Provenance of materials

My materials are elemental, by which I mean that they remain close to their natural state. I use the term not scientifically but in a loose, personal sense. Yet they have all been transformed to different degrees and indeed will go on being transformed after the small part of their life that has become part of my sculptures. Matter never stays the same for ever.

Stones are the most elemental of the four materials of Inhabitation. Mineral matter untouched by plant life, animals or humans. Each stone that I have selected has its own story. The common ground is that they are all rounded and smooth - that’s why I chose them. Each has been transported and shaped by water and ice, taken to a place far from its origin. It is the hardest of materials that we normally come across. Can water really have such an effect on it over a long period of time, I ask myself? But then of course I realise that they have been shaped not just by water but much more by the actions of other stones. Fast torrents of water and slow glaciers of ice provide the energy, but it’s the stones themselves that act on each other. These ones come from mountains, from river banks and from beaches. The first five I gathered were from the banks of the river Durance and must have descended from high in the Alps over many years. Others are from the Carie Burn in Perthshire, Scotland, the home of my late parents, from a vineyard in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, from rivers in Haute-Savoie and Alpes-de-Haute-Provence and from the beach at Fécamp in Normandy. Only one was from high enough in the mountains not to be shaped by its descent. This is the one that I use for the pendulum weight itself and comes from la Roche-Pallud, the village in Haute-Savoie where writer John Berger lived with his wife Beverly while he was writing Pig Earth, a book that has profoundly influenced me.

The sound of all of these stones is dry and short, not very varied. For other projects I have found very tuneful flat stones, lauzes from the Pilat, but here there is very little hint of tonality. In my first trials I used one or several small stones attached to the pendulum to strike the big stones. I wanted the sound of stone on stone. But the small stones quickly broke so I decided to use small nuggets of steel. Their corners are gradually being rounded by the friction with the stone but they don’t seem to leave a mark. The sound remains stone. The moment you hear it you know it.

Wood is the material that I have used more than any other in my work, coming from many different sources, from sawmills, from forests, or from my garden. This time it’s driftwood from Quebec. I have never seen so much of it as I saw on the beaches of Gaspesie. I was artist in residence with colleagues Jane Norbury and Florence Le Maux in 2008 and the first thing we did was collect some of this wood for our sculptures. I chose pieces for their sound, the other two artists chose for the shape and texture. We soon noticed that much of it had been gnawed at the ends, indicating that it had had a previous life as part of beavers’ dams and had been washed down to the sea by the melting snow in springtime. What a gift I thought! A team of animal assistants has prepared my material in advance, carefully measuring, cutting and tuning each piece thus enabling me to incorporate them into a pendulum sculpture resting on a bed of seaweed. Little did they know! These same pieces I shipped back to France and now use them as part of Inhabitation with the seaweed replaced by ferns.

They are light in weight because the sea has sucked the sap out of them and replaced it with salt, and then they have dried out on the beach. Each has a clear tonality, the ones with a more elliptical cross section sometimes sound two tones at the same time. The soft bed of ferns allows the beaver wood to vibrate freely and resonate strongly but also contributes its own leafy sounds when touched by the pendulum. I have not modified them in any way. I’ve simply selected the ones that have the clearest sound, without imposing any human tuning system on them. To my ear the pitches are aleatoric, but delightfully melodious. But perhaps if you ask the beavers they would tell you a different story...

Slate has been one of my main materials since 1986 when I was artist in residence at the Welsh Slate Museum in Llanberis, near Mount Snowdon. It is a metamorphic stone formed from silt at the bottom of the ocean and then transformed by geological heat and pressure. The area of the Welsh slate quarries in Snowdonia is now rural, agricultural and touristic but in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it was an industrial centre that exported slate all over the world. Welsh slate is said to have roofed the birth of the industrial revolution in the north of England. Extracted and transported by machines and explosives it was split into thin sheets and trimmed by the hands of skilled craftsmen. But it remains close to its original state.

The pieces I have used here are standard roofing slate from the Penrhyn Quarry in Bethesda. When I first started working with slate I made precisely tuned instruments similar to xylophones, but for Inhabitation I have chosen not to tune the slate. Already worked by the craftsmen of the quarries, I treat them as found objects, selecting and arranging them, like I did with the beaver sticks. The pieces all look quite similar but they have different sounds because of their different thicknesses. Thicker ones are higher pitched than thinner ones. Underneath, they rest on rubber tubes to allow them to vibrate freely. The rubber blocks that scrape and bounce over them bring out their fundamental pitches. They provide the mellow rumble that supports the brighter sounds of the other three materials. My orchestra needs that.

Aluminium is the only one of my four materials that is truly elemental in the scientific sense and at the same time it is the only one that relies on sophisticated chemical and electrical processes for its extraction, making it a modern material and hence less elemental in the sense that I have been using the term. Les Baux de Provence in Bouches-du-Rhône gave its name to bauxite, the mineral from which aluminium is extracted but it no longer produces this material. Most likely, this aluminium comes from Australia, by far the world’s biggest producer, or it may well have been recycled from previous man-made aluminium objects. I bought it from a supplier in Germany.

I have tuned the tubes precisely, first by their length and then by cutting grooves near their centres. These grooves lower the pitch slightly. Because their cross-section is rectangular, each tube makes two clear notes which are a minor seventh apart. I arranged the tuning system in three concentric circles with the outer one being the most consonant, progressing to dissonance towards the centre. But, because the action of the block of rubber attached to the pendulum is very random, you never hear the sound of just one of the circles, so the overall harmony and melody surprises and changes constantly. I wanted this metal sculpture to be nearer to the sounds of conventional instruments and music than the others and that’s also why, rather than having twenty-eight different lengths there are actually only eleven and there are two or three of each one. Sometimes you hear the same sound coming from different directions. The musical composition in this section of the orchestra consisted of carefully conceiving the harmonies and melodies possible and creating a sound field of varying probabilities, never predictable and always changing.

This pendulum keeps swinging much longer than the others and each sound is much more sustained. You could say that it is almost a musical instrument. But that would be to deny the musicality of the other three and what I like about Inhabitation is that the four pendulums complement and enrich each other. That’s why I call it an orchestra of pendulums.

What happens next?

When I’m performing I live in Inhabitation for six hours a day, and it becomes my life. When I’m not performing Inhabitation lives in me.

It has become part of me in a way that only two other series of sculptures have. These are the ones that drip water on to slate (variously named Rain Songs, Falling Water, Partage des Eaux) and the ones made from hanging planks of wood (Wood Wind, Wind Wood, Touch Wood, Hear a World in the Grain of Oak, One Possible Sound Field). These are the ones that seem to be alive to me because they combine random elements with composed ones, always reacting differently to the environment that surrounds them.

But Inhabitation is different because unlike the others she has no independent life. We are symbiotic. She needs me to bring her to life and I need her, firstly to allow me to enjoy the sounds and movements that I know and then to share them with other people. As Anne Yanover pointed out, if I leave, then Inhabitation no longer exists. Or at the very least, she sleeps. I can’t quite say the opposite, that I don’t exist without her, but I can say that when I live inside her I feel more complete. To me it feels like a different relationship than either the one I have with my other sculptures or the one that I have with my saxophone or other musical instruments. In a way it combines both.

Inhabitation will, I hope, live as long as me, but probably no longer. In all probability for most of her life she will be stored in a barn next to my house, hopefully coming out to play at least once a year, maybe more.

And afterwards?

It is well known that matter cannot be created or destroyed. So where will this matter go? The first fern leaves have already been replaced. They gradually disintegrate and no longer function as a soft bed. The worn ones have been returned to the ground. The beaver sticks may also be quite short-lived. I have been protecting them for 14 years already and perhaps the beavers who made them have already died. Apparently they typically live for ten to sixteen years. Maybe the sticks will eventually be used by someone as firewood, or rot in the ground, making food for worms and mushrooms. Or maybe someone else will go on protecting them and valuing them. I hope so. They are the only one of the four materials that I feel an emotional attachment to - perhaps because of their mixed plant and animal origin. The oak wood of the pyramids? Maybe also for firewood, but it’s strong and could also be used for architectural or other structural purposes. If so, it might survive for tens or even hundreds of years.

The slates. Roofing for a tiny house? Tiles in a bathroom? There aren’t many of them, probably most likely is that they return to the ground quite soon too.

Same with the stones. But it would give me pleasure to take them back to where they came from to continue their journeys downstream, which I have temporarily interrupted. Of the four materials these are the ones that stimulate me to imagine both the past and the future on a scale that totally dwarfs human life and indeed all life. In that sense I am in awe. Probably they will still be there in thousands of years. They place me in context.

There rests the metal. The aluminium tubes, stainless steel cables and the mild steel of the stands that hold the tubes. Again it’s a relatively small quantity, but the metal recycling industries have been well-developed for many years now and I think these are the parts of Inhabitation that are most likely to be transformed, in due course, into other manufactured objects. What other objects? A beer can, part of an aeroplane, chocolate wrapping, a rail, a saucepan, another sculpture even, or a weapon? It is impossible to even guess.

Will Menter, 2022

Inhabitation : four movements (film)











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