As a biologist, I’m used to the idea that elements combine to form simple and complex molecules in an orderly way, and with a ‘purpose’. How different it must appear to the geologist, who studies the rocks that make up our planet. While the basic tools that form these objects – matter and energy – are the same, the scale is massive, the forces and timescale barely imaginable, and here there is no guiding template, no enzymes to channel the way molecules combine, just a relentless chain of events.
The resulting rocks are complex confections that are formed in a serendipitous pressure cooker process, and then frozen solid when heat and pressure are removed, like a spoonful of molten sugar plunged into iced water. As in the fanciest of sweet shops, these rocks, whose polished beauty we might admire in the Natural History Museum mineral collection, can have all manners of swirls in a rich palette of colours.
Emily Young, whose work is currently on display at The Fine Art Society, works with these rocks, selecting them from abandoned quarries, then carving, polishing and presenting them not as interesting quartz formations, but as art objects placed on pedestals for us to contemplate. Her most common motif is that of a human face, stylised, classical, iconic.
Polished and perfectly recognizable, I can connect with this revelation in the stone, and feel the merging of the structure of the rock with the human likeness that is being carved out of it. But turn to the back of the piece, and we find it raw, dull, fractured and harsh, as it was when found, and this contrast provides the power of the pieces.
If I cross the road from the Natural History Museum, I might encounter the Victoria & Albert Museum, filled with cultural artefacts, including classical sculptures celebrating the human subject and the skill of the sculptor. Young’s pieces seem to sit somewhere inbetween, somewhere in the middle of Exhibition Road perhaps. The individual rock is given attention, and is as important as the shape carved out of it; the working is not shouting ‘look at what I can do!’, but ‘look and pay attention to what I am and who you are’. For each of them, Young has to decide how much to carve and where to stop – that balance is everything.
I can read my thoughts in the stone; they might flow around ideas of our common humanity, who we are and where we come from, our beliefs in our own power and importance that appear quaint in the face of this cosmic reality, a sense that we are both insignificant and yet an integral part of the physical universe. And I sense that at other times I might have had very different and very personal reflections.
It’s no surprise then to read that Young describes her work process as ‘a conversation’ between her and the rock, and that this collection is named ‘Call and Response’. She writes of her thoughts as she carves, of how the rocks formed and make the world that we now inhabit, of how these rocks have revealed the slowness of geological time and changed our story of who we are and how we relate to the earth.
I like the idea that everything we think about other people are simply projections that have no external reality. The sense of self is so powerful that we need an ‘other’ to be able to hear our thoughts, and there are meditative practices that involve choosing any object and talking to it. These quiet stones seem perfect as mirrors for the mind, and I’d like to sit alone with one, and see what it says to me.
Seeing a collection in a gallery is different from sitting with a single piece, because it’s hard not to start comparing, contrasting, categorizing. It might also be different in the contemporaneous exhibition taking place in the cloisters of the Madonna dell’Orto church in Venice. But together or apart, they are powerful pieces, and ones that come back in my mind long after I’ve stepped back into the chic, expensive, but ephemeral world of New Bond Street.
Neil Stoker is studying for an MSc in Science Communication
Images copyrighted, and courtesy of the Fine Art Gallery
Emily Young: Call and Response is at The Fine Art Society until 27 August 2015, and in Venice until 22 November 2015; she will also be exhibiting 8-10 further monumental sized works to the public during the London Design Festival (19-27 September).