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Belfast Black Granite

Writing Footprints

  • Writing Footprints I haven’t a clue as to how my story will end. But that’s all right. When you set out on a journey and night covers the road, you don’t conclude the road has vanished. And how else could we discover the stars? – Anonymous My artmaking takes me to places all over the world. I feel tossed about like a pebble flung backwards and forwards across the big pond. I ricochet to places, far and near to touch base with people and events. In 1995 I made a large wooden sculpture called DISCUS to record my constant ventures as an unavoidable fact of life.


    The discus, a hand-held object, feels good to the touch as it fits snugly into the palm of the hand and is made for the pleasure of being tossed about. Across its surface I embossed the memory of my own travel-routes and labelled them in Braille. Now, in 2010, my pace has not slackened down, in fact, it has become more frenzied, with more commitments. The last few years I looked at the stars and planets and made works in granite to show meteorites and asteroids as ‘children of the stars.’ The ones that reach the earth are indeed large rocks that travel the universe and finally fall out of the sky to find their resting place in the landscape. The sky bristles with millions of heavenly bodies on their way to somewhere. The word planet is from the Greek planetes which means ‘wanderer’ or ‘traveller’. When I was commissioned by Pirelli to make two artworks reflecting on the theme of travelling and stories, my thoughts went back to my own hectic schedule and how, I prefer to use road transport to flying. I often go to Cape Town and lately I chose to take three or more days to cover the 1,400 kilometres between Johannesburg and Cape Town by road instead of covering the same distance in two hours flying. I love engaging with clouds and flowers by walking about. I find it fascinating to discover off-the-road bookshops, quaint old buildings and interesting people in great places like Nieu Bethesda, Richmond and Philippolis. My tyres have left their treads in dirt roads all over the country.


    Yes, it was hot, sweaty and dusty, but I marvel at it. In life we travel constantly from place to place and from moment to moment. It used to be easy to see each undertaking as having a place of beginning and an ending with some unpredictable extent in-between. The hustle and bustle of the modern lifestyle, however, has made our itinerant schedules so interwoven and scattered that it is hard to find clear evidence of a solitary significant journey. We often find ourselves going in all directions at once, our points of departure being everywhere and our destination nowhere. Life has become a mad rush to get away from things, and a desperate attempt to stop in time. We cut corners and take shortcuts and the imprint of our day-to-day travelling is one of skidmarks and oil-slicks. On the other hand, for those that are afraid to travel, waiting for the idyllic journey to begin sadly turns out to be their journey. One might think that I am negative about our movements, but not so. The criss-crossing and zig-zagging of our map has its allure, albeit a bizarre one. It is easy to see the crisp tracks of a dune beetle on a the clean surface of sand before the wind wipes it out. The beetle seems intent on coming from somewhere and on going some place specific, but we never quite know where. In time the dune accumulates the tracks of hundreds of insects and small animals until it gives the impression of a Friday afternoon rush hour. 156 Booth P09 Pirelli Project Footprints are easy to see when they are made on soft, sandy surfaces, but such footprints don’t last. I am fascinated by sandy dusty roads where tyres have left miles of treaded ‘sentences’. I enjoy their marks and patterns and I have always secretly wished that one day I may be able to design a tyre with poetic wording as tread. The wording has to be back-to-front, inverted, so that when the tyre goes on a sandy road everyone may read that poem. I am slightly reluctant to pursue this dream because its beauty may inadvertently contribute to a measure of roadkill of those people who get carried away reading the poetry. Almost all footprints vanish in time. Evidence of walkabouts captured in sand and dust seem to be the first to go. Fossilised footprints are extremely rare. The Karoo of South Africa is of course incredibly rich in fossils and I find fossils irresistible. I recently had the good fortune to live on the world heritage site, the Cradle of Humankind at Kromdraai near Krugersdorp in South Africa. There hominid fossils of our distant forebears were found throughout the 20th century. I saw for myself the caves in which our distant relatives lived and I felt a sense of self-discovery. The oldest hominid footprints on record are on the west coast of South Africa near the town of Langebaan. These footprints are attributed to an individual named Eve and date back 120,000 years. Curiously, the scientific study of the fossilized footprints of animals and people has a name: ichnolithology. In Greek ichnos is ‘footprint’ and lithos ‘stone’.


    Studying footprints is called ichnology. An ichnite or ichnolite is a fossil footprint preserved in stone. Sometimes ichnolithic marks are the only record to show that an animal ever existed. Pelmatogram is the scientific term for a footprint. Hunters know how to interpret the pelmatograms of wild animals. In Greek pelmatos is ‘sole of the foot’. Ornithichnology is the branch of prehistoric studies that deals with ornithichnites, the fossil footprints of birds and bird-like reptiles. In Greek ornis is ‘bird’. For me to fix traces of a journey in granite stones is a bit like finding fossil footprints – both are likely to last forever. Granite, an igneous stone, was once a liquid that came up from deep inside the earth by volcanic action. The last few years I often worked with texts that are written in sand and granite stones. My writings in sand are usually swept away at the end of exhibitions, whilst those in stone are permanent. It is a kind of irony to write footprints, such very transient markings, on stone where they are not likely to be destroyed or deleted. Granite lies underground, dormant in hills and ridges and it takes a supreme effort of blasting and drilling to dislodge workable blocks. I prefer to work with already existing blocks from old, worked-out mines and I try to rehabilitate those mines as much as to make sculpture. Designated blocks are quarried and taken to a factory where they get dressed to the right shape and format. Then their surfaces are subjected to months and months of merciless grinding and polishing until they glimmer like the liquid they once were. Texts or symbolic markings are then sandblasted onto the shining surfaces to complete my sculptures.

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