Steph Mann Image 2 MAP web

Stephanie sends me photographs, tells me stories from the collections: a type of tar feeding on the label that names it; rock quarantined in plastic; a 400-million year-old fossil, formed by the vast pressure of the sea, somehow damaged by a flood. I look through the images and I imagine that knowledge hides here somewhere—among packed shelves of green-bound periodicals or in drawers full of carefully catalogued secrets.

Each of Mann’s four sculptures is a piece of rock—porous sandstone, aesthetically ‘banal’, no larger than a head. Inside each rock Mann will have hidden something. One will house some chipped-off corners of tiles and parts of wall, once components of Eduardo Paolozzi’s mosaics for Tottenham Court Road station, installed underground in 1984. They were removed, not altogether cleanly, in 2015 and given a new home by Edinburgh University (Paolozzi studied at Edinburgh College of Art in 1943 and the university owns about 150 of his works). Another will become home to a plaster cast of a bust of an unknown man. The third will play host to a fossilised graptolite, an ancient filter-feeding organism, common across the world’s oceans for much of the Paleozooic era. The fourth will contain a collection of geodes that once sat in the office of an academic—each holding within it a hidden land of shimmering mineral wonder. Thinking about geodes reminds me of Jane Bennett again: ‘objects are coy,’ she writes, ‘always leaving hints of a secret other world… Objects play hide-and-seek.’ [1]A geode is a good choice.

In one sense, Mann’s work is very simple. To take one object and put it inside another might seem a trivial, everyday act—we do it all the time when we breathe or eat. But everyday acts are often complicated: the first food of every human is amniotic fluid, so what a pregnant woman tastes, her baby tastes too (across multiple membranes, one thing enters another, enters another). The process by which Mann incorporates the tiles and plaster and fossils inside the sandstone pieces is also very complex, almost as complex as breathing or eating.

Each object will be subjected to a process of grinding using a machine owned by the University’s School of Geosciences. The machine, a McCrone micronising mill, uses pellets of synthesised sapphire to grind things into a fine dust. The Paolozzi fragments, the plaster bust,the graptolite and the geodes will each be ground down into particles as small as onemicron. By comparison, a human red blood cell is about seven microns in diameter [2]and the SARS-CoV-2 virus particle somewhere between 0.06 microns and 0.14. [3]In subjecting objects to this process, Mann asks what new possibilities might arise when something is disassembled into its component part(icle)s. Does a loss of visible form and apparent solidity result in a potential for transformation or redistribution? At that scale, these particles could be taken up by plant roots or inhaled by humans. They are small enough to pass through the body’s barriers in the nose and throat and enter right into the lungs, potentially all the way to the alveoli.[4]

The elaborate nature of this process suggests that, despite its apparent simplicity, Mann’s work is in fact endlessly complex. It complicates the very possibility of ends. For one thing, her choice of objects, guided by the teams within different departments in the university collections, has been very careful. Discussions have invariably touched upon what Ann Laura Stoler has described as ‘the politics of storage’. [5] This politics traverses the lifespan of objects: from how they came to be in a collection in the first place, to the criteria upon which some things are considered worth saving for the future and others deemed disposable. University collections tend to value objects that can be used for teaching, but who decides the hierarchy and how?

Even the most lavishly resourced and carefully catalogued collections are full of dusty things—objects that serve no apparent purpose with histories that exist only in memories. How did this even get here? Nobody remembers now. Once you’re in, however, it’s hard to get out. De-accessioning is a complicated, bureaucratic (and therefore also political) process; often objects must be cared for even if they no longer serve a purpose or in fact never did. There are systems in place that staff must follow. It begs the question sometimes: who has greater agency—the objects or the people supposedly in charge of them?

Geode, graptolite, bust and tiles: once ground up, the four resulting piles of dust will be absorbed into the porous cavities of the four sandstone rocks. The objects will have been inhaled like air, or perhaps imbibed like squash. ‘A lot of porous sandstone contains tunnels, or channels, kind of like drinking straws,’ said Mann in conversation with Talbot Rice Gallery curator James Clegg. If a thing can be ground to dust and absorbed inside another, we have to start to think about where a thing begins and ends, and how we could ever possibly know for sure.

Later in their conversation, James asks about the ethics of destroying objects and artworks. Mann pushes back: ‘I’m seeing the process more as a recycling, than as destruction,’ she says. ‘The work is still there; it’s just in a different form.’ Later, she clarifies what she means: ‘In saying this, I am detaching from human emotion or neutralising the language to focus more on the material process… Another word for recycling could be “rearranging”.’

By insisting that ‘the work is still there’, Mann asks us to think hard about what we cherish, why we (as individuals, as institutions) collect objects, how we lavish precious resources upon their care and conservation, and why, in overstretched departments, ‘care’ occasionally means leaving things in cardboard boxes in basements vulnerable to flooding. What exactly is it that we are trying to conserve? Materials or culture; the thing or the tales we tell about the thing. Can one exist without the other? And, if we cannot care for the objects we have, why are we always making more?


Biographies for author and artist can be found at the end of Part Three (see below).


[1] Jane Bennett, ‘Systems and Things: A Response to Graham Harman and Timothy Morton’ in New Literary History, 2012, 43

[2] Mary Louise Turgeon, Clinical Hematology: Theory and Procedures, 1988

[3] Marco Cascella, Michael Rajnik, Arturo Cuomo, Scott C. Dulebohn, Raffaela Di Napoli, ‘Features, Evaluation, and Treatment of Coronavirus’

[4] John M. Cimbala, lecture notes 28thFebruary 2014

[5] Ann Laura Stoler, ‘On the Content in the Form’ in Refiguring the Archive (ed. Caroline Hamilton), 2002