Calculus - An Exhibition of Counting Stones
Dowse Art Museum, 15 February - 12 May, 2002

Artist Statement

1. (medical) Stone, concretion in some part of the body
2. (mathematical) Particular method of calculation

from Latin: small stone used in reckoning on abacus

This exhibition of 100 altered stones started 20 years ago when I found a small stone in the excavated gravel of a new driveway to my Ponsonby workshop. Cleaned of its tarry adhesions this egg-sized stone polished to a dark-grey surface revealing a dense matrix of broken and fused fragments. I carved a simple symbol on the surface and carried the stone in my pocket for some time before I learnt that it was greywacke. This subtle and beautiful stone from the basement of New Zealand is commonly used in a crushed form as construction and roading gravel. Greywacke is common to most areas of New Zealand. It is to be found in most rivers and streams. It was the material for the wondrous patu onewa which remain some of the finest stone artefacts from the Maori world.

I did not realise then that this stone would change my world. Part of the attraction was it's widespread occurrence. Prospecting for it was not difficult; it could be found in subtly changing colours and forms in many rivers. I was intrigued by its physical properties. It was perfect for some of the work I wanted to make (for which jade was not suitable). At its best it was dense, hard, fine-grained, fault-free, and speckled with subtle hues from grey and green.

Although I sourced the stone from all over New Zealand, my primary source was the Hauraki Gulf. These ancient beds were laid down millions of years ago in the developing Tasman Trench as New Zealand and Australia separated in the breakup of Gondwanaland. The fine silts and sands deposited in the trench originated from the erosion of granite mountains on the great southern continent. Deep sedimentary layers formed in the trench, and were buried to depths of 5-10 kilometres. The intense pressure and heat at that depth welded the grains together and when these beds where uplifted in the formation of New Zealand, the broken rock was again eroded and smooth rounded greywacke pebbles were formed by the Waikato River and the sea currents of the Hauraki Gulf.

Often these pebbles came to me from other people. They were not always greywacke, some being argillite, quartz or basalt. These stones often came together with a hand-drawn map showing where they had been found. The rough sketches, symbols and calligraphy and vigorous marks all point cryptically to a certain place. Finding these places again always required certain local knowledge and these directions (or lack of them) are a strong part of the stone stories. "...just go down past the old quarry, keep to the left and go past the row of pines and take the road around the back of the estuary and you can't miss it!"

It was exciting to be starting with something so base as road metal, and my primary objective was to work the stone so its aesthetic qualities would make it precious. A transmutation of the base to the precious, a metamorphosis.

I also wanted to label these natural pebbles, to make them artefacts, so they became part of the human environment. Rather than mark the stones superficially with traditional relief or intaglio carving, I began to investigate ways to make indelible marks in the stones. These inlays were made from a variety of other stones, including jade, jasper, marble, lapis lazuli, and chrysoprase. Later these inlays became stone, glass and metal rivets, fully penetrating the stone. As the language developed, other symbols emerged. Copper plates made signs of connectivity, rivets made red, green, white, and black eyes. The stones became strange devices, accumulators of energy, storage batteries, keys to strange doors. They were intriguing parts of the human world, but from time past or time future?

Numbers were often present. The stones with their 'eyes' became factors in some calculation, or counters in some board game, tallies, ways of measuring the passing days; memory devices. Together with fingers, small stones were the beginning of our counting systems. They led to the concept of numbers, and to the development of mathematics. And ultimately to the description of our world and our understanding of the universe.

John Edgar
November, 2001.




for John Edgar's Calculus: 31 Oct. 2001

John's stones arrived just as I was leaving to fly north. I left them unpacked. A prospect to return to. Knowing there was greywacke inside, I'd expected something much weightier, so I was already intrigued. It was John's somehow sensing that 'greywacke', had meaning to me, I suspect, that was behind his consignment. His missive, 'I'll send you some stones to contemplate', wasn't a New Age incitement. But it was effective, nonetheless.

The flight rose into a southerly sky shedding its rain. The greywacke spell began working immediately the cloud parted over the harbour and the floodplain muddying it. For a brief moment, I could see in one look from Plimmerton to Petone, both the sea's and the river's stoney beaches; my version of Baxter's

'.... abandoned, early world
Of rock and sun, where peeled boys tussle
Awkward in their skins, among
Dazzling friendships of seawater'

The route north skirted the upriver flatness in which 'greywacke' entered my consciousness and first fired a sense of the shaping power of landscape. The site too of the pedagogy that had hurried John's other word, the 'Calculus' of his exhibition, out of any prospect of contemplation. I peered down at the gridded sprawl of roads and houses, and pondered the millions upon millions of stones of John Edgar's regard lying beneath them; packed, ovalised, via a mathematic I have fathomed no more than I have calculus.

Greywacke alluvium. The precious heart of Aotearoa. The crucible of the moist fertility that fed its plains' towering forests of birds and waterways of fish. The pebbly ground that the white settlers who rushed it with axes and flames and swept it into pasture, called the best land for God's Work. An infinity of loose, on-the-move particles from colloidal clay, through silt and grit, to stone and boulder. Rounder and rounder, the more, and the more-energetic the moving. Stones plunged through gorges. Rolled down rapids. Ground in the grindstones of floods. Flopped onto plains for a millennium or two, and spewed onto coastal fans of more of the stuff. Gouged away by sudden, tsunamic seas and dumped onto beaches for us humans - John Edgar not alone - to search among for the perfect form.

Alluvial floodplains were, for many civilisations, the source of their industrialised agriculture and its cities. Not least the one that spread from Europe to these islands in the mid-18th century. Civilisation was long thought to be impossible without river alluvium to fertilise it in the first instance. Greywacke's alluvium underwrote the persuasive language of Edward Gibbon Wakefield's dream; the 'inexhaustible' plains country of 'soil so fertile', 'space so ample' - 'full two-thirds rich alluvial' - that his New Zealand Company pledged its settlers in 1839. The very same alluvium that, as late in the piece as 1801, those who came to plunder its wealth said extended from the Hutt I'm flying over to the faraway Hauraki Gulf where I'll return to the ground - where, interestingly, John Edgar sources his stones. The Waikato carried them there before the Taupo Eruption persuaded its waters towards the Tasman.

It is greywacke's hardness that equips it to survive the mountain to sea passage, and acquire the beautiful forms that qualifies it for John Edgar's art. I first became aware that it was something esteemed watching my grandfather and father picking over riverbeds for the choicest walling-stones to hold up the fragile cut-faces of house excavations from which they'd wheeled barrowloads of 'rip-rap', as they called the shattered, and apparently useless kind of greywacke. But learning how greywacke got its hardness had to await the good fortune of being a student of the gold-prospector-turned-geologist who first demonstrated the evidence of plate tectonics.

It was Harold Wellman's discovery of just how much New Zealand had split along its Alpine Fault that led to the fault becoming recognised as the boundary between the Australian and Pacific plates. The intense heat and pressure in the plate boundary's canyons is integral to greywacke's genesis. Mineralogists believe it to derive from North Queensland, when it was a Gondwanan landmass of Andean proportions. But it also was land of water and rivers of the magnitude and scale that the Andes simply don't possess. And with a depositional environment approached today only by the deltas of the Orinoco and the Ganges. It was the wads of such deposits sliding into the plate boundary canyons that produced greywacke.

* * *

'I'll send you some stones to contemplate', he'd said, anticipating the landscape thoughts they'd provoke. And it is indeed true that through something as humble as a stone, people can be brought in touch with their larger environment. The carefully placed stone in a Japanese garden like Ryögen-in might symbolise a certain mountain. But by so honouring the stone, the mountain as a whole is honoured, and in turn, the world at large. The notion of paying respect to a stone, or perceiving in a stone something spiritual beyond its mineral content, is certainly not confined to the Japanese, however. As my ecology progressed to embrace notions of mauri and vitality, I wasn't surprised to learn that many old cultures credit stones with such regard.

John's packet was just where I had left it, and I opened it straight away. A sense of precious object emanated from the layers of wrapping. Each stone had both the instant familiarity of home ground as well as the unfamiliarity of strange, foreign coinage. I held one up to the light, discerning the faraway hills' green through bands of glass perfectly fused to the greywacke. In the last stone out of the packet, blue flashed from a circle of red Coromandel jasper embedded in the greywacke. Smaller and more rounded than the others, it lingered in the palm of my hand, warming as our heat equilibrated.

As my finger tips' detected the barely-discernible meeting of jasper and greywacke, I felt a surge of regard for the artist who had achieved it. And what forces of energy have to be human-harnessed to cut greywacke as fine and smooth as that? All contained in the beauty of the water-wearing, mountain-building, sea-canyon-filling energies of time.

I laid the stones down to see them together. But while I'd been away the Christian Calendar had tolled September 11, 2001. And I couldn't get out of my mind that the same human-harnessing of energy which had made them so beautiful, had now made a commercial airliner into a weapon of mass destruction. How careful we are going to have to be.



John Edgar's Calculus: Reckoning the Stones
by Peter Simpson

calculus, n. 1 Math. a. a particular method of calculation or reasoning (calculus of probabilities) b. (also infinitesimal calculus) the part of mathematics concerned with the integration and differentiation of functions. [Latin = small stone used in reckoning on an abacus] [Oxford Reference Dictionary].

A while ago, wandering along the beach at Okarito in South Westland, I picked up a flattish and irregular stone, roughly oval in shape. In colour it was light grey-greywacke, I suspect, though I'm not an expert in such matters - and made unusual by a narrow and slightly raised band of pure white silica, running diagonally across it and through it, since, if you turn the stone over, it looks identical on the other side. Did I pick this stone up and put it in my pocket because of its striking similarity to one of John Edgar's altered stones? Probably. But then I would have been likely to pocket it anyway, as you do with a curious looking stone, especially from a place you maybe won't go to again: a token, a memento, a relic, a talisman.

Was the discovery of such a stone one of the impulses that brought John Edgar's altered stones into being? Certainly, one of the several levels at which Edgar's stones function is as reminders. If you ask him about them there is always a location, an occasion, a story, a provenance, for each one. They come, too, from someone whose familiarity with and understanding of the country is wide and deep. He has driven, walked and prospected over most of it; he knows intimately (to borrow one of his exhibition titles) the 'lie of the land'.[1]

Looking through one of Edgar's numerous and regularly maintained journals in search of the point at which the altered stones emerged,[2] I came across a passage from which the name Charles Cotton leapt out. Having recently written about Colin McCahon, for whom the discovery of the drawings of the geologist Cotton was decisive (he was given Cotton's Geomorphology as a wedding present in 1943), I was intrigued to see what Edgar had made of him.[3] In an entry for 8 April 1983, Edgar wrote: 'Cotton loved New Zealand as I love it and want to feel my way over the surface as I would a woman's body'. And a bit later: 'This man Cotton will change my life. He will show me New Zealand'.[4] All Edgar's sculptures, large and small-from the towering layered Transformers to the hand-sized altered stones - have their origin in observed geological fact, mediated in part by Cotton's writing and drawings.

While such head-and-heart knowledge of New Zealand's geology, landforms and local conditions is one of the co-ordinates of Edgar's stones, it is far from being the only one. As titles of his recent exhibitions suggest - Digit (Artis Gallery, Auckland, 1999), Sum (Artis Gallery, 2001), and now Calculus (2002), mathematics and abstraction have as much to do with the stones as geology and location.

The word 'calculus', from the Latin meaning 'a little stone', carries in its semantic history its derivation in the use of stones for counting and computation, as in the widely dispersed device of the abacus. By fashioning his stones in such a way that their contrasting bands resemble the universal signs of mathematics - addition (+), subtraction (-), multiplication (x), the decimal point (or full stop) (.), equation (=), and also the digits from zero to nine - Edgar is able to make his stones in combination resemble and enact in some respects the language of mathematics. As he said in a recent statement:

Stones have played an important role in the development of mathematics, and I want to explore with my exhibit the mathematical sentence. This equation or matrix is open to manipulation, extending the meaning of the stone symbols, numbers and operators. As in any sentence the grammar is critical to meaning, understanding and calculation of the final answer.[5]

If the nine elements in Stone Equation (2000) - the work to which the above statement applies - resemble a kind of 'sentence', then Calculus with its 100 pieces must constitute something in the nature of a mathematical 'treatise' or 'theorem'. The important thing to recognise is that the principle behind the exhibition is relational; here the individual pieces do not exist in isolation but as part of a dynamic 'dialogue'. Their placement, sequence, and arrangement in small or large groupings (which are not fixed and absolute but provisional and alterable), has the effect of making the stones - a byword for muteness - begin to speak by utilising the 'grammar' of mathematics. You can count on these stones.

'Integration and differentiation of functions'; the language of calculus points us in the direction of the aesthetic dimension of these works. It is in the perfect integration of contrasted and strongly differentiated materials and colours - stone and glass, greywacke and jasper, sandstone and limestone, granite and marble, argillite and chrysoprase - that the stones work their magic, creating that aesthetic frisson which we recognise as among the essential experiences of art.

In the Russian Formalist Victor Schlovsky's 1916 essay, 'Art as Technique' he described the central effect and purpose of art - revivifying life by undoing the deadening effect of habitualization - through the metaphor of stone: And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony ... The technique of art is to make objects "unfamiliar" (ostranenie), to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.[6]

My Okarito stone sits on a low table as part of a matrix (in the mathematical sense of 'a rectangular array of elements in rows and columns that is treated as a single entity') along with eight of Edgar's altered stones.[7] Its raw irregularity among the smooth mortising and immaculate joinery of Edgar's pieces makes it seem the 'odd man out' and yet closely related, an unpolished 'country cousin' beside the refinement and sophistication of the others.

In this casual juxtaposition I find a clue to the fascination Edgar's altered stones exert. As objects they are both found and manufactured, both mundane and strange, both concrete and abstract, both simple and sophisticated; they belong to both nature and culture. By rendering the utterly familiar unfamiliar, they enhance the sensation of life; they make the stone stony.

* * *

Peter Simpson, Associate Professor of English at The University of Auckland, is an art writer and curator. His recent publications include Answering Hark: McCahon/Caselberg: Painter/Poet (Potton Publications, 2001), and Rita: Seven Poems by Colin McCahon, edited for The Holloway Press (2001).

[1] John Edgar, Lie of the Land, touring exhibition, 1998
[2] The first altered stones were made in 1981 and exhibited at the Dowse Art Museum in John Edgar, Signs of the Comet, 1983
[3] Charles Cotton's Geomorphology of New Zealand was first published in 1922. The edition McCahon was given, now called Geomorphology, was the third edition, revised and enlarged (Whitcombe & Tombs, Christchurch, 1942)
[4] John Edgar, unpublished journal, February-July 1983
[5] John Edgar, statement in 4th New Zealand Jewellery Biennale: Grammar: Subjects and Objects (Dowse Art Museum, Lower Hutt, 2001)
[6] Viktor Shlovsky, 'Art as Technique' in Literary Theory: An Anthology, edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Oxford, Blackwell, 1998), p. 18; ostranenie is also translated as 'making strange' or 'alienation'
[7] Edgar's 2001 exhibition Sum at Artis Gallery, Auckland, included a work of nine stones so arranged in rows and columns under the title, Matrix. Stone Equation (2000), referred to earlier, also takes the form of a nine-stone matrix



The Company of Stones

Stones are heavy and hard and wholly
at our service. I keep wishing
to hold one. Here, behind the glass.

Once a servant offered me a diamond
on a dark red velvet cushion.
I accepted that stone and embarked

on the hardest human task, learning
to be a servant myself,
like the first servant, humble and calm.

We know we can count
on one and one being bound to make two
and two dividing into one and one

but what about three? In a deep body
of water a stone, unfathomable,
is so well beyond our reach.

Yet I am counting on you
while you are counting on me
and we are tripled in the company of stones!

However much we love their density
don't let's be precious about stones.
They keep lying on earth as hosts

to each falling and rising nation.
It is time, 2001, to hold them,
our common sense, our striking lost souls,

and to be absorbed by sounding out
their long, composed, absolute story.

Then to stand. Pronounce their name.


Dinah Hawken