NO RUINED STONES, 2020, Wiltshire, UK
We must be humble. We are so easily baffled by appearances
And do not realise that these stones are one with the stars.
It makes no difference to them if they are high or low,
Mountain peak or ocean floor, palace, or pigsty.
There are plenty of ruined buildings in the world but no ruined stones.
HUGH MACDIARMID, ON A RAISED BEACH
For some years now the artist Alison Grant has divided her time between Scotland and Wiltshire, and this exhibition has grown out of her fascination with Avebury, with the interlocking embrace of the town and the stones, with the histories and mythologies which have attached themselves to this place and with the Eliot-like co-existence in this landscape of time past and time present and, perhaps, time future too. The cloaked histories of the peoples of the Neolithic by whom these megaliths were first raised, whose speechless departure means we can but guess at their original purposes. The mythologies which told of the bringing of the stones, transported here by the wizardry of a Merlin, or erected here by the monstrous strength of some unknown race of beings, or built here as a temple by those – to roman eyes at least – darkest and most damnable of pagan barbarians, the Druids. The toppling of the stones by the newly Christian Anglo-Saxon at the behest of a church which, made nervous by the persistence of pagan practices and fertility rites in such places, demanded that the stones be ‘cast down and concealed’. The irony that these acts of concealment and similar convulsions of iconoclastic zeal in succeeding centuries did much to preserve the stones: those that remain standing have been quarried for building material and reworked, repurposed and remade into the walls, houses, churches and pubs of the settlement that grew in and around them, even, to the consternation of John Aubrey, being ‘converted into a Pig-Stye, or Cow-House’. Aubrey himself, and ardent royalist who found solace in the past from the disappointments of the republican present, was one of the new breed of gentleman antiquarians who first began to glimpse, however uncertainly, something of the true nature and scope of Avebury and to wrest it back from the clutches of myth. As the face of these islands became ever more scarred and exposed by the demands of the industrial age, these antiquarians were followed by gentleman-and lady-geologists, who revealed the secrets of the rocks themselves: it is with these rocks this exhibition begins.
It has become a truism of prehistoric archaeology that in considering a site such as Avebury we are looking not at a monument, but rather at a landscape: it seems appropriate then that what Grant has produced in this exhibition might best be seen a series of landscapes, however unconventional, landscapes of time as well as space. The kind of landscapes that have interested Grant have always been inhabited landscapes, the focus of her attention the ways in which the people have made the landscape and the land the people: her chalk studies in this exhibition though take us back long before humanity’s first incursions on the scene, sixty or seventy million years before. This series of brilliant and intensely detailed abstract patternings are in fact based on microscopic photographs of slices of the chalk downland on which Avebury stands. What we are looking at are the remnants and traces of the calcareous skeletons of aeons-old organisms, organisms whose bodies were, after death, quite literally turned to stone. As ever with Grant these works have an austere and haunting beauty whose apparent simplicity conceals a deeper story, one that tells of the dynamic flux of the earth, that reminds us that the rocks we stand on, like the vegetation growing above, go through cycles of growth and renewal as well as decay. Geologists like Hutton and Lyell are today probably the least celebrated of those thinkers whose ideas dismantled the age old geo-and anthropocentric certainties, but in their own day, to a public who believed in a relatively recent creation governed by a single inexorable Ozymandias principle that all must crumble into dust, the revelation by what Ruskin called their ‘dreadful hammers’ of a world with ‘no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end’ was simply shattering.
While the landscape around Avebury has provided an intellectual and conceptual foundation of the exhibition, it has often provided a material foundation as well: the local geology, what the Victoria County History rather splendidly calls The Physique of Wiltshire, has yielded up to Grant mud from molehills and robbed-out rock from badger setts which the artist has turned to clay and plaster and pastel and which feature in many of these works. The companion pieces Shaking Hands Across the Centuries and Touching the Past are examples of this, the material of which they are made being in fact the earth Grant scraped from her boots after a day tramping the processional way between the Avebury stones and the so called Sanctuary. This Grant has pressed onto the paper by hand in a series of incomplete concentric rings, suggestive of stone circles, but whose form actually derives from a necklace of amber beads displayed in the Wiltshire Museum and depicted by John Piper in his museum window. The graduated shading of the concentric rings echoes the changing colour of the mud of the processional way itself as, over time, soil has washed from the higher to the lower sections, the progression from light to dark thus also being a progression through time. Grant’s physical act of pressing that mud upon the paper might be read as an attempt to collapse time, to establish an immediate and intimate connection between the hand that presses the mud today and the feet that trod that same mud thousands of years before. This idea of establishing a physical connection across the ages is one Grant has explore before, most notably in 2014’s The Suspensions of Objective Time, a tumbling cascade of antique cogs and wheels and clockhands hanging from a gallery ceiling, the significance of which for Grant lay not in their being antique but in their being used, worked, handled, by clockmakers long gone. This sense of the collapse of time, this sense of community and continuity with the peoples of the past, combined with the elevation of so mundane a thing as mud to an almost sacred status and the intense care, concentration and commitment these pieces required – given limited recourses, once Grant had begun the work there could be no going back, no rubbing out – endows the creation of these pieces with something of a nature of a ritual. This remind us that – whatever their functions may have been as calendars in stone or primitive observatories – prehistoric stone circles were always ritual centres and, indeed, the many archaeologists would argue that the act of building or rebuilding them was as an assertion of community, continuity, order and renewal, in itself a ritual act.
The Wiltshire landscape makes its way again into Grant’s work in the blocks of Sarsen stone which each form the base of the four Solstice pieces, which reflect on the four great turning points of the year, turning points which always held great symbolic significance in prehistory, but which had acquired an even more urgent importance in the Neolithic with the advent of farming. In each block is embedded a Perspex disc, whose outer rim has been inscribed with what at first glance seem fantastical Miro-esque animalcules. In fact, as so often with Grant, what seems fantastical is actual the result of close and rigorous observation: these patterns are careful depictions of the lichen Buellia saxorum a lichen endemic to the area, growing and retreating as it cycles through the seasons. At the centre of each disc we find a portrayal of the night sky as it appears at each solstice and equinox, seen from the ditch surrounding the Avebury stones – the only thing, as Grant has pointed out, that can be seen from such a vantage point.
It is tempting to read these works as simple evocation of the natural world, drawing together rocks and stars and living things within and eternal and unchanging organic dance. The shape of the Perspex discs however, the proportions of the outer to the inner which feel so comfortable and so natural, perhaps even the material itself, all point in another direction, for the are all derived from traffic signs. In Grant’s preliminary sketches of Avebury, made during her early visits, these traffic signs can strike something of a discordant note, somehow too jarringly modern. This is curious, since in our every day lives we have become so accustomed to such signs that we barely even see them any more; though we know of course that they are entirely man-made, they have become so much a part of what we accept as our natural environment. So easily overlooked they can perhaps stand for that blurred, shifting boundary between the natural and the manmade, the ancient and the modern, the living an the dead, the past and present, the land and the people that provides so much of the fascination of Grant’s inhabited landscapes.
Gregor Sloss, January 2019
NO RUINED STONES