- Deep Blue Geomediations:Following Lapis Lazuli in Three Ecological Assemblages
Stones, like us, stand at the intersection of countless lines crossing one another and receding to infinity, at the center of a field of forces too unpredictable to be measured…(Yourcenar xix)
Mining the Blue Mountain: Matter-Flow of the Machinic Phylum
On my desk, next to my laptop, a small piece of lapis lazuli. My eye is captured by the intense blue from its most important component, the mineral lazurite. The stone also contains white calcite specks and some metallic glistering from its pyrite elements. Looking at the play of colors, feeling the weight and the surface of the rocky material, I am reminded of Marguerite Yourcenar's words at the end of her introduction to Caillois's The Writing of Stones when she invokes stones as force fields "at the intersection of countless lines crossing one another" (Yourcenar xix). And I wonder, what are the force fields and intersecting lines "receding to infinity" contained in this small piece of earthly material? How has this ultramarine blue become "the most perfect of all colors" (Cennini 36), as described by Cennini in his famous The Craftman's Handbook of the late Middle Ages? How has lapis lazuli traveled in the world, as an aesthetic object, as a perfect pigment for the most beautiful blue, but also been implicated in economic and political forces? What kind of "geomediations" traverse this deep blue stone? And if all these forces are too unpredictable to measure, as Yourcenar contended, is there another way to uncover some of the complex entanglements of the material and immaterial dimensions of this particular aspect of the lithosphere? A good starting place might be the Blue Mountain (Koh-e-Laguard) of the Sar-e-Sang mines in East Afghanistan where since 6,000 BC the best quality lapis lazuli has been extracted from the earth.
In 2009, artist Pieter Paul Pothoven traveled to Afghanistan in search for the Sar-e-Sang mines.1 Intrigued by the extreme stability of the rocky [End Page 36] material in an extremely unstable environment (Afghanistan is a contested and mediated area in geopolitics, as will be discussed below), Pothoven started his investigations by traversing the inhospitable landscape of the Hindu Kush Mountains in Badakhshan, reaching the mines after an arduous journey. He was able to buy some of the stones from the local miners and, since then, has made a series of ongoing art works that invoke both the material and spiritual qualities of the stone and question the geophysical and political dimensions of art history and contemporary media culture. These works will be my guides in uncovering some of the hidden dimensions of the blue stone. Other guidelines are offered by new materialist philosophy that acknowledges the profound connections between the human and nonhuman, inspired by the work of Deleuze and Guattari.2
In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari discuss mining in connection to metallurgy, miners and smiths being the first metallurgists that know how to follow and transform the forces of matter (404–415). While their remarks are mostly related to metal, Deleuze and Guattari indicate that also wood, clay, stones and minerals can be taken into account when they argue that metallurgy is not an exact science that discovers universal stable laws, since metallurgy is inseparable from several lines of variation: according to different qualities of the material itself (quality of the ore, varieties of the stones) and according to different processes of transformation (washing, polishing, grinding, mixing with wax and gum, heating, etc.). These variables make the materials both of singular order (each piece of rock is different), and according to its transformation processes, expressive of different levels of affective qualities. Deleuze and Guattari introduce the concept of a "machinic phylum," which they define as "materiality, natural or artificial, and both simultaneously; it is matter in movement, in flux, in variation, matter as a conveyor of singularities and traits of expression" (409). Because of its constant flow and variation, the machinic phylum is very hard to measure indeed. Therefore, Deleuze and Guattari argue that the "matter-flow can only be followed" (409).3