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Time and Tide, May Barrie

24 November 2009
Michael Hill

Sculpture by the Sea website


Late one evening as a storm approached, I caught a revealing glimpse of the rock. The silver light hit it directly, glazing the two concavities with a sheen, while the rough surface around was made soft by countless tiny shadows. The work seemed to be modelled in reflection and shadow, what the Greeks called skiagraphy. In the past, sculptors might finish their carving at night, modulating the surface with a claw chisel under the direction of an oil lamp. I imagined that the vision I had had at that moment might be projected onto its execution, a work carved in the course of days, the sun shining full face on the carving only at sunset.

Slowness is a key, working day after day, working material of such hardness that the process as much as the form embodies the title's proverb, "Time and tide and wait for no man" - everything changes, even apparently changeless ones. Granite is an igneous stone, but unlike the tufa that burst through the air, granite was the magma that failed to escape the volcano, its heat expansion checked by compression, resulting in stone of unequalled density. The Egyptians used black diorite, the hardest of all, for statues that might survive immortality. Granite is difficult to undercut with traditional tools, which May Barrie still prefers. Instead the stone is undulated, as if weathered by hand. Scalloped and polished, Barrie's stone is transformed into something that looks malleable, while remaining flint sharp and crystalline at its edges and backside. Bernini dreamed of marble that seemed like wax - that is, a material that could be moulded. Imagine, a sculptor shaping metamorphic rock with his hands alone. Barrie goes one better, imprinting on granite, which by comparison makes marble look friable, the curvatures of the palm of a hand. Not the sculptor's hand, but that of the personification of creativity, what some might call the divine. Time and Tide expresses the poetic meaning of sculptural matter, treading the line between nature and artifice, a doubly complicated stance because nature is filled with its own art (crystals patterns and colours, for example), while in turn art strives to remake natural complexity. Time and Tide is unfinished, of course. How could it be otherwise?

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