The New Stone Age



’The New Stone Age’ Art Monthly October 84: 19-21 (1995)

he digital revolution promises to revolutionise our way of life, transforming a self specific to homes, offices and nations into various screen personae which float in global electronic networks. ’Cyber-goddess’ Sandy Stone has recently been in Australia conjuring a future where we must ’cross the river’ to leave behind our fixed gendered identities in order to release our nascent multiple selves into the new virtual paradise. Who dares resist? During the Chalma pilgrimage in Mexico, those who complain and turn to home are immediately turned to stone. Lying on the path, these stones await future travellers who might pity them and kick them towards the shrine where they may be forgiven and changed back into people.

At a time of seeming inexorable social change, it is salutary to remember the famous words of Karl Marx, written as a commentary on the aborted 1848 second French revolution: ’Men make their own history’. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte attacked the ideology of a revolutionary transformation which secretly invoked past authorities. As Marx wrote, ’The tradition of the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the living.’ Though it risks the calcified fate of reluctant pilgrims, we should confront this ’nightmare’ if the future is to be anything other than a repetition of past mistakes. A number of contemporary artists are currently doing just this as they grapple with the language of morality that we have inherited as the art of stone.

The House of Stone

Let’s begin with a trip to the cemetery. Walking down the paths overgrown with weeds, we find ourselves in a grid of inscriptions carved into granite. These epitaphs retain a permanent tenure on meaning, regardless of any technology upgrades, celebrity scandals or company mergers. Contrast this with the World Wide Web, where information sites are judged by how recently they’ve been updated, reflecting the newest browser technologies and the latest convention of HTML tags. It’s a contrast of atoms and bits, substance and ephemera, matter and information.

Cemeteries are dead spaces now, for their visitors as much as their inhabitants. Traditional respect for the dead has focused on care of the funerary monument, decorated with fresh flowers, overlaid with stones, lit with oil lamps, or regularly washed. In a time of green consciousness, privatisation and information revolution, this maintenance of ’dead space’ seems increasingly untenable. Already, seventy percent of dead bodies in Australian cities are cremated. Has society changed such that a life no longer requires a material residue as consolation for those left behind?

Take the case of a well known public figure, such as the ’larger than life’ thespian, Frank Thring. Frank Thring once stated in an interview that if he were to have a tombstone, it would be inscribed simply with the words: ’Frank Thring: Lived’. As it happened, it was even simpler than that. In a private ceremony, earlier this year, his ashes were scattered at sea from Queenscliff. What remained was a scholarship for young actors, funded by the sale of his estate. As much as the noble act itself, what’s striking about this disposal of Thring’s life is the inability in contemporary rhetoric to express any unease about the absence of monument. How can you complain when the money is put to such good use? It may be helpful to examine those who continue to ’waste’ their fortune on ’dead space’.

The most lively part of the cemetery these days contains baroque monuments to post-war migrants from Italy, Greece, Eastern Europe and China. With scandalous extravagance, this generation persists in dedicating family fortunes to inert testimonies of past glory. Why? The answer rests with makers. In Melbourne, the most prominent monumental masonry is Giannarelli & Sons, whose gothic display room stands on the verge of the retro chic district in Fitzroy. Their most famous work is the Elvis Presley grotto in Melbourne General Cemetery, scene of an annual homage to the King.. The work itself emanates from the industrial northern suburb of Thomastown, on a site alongside the Merri Creek, where flocks of cormorants settle beside a sanctuary of remnants: an Old Farrago truck, a mammoth fly wheel, salvaged granite columns and secondhand headstones. John Giannarelli proudly surveys his ’hunk’a land’, talking of a log cabin he plans to make entirely out of granite offcuts, evoking Mr Gradgrind’s Stone Lodge from Hard Times. He explains the psychology of granite: ’A rock is alive, like we’re alive. It splits a certain way and you go along that line. Every stone has its particular quality.’

Munching on wild fennel, he tells this writer about a monument he personally erected to a drover’s dog, set deep in the Dargo High Plains as a memorial to pioneers, animal and human. His strine accent and easygoing manner fit with the image of a bush prospector, but once the topic shifts to cemeteries, the padrone reveals himself. It’s this figure which holds the answer to our question.

Australia, for Giannarelli, is a lucky country. By contrast with limited space and materials available in Italy, Australians have ’land from here to Darwin’ and an abundance of granite that grants each ’common man’ the opportunity of a monument. And the reason for this monument? ’A man’s done his bit on the earth and he must be allowed to rest in peace.’ The funerary monument is an extension of the living monument that is the house on which a life in a new country takes hold.

House of Bits

How, then, will the new online habitations extend themselves into the afterlife? In cyberspace there are already several attempts to provide an digital resting place for future generations. World Wide Web sites, such as Virtual Memorial Garden and Garden of Remembrance already offer space for obituaries, sometimes including photographs and home movies. Would you think of housing the memory of a beloved on Internet? The desire to give a life permanent rest seems out of place in an online world which is constantly updated. In awareness of this dilemma, one commercial site has felt the need to offer a possibility that any text and images provided by the bereaved will be retranscribed onto future global platforms. As they write: ’We are exploring the means by which we may achieve transgenerational preservation including transfer to another global communications system in the event that the World Wide Web is replaced by future technology’. While suggesting a cryogenic perpetuity of memory, they seek to retain the fluidity of news media ’it isn’t like carving words in stone!’by allowing contents of the site to be changed at any time. But is this like a ’momentary promise’, a contradiction of means and intention? These sites have yet to attract much custom, so they do not yet suggest a rejuvenation of memorialsperhaps they are more an attempt by the digital revolution to ’cover all bases’.

As an aside, the narrator(s) of Paul Carter’s latest book Baroque Memories has less faith in the role of the artificer as interpreter of stone’s sacred message. Contrasting the Tuscan fetish of stripping marble to reveal natural forms, he celebrates the ’monumentality of flux’ that is part of the Baroque aesthetic: ’The work of wind and rain carves the stone into nodules and sockets that in their vague suggestion of battered angelic forms capture the paradox of limning the divine much better than any artist can.’ Whether or not an artist is necessary, the quest to find a home for nothingness seems a particular obsession in our accelerating postmodern time.


Some readers might remember the children’s game Koom-ba-zed (otherwise known as ’Scissors, paper, rock’ ). One of its mysteries is that, though stone is capable of destroying scissors, it falls victim to the insubstantial form of paper. This paper victory is a suitable metaphor for the emerging virtual economy, where cities exist entirely as information. What it may require, paradoxically, is artists who will continue to proffer their stone, if only to provide some means of experiencing the very transitory nature of a world run by software.

Thanks to John McPhee, Andrew Patience, Helen Doxford Harris, Erica Green, Stephen Rae and Jim Kerr.
Full text of this article is published in the October 1995 issue of Art Monthly (GPO Box 804, Canberra, ACT 2601, Australia). This article and the three to follow are assisted by the Commonwealth Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.