An essay commissioned by artists Mario Popham and Tom Baskeyfield for their limited edition book, ‘Of Flesh and Stone‘ (2019), funded by Arts Council England. The project records the journey of slate from the hills of Wales to the roofs of Manchester as part of the duo’s wider study of the relationships between humans and natural and built environments. It was first presented in the form of an exhibition at HOME, Manchester in 2018.
Though hard and ridged to the touch, slate is a deceptively slippery material. Formed over thousands of years, it holds deep, geological time locked between its sedimentary layers; bridging past and present. Yet it is also bound-up within a far more recent, troubled human history. One of power and exploitation, coupled with pride and identity.
Of Flesh and Stone meditates upon the little spoken, yet inextricable connection between Manchester and the slate rich valleys of North Wales. It lingers in the vast quarries and labyrinthine mines where men once toiled in their thousands; working in poor conditions and for low pay to meet the first industrial city’s insatiable demand for material to roof its foundries, factories and terrace houses. It reflects upon the subsequent impact of the arrival of cheaper foreign imports from the 1960’s onwards, which saw many communities stripped of their former purpose and largely left behind. And it observes the gradual disappearance of natural slate from modern urban skylines, outpaced by the arrival of synthetic materials and the onward-march of progress.
The project is also a portrait of the people that continue to feed into the story today. Among Popham’s photographs we encounter a climber repopulating the desecrated, yet simultaneously beautiful landscape for the purpose of leisure; an Englishwoman who crossed the border from Manchester to Wales for a freer life, now spending her retirement living in a rural ex-workers cottage, peacefully gardening just a stone’s throw from the legacy waste heaps; and the artful ‘curation’ of the past by the nearby National Slate Museum (see the restaged remnants of a tea break in the workers’ caban, and the pair of boots carefully positioned at the foot of an old quarry hospital bed) in an attempt not only to preserve the area’s heritage, but to combat through tourism the vacuum that followed the industry’s decline.
Finally, Of Flesh and Stone is a portrait of slate itself; of the mass ubiquity of the material commandeered for human use, contrasted with the quiet elegance contained within any single slab. Abstracted against a coal-black background, the rippling contours and textures of each surface (captured through Baskeyfield’s embossed rubbings) highlight an entirely different, non-anthropocentric narrative; impervious to the transient conditions surrounding it. This is a body of work that speaks of time, scale and place; slowly unfolding through numerous pockets of meaning.