Between A Rock And a Hard Place

(Devising a display for the Parkside building atrium located vitrine of the Birmingham City University Library Services Archive, October 2015).


Having pursued the chance to create a display in the library archive cabinet, this opportunity fuelled my love of museum objects and the chance to create a near surreal series of connections, (through curiously mixed taxonomies).  This continued my interest in the hinterland between superstition and science, and making, quite simply, rather tenuous connections; tenuous connections being the basis on which real-life is for the most part based, we might contend.

The counterpoint for this was to be (an actual) Volume IV of Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s 1756 edition of Roman Antiquities, opened at Plate XXXII, Foundations of the Theatre of Marcellus. This plate is a deep and sooty, richly detailed etching of a partially excavated Roman ruin, exposing, with some imagination, the massive blocks of masonry and innards of its stout foundations.  The image is also reminiscent of a quarry face.  The human figures that inhabit this image are dwarfed to such an extent that, as a result, the classical ruins take on almost supernatural proportions.

The idea of making connections between natural geological specimens and relating these to architectural forms interested me – the idea that buildings can, somewhat paradoxically, be created from excavated and chiseled rocks which, however, represent solidified environments that pre-existed these buildings by millions of years.  In this way unusual and natural Karst forms of Istrian limestone are juxtaposed with cut architectural pieces, such as fragments of the British Venice Biennale Pavilion steps, across whose treads have passed the feet of the famous and, indeed, infamous.  Thus, the chronology of millions of years is trodden on by the history of a mere handful of centuries….the epic nature of this lies beyond comprehension, but is also an ironic, abstract relationship that, separated as it is by eons, has no possibility of a meaningful dialogue.

Particularly perceptive, in the case of Piranesi, is the French writer Marguerite Yourcenar, who, in heressay, The Dark Brain of Piranesi, (1962) wrote, of his etchings in general:

…the opaque identity of the block continuing within the monument, its long existence of stone as stone.  (…) The object contemplated is at the source of Piranesi’s almost hallucinatory masterpieces.

In the same cabinet, solidified forms forged by natural forces, such as Fulgurites (petrified lightning) also appear, as does, the Golem (a tourist souvenir); that mythical figure formed out of primal clay who, it is said, will arise to defend the people in time of need.  It failed to do so in the case of the cruelly assassinated (demolished) purpose built art college, formerly The Gloucestershire College of Art & Design (1963), Albert Road, Cheltenham, of which, one last remaining brick was also displayed in the cabinet. 

Amongst other objects also appeared the longest pebble in the world (challengers were invited), the smallest, most beautiful pebble in the world (ditto), and a flint pebble from Ovingdean, Sussex, which laid down the gauntlet (in ironic circularity) to Henry Moore’s Recumbent Figure, of 1938, and, not least, a tube of Parma Violets which provided some comparative sense of scale and common sense to proceedings…

Richard Schofield / October 2015