Stone me! Meet the man who's made balancing giant rocks an artform
A dazzlingly clear morning and I am standing on a rock-strewn, deserted beach in Dorset. Behind me, in this beautiful bay, a lush cliff face sprouts 1,000 different shades of green. Bliss you might think. And it is. Except that my fingers are sore, my arms are aching and (I am sorry to say this) I almost wish I were back in the office in London.
The reason? For two hours I've been desperately trying to balance giant rocks on top of each other. And failing badly.
Perhaps I should explain. I am here to meet Adrian Gray - one of Britain's oddest artists. And this amazing beach, accessible only by boat or a treacherous climb, is Gray's canvas.
Gray, you see, has an unusual artistic technique. Remember that famous Monty Python sketch about The Society For Putting Things On Top Of Other Things? The joke was about how human beings can unwittingly immerse themselves in utterly futile activities.
Well, the art Gray creates is a result of nothing more sophisticated than putting things on top of other things. Big rocks on top of other big rocks, to be precise.
Then he photographs the results and sells the images. How futile can you get?
But the weird thing is that it's not futile at all. The end results are, quite simply, breathtaking.
Look at the images here. Surely these rocks - virtually floating on air - cannot possibly stay standing? Just what is holding them in place? Has the Government secretly repealed the laws of physics?
Yet there is no cheating involved in any of the photographs. No steel rods, no magnets, no computer trickery. The only glue he uses is Nature's. Gravity.
By very carefully 'feeling' the balancing point of each rock he handles - a process that requires awesome skill and patience - Gray is able to arrange them in ways that seem incredible.
Imagine trying to balance a chest of drawers on just one of its legs, on top of a boulder, and you get an idea of what Gray gets up to.
'There is a real sense of wonder,' says Gray, 'when I balance two rocks in such a way that it gives the impression that it's impossible for them to stay in place. I don't want to sound pretentious, but it makes the sculpture seem almost alive.'
Do people think he cheats? All the time.
'People think I use everything from Blu Tack to Velcro to steel rods. While I'm balancing the stones, I can hear people saying: "He's waiting for the glue to set."'
Having witnessed Gray's magic, I can confirm there is no trickery involved. Only patience, dexterity and what Gray calls 'listening with my fingers'.
He's not even very good with theoretical physics. After a brief conversation about centres of gravity, he admits that he failed his O-level in the subject.
In his Indiana Jones hat and sunshades, Gray is also sweetly modest about his skill. 'The trick is putting together stones which look like they couldn't possibly sit on top of one another. Only then can you you make something extraordinary.'
Forty-four-year-old Gray certainly lives an extraordinary life. Home is a one-room limestone house carved out of the cliffside above the beach, half a mile from the nearest public road. There's no electricity beyond that provided by one old solar panel that powers two dim lights for a few hours a day.
Television is out of the question, though he does have a woodburning stove and a gas supply that enables him to boil a kettle.
Over coffee, he explains how he got here. He tells me he used to run an expedition company and, for years, escorted backpackers through the Madagascan rainforest. Then he caught a nasty virus - and the world he knew came crashing down around him.
Though cured of the tropical bug, he succumbed to post-viral ME and became, he says, pretty much allergic to modern life. Electricity, TV, laptops, even mobile phones brought on headaches, nausea and mood changes. The only way of avoiding these things, he felt, was to opt out of mainstream society.
He had friends in Lyme Regis, so moved there - first to a shack, then a yurt in a friend's garden,and then the clifftop home where he lives today. And that was when began his work with the stones.
Though his allergy symptoms have all but passed now, he doesn’t want to give up his hill-top life.
a clear, sunny day like this, I can see why.
He gives me a quick demo with few of the rocks he keeps outside his house. He picks up a large,
pointy piece of sandstone and attempts to place it — point down — on a much larger round boulder.
His eyes are fixed on the stones like a surgeon studying the innards of a patient. But it’s his fingers that are doing the real work. A tiny twist here, a small shift there. The movements are almost imperceptible.
A minute later, he’s there. A smile crosses his face: the smaller rock in place, as if hovering in space.
How secure is it? ‘Why don’t you grab hold of it and see?'
Big mistake. I very gently nudge the top stone, which is about 18 in by 12 in at its widest point. Unfortunately I don't grab it quite firmly enough, and I only just prevent it slamming to the ground. In the process of catching it, I snag my finger. It hurts.
'I should have warned you,' says Gray. 'It's heavier than it looks.'
Practice session over, we make our way down to the beach, finishing our journey down to the shore with a rickety ladder and rope. I go about selecting a few rocks.
I decide to start with something rather easier than Gray's jaggedy rocks. Mine are more lozenge shaped. 'You're not being creative,' complains my teacher. I chuck them back on the beach.
Gray selects a pair of stones for me. One, a piece of Blue Lias rock (no, I'd not heard of it either) resembles a small gravestone. The other, a piece of sandstone, is banana shaped. It's an easy one, by his standards: he does it in about 90 seconds. Now it's my turn.
Basically, you're feeling for any kind of catch at the point of contact,' Gray tells me. 'You're feeling for where there's any kind of resistance, and you work with that.'
I twiddle, I twist. How will I know when I'm near balance point?
'When it becomes balanced, the stone becomes weightless. Just let your fingers go light on it and see if it wants to fall. If it's waving around all the time, you're not getting started. Get the rock as still as you can.'
In the next two hours, boulder after boulder crashes to the ground. In the end, I declare myself out of the game. I've no patience trying to get bits of Ikea flatpack to fit together, let alone boulders.
I'm not sure I can bear to persist if the only prize is a sculpture that will be demolished as soon as it has been photographed.
Back to the master. What is the essence of what he does? He's given the subject a lot of thought. 'My sculptures don't need any complex deconstruction; they don't need any exhaustive explanation. They are what they are. People look at them, understand them and see the beauty in them. You don't have to read a pamphlet explaining what you're seeing. My art's not like that.'
Indeed not. His art is balancing rocks. Simple. Odd. And, in its own way, hauntingly beautiful.
By Vince Graff