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The Vacuum - Issue 17 - Fashion spacer The Vacuum - Issue 17 - Fashion
Obscure Object of Desire
by Peter Finnemore
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Stones simply are. They are commonplace, inanimate, drab, rough, omnipresent, thoroughly boring and often a nuisance. Each particular type of Stone has its own unique qualities. They are ideal building materials. However we have moved from the stone age to the brick age. Bricks are man made cultural artefacts, while stones are natural, raw and primal materials. They have elemental power, they suggest permanence of matter, longevity and endurance. These qualities lend themselves to symbolic thought and ritualistic use.
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The subject for my Strange Object of Desire is a stone. A piece of stone slate to be precise. It has a irregular hexagonal shape, is half an inch thick and around 4 x 3 inches, it fits easily into the palm of the hand. It is smooth on one side, rougher on the other. Its six sides have varying degrees of refinement. It is both a natural object and a cultural artefact. It has been in our family for many years. We called the stone 'Yr Galchwen' the chalking stone. It was used by my grandmother and her mother before her as a means of chalking decorative patterns and designs upon the slate hearthstone and doorstep. The function and purpose of these marks was to decorate and beautify. In hindsight, for me this daily ritual was not simply one of ornamentation but contains ceremonial, ritualistic and symbolic echoes.
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This was my first encounter with drawing and mark making. When chalking the hearthstone, the order of this routine would be; first clean the powdered ash and bits from the grate, clean the surrounding area, fireguard and fender. Prepare the new fire with paper, coal and lumps of ash. Wash the slate hearthstone with water. The 'Galchwen' would be then used to chalk patterns on the hearthstone while the hearthstone was still wet. Faint when wet, the white markings would really stand out when the hearthstone had dried. The fender and fireguard would then be replaced and the fire lit. My grandmother used to do this daily every morning until the mid 1980's. The fireplace itself is now in storage in the folk museum in St Fagans in Cardiff. There as an example of traditional Welsh working class / y gwerin fireplace.
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The 'Galchwen' itself has two main sides which meet together like an arrow point. This was the contact point which was used to make the marks. These sides have been smoothed through use. This was a very physical activity, the greater the pressure of contact more definite and distinct the marks would be. This sound of slate marking slate was distinct and loud. As children we would call this activity 'scrabbles', probably because of the scrabbling type of noise generated.
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The hearthstone was utilised as a drawing surface, slate frame for marking upon. The types of patterns my grandmother would chalk would be a series of concentric spiralling circles, a flourishing line from the top would connect and link each concentric circle. They would probably be around 5 rows of circles with around 8 in a line. The top line would consist of interlinking semi circles. As far as I can remember the pattern was reproduced each morning. The overall effect of the chalked pattern was a simple design structure, done in a fairly carefree, unselfconscious and expressionistic way. This was folk art, maybe even primal art, raw and immediate, stone marking stone, the simple need to make decorative /ornamental /symbolic marks, with its lack of authorship or need of audience. Of course my grandmother would not have seen it within these terms of reference but here was art / mark making integrated unselfconsciously into ones daily life.
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These patterns also echo traditional Celtic patterns, designs and druidic markings. Chalking marks in this context has magical and ceremonial function. In relation to chalking the front doorstep it has been suggested that the secret of an effective pattern was that no gaps were left, for it was through these gaps that the devil and spirits would enter the house. It would seem that the chalking activity is not only about pattern making but is also related to ritual and superstition. Was my grandmother's marking an expression of race memory? The performance of unconscious rituals and remembrances of a pagan Celtic tradition with its symbolic meaning forgotten?
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Fire is an element that has universal importance. It has helped to sustain human life. It gives us heat for cooking, light in darkness, warmth and protection. It has acquired religious and legal associations. In early Welsh law, if a house was built between sunset and sunrise (Ty Dros Nos) a fire lit in the grate and had smoke come from the chimney by dawn, the person could claim ownership of the land. The association between ownership and fire was so strong that the right of a Welsh heir to occupy his father's land was called 'the right to uncover the fire'. Collectively this means that a place belongs to the group whose fire burns in it, the lighting of a fire legalises possession and its converse, that the fire's extinction ends possession. The domestic hearth is the most basic example of fire. With religious and symbolic thinking, the domestic hearth becomes a potential arena for fire worship.
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The daily activity of my grandmother's creation of the domestic home-fire has ceremonial qualities. It's a daily observance, ritualistically done each morning at the same time, it involves cleaning / purifying the old fire to create a new pure fire. The hearthstone becomes an altar in front of the fire. Kneeling in front of the slate hearthstone to create these primal symbolic patterns becomes an activity of worship and mystery. Here was an example of our primal relationship to fire, transferred into contemporary life through cultural inheritances, ancestral memories and unconscious symbolic activities, through a form that was culturally acceptable.
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The 'Galchwen'/chalking stone does have sentimental value as it is contained in a family and cultural narrative. But what I really like about it is its straightforward functionality. It's a simple stone, that has become a tool, an instrument employed for drawing marks. It is an elemental implement utilised for expressive purposes. Its physicality as it sits in my hand, with its comfortable shape, weight and texture, becomes a tactile and psychic link to mysteries; the primal and magical necessities of mark & image making; activities which affirm our physical and creative existence.
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