ARTIST'S MARBLE OR PHILOSOPHER'S STONE? (RECLAIMING ALCHEMY)

BY KATE BRITTON

Hazelhurst Regional Gallery & Art Centre

 

Roughing Out is one of Alexander Seton’s most ambitious exhibitions to date, in both scale and scope. The finely carved objects that have earned him acclaim in the past are represented, sure. But Roughing Out sees the artist expansive, embracing a nomadic holism anchored by the materiality of stone. 

Marble is no longer merely soft, folded, living or airy. It is also performance, alterity, temporality and waste. One work in particular embodies these new experiential frontiers. The single-channel video work The Alchemic Cycle (2013) presents the artist engaged in the seemingly Sisyphean task of transforming a block of marble into a block of cement via (al)chemical processes. 

We begin with the raw material – a white cube – and watch as it is pounded into a fine dust, cooked in a kiln, slaked with water, poured into a mould and reset into a second white cube, identical in size and shape to the first and yet materially altered via what is essentially a chemical process. At this point the video loops, creating a visual synapse between the two blocks. It is a simple formula: pound, cook, slake, pour, set, repeat.

At first glance this work could be read in relation to the act of art-making itself – a Sisyphean undertaking laid ambiguously between the original/naturally occurring and the (re)produced, between creation and representation. But that would be to ignore the complex material and chemical processes being performed, the teasing out of unrealised capacity or potential that the work lays bare.

Marble is metamorphic in its constitution; it becomes via the metamorphism of sedimentary carbonate rocks undergoing a solid-state change that results in an interlocking mosaic of carbonate crystals commonly referred to as marble. In this light, The Alchemic Cycle is in fact a work of undoing, a reversal of its ontogenetic moment. Seton’s title, however, hints at significance beyond the physical properties of the stone. In evoking alchemy, he implicates himself.

 

As Above So Below

A proto-science that contributed to the development of modern chemistry and other sciences, alchemy was widely practised across three continents for some four millennia. With the emergence of more rigorous experimental methods from the 18th century onwards, it was gradually relegated to esoteric spiritual practices and sugary Paulo Coehlo novels. 

Seton’s The Alchemic Cycle plays this history off against itself; while certainly a traditional alchemic practice, the formal and minimal aesthetic of the video negates the cabbalistic or occult overtones favoured in contemporary portrayals of the alchemist’s labour. Instead, we see the craftsman at work, as much an instrument of change as the mallet, the kiln and the water.

For many, alchemy represents a relatively restricted set of goals: the transmutation of common metals into gold; the creation of a panacea; and the discovery of a universal solvent. In the physical realm, gold represented the most perfect of all metals, the attainment of an elevated state through transmutation. This characterisation of alchemy as a purely physical undertaking, however, eschews a long tradition of Hermetic or spiritual alchemy.

In each of the three distinct branches of alchemic practice (Islamic, Indian and western), a close relation to the spiritual is evident. The 17th-century alchemist Pierre-Jean Fabre describes this spiritual dimension thus: ‘Alchemy is not merely an art or a science to teach metallic transmutation, so much as a true and solid science that teaches how to know the centre of all things; which in the divine language is called the Spirit of Life.’

The implication of Fabre’s assessment is that in learning how to transmute substances such as metal (or marble), we are also able to understand changes in our selves. In other words, material and spiritual changes are closely intertwined, comparable because of their unity. In the 18th-century German Romanticist Novalis’s formulation: ‘We will understand the world when we understand ourselves; for it and we are inseparable halves of one whole.’

The methods for achieving transmutation – either physical or spiritual – are complex and mysterious; the history of alchemy veiled and secretive, full of symbolism and codes. As the practice lost favour, this secrecy was largely dismissed as charlatanism, cheap trickery. But Seton’s work seems to be telling us that perhaps there is still something to be reclaimed from alchemy’s potted history. 

 

One Hand Clapping

Alchemy’s project of finding unity between the material and the spiritual resonates with contemporary life. Affect theory and, subsequently, the so-called performative turn, have both approached an expanded materialism in which, like alchemy, the world, our bodies and the mind are all made up of the same stuff in different forms and with different functions and relations. 

Seton’s practice can be interestingly situated within this expanded materialism, in which asking what makes a common metal turn to gold, or marble turn to aerated concrete, is not so different from asking what makes a person achieve spiritual growth, or what makes an artist turn from sculptural to performative practice. In fact, the two questions may share more in common than they appear to, and it is their relation that Seton asks us to attend to.

Likewise, the mystery inherent in alchemical texts and teachings could be read as critical to its operations, their deliberate eschewing of linearity, logic and clarity seeking to elicit the break in normal mental operations that attends revelation. Like Zen masters and their koan riddles, alchemic texts seek to trigger understanding through an unbalancing of the intellect or senses. Like the somatic jolt that we experience in the moment of realisation that Seton’s marble beds, sofas and beanbags will not, in fact, accommodate us, thus the koan seek to disturb our expectations. 

To what extent does this also ring true with Seton’s The Alchemic Cycle? The central question raised by this work seems to be about difference and repetition. It asks us to consider the extent to which the marble has really been altered. Although we watch a physical change taking place over time, the final frame of the video bleeds back into its origins, bringing home just how little the block differs physically despite its alteration. Is this change internal or external? And what exactly is it that is undergoing the change? 

Seton, the contemporary alchemist, is classically ambiguous. Roughing Out as a whole shares this speculative character, inhabited by works that examine the nature of the artist’s beloved marble and through this the artist himself and, to some extent, his output. The works operate – like alchemy – around thresholds and limits: between mind and matter, artistic object and process, waste and use, performance and its trace, and at each of their limits. 

 

Performing Ecologies

Viewed in concert with the rest of Roughing Out, the task of The Alchemic Cycle seems clearer – to complicate not only our perception of Seton’s marble medium, but also of his artistic practice more generally. What is on display is not an exhibition of artistic objects so much as an artistic ecology, the interrelated and inseparable aspects of a united practice situated in a particular time and place. 

The inclusion of waste items (Recycle Bags 2013), carving dust (Dust Drawings 2013) and incidental marks (A Thousand Cuts 2013) speak to the politics of what is visible and invisible in art, and what demarcates the limits of the artistic. The carved glory hole (Glory Hole 2013) not only represents a physical threshold, it questions the artist’s motives – is artistic production social or self-gratifying, sublime or base? Likewise, the glasses half-full with milky marble (Half Full 2013) seem intent on subverting the age-old aphorism – the glass being visibly both half-empty and half-full. 

Ecology is the study of relations, the study not of states but of the interaction of forces that condition states. If Roughing Out represents a kind of meta-ecology exploring the conditions of production for Seton’s work more generally, The Alchemist Cycle is at the opposite end of the spectrum. It is ecology of the microscopic, in which artist plus mallet plus stone plus force plus water plus kiln plus slaking equals a change imperceptible to the naked eye and yet materially actual. The video’s tight unwavering frame exists to remind us that, in this particular field, each force plays equally and functions in unity to produce the work. 

Of all the works in Roughing Out, The Alchemic Cycle is the one that perhaps makes most explicit this project of unity (and ecology). In conditioning the chemical change in the marble, Seton materially demonstrates a potential that was lying dormant in the stone the whole time, a capacity to differ-from-itself while aesthetically repeating. Given the right conditions, a particular ecology or a moment in time, we can witness something as seemingly fixed as marble take on another form, visible to the untrained eye or not. 

Positioned among the artistic ephemera of Seton’s practice, The Alchemic Cycle is a work that begs the question that perhaps all art is or should be asking: What does it take to induce the moment of transition; the realisation of hidden capacity? Alchemically, this equates to asking: What does it take to change a spirit? In Roughing Out, Seton produces a utopian refrain in suggesting that the production of art itself is the answer to this age-old question. Perhaps the philosopher’s stone has been right in front of our eyes the whole time.