Sarah Day visits the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival and meets local artist Adrian Gray, whose amazing stone balancing sculptures have audiences on the beach enthralled.
‘Balance is intuitive. You have to stop thinking about the physics of it.’
Like most scientists, faced with the seemingly impossible, my instinct is to work out how it’s done. Looking at artist Adrian Gray’s stone balancing sculptures on the beach at Lyme Regis is an unnerving experience. There are no tricks, no illusions. Just two pieces of Jurassic limestone, together about a metre and a half high, balanced by the smallest possible point of contact. I can’t decide if they’re on the point of falling or floating.
‘That means I’ve done my job properly’ says Adrian when I ask about metal rods, sanding down surfaces, glue – anything that explains what I’m seeing. ‘I want it to have that improbability to it. I’m looking for something that has a sense of awe, but also that just looks wrong.’
Apart from an endless amount of patience, being able to create the sculptures must require an understanding of the stones, which types work best, how heavy they are, what their surfaces are like?
‘You’re still trying to think about the science of it! I’m not thinking about that. Just the aesthetics.
‘Every stone has a centre of gravity. There’s nothing else involved, just balance. All I’m doing is making small adjustments until it stops falling over.’
When pushed, Adrian does concede that he thinks sedimentary rocks are the best type for his work – but not because of their physical properties.
‘Volcanic rocks are more angular – they will work, but I think the rounded shapes of sedimentary rocks, which they have because of coastal erosion, are more aesthetically pleasing.’
So it really doesn’t matter what type of stone you use?
‘Well, everything will balance in theory. But I’m trying to balance them in unusual ways. There are some things you have to weigh up – and weigh up is a very appropriate word. I’m using friction to balance them so they look as though they might fall. If you have a stone that’s too heavy, you can’t get that bond of friction that you’re looking for, or you can’t get an acute one, so I do have to think about that.’
It still feels like watching a magic trick. But, unlike magicians, Adrian does nothing to conceal the mechanics of his performance. The balancing takes around ninety seconds – more for a more complicated piece – during which time he is completely still, holding one stone above the other, making the tiniest adjustments until he lets go and, impossibly, the stone remains in place. Even when you’ve already seen it, each time he topples a stone and starts again it’s hard to believe it will work.
‘There’s an element of performance art involved’ he explains. ‘There’s a meditative quality to it which is really interesting. A lot of people say they find it quite calming to watch me do the balancing, as well as to look at the sculptures.’
Although stone balancing has become as much performance art as it is sculpture, when Adrian first came across the technique it was whilst creating a sculptural piece.
‘Initially I had the idea of making a group of stone figures around a fire. When I was balancing the heads I became intrigued by how the stones were balancing, and started to experiment. It all developed from that.’
There are three sculptures on the beach now, each somewhere between 1.5 and 2 metres tall, each looking as though a strong gust of wind or too much footfall will topple them.
‘They won’t fall’ Adrian assures me, ‘they don’t transmit any vibrations. But they’re still fragile, which is the paradox I’m trying to achieve. They’re huge, solid chunks of rock, but they’re balanced on a very small point of contact.’
It’s this unlikely solidity which is so mesmerising – that, and watching the act of balancing itself. The stillness and patience required are qualities most of us would like more of, which is probably part of what fascinates his audience.
‘You get a really great atmosphere’ says Adrian. ‘Everyone goes quiet, parents shush their children.’
But it is the transparency which keeps us transfixed. It’s the same reason science has the power to stun us – this is not an illusion. It is real life, presented in a way we have never seen before, but so simple to explain that our own world view shifts a little.