Marble & Steel Room Divider

A few years ago I was invited to see the renovations a family friend had recently made to his house in Melbourne. He pointed out the large marble slabs in the garden and told me they were from China. While Italian marble is routinely imported into Australia because of its quality, my host informed me that Chinese marble is roughly the same quality as Australian marble and would not normally be imported due to cost and lack of competitive advantage. Except that, apparently, Australia exports so much coal to China that the boats used for coal offer cut price transport for materials coming back to Australia. Otherwise they would come back empty. Marble can be quarried in China cheaper than it can in Australia, so presumably this makes economic sense, despite the massive energy resources required to transport marble, a very heavy material, such a long way.
Assuming the veracity of this story, an economist might argue it makes perfect sense and is just an example of the functioning of the market. However, it strikes me as an example of the madness that has overtaken the market based economy.* We can, and should, question the true economics of it. That is, we should question the economic modelling which doesn’t consider the hidden costs to the environment, such as pollution. Yet, even without needing to do that, we should, on a very simple level, be able to perceive that shipping huge chunks of heavy rock huge distances to a place in which the same rock is found naturally is quite crazy. I’m really not sure we should consider such abuse of common sense, regardless of how legal it might be, how rich it makes someone or how much it can be qualified as an example of market efficiency. Of course, it can be hard to make common sense arguments sound coherent when contemporary capitalism has normalised even the most ridiculous excesses of the market economy **, but some don’t like to hear the more complicated arguments involving true costs either.
When I was asked by Andrew Simpson to contribute to the the fourth iteration of the Interpretations series of product design exhibitions, with the theme of ‘stone’, I was reminded of what I saw in the suburbs of Melbourne and realised I wanted to comment on this import system. Considering the nature of this particular polemic, I didn’t really want to exert my own influence on the market by buying freshly cut marble, but luckily I found a stone mason who was willing to offload some defective slabs in return for beer. This particular slab caught my eye, because unlike the other slabs which, for example, had chipped edges or other tricky flaws, this slab had a beautiful crack running right through the middle of it. It was repaired in the factory where it was originally cut by gluing on a fibreglass and epoxy backing sheet to hold the slab together. Such repairs are done because most customers use the slab for applications only showing one side. However, my stonemason had found this particular slab unpopular with customers and it had been rejected because the crack was too noticeable. I, obsessed as I am with repair and aleatory aesthetics, thought it beautiful. The crack, which divides the marble in two halves, suggested an application as a partition to divide space.

To become a room divider, the slab is mounted on a stainless steel frame and suspended via sailing hardware, an oblique reference to sea cargo. The slab is visible on both sides. On the back side, the fibreglass epoxy backing is partly ground off, to the minimum needed to hold the slab together. This produces a gradient between the raw slab and the backing where the gridded pattern of the backing is visible as an imprint. Its subtle and hard to see accurately in the photos, but in a way this is more interesting than the front which has a regular flat and honed finish. My intention with this work was reductive; every visual feature is stripped back to highlight the crack in the marble, so the work is more subdued than my usual approach.

However, the loosely tied cleats create visual/haptic tension, especially when viewed in public space. Unlike a knot which counteracts the tensile force with a kind of ‘stopping point’, the cleats can easily be untied in a few seconds with potentially dangerous results. This is sensed more when viewed in the gallery space, compared to the industrial workshop in which most of these photographs are taken, due the different way we assess the risk and safety profile of such spaces. In an industrial space, we are attuned to the movement of heavy objects, forklifts and power tools etc, so the threat of a falling slab of marble is modulated by that awareness. In a public space such as a gallery, this possibility is distinctly out of context and more threatening.

I write about these issues, and more, in an article for the journal Studio Research.

Marble, steel, epoxy-fibreglass composite mesh, silicone rubber, UHMWPE cord, pulleys and horn cleats.
1940 high x 976 wide x 990 long in mm.
This work was was exhibited at Object galleries in Sydney Australia, as part of the group show Interpretations 4: Stone from 27 February to 23 March 2013.
* For a discussion of how the market economy, a social tool, has, through excessive operation, formed a market society, see this article by Michael J. Sandel in the Atlantic.
** Sandel’s article above includes examples such as paying second graders to read books. I can think of many more odious example within the systems of product manufacturing and consumption. For example, the practice of shipping post-consumer electronic waste to developing countries for the metal parts to be extracted and sorted by the hands of the poor, often children.
Thanks to Neil Harvey and Henry Wilson for assistance with the industrial park photo-shoot.
Thanks to Dean McCartney for taking the two photos of the work in the photo-studio below. For these images I constructed a faux floorboard to simulate permanent domestic installation and, for future exhibition, coloured the feet in safety markings to heighten the perception of an industrial context.