Purple Travel

[June 9 2015]

A visit to the Carrara marble quarries with sculptor Dominique Stroodant

There’s a scene in The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), the story of Michelangelo (as played by Charlton Heston), where the great artist, during his time working in the marble quarries of Carrara, sees a divine vision appear in sky high above the Apuan Alps. Heavenly chords play, the clouds over the white peaks start to glow and then anthropomorphize into the figures of God and Adam, imprinting the Sistine Chapel’s most iconic image upon the artist’s mind. This image made a deep impression on me as a child watching reruns of such epic movies on weekend TV.

I bring the memory back to its source by relating it to master sculptor Dominique Stroobant as we hurtle around the hills of Miseglia di Carrara on his motorini. He turns his helmeted head to me and laughs heartily, dismissing my cherished filmic moment as a ‘Disneyland, Fairytale’ version of what Carrara truly is.

The Carrara I see with Belgian-born Stroobant, who has lived and worked here for the past 44 years, is no fantasyland. Instead it’s a place caught between the magnificent history of the past and the complex realities of the present; basically, continued industrial exploitation of this unique natural resource versus preservation of this environment for the future. He tells me that this is now a place where more toothpaste is made from marble dust than Pietas of perfect marble blocks. I had heard Carrara described as a ‘supermarket’ of marble; but I hadn’t imagined that it would be a butchery too. But despite Stroobant’s realist admonitions, as we ascend higher, sublime confluences line up in front of me. Sunrays arrow out from the mist to strike parts of the white cliffs and offset the heavy green forest, which creates a Romantic harmony of view that brings on the harps, for me at least.

I was excited as soon as I saw the mountain range looming ahead like a sea of ice as the train pulled into Carrara Avenza station. I am transfixed and taking pictures of this first view from the platform when Stroobant finds me. White-bearded and dapper in a tweed jacket, he hands me a helmet and in an instant we are riding through the fine rain up towards the heights I have just seen. With the roar of the bike on my ears, I tell him that I have just been to Egypt, whose legacy is eternal because it was all carved of stone. So, atop a bridge between two dormant sites, with the striped strata right in front of us, we start my instruction in the ways of marble. Stroobant tells me how statuario stone when first cut into is pure white, but as it lies exposed, it gains long streaks of red-brown. This is simply rust, from the oxidisation of the iron present in the mainly calcite and silica rock. And that all these inorganic elements are also present in our living body. That in fact our hard teeth and bones of our skeleton are the chemical kin of marble. That the boundary between inorganic and organic is not as solid as we like to think.

Known in his early work for his audacious repurposing of industrial materials, Stroobant’s subsequent practice has been informed by both political and philosophical concerns. The application of scientific principles to art has always been a key element in his approach, as is evidenced by his self-built pinhole cameras, large prints from which hang on the rough walls of his own house in the hills above Miseglia, hewn straight from the rock. His sculptural forms can be characterised by their embodiment of complex mathematical and spatial concepts in stone. A recent work investigates marble’s hidden musical properties – certain pieces can be cut and played like a xylophone – and appears in poetic curator and interior designer Axel Vervoordt’s atmospheric show currently on at the Palazzo Fortuny in Venice.

As we eat in a local restaurant the framed pictures on the walls around us, like Christ’s Stations of the Cross would in a church, portraying the area’s evolutionary path in photo and etching. They show that this has always been a tough place: before specialized machines and diamond edged steel wires arrived in the 20th century, strong men, long ropes and yoked oxen were the sole means to haul and drag these unwieldy tonnes out of their then much higher mountains.

The next morning we visit an open yard just off of the roadside, deserted apart from one neon-vested guardian. Here, monumental gateways lead to nowhere, figurines of nymphs and lions lie half-made, and marble barbells protrude from rough squares. Seeing this diverse range of emergent forms, I am in awe of the plasticity of this so hard material, its protean ability to be turned into anything within the skill and power of the hand working it. We then move on to the artist’s own atelier, SGF, where he greets his long term collaborator Mario Fruendi. They have worked as artist and artisan together since much younger men – the walls of that local restaurant displayed a framed photo of them, too, from the late 1970s, smiling around a table of their marble carving brethren. A new example of their water-driven ‘floating stones’ – ‘le pietre galleggianti’ style sculpture is being worked on. They demonstrate it for me: activated by just the water pressure supplied by a garden hose, the interlocking spherical pieces are cut so precisely that the heavy stones rise, levitate and rotate around each other with smooth ease.

The high-tech equipment here at is the best available, and can be programmed to create and execute designs with the intricacies of an Alhambra – stones from as far afield as Brazil stand waiting to be finished. But I can see here, too, that its not the tools, but the imagination of the artist that can really make the marble sing. We go inside, where various artist’s works wait in differing states of completion. With his mastery of stone, Stroobant has has been involved in some of the most ambitious projects produced in Carrara for the past four decades, and in miniature upon the walls are faded prints of some of these masterworks, such as the monolithic Moebius loop of granite ‘Continuity’ created with architect Max Bill in 1986. These are all beyond ‘fashion’. In a geological timeframe these rocks will remain much longer than our pictures, or written explanations, of them. When these artefacts are found in 10,000 years, just as we do of the stone works of our ancients, it will most likely be asked ‘How were the made by so primitive men?’

We ascend higher along the steep roads, toward an active quarry site. The scale is breathtaking. Tiny men and the huge moving apparatus that they control are dotted around the grand landscape. For them, the cliff face is a permanently shifting workspace, its levels changing by the week. Its a Sisyphean labour; after one layer has been cut, there’s always been another layer to cut right beneath. And has been for over two thousand years of mining here. By now, the edge is a solid marble shelf, but the cavern many metres below is sliced out round and is as large as an amphitheatre. I don’t feel vertigo standing near the loosely chain-roped edges, but a instead a thrill from the strangeness of being here at all in this high, white world, which seems reserved for Gods, artists, and men with hardhats. We watch the ‘cleaning’ as the small chips of rubble are brushed down the mountain by the digger like a waterfall’s cascade. Seeing the way this makes the rocks fly, I picture the pyroclastic flow that would be caused by explosives. Stroobant explains that these are not used so much now, as they fracture and destroys the marble, rendering it useless to work on. That the only result of dynamite is dust.

But I remember that here the dust is still of value, and is sold to be used in the most mundane of ways. So from now on, far away from here, whenever I brush my teeth I will wonder whether part of the majestic mountains of Carrara, the origin of so much beauty, art and culture, will rinse out of my mouth, too.

Text and photo Hannah Bhuiya


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