Tokens From Time

26.10. 2020 The Netherlands – Biotechnological material - Mycelium

Zoom conversation with Professor Wösten

The Netherlands was supposed to be the last European leg of my journey. I was planning to meet with microbiologist Professor Han Wösten at the University of Utrecht, who leads the mycelium research group. Unfortunately, because of a spike of Covid-19 cases across Europe, I had to return home. Instead, we had a Zoom conversation.

Mycelium is a fungus that can be grown as a replacement for plastic and polystyrene. It is bio-engineered from agricultural waste or artificial materials bound together with the roots of a mushroom. These materials are grown into a desirable shape and can be manipulated into different firmness. Their applications include industrial products, from textile, acoustic noise cancelling panels, to architectural construction materials. We exchanged many fascinating ideas. I am still hoping to visit him in his laboratory next summer.

Zoom conversation with Professor Wösten

16.10.2020 Munich – Sustainable materials

In the summer of 2020, while it was still possible, I spent a week in Munich at BMW’s headquarters, visiting its manufacture plant, 3D print center, recycle and dismantle department, and textile department. I talked to scientists, engineers and material designers about their vision of future materials and sustainable alternatives. It was a real privilege to gain access to the different research labs, which are rarely opened to outside visitors.

09.10.2020 Lausanne – Sustainable material - Calcined clay limestone cements (LC3)

Laboratory of Construction Materials in École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland

The concrete, polystyrene packaging and plastic that I use for my sculptures inspired my research on sustainable alternatives of these materials. In Lausanne, I visited the Laboratory of Construction Materials at the École Polytechnique Fédérale (EPFL) to meet with its director, Karen Scrivener, the inventor of a low-carbon emission cement called LC3 cement.

Professor Karen Scrivener and her team tested 80 types of clay from all over the world in search for the perfect low-carbon cement recipe
Professor Karen Scrivener standing next to concrete cubes made from her LC3 cement.

I was inspired by her no nonsense approach. She is completely focused on creating a sustainable alternative to cement, which will not only become available in 20 years. Her team is already working with the cement industry in India and Cuba. After testing eighty types of clay in search for the perfect low-carbon cement recipe, these countries are already using LC3 cement to build infrastructure. We have no time to waste, she told me.

The visit made me appreciate how fascinating it is that we are still living in a world in which ancient and brand-new materials coexist.

06.10.2020 Sicily – Mosaic

Mosaics were never meant to be looked at close-up. Most of us know them from religious monuments. In Sicily, I learned that mosaics were also a means of displaying wealth and status. The Imperial Roman Villa Romana del Casale dating back to the early 4th century and boasts the largest collection of Roman Mosaics in the world. Only ruins of the villa are left today, but there are endless rooms covered with floor mosaics to admire. The motifs are surprisingly contemporary, free and complex.

Mosaic in the Palatine Chapel, Sicily
Mosaic of `Coronation of the Winner` in Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily

A striking mosaic, Coronation of the Winner, depicts young women commonly known as the ’bikini girls’—in fact, they are athletes in a sporting competition that included wight-lifting, running and ball games. Researchers suggest the mosaics were probably made by African artists who also brought their tesserae, the small coloured stones from which mosaics are made, with them from Africa to create colours that they couldn’t find locally. The North African provinces were in the economic and artistic forefront at that time.

Mosaic of `Coronation of the Winner` in Villa Romana del Casale (detail), Sicily

02.10.2020 Agnone – Coppersmiths

Franco Gerbasi demonstrating traditional methods to make copper water vessels

The town of Agnone in Molise Province was considered the most important city in Italy for copper production in the Middle Ages. It is also famous for its bell foundry, located in the center of town. Local people told me one out of ten people in this community of five thousand inhabitants used to be coppersmiths. Only three are left who still know the ancient methods of copper work.

I visited Franco Gerbasi and Filipino D’Aloise, who told me vivid stories about the history of copper in Agnone. Franco runs a copper museum in Agnone while working on expanding the industrial production of copper wares. Filipino cooperates with people in different creative fields like fashion and architecture. They showed me the traditional methods of making copper reliefs and water vessels. The latter were essential before the invention of household water pipes. Women would carry fresh water with these vessels on their head. Copper was a crucial everyday material, but also revered for its anti-bacterial properties.

30.09.2020 Agnone – Pontifical Marinelli bell foundry

Artisan constructing a mould for a “false bell” using wooden strickle boards in Pontifical Marinelli bell foundry

Moving on with my research on ancient metal craft, I visited Pontifical Marinelli bell foundry in Agnone, a small medieval town in the Molise region of ltaly. The foundry is considered the oldest continuously family-run business in the world. The descendants are using technique dating back to the founders, a milennium years ago.

The art of bell making today is a dying craft and there are only around a dozen historical foundries left in Europe. As with the blacksmiths of Lucca, the bellfounding process has remained so close to the Medieval working method that the twelve artisans who work here could still make bells without any use of electricity. The entire process is handcrafted. Plaster molds of the bell motifs and inscriptions are everywhere to be found in the foundry. I witnessed how the artisans build the structure of the bells out of clay and bricks, and how they make and press wax inscriptions and decorations onto the bell. Even the testing of the tone of the bells is still done by hand.

26.09.2020 Ravenna – Mosaic

Ravenna is a city of mosaics, many dating back to the Roman and Byzantine times in the 5th to 6th centuries. There is a unique concentration of old and new mosaics in this city, which I soaked in during the stay as part of my journey. Historically, the city once was the centre of commercial trade, linking Italy to Africa and to the Eastern Roman Empire. I spent an intense week learning how to make mosaics using old Roman techniques that have been used 1500 years ago, cutting stone into tiny pieces of stone (tesserae) with a hammer on a hardie. The tradition is still very much alive.

Mosaics were created as a means of story-telling for those rich and powerful enough to tell stories. The mosaics of the Palace of Theoderic in San Apollinare Nuovo originally depicted Theodoric sitting on a horse, with members of his court. After his death, in 526AD, these figures were covered with other images by invaders. Mosaics were commonly altered or repurposed in these ways.

Originally, Roman slaves cut the stones, working under poor conditions. A large wall piece could take more than ten years to finish. Even after making one small piece, I came out with a different sense of time.

20.09.2020 Artists and artisans in Pietrasanta – Marble

The “robots” carving in Marble Studio Stagetti

The sculptor Kyle Smith introduced me to artisans and artists in and around Pietrasanta. She showed me how to swing the hammer to accumulate force without exhausting myself when carving stone. I feel very fortunate to have so many meaningful encounters on this journey.

Operated by sculptor Sebastiano Stagetti

Some artisan families have been working in these parts since the Renaissance. Lately, they are consciously adapting by embracing new technology. While some still work in solitude, using the traditional hammer and chisel method, others have embraced “robots” (CNC gantry-cutting devices, introduced in 2009), seeing them as a portal to new possibilities. But the robots are not always faster or cheaper. Machine carving is mostly used to rough out the forms. Humans still touch up on the details and do all sanding by hand.

I was told it takes five years to master the pointing method (accurately transferring a plaster or clay model onto marble). Smaller workshops struggle to pay apprentices to learn for this duration of time. I wonder how they can compete under those changing circumstances.

Learning marble carving from sculptor Kyle Smith

I was told it takes five years to master the pointing method (accurately transferring a plaster or clay model onto marble). Smaller workshops struggle to pay apprentices to learn for this duration of time. I wonder how they can compete under those changing circumstances.

19.09.2020 Pietrasanta – Marble

The small town of Pietrasanta has shaped the lives of artisans and artists who were seduced by the pristine quality of Carrara marble. For centuries, Pietrasanta has been populated by stone workshops. From Michelangelo to Henry Moore, artists from the world over have gathered in this tiny town. In the 70s, artists covered in marble dust hung out in the Michelangelo bar, a bohemian spot. Today, Pietrasanta is gentrified into a posh little town. Artisans and artists are forced to move elsewhere.

The town is home to the only maquette museum in Italy that keeps original plaster maquettes from artists. They reveal a special relationship between artisans and artists. One of my favorite is from Isamu Noguchi, Ding Dong Bat (1968)

Plaster maquettes of `Ding Dong Bat` (1968) by Isamu Noguchi, Museo dei Bozzetti

15.09.2020 Quarry Morphology

I walk through narrow paths that cling to the steep mountainside, ⁄ Along endless white roads covered in marble dust, ⁄ The sounds of chunks of marble crushing with my every step, ⁄ Soaking in the bright sun reflecting off the towering whiteness of excavated stone.

As I overlook the manufactured landscape created by thousands of years of mining industry, ⁄ I wonder about the irreversible modification of the face of the earth: ⁄ So many fortunes made, so many lives lost, ⁄ Families, artisans ever responding to the latest trends in the global marketplace, ⁄ Centuries of projecting desires, value and imagination since Roman times.

“The stone remembers forever and demands our respect,”locals and artisans tell me. ⁄ “But it also has its natural limitations as to how much it can do. Be patient. When it breaks, it breaks.”

Do we humans shape the marble, or is the marble shaping us?

15.09.2020 Carrara – marble quarries

Blinding whiteness

The Apuan Alps look like glistening snow mountains from a distance, with veins of white paths snaking along the mountainsides surrounding the village of Colonnata, in Tuscany. Yet, the blinding whiteness is not snow, but rather the bare quarried face of the mountains. This is where Carrara marble comes from. Hundreds of quarries have produced the whitest and largest amount of marble in the world since the 2nd century. The yield has come at the cost of a completely modified landscape, endangering the fragile ecosystem of the Apuan Alps. Globalization has accelerated excavation, yet Carrara remains one of the poorest cities in Italy.

A fifth of the irreplaceable Carrara marble is destined for the building industry. The rest is ground into calcium carbonate to make medicines, cosmetics, food, paint, plastic and toothpaste. Only a tiny fraction, one percent, has been used for art production.

17.09.2020 Lucca - Iron

Blacksmith Carlo Galgani - Video by Eunice Tsang

Carlo Galgani, in a valley of the Municipality of Pescaglia, province of Lucca

Carlo Galgani, 82 years old, is the last member of his family that has been passing down the knowledge of iron craft since the 1500s. He is the last remaining blacksmith in the province of Lucca, and probably the last in Italy, who still forges iron with a water powered trip hammer. Of his two anvils, the ‘new’ one was bought by his grandfather in 1910. The old one has been in his family since the 1700s. Already working as a blacksmith when he was eight years old, he used to ride a donkey to get to his workshop in the valley until the first road was built in the 1970s. He specializes in agricultural, gardening tools and knives, and lately, swords for medieval enactments.

His nephew Nicola has joined him recently to keep the family tradition alive. Seeing them work side by side was one of the most touching experiences of my journey. The rhythmic sound of hammering—a bit like techno—accompanied by the crackling fire, the running water, and spinning wheels, made the visit feel like stepping into a capsule frozen in time.. The walls of his workshop were blackened by centuries of soot from the open fires.

10.09.2020 Florence

Detail of the tabernacle of stonemasons on the exterior of Orsanmichele, by Nanni di Banco, ca.1416 CE
Depiction of blacksmith on the exterior of Florence Duomo
Depiction of blacksmith on a ceiling fresco in the Uffizi museum, Florence