Material Study #1: Skin, Concrete & Stone

Hello! I bet you thought I forgot about you. Did you forget about me too? I think before this exchange we are about to have, it is worth taking respective pause to consider all that’s been lost, gained and remained the same since we last connected.

Dali Museum, Theater & Crypt, Figueres Spain

Dali Museum, Theater & Crypt, Figueres Spain

On a quick internet search, I come to understand the possibility that we have become completely different people...almost. In humans with non-injured tissues, cells will regenerate over time with each part of the body carrying out this operation at a different speed. For example stomach cells regenerate in 2-9 days but cells of the central nervous system can take a lifetime to repopulate, making this form of disease a continued challenge to cure(1). This process of renewal, restoration and growth is one that healthy individuals are generally unconscious of except when hair falls out, dry skin or dandruff flakes onto another surface or a cut heals. I also learn fittingly that “ elongates at about 1 cm per month while fingernails grow at about 0.3 cm per month which is about the same speed as the continental spreading in plate tectonics that increases the distance between North America and Europe.” This means I will have 9 more centimeter of hair when I return to Chicago in June.

On this topic I am reminded of an anecdote my childhood friend provided after an 8 day hike of Mount Kilimanjaro: “I forgot about the weird things our bodies do when we don’t tend to them. For example when I got home and brushed my hair, handfuls of it came out because I hadn’t touched it in so long which was jarring and made me feel estranged from myself. I was most surprised to find out later what my body was doing while I was occupied with a new level of self preservation and survival(2).” (insert unintended Kristeva shout out for my fellow art theorists because we’ve all made a piece about it at some point).

Sloan Neitert, Fellow Fulbrighter & Math Genius

Sloan Neitert, Fellow Fulbrighter & Math Genius

I’ve taken lots of field notes on my 10 weeks of travel, many of which have been captured with a 35mm camera and abbreviated by way of Instagram. As you might expect there is one store to buy film and one lab to develop and print in Budapest, neither of which establishment I am able to speak good enough Hungarian to navigate in, removing me further from this already mystical process and rendering the outcome all the more exciting.  I will try only to post images from this source on this platform.

I’m living in an old place with a super complicated history of what I interpret as simultaneous oppression and wonder. This is not my home but I feel eerily at home here. Archeologists use a technique called a ‘search image’ to motivate the long and tedious hours of digging until something is found. This means holding a mental image in the front of the mind consistently which can be akin to various forms of meditation, repeated mindfulness activities or physical endurance exercise. The idea is that you keep a part of your brain and body busy so the rest of you can wander and gain insight on what move to make next (I recommend entering David Lynch’s creativity building meditation pool, cautiously and one toe at a time(3). It also makes the passing of time more enjoyable and is not unlike my experience of maintaining a studio art practice. Please don’t forget that your practices can be whatever you want them to be; I view my own as a puzzle, a mediation and a gift.

A portion of my research here is on ancient architecture and construction methods, specifically the evolution of materials used and how that influenced developments in architecture. For example, when ancient Romans perfected their proprietary recipe of concrete in 273 BC, they were able to cast it into blocks, allowing for desired shapes to be made as opposed to found stone that had to be broken up or chiseled down into buid-able shapes. The latter required more manual labor and provided less flexibility in final form. The amazing thing about this concrete is that it was made of stone rubble, lime, sand, pozzolana (volcanic ash) and seawater. This combination of unlikely natural materials strengthens over time, meaning that the concrete has more structural integrity than it did when it was poured which is how one finds stray, standing columns around this fine city. The use of concrete blocks then allowed for the arch and dome design and more open interior spaces, rendering columns as possibly just decorative. Many of these constructions remain standing for two primary reasons: the obvious one being that they were built well and less obviously that some spaces (in the city of Rome especially) were continually repurposed because they were desirable to inhabit and well maintained over the last 2,000 years. I should mention that concrete was actually used first on a minor scale in Mesopotamia but the Romans perfected and conquered the world with their version of it.

Aquincum Museum, Budapest Hungary

Aquincum Museum, Budapest Hungary

I can’t mention concrete without letting you in on the fun fact that a Hungarian Aron Losonczi invented transparent concrete in 2001 and it is currently available through the company Litracon(4). Now to fully understand the importance of this material development, I will back up to quickly define natural building materials in a way that no one likely has for you since grade school: pieces of rock that are a mass of hard, compacted mineral. There are three forms of them as explained below:

Igneous rocks are formed when melted rock cools and solidifies. Melted rock may come in the form of magma, when it is found underneath the Earth's surface. It can also come in the form of lava, when it is released unto the Earth's surface during a volcanic eruption.

Sedimentary are formed by the deposition and subsequent cementation of mineral or organic particles on the floor of oceans or other bodies of water at the Earth's surface.

Metamorphic arise from the transformation of existing rock types, in a process called metamorphism, which means "change in form". The original rock is subjected to heat (temperatures greater than 150 to 200 °C) and pressure (100 megapascals (1,000 bar) or more), causing profound physical or chemical change. The protolith may be a sedimentary, igneous, or existing metamorphic rock(5).

I find it essential to address the concept of time when talking about rocks, through which we have already brushed the surface of our skin. The igneous form materializes quickly at the moment lava hits the air in our atmosphere where it immediately hardens and begin its life as a rock(6). Conversely, sedimentary is a long, slow process of composite building that does not understand time in the way our human bodies do. If you google ‘life of rock’ you will first find that the average lifespan of a rock star is an average of 20 years less than that of non rockstar. I am really enjoying thinking about the entire population in these binary terms of ‘rock star’ and ‘non rock star’ and feel slightly better about my quiet lifestyle. The oldest rocks found on Earth are remnants of crust from the planets infancy which are hard to come by because most of this material gets recycled into Earth’s interior by plate tectonics, continually shaping its surface. These 3.8 to 4.28 billion year old rocks were found in 2001 by geologists at the Nuvvuagittuq greenstone belt on the eastern shore of Hudson Bay in northern Quebec and remain the oldest found to date(7).

Empúries, Province of Girona Spain

Empúries, Province of Girona Spain

I’ve so far spent time at the multiple excavations including the Roman Aquincum sites in Budapest and Empuries in Girona Spain which is a unique combination of both Greek and Roman architecture within the same place. Since these ancient towns currently exist in a ruinous state, with exposed foundations and visible, tactile infrastructure, I find it hard to think of anything but the role of human hands in their construction and excavation, so much so that I have turned the traditional practice of weekend ‘people watching’ into something like ‘long term hand gazing.’ These piles of rocks are physical manifestations of time, human intellect and careful planning with a construction reliant on natural resources and human labor to fully realize functional capabilities. What hands extracted the stones from earth, transported and built walls made to stand from 575 BC into the future? Did they want to be doing it? I can’t answer that but what I know about those hands is that their epidermis skin cells regenerated in 10 - 30 days, just like ours do.

I have always thought about the similarities between art and archeology and sometimes joke that I should have taken the latter path. On a fundamental level they are both about discovery, one in creating and object that embodies a specific moment and the other about uncovering something about a specific time through an object. The comparison plays with human expression, compacting of time and narrative building in a way that is both confusing and comforting. I want to conclude by reminding you that this process of cell regeneration is what makes organisms (us) and ecosystems (everything) ‘resilient to natural fluctuations or events that cause disturbance or damage. It’s our most basic form of flexibility and biological defense against the world(8).’ So I as I continue my adventure, I’ll adapt this is as my search image in Hungary while wondering at what speed my emotional attachments are currently regenerating.



2: Erin Michelle Mary Mayfield Hansen Eliott




6: Kindly remember this reference to oxidation for a future post about Indigo dying

7: September 25 issue of the journal Science Magazine


Fieldnotes content including images and text is under copyright. Please ask if you would like to use material from this site.