Sucking Stones (After Samuel Beckett)

Over the next few months I will be performing at Nottingham Contemporary as part of Otobong Nkanga’s exhibition. Here is the description of my contribution, inspired by Samuel Beckett.

‘I took advantage of being at the seaside to lay in a store of sucking-stones. They were pebbles but I called them stones. Yes, on this occasion I laid in a considerable store. I distributed them equally between my four pockets, and sucked them turn and turn about. This raised a problem which I first solved in the following way’ (Beckett 1951).

I will follow Beckett’s text for his novel Molloy (1951) as stage directions and reenact the character’s sucking stones ritual. I will read the text after sucking the stones and then repeat the stone-sucking ritual. It is both an intervention into Nkanga’s work and a theatrical act in a gallery. Beckett saw his detailed stage directions as a score for performance and I seek to turn his novel into a performance score especially for Nkanga’s exhibition, and in doing so, make a modernist, minimalist gesture towards her artwork. It is an activity, which is not so meaningless as it first appears; it involves thinking about life, about order and chaos — and the everlasting human longing to escape entropy.

‘I had say sixteen stones, four in each of my four pockets these being the two pockets of my trousers and the two pockets of my greatcoat. Taking a stone from the right pocket of my greatcoat, and putting it in my mouth, I replaced it in the right pocket of my greatcoat by a stone from the right pocket of my trousers, which I replaced with a stone from the left pocket of my trousers, which I replaced with a stone from the left pocket of my greatcoat, which I replaced with the stone from my mouth, as soon as I had finished sucking it’ (Beckett 1951).

This activity will take place within Nkanga’s installation Taste of a Stone (2010) and resonate with both its aesthetic and its themes. She says: ‘The creation of a landscape for contemplation and meditation seemed quite crucial to give a certain taste of a stone. By allowing the spectator to walk in and through the work, an audible taste was felt through the sounds made when walking on the gravel, or a visual taste by watching the stones that were placed in the room. One could touch, look and feel the different natural materials used in the space and in that way experience certain emotions, memories or moods.’

My performance seeks to draw out the literal notion of taste as the performer sucks the stones as well as to chime with the idea of emotions, memories and moods evoked by the work. The performance plays with the concept of an audible and visual taste, as the stones are sucked by the performer. The idea of sucking a stone resonates with both notions of poverty and being lost in the wilderness, which are apt metaphors for the current economic and political climate. At the same time, there is a futility to the endless cycle of sucking stones that speaks to the nihilism and pathos inherent in Beckett’s work. Wearing a greatcoat I will stand in the gallery enacting this cycle of absurdity.

‘And the solution to which I rallied in the end was to throw away all the stones but one, which I kept now in one pocket, now in another, and which of course I soon lost, or threw away, or gave away, or swallowed…’ (Beckett 1951).