. In one, a stone drops into a glass vitrine, in another a stone falls on toothpaste, on an egg, a soup bowl, and a fridge is literally ‘stoned’ in a public square. Like Steyerl’s Strike (2010), the political implications of these gestures are far from concealed, but despite this, remain utterly amusing to watch over and over.

Stone (NGCA) and Metal (Mima) reframe these raw materials in light of their legacy, they respond to their application, and they reflect upon their social and cultural significance. The relationship between man and these raw materials is timeless, though it feels as pertinent today as it ever was.

Rachel McDermott