Saturday, 6 April 2013

The Dolorous Stroke: A Sculptural Exploration of Story

Well, this has been one of my more stressful weeks this year. It was, after all, the last week of classes, and for an Art student that means putting the final touches on all manner of projects. There is one that I am particularly proud of; if you care to stick around for a bit you can read about it!

This was my last sculpture piece of the year, created for a class I have struggled greatly in and for which my grades have suffered. This piece was an interesting endeavour, being the first time that this particular prof has ever actively engaged my interest in storytelling and challenged me to push myself in the way my work translates the narrative. That was the big word for this one: Translation. My prof handed me a many-page interview from BOMB magazine with a contemporary sculptor named Matthew Ritchie, and it blew my mind wide open. This guy was brilliant, like a sculptural Jack Kirby, talking about mythologies, systems of interpretation, pantheons of gods he had created just so he could tell their stories. It helped me grasp the idea of translation, this concept that when you translate from one narrative dimension to the next things are going change. Like when you translate something from Greek to French, the meaning is there but the form has changed; some words have turned into two words, and some phrases have been condensed into just a few syllables. Things are lost, and new things are grown. A story begins as an idea, and then you write it down. It changes a little even then, making the journey from thought to word on page. Then the story enters the world of visual interpretation, and it changes again. The first drawings don't have to be perfectly descriptive; a scene described in the story might be drawn as a tree that represents a theme, branches and forks and twisting roots of a convoluted narrative that is ultimately about connection with nature. Further, a sculpture of that story doesn't have to be a tree. It could be something completely different, because it's been translated. With all this in mind I started looking at my own stories and began translating them from page to steel.

My previous post showcased the comic strip that had consumed my time for the last several weeks. That story must remain, in large, a secret for the time being, but I can reveal a piece. The bulk of the story takes place in a time contemporary to ours, but in an alternate timeline. History has taken a different path beginning in 1962, an event that we know as the Cuban Missile Crisis but which transpired differently in this other world. Now, I have (and very recently) referenced my friend Jason Tondro in this blog, and I will do so again. In his book Superheroes of the Round Table he talks about a genre trope in Arthurian literature known as "The Dolorous Stroke". I shall attempt to paraphrase the story, so bear with me. There is a king named Pellam in the time of King Arthur who has in his personal collection of ancient weapons the spear that pierced Christ on the cross. This king also has a brother, a dishonourable knight with a peculiar power: he can turn himself invisible, and he uses this power to kill other, innocent, knights. These acts draw the vengeful attention of one Sir Balin le Sauvage, and Balin vows to avenge the fallen knights. He makes his way to Pellam's castle, refusing to leaves his weapons at the door. He marches directly into the banquet hall and slays the evil knight with a single blow. The king is less than pleased at this this, and battle breaks out. Balin finds himself with a broken sword, being pursued through the castle by Pellam, and in desperation grabs the first weapon at hand: a spear. Or rather, the spear. He hefts the ancient weapon and strikes down the king; this is The Dolorous Stroke. The castle collapses around them, people are slain, and Pellam's kingdom goes to waste. The spear struck the king in the groin, and when the king is rendered infertile so is his land. Jason (talking about comics here) sums up the symbolism of The Stroke as the "single, awful moment in history which breaks the entire universe and introduces cruelty, illness, and evil...the creation of nuclear power and the splitting of the atom becomes, for [Grant] Morrison, a symbol of all that is wrong with the planet. What follows in the wake of the Dolorous Stroke is the awfulness of the Wasteland, the corrupted world." For me, it all came back to 1962. The story I was writing had a Dolorous Stroke too, I realized. I was calling it "The Cuban Nuclear Event".

I had a wasteland-creating turning point in my own work of creative fiction, and it was the sort of happy accident that gets a guy like me really excited about the possibilities at hand. I also had a new friend and weapon to my cause: translation. So I set about researching The Stroke and searching for ways to translate my story through it. In the end, my piece didn't look anything like what I had expected, or like anything else I've created really. It's certainly the most phallic thing I've ever made. The bulk of the the piece is steel, varying widths of rod wound together and welded, coated with ragged beads of wire weld and then ground smooth to create the surface texture. I decided from the beginning to take the symbol of the spear, the most obvious part of the whole story of The Stroke, and run with it. I made myself a leaf-shaped spearhead, and sat, and looked at it for a while. It wasn't anything remotely like the Roman weapon Christ would have been impaled on, but for once in my life I didn't care about historical accuracy. I just need a signifier. So I began, bit by bit, to build onto the spear, lengthening it, and wondering where it was going to go. In the end it turned into genitalia, the loins of the king. Those loins were at one point going to take the form of Uranium atoms, but my patience with other materials ran thin and I went back to steel, my comfort zone. Mounting the whole thing on a wooden plaque may have been the best finishing touch I could have given the piece. That connection to Christ, and the fact that Pellam is the steward of The Grail (something I failed to mention earlier) is suddenly very clear; the whole thing took on the aspect of a crucifix  the sort you might find hanging in a house or on the wall of a small chapel. The connection to my own story isn't really present, except in my own mind. The Uranium atoms never did make it to the final product. But I'm not terribly worried; the piece as it stands is a translation of the Dolorous Stroke as a concept, rather than representing a specific moment from a specific story, and it's easier to grasp that way.

I was out yesterday evening and asked several times over the course of the night what it was that I am studying. I always feel obliged to tell that I'm studying illustration, but that it's difficult to call steel sculpture "illustration"; so, I'm studying storytelling. This is exactly the sort of thing I mean. "Illustration" is thought of as belonging to the book arts, but this crafted piece of metal hanging on a wall is as focused on narrative as any of the pieces in my sketchbook. It's the beginning of a road to illustrative sculpture, to further exploration of Translation, and to becoming a better storyteller.

 "Make good art."
- Neil Gaiman