With hands clutching pebbles, a young boy and his friends crouch behind the wall of Cookham churchyard in Berkshire, occasionally taking pot shots at a painter as he works. The artist, as it happens, is Stanley Spencer, who is working on The Resurrection, Cookham (1924–7); the boy is Andy Holden’s Uncle John. Or at least that’s how the story goes, as told by Holden’s disembodied voice, which emanates from the depths of the six large sculptures that comprise The Cookham Erratics (2011). For despite functioning as the work’s catalyst, the veracity of this slice of familial folklore is called into question by the revelation that neither Holden’s mother nor grandmother can recall any account of pebbles being thrown at Spencer. In fact, this detail may be little more than an innocent embellishment on the part of Holden. Thus his entire project is founded on a myth, a fiction, a yarn.
The latter word is apposite, for each of the speaking sculptures – enlarged replicas of pebbles collected from the churchyard at Cookham – is knitted, imbuing the work with an unusual, homey quality. This play on words is surely not coincidental, for etymology is evidently important to Holden. The word ‘erratic’, for instance, can refer either to something without a definite course or, in geological terms, to a rock deposited in a landscape via glacial ice. Marrying these two definitions, Holden’s installation of oversized pebbles (which appear more like boulders) are heard playing portions of a narrative that meanders through subjects as diverse as geology, art history, theology and metaphysical poetry. The result is a dense babble of voices that weave a web of tangential musings across the gallery. Walking between the knitted rocks, it’s difficult to discern much of what is discussed; only when you hunker down close does the story become palpable.
Listening to one sculpture, childhood recollections of John Donne Primary School in South London – which Holden attended in the 1980s – swiftly turn to discussions of the eponymous poet’s work and his appearance in Spencer’s paintings. ‘No man is an island entire of itself,’ wrote Donne in the most famous stanza of his ‘Devotions upon Emergent Occasions’ (1624); elsewhere we learn that these words were once printed on a mug owned by Holden that have long since been washed away, much like the clod in Donne’s celebrated poem. This observation inspires a delicious and idiosyncratic chain of thought, via which Holden transports us to the Acropolis, the Elgin Marbles and on to a discussion regarding the formation of pebbles. Turning our ear to another sculpture we hear ruminations on Judgement Day and the theological distinctions between particular and general resurrection that somehow transition to an analysis of the moral dimension of Spider Man and back again to autobiographical memories.
Questions and conundrums, both explicit and implicit, permeate Holden’s narrative. We are asked, for instance, to consider when a rock becomes a pebble, or how many fragments of stone can be removed from Giza until the pyramids are no more. These are variants of the classic Sorites Paradox, which ponders the number of grains required to form a heap, and recalls Holden’s earlier work Pyramid Piece (2009), shown in his 2010 ‘Art Now’ exhibition at Tate Britain. An antecedent to The Cookham Erratics, Pyramid Piece also employed knitting to create an enormous replica of a small stone fragment pilfered from the Great Pyramid of Cheops during a childhood holiday. Addressing the Sorites Paradox through the lens of guilt, Pyramid Piece represented an act of reparation for an adolescent misdemeanour, culminating in the physical return of the stone. While the notion of returning ancient artefacts to their place of origin is alluded to by The Cookham Erratics (a facet perhaps more keenly felt in the Benaki Museum in Athens, where the work was originally installed amid a splendid antiquities collection), this intriguing installation is best understood as an extended meditation on transmutation and displacement. As with glacial erratics that appear incongruous in the landscape, we may not be entirely sure how Holden reaches some of his destinations, though we come away feeling strangely glad that he does.