The Volcano and the Quarry, Hot Spots/Hor Pots

Celeste Roberge
11/01/2001

Iceland is not so far away from Maine, only four to five hours by air from Boston or a hop, skip and a jump away by land and sea from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland and Greenland. Yet Iceland seems so exotic, so extreme in its geography and climate. It straddles the mid-Atlantic rift that separates the North American Tectonic plate and the European Plate. That precise location on the knife-edge of the rift is the source of all its geothermal glamour. By contrast, the old stone quarries of Maine have been domesticated, harvested, and abandoned. The quarries have an architectonic form that plunges into the dark negative space of the pit. How high can the volcano rise? How deep can we dig? How stable are those solid-looking chiseled walls of the quarry? Every shard of stone is a sculpture. Every mineral stain or miniscule growth of moss is a painting. The grandeur of the volcano and the quarry calls into question the impetus to make art: why make anything if everything is already there and inherently better.

I can only cope with the vastness of the volcano and the quarry by bringing it home and reducing it to a known activity like cooking and collecting. I can make pseudocraters in the bronze foundry. Recipe: Spread vegetable fat in a preheated cast iron skillet. Add molten bronze (2400°F) or molten aluminum (1200°). Watch it spit, steam, and bubble. (Double, double, toil and trouble.) Allow to cool. Note: Take necessary safety precautions.

You don’t need a hammer and a pick in Iceland. Everything is just lying there on the surface, direct evidence of violent acts that take place right now, yesterday, and long ago. Iceland is the present tense. Stacks for Home and Office relates to the geological immediacy of Iceland. Quarry relates to the older, lived-in quality of the quarries in Maine. Moss grows on both. It is the connector. The pits will sink and the earth will rise and someday the quarries of Maine and the volcanoes of Iceland will be similarly covered with a layer of rich earth. Time passes.

Iceland is all about matter and process. In Iceland the landscape is not just fantastically pictorial. It surges. It rumbles. It is baroque and tempestuous. You feel the relationship between action and emotion directly under your feet. That physical power is what attracts me. I am inspired by the materiality of sculpture, the potential of matter to embody meaning, almost inherently. The materials used in Stacks for Home and Office evoke unspoken events. Stone is ancient. Stone is cold, but produced in heat. Stone is absorbent of heat, cold, water, and of history. Trilobites, the insect-like ur-fossils, once populated the earth in the millions and now exist only as fossil forms. Food for thought. Gold is one of the most precious, heaviest, brightest, and softest minerals, like butter. Charcoal is both a product of heat and a source of heat—a conundrum, a reduction sauce.

Wherever you travel in Iceland, the hot/cold, Iiquid/solid, wet/dry polarities are much in evidence. I hiked up to a glacier along a steep trail that paralleled twenty-two waterfalls. The descending water was glacial; the ascending person was hot. I took a boat trip among the calf icebergs of Jokulsalon, the haunting shapes of the icebergs emerging from the wet fog-like witches from a glacial brew. When I read "Cooling the Lava," an essay by John MePhee, on the attempt to divert the flow of lava away from the harbor of Heimaey during a volcanic eruption, I thought “what as traightforward concept. If something is too hot, add cold. If it is hot molten lava, add millions of gallons of frigid ocean water to solidify the edge of the encroaching lava field. If it works in the kitchen, why wouldn't it work in the geology lab or in the art studio? Volcanoes spit out minerals like pumice, obsidian, olivine and ash. 1 collect, these minerals in cast iron pans for the hybrid stoves of hot pots, trying to contain them, trying to transform them with the heat of the sculpture.

Quarry is the acknowledgement that somewhere in my mind there occurs a conflation of the high energy basalt formations in Iceland and the ancient slate deposits in Maine. A volcano rises up in a conical formation. A quarry spirals down along a geometric grid. The pits are dark and fecund, one hot and one cold. Two inverted funnels of raw potential. Basalt thrusts upward in columnar formations, betraying its igneous origins—slate hugs the ground in a sign of its muddy beginnings and its humble, domestic uses for the roof, the floor, and the school blackboard. The slate quarries of maine and volcanic lava fields of Iceland seem inhabited— the quarries so recently abandoned that the remains of the stone continue to whisper.