Steph Mann Image 3 MAP web

Thinking about Mann’s work, I can’t stop thinking about digging and therefore about moles. Paolozzi’s tiles were once installed underground, then dug out as Crossrail burrowed its way under London. The key materials of plaster—gypsum, lime, or cement—must be quarried from the earth. A geode is a formation inside sedimentary or volcanic rock. A graptolite is a fossil, which, etymologically, means something that has been dug up. In a way, Mann’s worksreturn all these things to the earth: dust to dust, as the funeral service has it. Their titles too remain, in Mann’s word, ‘encrypted’: buried under ground. Maybe that’s why the mole keeps burrowing through my mind: in the language of zoology a mole is a fossorial—an animal evolutionarily adapted to dig.

An archive or the collection of a museum or university is traditionally a dark place. This is often literally true: certain objects, documents or artworks require low light levels for their effective preservation. But it is a metaphorical truth too: a university collection is housed away from the glare of public scrutiny. Set aside for students and researchers, the collection calls for scholarship (or, in the case of the Talbot Rice Gallery residency programme, art) to shed light upon it. If the museum stores are therefore places of darkness and dust (underground, crypt-like places), the museum galleries by contrast are like cathedrals: light, airy and grandly gilded, full of sunshine (weather permitting) flooding in from, in the case of Talbot Rice Gallery, a trio of glass ceiling domes.

Mann’s project navigates these two zones (the surface and the underground). She has dug tunnels through the collection, forged links between people and objects. These tunnels form a legacy, a series of traces that remain beyond the time of the residency itself. There is a suggestion that Mann’s four sculptures will be purchased by the university collections. If this goes ahead then the geodes and the bust, the broken tiles and the graptolitewill have undergone a process of institutionalre-evaluation.In a way, they will have been re-accessioned, stashed inside rocks to be smuggled back inside. From within the collection to outwith and back again: across borders both porous and bureaucratically policed.


In many ways, what Mann is doing is what happens out there in the world already, as it were, naturally.

Sandstone is formed through a two-part process of sedimentation and compaction caused by pressure and time. By turning objects into powder and placing them inside rock, her act of transformation is not so different: technology increases the pressure, reduces the timescale by a few million years.

A graptolite is a type of colonial organism: a cluster of microorganisms growing together on or within a solid medium. Linnaeus, who named the genus Graptolithus in 1735, regarded them as ‘pictures resembling fossils rather than true fossils’. [1] The name means something like ‘written in rock’. Mann describes graptolites to me as ‘apartment blocks’ along a kind of shared ‘spine’. Existing together as composite entities, these colonial organisms trouble tired-out distinctions between the individual and the community, between singular and plural. As filter feeders, they drink in the water around them, trapping and ingesting tiny particles of food. The process that the graptolite enacts is therefore not so different to that enacted by the work of art. The rock imbibes the graptolite like the graptolite once imbibed the world—through a straw.

For me, this realisation creates a dizzying, fractal-like effect. A graptolite (itself a conglomerate) filters particles, becomes over time part of the rock; the rock is extracted and relocated, becomes part of a university collection; it is then turned once more to powder, inserted into a porous rock, becomes part of an artwork, and is placed (potentially) back inside the collection. One thing within another to infinite regress.

The resulting vertigo is not only spatial but temporal. The object (and living things—plants, humans, zoonotic diseases—are each also assemblages of objects) exists in a state of flux, if that phrase is not, after all, a contradiction in terms. Bennett describes materiality ‘…as a protean flow of matter-energy ‘and ‘the thing as relatively composed form of that flow’. [2]

An object then is a kind of momentary gathering: one body inside another. Within each gathering is another, and another. And somewhere inside it all waits the name—coy, still obscured, playing its own game of hide-and-seek.


An idea: if the university collection is a slice of the earth, could we imagine the artist as a kind of mole, digging slowly, laboriously through the soil? The work of art is then not only the tunnels created within the structure of the substrate but also the molehills—all that material pushed up to the surface for us to peer at, the visible manifestations of hidden labour.

Does that make the curator an earthworm?

The gallery is a pristine lawn, so carefully tended. But all these molehills that are all of a sudden appearing… Somebody has called in the mole-catcher—oh god, is that me?

A Romanian myth tells that a mole helped god create the world with a ball of thread. But god fell asleep and the mole let the thread unspool too far so he ran away and hid underground in shame.

The mole’s solution was to squeeze the world, creating mountains and valleys to make the earth smaller so that it would fit underneath heaven.

There is soil all around us now.

Maybe the best thing is to keep digging.


Tom Jeffreys is a writer who lives in Edinburgh. He is especially interested in contemporary art that engages with environmental questions. His writing has appeared in publications including art-agenda, Art Review, Frieze, New Scientist and the World of Interiors. He is the author of two books: Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on Foot (Influx Press, 2017) and The White Birch: A Russian Reflection (Little, Brown, 2021). He is also editor of online magazine The Learned Pig.

Stephanie Mann (born 1990 in Dunfermline, lives and works in Edinburgh). Mann’s work has been presented at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, SWG3, Glasgow Sculpture Studios and Salon Gallery, Berlin. She is the recipient of the Andrew Grant Bequest Award, John Kinross Travel Scholarship and The John Watson Prize. She has been artist in residence at Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop, Ten Chances in Minneapolis USA, Snehta in Athens, Greece and the Edinburgh Art Festival Tourist in residence.



[2] Jane Bennett, ‘The Force of Things’, Political Theory, Vol. 32 No.3, June 2004


Things, tunnels, traces, thoughts, published in MAP in three parts, has also been made into a physical object (below), printed on 100% recycled paper, manufactured using post industrial waste. To receive a complimentary print, visit:

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