David R J Stent ‘The Marker’



* This time you find the marker – as you call it – at the wild end of the garden. At the rear of the townhouse, the lawn stretches back for about twenty yards until there is a transition, signalled in part by a dilapidated shed, to a section overshadowed by trees. This wooded area has been left to grow unchecked. It is covered with dust and debris, predominantly leaves and pollen husks from the canopies gathering above. Yet there are also singular eruptions that pierce the dullness of the wreckage: bluebell hoods sing out like bruises; other, relatively colourless stems rise vertically, only to burst into tiny stars. An old animal hutch lines one of the fences, now adapted into an area used for storing logs. Larger pieces of timber are stacked in the open too. A few door panels have been flayed into strips and scattered, as well as a number of metal poles, about five feet long, that are flecked with paint. Other shards of abandoned carpentry constructions are visible too, such as a pair of planks conjoined by dark fibrous cubes of chipboard, tipped with a thistle of nail heads. Any disturbance of these items – which, you notice, are lying on top of a grassy layer of red brick, like foundation ballast for an absent structure: the first tentative stages of pyramid building – provokes a nervous dispersal of insects. Armoured divisions of woodlice suddenly fan out; rogue ants sidle over all obstructions with equal haste, no matter if they are living creatures or landscape features. Leaning against the adjacent fence, two wooden door panels, complete with window glass and rusted hinges, are joined together with thick, foamy cobwebs. There is some evidence that the exposed and weathered surface of this pair of panels conceals an untarnished gum-pink colour in between, a layer of paint that must have once covered both. Pulling the panels apart would be like opening a mouth to reveal a soft fleshy gloss inside, releasing the faintest of exhalations. But it is at the base of this locked jaw of doors that the marker is first seen. Its initial appearance is that of a stone pot (or rotten tooth) given that all you see is what looks like a ring of pale marble around a circle of soil. Bending down to place the hands around the volume, however, it is possible to sense that its weight and dimensions are much more substantial than first appeared. The surface layer of mud, which nonetheless contains blanched follicles of roots, has been restricted to the shallowest of indentations. As your hands work further down the sides of the marker, you get a sense of the tapering bulge to its shape, as if it had swollen according to a number of complex variables and systems of conflicting forces. In fact, beneath your hands, the marker feels somehow insistent, as if it had increased in size beyond a given limit and yet had not receded. There is something excessive about it, something not fully contained or accounted for in the object itself. The narrower ends of the marker lean outward too, evidence of further blooming that could not be sustained or retracted. As you press the grasses and weeds back, trying to get a better look at the marker, you see that as well as an inflated tension, there is also an undeniable relaxation to its poise. Approximately the size of a bucket, the marker is made of what looks like grey cement. You are immediately sure that it is cement rather than concrete: it is fine in texture, ranging from beautifully smooth to the intricately detailed. You’re convinced that concrete would be coarser, bulked up with larger grains, pebbles and aggregates. Yet, interrupting your assumptions about any chemical processes involved comes your recognition as to what has happened here: the unmistakable consequence of an everyday plastic shopping bag, filled with cement powder about twelve inches deep, having set, and the limiting outer container having then perished or been otherwise stripped away. But it is not possible for you to tell whether you’re sure about the material of this marker being cement because you know something about exothermic reactions or alkaline powders; whether you recognise the textural qualities of different binding agents or the relative porosity of mortar. It strikes you that additional information would be required, or your account to be set in the third person, for any commentary to be available. You must live for the moment with it being unclear as to whether you know something about effective proportions of oxidised calcium, quicklime and clay. And yet you feel you might be capable of understanding something of the transformative effects of water, heat and pressure on this now solidified bag, without even acknowledging how certain effects of chemistry remain only partly understood. But if you knew about sintering, the transformative process involving compression and extreme temperature, you might understand it as a way of effectively creating volumetric objects from powder. And in this you would recognise some illuminating description of what you suspect is happening here, in your unfolding thoughts, or rather your processing of thinking in the moment of apprehending this marker, as it appears to you, in this situation, as you have found it. You would be able to draw upon the fact that ‘sinter’ echoes ‘cinder’, moving through the German for ‘slag’ (Sinter) and the French for ‘ash’ (cendre), and were this to develop somewhere in your mind, it might well form a correlate to the struggling perceptions and interpretations you’re attempting to impart onto the experience of the clearly visible and tangible object in front of you. Yet soon enough you return to the ostensibly dominant physical properties of the marker, coming back to a habit of description in order to begin again. You’re always pressing for alternatives and variations. Some sections of the marker are extremely delicate, especially where surface details have deteriorated, no doubt broken down by the elements it has been exposed to. After all, the marker is only partially sheltered under the tree canopies and remains vulnerable to external moistures and rainfall. This immediately becomes a question in your mind – whether or not the powder could have been set, as it were, ‘as-one’, by being exposed to a large quantity of water, a sudden storm, or if it could have assumed its fixed position through the slow absorption of dews, mists, or other airborne precipitation. It is a question of speed. You wipe away the circular dusting of soil from the marker’s roof. Without it, you confirm that the revealed concavity is the result of a process that has occurred, if not ‘naturally’, through an undisturbed process of contraction. Human hands have not shaped this crater. It has come about as a result of matter being released from a forming solid. Smiling, you say to yourself that is has settled in transit, in the process of forgetting itself. Once the marker’s dimensions and projected mass have been established, your hands begin to slide more firmly beneath the widest skirt of the volume, pressing into the soil and grass beneath. The marker comes up from the earth with little resistance and you listen for any sound marking the separation of long-term bonds. If it is there, it must be too delicate to be audible. The relationship to sound is one that you dwell on for a moment, as if already assured that the marker cannot be silent or completely disconnected to listening in some form or other. You think of it, as a consequence, as some kind of recording device, like a shard of pumice able to absorb sonic material.[i] Running your fingertip across the cement, you hear the surface singing with details – curving bulges, flattened zones, stacks of wrinkles, air bubble pocks. You have a mind to put your ear to it, like it were a conch shell. It appears effervescent, already soaked with sound-laden air. If it is not a sound fossil waiting to be reanimated, perhaps it is an enlarged ossicle from some enormous listening beast. You consider for a moment if the marker bears any relation to field recording’s fixation of environmental sound, indicative of a form of attention-being-paid but also an inevitably reductive containment of a given environment or event. Perhaps it is that the marker hardened only when it could not listen anymore, its time having run out, or that it simply had enough of its own ceaseless potential. Thought like this, the marker signals the final stop of a heart-breaking passage of renunciation. In fact, rather than focusing on the relation to sound, you wonder if it would be more productive to interpret the wild end of the garden as being fixed and the marker an irruptive event – some kind of disruption of difference or an instance that cannot be accommodated according to predetermined parameters. You think of what John Berger describes as “recalcitrant incidents, (…) ‘events’ which have not found their place in any of the forest’s numberless time scales, and which exist between those scales.”[ii] But if the marker constitutes an event, what is its relationship to time and duration? Is the marker intrinsic to its setting or a sign of excess – a waste product with nowhere else to go, ending up caught between worlds? You suddenly visualise the marker in relation to classical statuary, positioned in landscaped gardens as indicators of wealth and power, guardians of private property. You begin to see the crude cement sack as evidence of this principal of ownership being turned to ashes, degraded into relative shapelessness: a figurine of the formless. You need to regain your composure. Your mind is racing. How important is it to keep track of everything? Perhaps what matters more are the associations that come, even now, to experiences mediated by deliberate repetition and the earnest intention to transcribe – not only to account for a period of listening, or to write out descriptions, but to attempt to apprehend the distributions of thought even as they are produced. To attend without ceasing. You lift the marker to your chest and carry it a little distance to a small clearing. There it is inverted, resting firmly on the indentation that is now only faintly visible because of its discolouration. In this orientation the marker resembles a loaf of bread, one that has risen according to ambiguous restrictions. Why do you call it a marker? In what way does it constitute an indication of position or establish a route by which territory could be traversed? Perhaps it is a marker in the sense of a promissory note, an indication of potential recompense. The form seems poised on a knife-edge, as if it could just as easily finalise its expansion or collapse in on itself. You return to your considerations of the marker’s surface. It is lunar grey, yet seems to have aged this way, as if it may have once been colourless. Perhaps it would shine white if lit obliquely like the moon. There are various scratches and flaked seams amid the creases in the cement. The effect is undeniably similar to that of human skin, particularly where it sweeps into angles, indicating different consistencies of flesh, before stopping short and crumbling into an uneven edge. You can’t help but recognise qualities of folded fat and muscle as rendered by stone carvers – the sway of an arm, the stomach slats of a folded torso – yet the forms here are not in service of any dramatically rendered bodily gesture or captured vitality. Stepping back, the marker seems like another kind of sculpture altogether; more like a unitary form, attached to its own plinth and standing alone. It could be that the superficial resemblance to skin is misleading. The fact is that the last layer of plastic covering the cement left markings that are ironically anthropomorphic. Yet the absence of the plastic container encourages you to read the marker as a commodity in some sense, a thought you quickly counteract by imagining the meninges cradling the brain (membrane layers, from the pia mater and the arachnoid mater – which again immediately put you in mind of Antoni Gaudí’s hanging architectural models: webs suspended from the ceiling, inverted in photographs, so that construction angles could be articulated between catenary curves and counterweights of lead shot – to the dura mater, closest to the bone) but crucially inverted, taken outside the skull and lost to decomposition, leaving only a last pattern on the cranium. But what is readable here, in these patterns, other than an inscription of labour that has indurated? There are qualities of investment that mark out something more than an assignment of value, quantifiable production or any sense of entitlement. The marker, so formed, as found, is oddly authorless, un-produced, and yet remains durable. Located outside like this, it is like it has manufactured itself. There is also something elemental at work, addressed to automatic processes that provide anonymous forces with an aesthetic presence, more akin to an embodiment of wind, an upsurge of water or the impact of gravity. This strikes you as important: an articulation of production in the sense of creative action, which has nonetheless assumed the form of a fixture of cement both organic- and inorganic-looking, both manmade and self-generative. It is still easy to consider the marker as an essentially alien object, discovered here in the wild, in a state where it is impossible to tell the contusions resulting from its fall apart from the peculiarities of its original ‘design’. But how could the marker represent any figurative partiality or belong to some other body? It is rather its own exception, a stub of expressive form still connected to its own dynamic, randomising capacities, even within the limits of definite proportions. Even if it were some kind of missing limb, a fragment of flesh blasted away from a main block, it would remain as a marker of experimental elaboration, crucially still at risk of ossification if left untended. All of a sudden you stand up and throw the marker into the air, hoping that it will suddenly break into dust and be gone, but it quickly plummets to the ground and settles, half-visible, into another position in the grass beneath the trees. * This time you find the marker in a cool museum room, a cast gallery. Something unknown, yet quite precise in its accessibility, is recognized in a fragment of torso. It hardly matters that the statue, the great tooth in front of you, is a copy. What matters is the chance that it could offer another arrangement of surface and volume for your anxieties to play upon. You realise this quickly. The material composition of the torso, which displays clear evidence of sculptural facility, a weight of profound consideration, and even the wounds of passing time, has risen up in this space, ready to be addressed by whatever means are available to you. What if it comes as a headless, near-limbless mound? You are not yet concerned with counting requisite appendages or with re-imagining any of its former extensions. It is all of a set in any case; the torso rests and comes to you in this state. This is how it finds you. It is amongst other statues too, as if you were in a forest of figurines, many of them comparatively ‘complete’ but in a way that makes them inaccessible in comparison. By contrast, the clipped torso seems lively and provisional. As you circle it you are aware that it suggests an accumulation of ‘events’, a term you unexpectedly nominate at that moment, as if material changes were not only still possible but were beginning to gather here – or were soon to be encountered, even – in newly materialised forms. Immediately the torso fragment starts to function as a configuration of space wherein the temporal can be conceived as somehow being placed, as if the marker were instructive in terms of how it might be possible to unload or ‘cast’ thought, just for a moment, into a holding area; stopping time in order to get a good look at it. What you see as the ‘poured’ look of the torso seems related to these speculations, as if its formal truncations were rendered in a particular way because its form was being generated from within, emanating from a location somewhere in the lower belly perhaps, moving slowly outward. The extrinsic application (i.e. the artist’s hand) is crucially inverted here, as the matter of the torso is auto-generated by the very form it struggles to assume. You are already beginning to think of the torso as an accompaniment, even an assistant, to your emerging thoughts about it. It is encouraging you. It senses your proximity and inclination, even the tools at your disposal. Smiling now, you acknowledge the torso promoting itself as a wedge, directly reminiscent of your memory of a conjoined object produced by Marcel Duchamp sometime in the 1940s – an emplacement of bronze and plastic you remember being called ‘chastity’, yet which nonetheless seemed to stand as the perfect fit of accomplished eroticism, a sophisticated phase of both social and private exchange moulded as a wedding gift. But the torso had already put you in mind of such a sealed state – triggering another image of an airless dental model fusing a carved tooth with an artificially taut gum-pink – but one that was even more insistently self-contained. You start to consider these thoughts in relation to the manufacture and endurance of desire, a measurement of loss that nonetheless gains momentum in the form of want. The torso is a form populated by its missing aspects, haunted by what it no longer possesses. Yet you appear to be allowing the marker to shape your thoughts before you have them. Such pressure then leads you toward some kind of realisation concerning what this marker, as you call it, is doing here, why you stand in front of it. Still, no adequate explanation arrives for why you insist on returning to these poorly lit rooms. This one already seems too bright, the heavy taupe walls glazed by an insistent skylight. In this setting, as you orbit and gaze at the marker, it occurs to you that it is oddly insistent. It seems to make demands: to be seen, apprehended, but also tested, to be heard. Perhaps this is why you nominate it as a marker, aside from its connotations as accompaniment and shadow. You think of the words spoken by the ghost of King Hamlet – “Mark me” – entreating his son not only to listen to his tale of betrayal and murder but also to pay close attention. But what is the torso’s exact appeal? Still smiling, you propose that it insists you put your hand through it. But then, what is it to say that ‘it’ insists in any case? And what does such a request mean other than to have recourse to some kind of speculative ‘hand-mind’, which would be tantamount to a cognitive orientation, a stance, metaphorically arranged as a flat hand, held not in preparation for a karate jolt but for a slow dip into water: a careful pressing toward becoming that could, potentially, take. Even though this is a joke, even though you’re smiling wider now, you consider all this to be an important aspect of attention-being-paid, perhaps even a form of aesthetic availability that simultaneously guards and exposes an unknown territory behind a marker. These confused moments are special moments. At this point, just as you are about to press a fingertip to the torso and summon the invisible invigilator, you are reminded of a girl you were fond of in adolescence who had a habit of exclaiming, in an exaggeratedly exasperated voice, “Mind” (pronounced “Miiiiiiiiiiiiinnd”), as if you were always in her way or crowding her somehow. Often, but not always, the words would be accompanied by her elbowing past you, physically shifting your body from one place to another, yet the implied phrase – ‘mind out’, ‘mind what you’re doing’ – was never completed. Such a conclusion was obviously unnecessary for her, and this strikes you as perfectly cogent now. It puts you in mind of thoughts concerning the possession of matter, of psychokinesis even, and the action of casting out a fishing line. You look toward the absent limbs of the torso whilst still holding your flattened hand a few inches from the statue. You consider completing one of these phrases by mouthing ‘mind out’, yet your lips do not move. Nonetheless, the unuttered phrase suggests another image to you, aligned to the notion that cognition might be shed like a gallstone, abandoned somewhere in a secret garden, to be apprehended later, rethought, like a marker retrieved on a roadside. But all this is indicative of the difficulties involved in these special moments. Without anticipating it, without being prepared, you’re starting to view the torso as a physical marker for what cannot be rendered or fixed by thought. Isn’t that it? Your mind is already swimming with its own contractions and projections, yet it also seems to be on the verge of discovering a clear point of focus. The cast torso, here and now, then, epitomises the potentiality for thought to split into multiplicities, an array of different versions, differences, aligned to the same events. This comes as a brief flash of insight, which is quickly followed by the realisation that, surely, no moments are not like this – seminal instances are to be found everywhere, even under your hovering fingers, on the greasy surface of the torso. You visualize this surface now as being bright white, fizzing with the pinprick bubbles and random imperfections resulting from a copying process. The torso is a curious mixture of the fixed and the fluid. But as always the mind presses for its own alternatives and variations. It seeks out promise. You wonder about the consequences of your thoughts not being able to rely on themselves unconditionally, even if they think they can, and whether this problem leads them into ‘worrying’ their own cognitive impulses into being. For a moment, this coincides with the anxiety you anticipated previously, which you still sense lining the torso, effervescently surrounding its truncated (yet still coherent) volume and becoming embedded into the textural delicacies that result from the ordinal transfer of one material to another: marble to alabaster, stone to plaster or cement. Briefly, you think of the torso as a fruit stone and imagine reading its creases and indentations in order to extrapolate the dimensions of missing flesh. For some reason, when visualised as an exposed pip, the torso suddenly becomes obvious in its colour: a dirtied white, like bone that has been exposed to the elements. This description is underwritten by another that suggests it could have once been colourless, and has only become opaque as it has ‘set’. Yet whiteness seems appropriate, especially when recalled alongside descriptions of that hue, which “by its indefiniteness (…) shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation.” Likewise the whiteness of the torso contains the “visible absence of colour (…) at the same time the concrete of all colour”, both dumb and full of meaning. Even now it appals as much as it appeals, and you picture it diffusing into powder and vanishing. The torso becomes suddenly disturbing. This is the point when you should leave the gallery, when the pulpy sack seems to start sulking in the centre of the space. Yet you stay, asking yourself whether it is a substance still within its container or one that has slipped free? For now, you reason that the torso can be counted ‘as-one’, seen as an autonomous and unitary structure, even in its partiality. Yet its unity does not rely on the emanation of its essential substance but the effect of its presented structure. This awkwardly expressed thought accompanies a new recognition, triggered by the markings on the torso’s lower back, of beaded edges signalling where various distinct segments of the cast have been joined together. The torso’s unity is not some fundamental property of the object but rather the effect of its becoming-structured, as an operation. The missing elements of the situation of the torso, as it were, emphasise that it belongs in countless worlds apart from this one; this situation is crowded by others. You cannot clearly apprehend the structure of the torso – either in its existent components, its method of casting, or its vanished extremities – and instead sense something like an inconsistency about its presence, even its substance in the world. Some element of the situation remains unrecognised and discontinuous. But this is an indication of an on-going interaction in the world, you think, a sense that the torso doesn’t really belong in this museum room, where nothing is moving. What emerges in the torso is also what does not exist for it: an eruption of difference, almost like an absented waste product that has escaped and must represent it at a distance, in some other dimension. You look again at the pose. The figure’s head and chest have been sheared away, the arms rolled from the shoulders and the legs cut off at the knee. The torso is an amputee, and there is some sense in your mind of seeking an equivalent for thought, even for locating its phantom limbs. The problem you face is how to actively engage and manipulate thought that is yet to be manufactured, that is still ‘to come’, as if it were a material substance. But even these thoughts have no firm sponsor, no predestination or even substance. They seem to come from nowhere, like absences breaking into the continuity of established form. Refocusing the torso once again, you connect this disrupted continuity with the physiological evidence contained in what is left of the carved figure. You note the tension of the upper body, particularly in the shoulders and dorsal muscles, and the twist in the chest. You see that the large severances are indicative of separately carved pieces of marble that would have been attached to the main block using dowels, and that the missing areas at the lower back is suggestive of a seated pose with the hands resting on the buttocks. Considering the fragment of panther skin and the dowel holes that indicate both a missing tail and a double aulos that would have rested against his right thigh, the torso no doubt depicts Marsyas, a Phyrygian Satyr seated on a rock with his arms tied behind his back. His position is that of defeat: he has lost a musical contest with Apollo and awaits his punishment. Quickly judged by the Muses, Marsyas will be flayed alive (ostensibly for the hubris of challenging a God) and Apollo will nail his hide to a tree. The torso, then, is not only a rendering of the sufferer, but also the anticipation of punishment, the potency of waiting. All along the torso has been an embodiment of obligation, being bound, and of restriction. You read it now, almost in pity, as an institutionalised object, but one that does not deserve to be kept in captivity. It is part of this established culture, connected to these other figures that surround it, yet it is also set apart from it. Suddenly emboldened, you stretch out your hand once again, still with the fingers and thumb flattened into a paddle. You reach further this time, aiming toward a folded shadow just underneath the ribcage. Your middle finger makes first contact and encounters immediate resistance. The torso presses back, a sensation not unlike touching a tensed pectoral muscle but also coldly dismissive. Your hand crumples into a fist against the side of the figure and, before you can start to drag it around the circumference of the waist, you feel a firm tap on your shoulder. Your arm drops as you rotate to offer your apologies to the invigilator, and then, following this, you leave the room.

[i] The notion of stone as a recording device can be related to its ability to contain impressions of psychic or paranormal phenomena, as suggested in the 1972 BBC television play, The Stone Tape, written by Nigel Kneale and directed by Peter Sasady. In this production a team of electronic/audio researchers charged with “finding a new recording medium” set up in an old Victorian house. When team members start to see ghosts, the research director (hilariously played by Michael Bryant) decides not only to analyse the apparition, which he believes to be a psychic impression trapped in the stone walls (hence the title), but to exorcise it.

[ii] Berger, J. (2008) ‘Looking Carefully – Two Woman Photographers’ in Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance. London: Verso, 139-140.

[iii] Marcel Duchamp ‘Coin de chasteté’ [Wedge of Chastity], sculpture, bronze and plastic, 1954 (recast 1963), Tate Collection.

[iv] Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 5.

[v] Melville, H. (2008) [1851] Moby Dick, London: Penguin, 199.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Säflund, G. (1976) ‘The Belvedere Torso – An Interpretation’ in Opuscula Romana XI: 6, Stockholm: Paul Åströms Förtlag, 63-64.

[viii] Ibid., 73.