Contemporary Rock Art
John G. Hampton

A small pebble with three indents that create the impression of a face
The “Makapansgat Pebble.” Red jasperite cobble with distinctive natural markings. Collection of the Bernard Price Institute of Paleontology, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Photo courtesy of Robert G. Bednarik.

This is the “Makapansgat Pebble.” It is the first known example of a manuport: “a natural object, esp. a stone, that has been carried and deposited somewhere by humans but has not been artificially shaped.”1 Most of the artworks displayed in Rocks, Stones, and Dust are made of manuports or their representations. This particular manuport is a water-worn jasperite cobble2 that was found in a cave in South Africa.3 It was brought to this cave approximately 2.5–3 million years ago from a site more than 50 miles away by australopithecines (or other very early hominids). Anthropologists, cognitive scientists, and philosophers tend to speculate that whoever carried this cobble such a distance must have seen some significance in it—presumably its peculiar face. Carved by water and other environmental conditions rather than by hominid hands, the stone is not a traditional sculpture, but it is still sometimes considered as the earliest known artwork—the first readymade.4 Others have cited the stone as the earliest proof of a hominid’s capacity for self-recognition through representation.5

When FASTWÜRMS told me about this stone, it seemed an apt metaphor for the impulse behind Rocks, Stones, and Dust. I had been in the midst of my research into what it was about rocks that inspires us to consider being-ness outside of human beings, and something about the Makapansgat Pebble felt emblematic of the human–lithic (stone-like) companionship I had witnessed through the many stories I had heard during the studio visits and travels I had conducted over the past year. Given the “deep time” often associated with geological matter, perhaps it’s not surprising to find a common human desire to be written in stone. Persevering through epochs—ashes to ashes, dust to dust—we are made of star stuff. It can be reassuring to see ourselves reflected in eternity. But rocks aren’t eternal: they erode, aggregate, sediment, metamorphose; they are carried, carved, deposited, dissolved, shattered; and they are also named, pictured, mapped, and prayed on. Rocks are as mobile, changing, and alive as any other matter, even if their relationship with time may be quite different than our own. This apparent contradiction, the simultaneous liveliness and perceived permanence of stone, was a refrain that came up often in my research. Hovering at the limits of an epistemological understanding of things, rocks represent the outer limit in the search for agency and meaning in matter: “Even rocks are alive.”

This line of research led Rocks, Stone, and Dust to become a study in human–lithic relations, but that was not always the focus. I began this project by looking at the intersection between “new materialist” philosophies and aboriginal epistemologies more broadly, with a particular interest in the being-ness of things. But as my research progressed, I was continually confronted with rocks, cropping up in each of the writings and works I looked at. Rocks are alive in the new materialist writings of Jane Bennett, Graham Harman, and Ian Bogost; in the Anishinaabe teachings shared by my Kokum, Elder Betty McKenna; in panpsychism, which speaks of the minds of rocks6; in the writings of Osage scholars who write about their consciousness7; in the medieval epistemologies unearthed by Jerome Cohen8; and in Korean, Japanese, Brazilian, Icelandic, Christian, and Buddhist stories from across the ages. Rocks are everywhere, and so are a multitude of understandings about their unique ways of being.

installation image of Smoulder, a round pile of stones placed directly on the floor with inlaid copper that gives the impression that the contact points of the stone are glowing hot.
Michael Belmore, Smoulder, 2010-11. Carved stone, gilded copper.
Collection of the MacKenzie Art Gallery, University of Regina Collection; Purchased with the financial support of the Canada Council for the Arts Acquisition Assistance Program, 2013.

Michael Belmore’s Smoulder was an early influence on the approach I wanted to take in this project. The experience captured in Smoulder is not explicitly indigenous nor explicitly Western, but articulates a human–lithic relationship that is shared across cultures. Gathering, transfixed by the glowing embers of a fire, is an experience nearly all of us hold in common. The glowing stones provoke a clearing of conscious thought, drawing us into an  aesthetic relation with the natural world,  allowing experiences of land, stone, mineral, and warmth to cross cultural and ontological divides between human and stone, subject and environment, indigenous and settler. Smoulder also evokes the spectre of the mining industry that hovers over our relationship with stone—and one which holds considerable financial sway over many exhibits of geology. But Belmore’s revelation of rich, shining copper within the fractured stone repurposes this conception of industrial value towards something more abstract.

Being, for the purposes of this essay, is not a noun but a verb—an active concept about the process of becoming. I grew up with the teaching that “human being” is not something that you are but something that you do. Similarly, a “stone being” is something that exists within, changes with, and is active in constituting the experience, surroundings, and embodiment of stone. This focus on active beingness is part of what distinguishes Rocks, Stones, and Dust from more museological projects. A typical mineralogy exhibition is a celebration of science: the stones themselves may be beautiful, but their primary function in their display is to communicate facts about the world and feats of  human ingenuity: concerning their chemical make-up, extraction, and material use.

A museum display. Three shelves of colourful stones with flat fronts and interesting patterns.
Display of selections from the Roger Caillois collection at the Galerie de Minéralogie et de Géologie, Muséum national d’histoire naturelle, Paris. Photo by John Hampton.
Personal collections, on the other hand—like the exemplary Roger Caillois collection at the Galerie de Minéralogie et de Géologie in Paris, which Hugh Raffles references in “A Lapidary Itinerary”—typically come from a more affective relationship with rocks; they foreground the stone itself and the wonder it can illicit outside of human comprehension. American philosopher Levi R. Bryant explains that “the being of objects is an issue distinct from the question of our knowledge of objects.” In a similar spirit, I hope Rocks, Stones and Dust helps us learn from stones, rather than about them.9

What exactly can we learn from stones though? Stones are seemingly inert—the prototypical ordinary object; yet they carry histories, stories, and essence, and they have a profound capacity to provoke abstract thought. As medievalist/posthumanist Jeffrey Jerome Cohen poetically expounds, “a stone is that mundane object on which a philosopher might perch in order to think, ideation’s unthought support; or in the palm, a spur to affect, cognition, and contemplation.”10
A white room filled with wican iconography, references to internet culture, rocks, crystals and raku skulls, computer mice, cat heads, and dildos
FASTWÜRMS, C.A.T. (Core Affect Traffic), 2015. Raku, geological samples from FASTWÜRMS collection, and C.A.T. system configurations and iconography.
This “spur to affect”  describes  the distinctly relational character in the cosmic swirling of ancient zircon dust of Nicholas Mangan’s A World Undone; the ethereal emanations of Bonnie Devine’s radioactive Phenomenology; the posthumous photo portrait presented in Spring Hurlbut’s Deuil I: Galen #4; and  FASTWÜRMS’s C.A.T. (Core Affect Traffic). In the latters’ own words, C.A.T. is “a future system or things-net for moving and connecting human emotions using inner Earth dynamics.”11 This installation of crystals, minerals, and other material from FASTWÜRMS’ collection references Internet communication to evoke a non-verbal relational system that relies on invisible energies. C.A.T. relies on stone’s capacity to spur us to affect, but presents a speculative proposal for the origin of said affect: an emergent and relational, global network of  human emotions and affect.

In  devoting this exhibition to “rocks and their relations,” I am  not only pointing towards stones, dust, boulders, pebbles, and cobbles, but also to the ways in which rock, human, and environment relate to and with each other in  forms of affective communication. “Rocks and their relations” is a material and conceptual framework for understanding interconnectedness. As Sioux scholar and activist Vine Deloria, Jr. elucidates:
“We are all relatives” when taken as a methodological tool for obtaining knowledge means that we observe the natural world by looking for relationships between various things in it… This concept is simply the relativity concept as applied to a universe that people experience as alive and not as dead or inert. Thus Indians knew that stones were the perfect beings because they were self-contained entities that had resolved their social relationships and possess great knowledge about how every other entity, and every species, should live. Stones had mobility but they did not have to use it.12
This approach to matter is necessarily entwined with questions of human being; if matter is not dead, then what becomes of us after we pass? There is a significant amount of death referenced in Rocks, Stones and Dust: Jason de Haan’s fossilized life; Bonnie Devine’s hauntingly beautiful response to uranium processing in Northern Ontario; Kelly Jazvac’s stones made from human detritus;  Susanne Kriemann’s self-described “Robert Smithson death stone” in Untitled (cosmic)Spring Hurlbut’s posthumous portrait of her studio assisant’s ashes, Deuil I: Galen #4. However, death  here illustrates a renewal, or state change, rather than an explicit ending.
a cosmic swirl of ash in front of an inky black background
Spring Hurlbut, Deuil I: Galen #4, 2006. Ultrachrome digital print; edition 2/5. Courtesy of Georgia Scherman Projects and the artist.
While researching Spring Hurlbut’s Deuil I: Galen #4for this exhibition, I visited Galen’s parents, Jim Kuellmer and Jan MacKie, to discuss what it means to put a loved one in an exhibition about stone and dust. We spoke of Galen’s life-long, intimate connection with stone, how his family and friends have carried on this connection, and about how Galen could function as an ambassador between human and stone in this exhibition—acting through the posthumous portrait of his body turned to ash. Hurlbut’s work helps us move past the idea of matter as lifeless and inert, towards an understanding of the life invested in matter, as well as the way in which matter constitutes life. Her refiguring of how we relate to death—through her physical interaction with cremated remains to create compositions for her photographs—strives for both a material and an immaterial connection with the deceased. The portraits point towards their subjects’ continued presence in this world; spectral ashes are caught at a moment after death and before being dispersed to various locations across the planet.
A cabin Galen built with his fathers help when he was fifteen. One of the walls is a boulder, which also acts as the floor for a loft. The walls are ramshackled and the boulder is overgrown with moss.
A cabin Galen built with his fathers help when he was fifteen. One of the walls is a boulder, which also acts as the floor for a loft. Photo by John G. Hampton.
Image of the titular phrase installed as vinyl lettering on a gallery wall. All the vinyl is black except for the workds AT THE LEVEL OF THE SEA which are in mirror vinyl outlined with blue

Lawrence Weiner, A CAIRN DISPERSED TO AVOID THE PERILS OF THE TIDE AT THE LEVEL OF THE SEA, 2008. LANGUAGE+THE MATERIALS REFERRED TO. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York.

The relational approach to the materiality of stone and dust is also picked up in Lawrence Weiner’s A CAIRN DISPERSED TO AVOID THE PERILS OF THE TIDE AT THE LEVEL OF THE SEA. A cairn is a collection of stones, gathered and piled by humans. Cairns are early cartographical tools, acting as sign posts or marking borders, paths, landmarks, or graves. Some are built for the aesthetic or spiritual significance they hold in their own right. A cairn marks a human relationship with a particular landscape at a particular time. They are constituted by stones that are within walking distance of each other, often arriving through the same environmental system (whether tilled by the same glacier, broken from the same mantle or worn by the same river), sitting relatively sedentary until they are guided by human hands into a stack invested with some significance. They typically stay stacked until they are dispersed again by some other environmental factor, such as the rising of the tide. The cairn alluded to by Weiner is purposely disassembled and dispersed again to prevent its migration into a new environmental system. This intentional dispersion cairn may be just as ephemeral as it would have been were it pulled apart by tidal waters, but it leaves a poetic link between the stones intact.
A cabin Galen built with his fathers help when he was fifteen. One of the walls is a boulder, which also acts as the floor for a loft. The walls are ramshackled and the boulder is overgrown with moss.
Jim Kuelmer with the cairn where the last of his son, Galen's ashes now rest. Photo by John G. Hampton.
The significance of Weiner’s cairn is unknown, perhaps because it is not a particular cairn made of stone, but an abstract one made from language. But this indeterminacy leaves it open. It can stand in for the cairn where a portion of Galen’s ashes now reside after the rest had been dispersed by friends and family, or it could be an early marker for the 45th parallel north that divides a portion of Québec from the United States, pulled apart and dispersed throughout the landscape to no longer constitute a surgically precise straight line.
rocks suspended in front of a wall, with black tags hanging from them with GPS co-ordinates
Marcelo Moscheta, Parallel 45N, 2015. Stones collected from the United States/Canada border, 3-claw gear pullers, laser cut tags.
The assembly (and sometimes disassembly) of a cairn is an act of micro geological movement guided by human intervention.  Human-enacted geological change may be intentional, such as the stones referenced in Kerri Reid’s Souvenirs series, or unintentional, as is seen in Kelly Jazvac’s Plastiglomerate, both of which demonstrate how human actions can exert as much influence  on stones as they do on us.
samples of greyish rocks with plastics of various plastics embeded inside them, sitting on two stately early twentieth century tables
Kelly Jazvac, Plastiglomerate, 2015. Geological samples of stones created through the sedimentation of melted plastic and natural materials such as coral, sand, wood and volcanic rock.
Kelly Jazvac’s found stones, constituted from the conglomeration of natural and human-made materials are an instance of our unintentional impact. Collected from Kamillo Beach in Hawaii (notorious for the large deposits of debris from what is known as the “great Pacific garbage patch” that litter its shores), these stones have plastics and other human-made materials enmeshed in their matrix. Demonstrative of the advent of the Anthropocene, these stones make evident the type of permanent impact our way of life has had on the geological makeup of the planet while also reminding us that not all stones are ancient and unchanging: new stones are constantly being born, and they are impacted by our actions.
seven ceramic stones in a vitrine next to photos of their döpplegangers on a beach
Kerri Reid, Souvenirs (Sointula), 2014. C-prints and stoneware with underglazes.
Kerri Reid’s series of souvenir stones, on the other hand, marks the intentional movement of stones collected from beaches or other travels. The practice of collecting stones as souvenirs while travelling may seem a relatively small-scale geological event, but so is the movement of glaciers. Yet so many of the stones on our planet are placed by glacial till. Over time, seemingly small movements of rocks across the planet by tourists, geologists, and collectors, will likely have a large scale impact on the global distribution of rocks. This slowly enacted (or absentminded) aesthetic terraforming is evidence of  many individuals having a magnetic attraction to particular stones, whether for their beauty, peculiarity, smoothness, roughness, or other interesting features. The stones that people find appealing have become more mobile than the stones we take no interest in.

Outside of gemstones and minerals, it is difficult to identify what will make an “ordinary” stone attractive. In his “third critique,” Kant proposed that the existence of beauty proves that an objective reality really does exist.13 A simplified version of his argument is that, when we look at a landscape and see it as  beautiful, we believe that it should be beautiful not only for us, but for anyone who looks on it. It follows then that we must be looking at the same landscape and therefore the world cannot be an invention of the human mind. Rocks, however, address a different form of aesthetic appreciation, not quite “beautiful” in the Kantian sense, but also more than simply “agreeable.” While the appreciation of rocks could be argued to be universal, the reasons for their particular appeal is more individualistic. There is typically nothing about the rock I choose from a pebble-ridden shoreline that attracts my travelling companion; conversely, I cannot appreciate the stones that my companion finds attractive. There should be nothing particular that interests me about that stone, but there is also no assumption that it would be universally pleasing.

Orcas rubbing their bellies on a beach near Sointula. Courtesy of Jukin Meida.
This subjective form of non-human relation is further extended in Kerri Reid’s Souvenirs (Sointula) to include orcas, who also show a preference for the stones from the particular beach where Reid collected her souvenirs. And like Weiner’s dispersed cairn, Reid’s collected stones are returned into the environment that they were collected from. So, while commenting on these acts of small geological movement, Reid herself often undoes her interventions, retaining only reproductions (photographic and sculptural) as mementoes to momentary relations with stones, location, and whales.
A man (the artist, Jimmie Durham) is holding a stone in front of his face, almost a perfect mirror of the shape of his head, it completely obscures his face.
Jimmie Durham, Self-Portrait Pretending to be a Stone Statue of Myself, 2006. C-print mounted on dibond. Image courtesy of the artist.
In this human–lithic–orca enmeshment, Reid evokes the relational capacities of rocks rather than only their representational potential or role as manipulated material. The representational aspects of the work (the photographs and ceramic copies) do not refigure the stones into something else, but, rather, foreground the stone as it appears and where it comes from. Stone is not material but subject. This approach to “stone as stone” has a lineage in the work of Jimmie Durham, whose practice prefigures the way stones are handled in much of contemporary art today. While Michelangelo mythically stated that “every block of stone has a statue in it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it,” Durham’s work critiques the impulse to sculpt stones into statues that resemble us. He emphasizes the communicative potential already present in the stone. In Self-portrait Pretending to be a Stone Statue of Myself, the stone is stone, and the artist is pretending.
Two lava rocks with colorful strata projected onto them with a backdrop of the remainder of the video showing colors emiting from the silhouettes of the rocks
Egill Sæbjörnsson, Pleasure Stones, 2008. Lava rocks, single-channel video; 7 minutes. Private collection.
This gesture is not entirely against anthropomorphization, but resists restructuring stone into strictly human likenesses.
Egill Sæbjörnsson’s Pleasure Stones and Lucy Tasseor Tutsweetok’s sculptures also look for human-like characteristics in stones, but they too resist attempting to turn them into non-stones. Tasseor’s minimal approach to sculpting resists representing life, and instead spurs the imagination by accentuating the life that is already in the stone.
six rocks in a vitrine with subtle little faces carved into them

Lucy Tasseor Tutsweetok, MOTHER WITH CHILDREN; MOTHER AND CHILDREN; FACES; MOTHER AND CHILD; GROUP OF PEOPLE; FAMILY, late 1970s to early 1990s. Carved stone. Courtesy of Feheley Fine Arts.

While these works may appear symptomatic of our inability to think outside of our own experience as humans, I believe that they instead reach towards a more honest representation of stone, one which embraces our own limitations for ontological consideration. In his influential essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” American philosopher Thomas Nagel argues that we cannot think outside of our own condition of being human. Therefore we can never truly understand what it is like to be a bat, but only what it’s like to be a human imagining what it is like to be a bat.14 While there is certainly some validity to this argument, it has also led towards the dismissal of contemplating the non-human in certain strands of Western philosophy, fuelling anthropocentric worldviews that privilege human consciousness over the independent existence of an “outside” world.

In his book Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing, Ian Bogost suggests that although we can never understand what it’s like to be a bat, it is the job of philosophy to speculatewhat it might be like.15 Bogost privileges the word speculate, because speculation is the philosopher’s primary tool for accessing knowledge. Bogost suggests that Nagel’s thought experiment failed not because we cannot imagine what it’s like to be a bat, but simply because the metaphors he used weren’t particularly good. The task of speculating what it is like to be a bat, or a stone, is not an easy one, and thus making metaphors out of more familiar experiences is perhaps a necessary step. This speculative approach to philosophy, as well as other new materialist philosophies, has a precedent in indigenous epistemologies—particularly when it comes to understandings of rocks.

In response to Western critiques that indigenous ontologies are anthropocentric, Osage writer George Tinker challenges the assumption that “being-ness” means “like a human,” saying, “You are the ones who are actually anthropocentric. You believe that everything in the world works differently from yourselves.”16 Being-ness in this sense is not an exclusively human trait, but one shared by human and stone. By looking to our shared sense of being-ness, we can find commonality despite the vast differences in our relative senses of being.

But even if we see rocks as beings, this form of being-ness still sits outside of our usual capacities for comprehension and experience. In fact, rocks are sometimes interesting precisely because they exceed our own limitations. Tinker writes, “as the oldest and wisest of all life forms, then, rocks are to be deeply respected as a category but especially as persons. They are the source of all life on the planet, and they continue to generously give themselves for maintaining all life.”17
reddish grey dust airborne in front of a black backdrop
Nicholas Mangan, A World Undone, 2012. HD video, silent; 12 minutes. Video still courtesy of the artist.
As representative of “deep” or “geological” time, rocks often conjure contemplation of time on a scale that strains our capacity for comprehension, requiring supplementary input from our imagination to arrive at a truer understanding of the rock. “Deep time” of this sort, can be witnessed in Nicholas Mangan’s A World Undone, which depicts 4.4-billion-year-old disaggregated zircon, floating against a black backdrop in a video slowed to 1/100 time. The scene looks positively cosmic, conjuring impressions of the period of “intense meteor bombardment” during which this zircon was born, about 150 million years after the formation of Earth.18
Spring Hurlbut, wearing a surgical mask, opens a box that emits airborne particles against a black backdrop
Spring Hurlbut, Airborne, 2008, Running time: 19:40, Format: Video loop. Image courtesy of Georgia Sherman Projects and the Artist.
A World Undone conjures a macro–micro entanglement of our historical and future relationship with stone. With its reference to mining and scientific study, it evokes an image of the origins of the Earth, disaggregated in the service of measurement and manufacturing. In close proximity to Hurlbut’s images with cremated remains, the spectral, floating dust reminds us of our own material and ethereal makeup.
Installation shot of Swallow All the Brain, detail of one humidifier on a concrete plinth, with a fossil pluginging the nozzle.
Jason de Haan, Swallow all the Brain, 2015. Brachiopod, clam, and ammonite fossils, ultrasonic humidifiers, cast aggregate concrete plinths.
A different act of disaggregation can be seen in Jason de Haan’s Swallow All the Brain, where fossils of various ages are vaporized through the use of a household humidifier—de Haan’s disaggregation, however, happens in the gallery rather than in a lab or studio. Contrary to the best practices of museums for the preservation of matter, de Haan’s fossils are subjected to heightened levels of humidity, causing ancient particles to be lifted from fossils into the air, circulated through the environment and the lungs and bodies of the viewers. This destructive act of revitalization counteracts the evidentiary solidity of the fossil; it is a time machine, accelerating the passage of time to undo million-year-old stasis’s through subtle intervention, lateralizing “stones”19 from different epochs. By inhaling the particles, the viewer is given an intimately tactile and asynchronous relationship with matter.

In a lecture entitled “The Wreckage of Time and the Persistence of Things: Preserving the Value of Genuineness,” aesthetic philosopher Carolyn Korsmeyer suggested that ancient artifacts carry an “age value,” which, for example, can be experienced when one visits ancient Roman roads and is able to walk on the same stones that early Romans did.20 She suggests that the possibility of verifying the presence of genuine artifacts through tactile encounter provides an experience that holds value over an imitation (although she says actual physical contact is not required; only the potential for it is).21

I would equate this type of aesthetic transformation through age value to how my appreciation for a decorative boulder vastly increases after I read the commemorative plaque that states it is 3 billion years old. Although I undergo no objective change and neither does the boulder, my understanding of the boulder goes through a metaphysical shift; it is no longer ubiquitous matter, but a witness to times untold. This type of experiential transformation could be described as the materialization of a concept. While we can have an abstract understanding that Western human civilizations walked the earth thousands of years ago, actually walking on the same stones that they placed makes the knowledge more real; it allows us to reach back in time, stretching oneself from one moment across millennia through physical relation rather than conceptual consideration. In de Haan’s work, this de-mineralization of time is literalized and internalized, letting out an essence that is less reliant on surface, and dependent on material relation.
Installation shot of Phenomenology, 92 tall wooden stakes, each with a strip of white muslin attached to them, with a shelf sitting in the middle containing two indistinct objects
Bonnie Devine, Phenomenology, 2015. Chunk of gneiss, 92 hardwood stakes draped in muslin, and sample of uranium.
Another direct reference to the power of the presence of stones can be seen in Bonnie Devine’s Phenomenology. Bridging Anishinaabe understandings of the Manitou (spirit) within stones and Western scientific/industrial understandings of radioactivity, Devine makes manifest our immaterial relationship with the material presence of stones, and with the energy they emit. For Phenomenology, Devine places a sample of uranium alongside a stone collected from an abandoned sulphuric uranium processing plant near her home, Serpent River, Ontario—an area littered with uranium mining and processing facilities. Devine’s work evokes the power of the stone to inspire respect for its known and unknown properties.
A ghostly radiogram of a rock, hung from two copper bars bent into a corner, lit by a bare LED bulb hanging from the ceiling
Susanne Kriemann, Untitled (nuclear), 2013. Inkjet on Hahnemühle Photo Rag 308 gr.
Susanne Kriemann’s Unitled (Nuclear) also materializes these invisible properties, but does so without the physical presence of stone. Kriemann exposed photographic paper to a radioactive chunk of gadolinite in complete darkness for two weeks to create a radiograph. The paper absorbed the particles emitted through the process of radioactive decay. Like the spirit photography of the late 19th century, Kriemann’s work captures a spectral portrait of the immaterial essence surrounding a stone. Exhibited alongside products and processes that utilize gadolinium (a common material used in LED lights and smartphone screens) and also next to a photograph of a boulder supposedly placed as a commemoration to artist Robert Smithson, Kriemann asks us to question our bodily and sensual relationship with the object, feeling its presence in relation to the viewer, inspiring us to feel, see, and respect its invisible qualities.
While the surface of the Roman road marks the footfalls of countless marches, the stone is witness to more than just this erosion. Stones have history inscribed within them as much as they do on their surface: they are pressed in sequential layers, ordered according to geological movement, environmental forces, human intervention, and chemical interactions. By registering these experiences, stones carry a unique impression of the world that radiates outwards.

The unique impression embedded within a rock is entirely dependent upon its context:  The relativity of the identities of rocks is evident when we consider Marcelo Moscheta’s stones collected from the U.S.–Canada border; Kerri Reid’s souvenirs; the Makapansgat Pebble; or Susanne Kriemann’s industrial specificity. Like human identity, rocks exist as multiplicities. A rock may be simultaneously a conglomerate of minerals; a collection of atoms; a fragment of some other, larger rock; a paper weight; a weapon; a sacred or cultural object; a metaphysical mirror; a concept; and simply a rock. Its makeup is the result of interactions among gasses, liquids, and solids; culture and ideology; temperature and pressure; time and movement. Rocks are known for being solid and unchanging, and yet they are also malleable and versatile. A vase may cease to be a vase when it is broken, but a smashed rock becomes more rocks until it is dust—and then it aggregates and becomes rock again. We come from rocks and we become rocks.

The artworks I have discussed are often simultaneously rocks, stones, and dust. They oscillate between states, in abstract relation to human existence. If, as Ian Bogost argues, it is indeed the task of philosophy to speculate about what it is like to be other than human, then it would be the task of the artist to inspire such speculation (rather than undertake it for the viewer/reader).22 And in that speculative journey, the stone makes a perfect travelling companion, to carry with us as a spur to affect and contemplation as it looks back at us in our reflections on—and relations with—being in the world outside of solely human being.

Author's bio:

John G. Hampton is the curator of Rocks, Stones, and Dust. He is the Aboriginal Curator in Residence at the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery and University of Toronto Art Centre, and the Artistic Director of Trinity Square Video. Hampton holds a Masters in Visual Studies – Curatorial Studies from the University of Toronto. His recent research has focused on humourous minimalism, attentive aesthetics, virtuality, decentered identity politics in queer and aboriginal art, and the ontologies of stones.


1 "manuport." OED Online. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. Web. 23 Sept. 2015.

2 In an email exchange with me, Robert G. Bednarik, an expert on early rock art and the Makapansgat Pebble, clarified that, despite being known as the Makapansgat Pebble or the Pebble of Many Faces, the stone is actually classified as a cobble, since it is “above the pebble grade” of granulometric classification.

3 Bednarik, Robert G. “The Earliest Evidence of Paleoart.” Rock Art Research 20.2 (2003): 89–135. Print.

4 Kleiner, Fred S. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: A Global History, 13th ed. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2009. Print

5 Watson, Ben. “The Eyes Have It: Human Perception and Anthropomorphic Faces in World Rock Art.” Antiquity 85.327 (2011): 87–98. Web. 23 Sept. 2015.

6 Shaviro, Steven. “Consequences of Panpsychism.” The Nonhuman Turn. Ed. Richard Grusin. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2015. Kindle file.

7 Tinker, George. “The Stones Shall Cry Out: Consciousness, Rocks, and Indians.” Wicazo Sa Review 19.2 (2004): 105–125. Print.

8 Cohen, Jerome Jeffrey. Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2015. Kindle file.

9 Bryant, Levi R. The Democracy of Objects. London: Open Humanities P, 2011. Web. 5 July 2015.

10 Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman.

11 FASTWÜRMS, artist’s statement for C.A.T. (Core Affect Traffic), 2015. Print.

12 Deloria, Vine. “Relativity, Relatedness, and Reality.” Spirit & Reason: The Vine Deloria, Jr., Reader. Eds. Barbara Deloria, Kristen Foehner, and Sam Scinta. Golden, CO: Fulcrum, 1999. 32–39. Print.

13 Kant, Immanuel. Kant’s Critique of Judgement. Trans. J. H. Bernard. 2nd ed. London: Macmillan, 1914. Print.

14 Nagel, Thomas. “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” Philosophical Review 83 (October): 435–450, 1974. Print.

15 Bogost, Ian. Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2012. Print.

16 Tinker, George. “The Stones Shall Cry Out: Consciousness, Rocks, and Indians.”

17 Ibid.

18 Helen Hughes and Nicholas Mangan, as quoted in Hughes, Helen. “Vertical Histories: Nicholas Mangan’s A World Undone.” Hopkinson Mossman. Hopkinson Mossman, 2012. Web. 6 Feb. 2015.

19 “Stones” is used rather imprecisely here, but the classification of fossils or petrified matter as stones is not without historical precedence. For example, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has also noted that “Many objects that classical and medieval authors listed as stones we would now separate as organic products (seashells, gastroliths, fossils).” Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman.

20 Korsmeyer, Carolyn. “The Wreckage of Time and the Persistence of Things: Preserving the Value of Genuineness.” Metaphysics and Epistemology Group. University of Toronto. 9 Apr. 2015. Lecture.

21 The value of this experience would also be reliant on the knowledge that the object was genuine, and could be undermined by learning that this knowledge was incorrect.

22 Bogost, Ian. Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing.