On marking stones, January 2, 2023
Updated: Jan 6
Marks on stone - or ivory, or wood - may be the earliest form of art.
When I arrived in Cyprus in 2013, I was lucky enough to stay down the road from the Neolithic village where archaeologists found the 'Lady of Lemba', a carved fertility object 5 1/2 thousand years old. Simple as it seems, it uses form and incised marks to powerful effect. It made me think about what it means to 'make a mark' - an act in English associated with identity and location. Perhaps my sense of dislocation in an alien landscape made me want to search out a stone to mark.
I had headed for Greece - side-tracked to Cyprus - searching for sculpture. I had it in my head that I would find Phidias, still working on the Parthenon marbles in some sacred grove. I didn't find him, but on the beach at Polis, amongst the sand, I found stones that looked like plump round buns. They were limestone, soft and easy to carve; I collected a boot-load.
The stones were beautiful; to mark them was a desecration. I hesitated a long time. Finally, I carved a straight line with chisel and mallet. Physical and sonic, that act expressed 'I am'; or 'here I am'. This was an important moment in the story of humanity: the birth of art and writing; those who watched were the first readers, the first audience.
The sexual implications of my marks were immediate: the cleft could be vaginal or penile. I was surprised by my own embarrassment, but also that a simple mark could hold so much meaning.
All art, no matter how technically advanced, should have the freshness of that first mark; these were made 28,000 years ago in a cave in modern-day Israel.
On a beach south of Paphos, littered with oval stones, Aphrodite is said to have come ashore following her birth amongst the foam. On a scallop shell, according to Botticelli, whose famous painting does NOT depict the birth of Venus, but her arrival in Cyprus (according to art critic Waldemar Januszczak). The place makes sense: it's a stony beach created from egg-shaped pebbles that clatter around in the foam where land meets water. Before the classical Aphrodite, the great mother-goddess, Artemis, is depicted adorned with bull's testicles; perhaps the ancient Cypriots saw in these stones the same form and meaning.
Cyprus is an island of stone. On top of its mountains, 2km high, you find fossil seashells from an ancient seabed. Erosion breaks down the rock into smaller pieces that for ten thousand years farmers have cleared from the hills to create rock-walled terraces. Streams tumble the rocks into smoother shapes, to be further sculpted into a million pebbles by the sea.
Not just limestone: volcanic activity has produced basalt, harder but ultimately subject to the same fate, to be ground down into smooth glistening pebbles on the seashore. There are black beaches and white ones. Some have brown, red, or yellow stones. Aphrodite's beach has a mix of all hues.
I became more interested in arranging different coloured stones than in carving on them; I used the symbolism of black and white to create simple works expressing reconciliation in a politically and ethnically divided island.
I'm always drawn to the characteristic materials of a place. In Cyprus it's stone, although the island is equally a land of wood - Adonis' habitat. The relationship between rock and wood in Cyprus is magical, exemplified in the millennia-old olive trees with their gnarled roots thrusting into the bedrock.
Melbourne is not a stony city. It's mostly built on lowlands and marshes; it's a place of sand and silt. Sure enough, the west of the city has basalt, but in great lava flows that must be sawn to create building materials. The hills to the east are sandy, built up by eons of westerly winds. The early European buildings were timber (sometimes imported), then brick made of local clays. Important buildings used cut basalt or more distant granites and sandstones. It's a city of transfigured products: cut stone, sawn timber, baked brick.
The transformations were intended to recreate distant architectures: London's red bricks; the rendered walls of Tuscany; sidewalks paved in Scottish stone that came as ballast on ships; streets planted with London Plane trees and parks embellished with Oaks and Maples.
If you asked me to carve a stone in Melbourne, I couldn't find one. I'd have to make one, using technology that refutes the immediacy of identity with the place. The interconnection between people and landscape that characterises Cyprus and a thousand other places is inaccessible to Australia's European settlers. I envy indigenous Australians for this.
I've tried: roadside debris I have found to be evocative of place and time; the leaves of the European trees are beautiful, and poignant in their decay. Both make striking photographs. But industrial objects and the leaves of exotic trees are 'marks' in themselves; their existence here embodies a complicated story. To mark them would be ingenuous.
I think I'll take a trip up into the mountains; Australian mountains are low and flat, created not by uplifting but by erosion. Great bubbles of granite, formed deep underground, are revealed. Maybe I'll find one to mark.