WAVES OF TIME, an article for Art South Africa Magazine

22/03/2012

WAVES OF TIME

In the spring of 2011 I was invited by the Nirox foundation to research material for a commission out on the Cradle of Humankind. I have been making site-specific work all over the world for the last 30 years. In that time I have worked with heart surgeons in the UK looking at the connections between systems in the body and systems on the planet; with astronomers in Nashville, Tennessee and glaciologists in Antarctica. I look at place and context, nature and culture. Underlying all of my work is a concern for how we can live sustainably on this planet. This was my first visit to Africa, long overdue and much anticipated. At Nirox I spent three weeks exploring the landscape, talking to experts and trying to get under the skin of it all. The Cradle holds the origins to the human race, but first I wanted to go back in geological time and see something of the early formation of the planet itself. So I went with Professor Roger Gibson, a geologist at Wits, to the Vredefort Dome.

We started and finished the day at the epicentre of where a 10 kilometre long rock hit the Earth two billion years ago and which made a crater 300 km wide with a 40 km upwelling in the centre, of which only a semi-circle of low hills at the perimeter remains today. We looked at granite which had been reduced to plasticine. We saw huge seams of melted rock caused by massive friction. We saw mountains of upended horizontal rock strata, and rock which had been shattered in hatched patterns, seen nowhere else but impact craters. How do you stretch your mind to include such a massive event that happened in an unimaginably distant time? As the sun set we returned to the epicentre, to a line of boulders, which was all that remained of an eroded seam of pseudotachylite melted rock, and on which acid drips from an ancient forest had eroded cup-like indentations. 30,000 years ago the San people had lived and hunted here. They noticed these water-filled cups in the rock and made these boulders the site of ritual trance dances to bring rain, fresh grass and the migrating herbivores that they hunted. Images of these same animals – Eland, Wildebeest, Hippo and Rhino – they carved into the rock with extraordinary delicacy.

I can recognise parallels in the San trance dances to many of my activities as an artists that involve repetitive tasks, such as hand-written text works and the weaving of maps and structures. The small corbelled stone buildings I make are created in a kind of concentrated dance; days of lifting rock while assessing shape, size, line, etc. Then there are the land drawings: four years ago I worked on the Paiute Indian Reservation at Pyramid Lake in the Nevada desert making a vast raked whirlwind drawing out on the playa of a dried-up ancient lake bed. Two of us made this drawing over 18 hours, mostly by moonlight as the blinding reflected heat was too hot during the day. The process was: etch the arc of the line with a stick attached to a radial string, then whack to break the surface and drag, whack and drag. Imagine doing this by the surreal light of a full moon – it is a trance dance. By 10.00 am the following morning we were done. We returned at sunset to take the photos from a high point, by which time huge black clouds were gathering and the rain started to fall as we packed up the cameras. By the following day the drawing had gone. The Nevada Museum of Art, which commissioned the work, returned a month later with a team to re-rake it, and exactly the same thing happened: it rained.

 

This is a desert where rainfall is very scarce. I make no claims for this beyond coincidence, nor am I after an altered state, but when thinking is born of an embodied experience, then somehow the boundaries between microcosm and macrocosm, inside and outside, disappear. The Paiute, like the San lived in small nomadic bands, and during the summer months they moved from one local rainfall to another, hunting the deer and rabbits which grazed the rejuvenated grasses. The Vredefort impact crater is a place of destruction, but in the same way, the San turned it into a place of creation, of life and regeneration.

The history of the Earth, laid down in the fossil bands visible in the Cradle of Humankind is one of continual destruction and creation; waves of life and waves of destruction. What interests me is that this is also where our human origins began. During my time at Nirox I spent a day with Professor Lee Berger, a palaeontologist at the University of Johannesburg. Three years ago Lee made a life-changing find just a mile from Nirox. By searching on Google Earth he was able to pin point several caves that had never been looked at. Close to the surface of one of these he found two complete hominid fossil skeletons: a young child and its mother. Almost everything about these skeletons is human: the pelvis, the upright stance, the hands and feet. Only the longer arms and the small craniums are closer to Australopithecus. I saw these ancient bones laid out in boxes and they are remarkable. It appears to everyone that this is pretty close to the missing link that palaeontologists have been searching for and they are two million years old. They know this because there are three strata layers in the rock where the radioactive isotopes have reversed. This means that during each of these time frames, revealed in the fossil layers, there was a polar reversal, which is a catastrophic event that happens at intervals in the Earth’s history and could well happen again. The two hominid skeletons were found amongst bones of other animals including a sabre-toothed tiger and were just above the earlier of the three pole reversals, which is how they could be dated. The speculation is that this event caused an extreme drought and all species were looking for water down the caves, where they fell in and perished.

So a picture is emerging of waves of time, destruction and creation. In my daily walks through the Cradle I collected rocks, fossils, bones, feathers, porcupine quills and plants. I peered into caves, watched the game and jackals and listened to the lions roaring at night. I became particularly interested in the concentric patterns of various plants, tortoise shells and stromatolite fossils. Stromatolites are fossilised layers of cyanobacteria algae, which formed here around two billion years ago. These primitive life forms were the first organisms to convert CO2 into oxygen, eventually giving the planet its atmosphere and creating the conditions for life on Earth and the biodiversity we know today. Cyanobacteria organisms still exist in our soils today. On the Nevada Nuclear Test Site similar cyanobacterial organisms survived the blasts of 100 atmospheric nuclear tests. This is where things come full circle, as stromatolites were virtually the only living organisms on the planet at the time of the asteroid impact two billion years ago. Many of them will have survived and been the seed of regeneration for new life after the event.

 

So my challenge is how to represent these ideas visually on the land at Nirox; how to create in the viewer an experience which embodies these ideas and allows for further connections to be made.

My instincts are the following:

  • · That the work should have both an inside and an outside aspect
  • · That the experience within should be cave-like
  • · That it should in some way reveal layers of time
  • · That it should place the work in real time, within the cycles of planetary time
  • · That the form and the material should echo the forms found within and around the Cradle

My intention is to strip away and reveal an area of dolomite rock, and to build within this area a small domed chamber in red sandstone in the shape of a stromatolite. The interior of the chamber would be plastered white and painted with bands of red ochre in patterns which echo layers of fossil time, stromatolite and tortoise shell concentric rings, and impact shatter patterns.

The chamber will also act as a camera obscura by cutting out the light and using just a small aperture in the apex of the ceiling. Images of trees, branches, clouds and the sun would be projected over the murals onto the walls and floor. Furthermore an analemma (figure 8) would be traced out in steel pins set into the plaster. The Earth moves around the Sun in an ellipse, so at the same time every day, over the course of a year the sun traces out a figure 8 pattern. At the intersection is the equinox, at the top – the winter solstice and at the bottom – the summer solstice. By entering the chamber at midday the image of the sun would be somewhere on this analemma and the time of year would be revealed.

My proposal therefore is for a permanent site-specific work on the land at Nirox, which brings together, time, geology and man’s presence in this unique environment. The work will be both an object and an experience connecting the viewer back to the ancient roots of the Cradle of Humankind.

 

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