Like Water From A Stone

Mariam Ghani, Like Water From a Stone installation view
Like Water From a Stone (1-channel HD video with stereo sound, RT 20:10), 2014, installed at Ryan Lee Gallery in 2015 (photo: Derek Piech)

Like Water From a Stone was produced during a residency in southwestern Norway (Rogaland, Jaeren, and Suldal) during the summer of 2013. The title, a play on the English idiom ‘like blood from a stone,’ refers to the difficulty of extracting either oil from the undersea deposits on the continental shelf, which underpin much of the Norwegian economy today, or a living from the rocky Norwegian land and unruly North Sea, as was the norm before oil was discovered. During the residency, one question kept resurfacing: “What was life in Norway like before oil production came online?” And one answer kept presenting itself: “An endless struggle, wresting a living away from fields and pastures full of stones and a cold, unruly, unforgiving sea.” Stone and sea seemed to be the twin pillars of existence in the region before the advent of offshore oil, and that too could be interpreted as springing from or being squeezed from stone and then being carried through and across the sea. So the themes of work became stone, water, extraction, and struggle against a landscape that is simultaneously sublime and awful, existing on a scale that overpowers most human endeavor.

Mariam Ghani, Erin Ellen Kelly, Like Water From a Stone
Like Water From a Stone, digital C-print, 30 x 45 inches, 2014 (edition of 5); click any image to see additional prints

Like Water From a Stone plays out some of the histories and myths of this pre-oil period on a roughly geological timeline. It begins with a scene filmed at Vigdel, where the seaside rock formations were shaped by the pressure of glaciers during the Ice Age, and continues to Svarthola, a cave that was inhabited during the Stone Age (c. 6000 BC). Some scenes shot in the mountains above Suldal fjord, reference figures from Norse mythology, and are followed by a scene where sea and stones meet at the Viking rock graves of Hå. The massive, avalanche-scattered rocks of Gloppedalsura evoke both regional mining histories and hunts on that site for the Norwegian resistance in WW2; the lighthouse at Fjoloy was once a beacon for fishermen and sailors. In the WW2-era bunkers at Sola beach, an uncanny kind of haunting; in an abandoned, overgrown house foundation on Langoy island, a sleeping beauty in the woods. Trees are clear-cut on Lindoy, once home to a reformatory for bad little boys; construction cranes dance above a gravel pile on the Stavanger city docks, while a girl cuts flowers growing wild around the construction site. Finally we find ourselves at a playground constructed from old oil rig equipment, as a cross-section of contemporary Stavanger residents walk through and play with the repurposed drill bits, oil drums and platform rigging. In each place, the performing bodies we see represent some variant of genius loci, or personification of the spirit of the place, (re)enacting memories, narratives, or qualities associated with that place. The composition of shots also refers to the paintings of the Norwegian Romantic Nationalists, who helped invent the idea of Norway-as-nation-state in the 19th century, after many centuries under the dominion of larger empires.

Mariam Ghani, Erin Ellen Kelly, Like Water From a Stone
Like Water From a Stone, digital C-print, 20 x 30 inches (edition of 5); click any image to see additional prints

As with other projects in the Performed Places series, performances were improvised onsite by local artists and dancers collaborating with choreographer Erin Ellen Kelly. The choral score by Qasim Naqvi uses both sonic abstractions and structured choral writing to reflect the polyphony of natural sounds in the landscapes filmed; it was inspired by ambient sound recorded during filming.

Performed by Kelly, Ghani, Ingeborg Kvame, Lene Aareskjold, Elena Redaelli, Amy Mackie, and Kenneth Varpe. Score performed by the NYU Women’s Choir and NYU University Singers with soloists Bisan Toron, Areni Agbabian, and Aaron Roche.