It’s an unusual move for Eskenazi, the Mayfair-based Chinese-art dealer and gallery. Normally, the owners are in the market for intricate objects created by the human hand - delicately glazed tea bowls and jade buffalo are the sorts of things visitors can expect to find within the elegant London townhouse. This time however, they have chosen to celebrate the hand of nature. Welcome to the little-known world of gogottes.
You’d be forgiven for not knowing about gogottes. On first impression they could be man-made, though they are in fact rare sandstone rocks, excavated from an ancient sand dune near Fontainebleau in northern France. Dusted down and displayed on plinths, Eskenazi has elevated these curvaceous lumps of stone from natural phenomenon to art.
It is said that humans look for the familiar in the unknown and comparisons come easily when examining the 12 gogottes on display. Like fluffy clouds on a sunny day, their overlapping white mounds invite a hunt for patterns and pictures. Are they reminiscent of gelato, piled high in an ice cream-parlour, or is it the rope-like twists of old-fashioned toffee as it’s pulled and folded into boiled sweets? Less flatteringly, there’s a suggestion of the spiralized mounds of mud deposited by earthworms on the garden lawn. One particularly anthropomorphic stone looks like a small man with a rotund belly and a wispy shock of hair. It’s hard to remember that they are just rocks, albeit rare ones.
How gogottes form is only partly understood. By studying their composition, scientists know that they were moulded into life when silica-rich water filtered through loose sand, eventually cementing the grains together into smooth contours. A recent analysis by the Natural History Museum, London discovered they are predominantly composed of quartz, rather than the chalk previously presumed. But exactly where the water came from, and whether it bored its way upwards or came trickling down is still unknown. Likewise, no one knows how old the gogottes are. All that’s certain is that very occasionally, a miner in Fontainebleau discovers one, lying flat in the dunes like a fallen statute.
So what do these rocks have to do with ancient Chinese art? Daniel Eskenazi, son of the gallery’s owner, Giuseppe, explains that the idea of an art dealer displaying rocks is not as unusual as it sounds. He says that during the Song Dynasty (960-1279AD) the elite and scholar classes of Chinese society began to display rocks in a domestic setting and by the Qing Dynasty (1736-1795) rocks and roots were commonly inscribed with poems and then displayed.
Though gogottes are very different from the dark, angular Chinese rocks (sometimes called Scholar’s rocks) normally sought after by collectors of Chinese art, Daniel Eskenazi is hoping that his usual clientele will be impressed by something a little different. ‘It’s the first non-Asian art we’ve had at the gallery,’ he says. ‘I needed to have some fun. Also I like to get people thinking. People get pigeonholed and I just want them to have a broader way of thinking.’ There is a back-up plan, however. The gogotte exhibition runs concurrently with a more traditional display of Chinese ceramics from the Song Dynasty.
Gogottes have their Western supporters too. On the wall of the gallery is a poster displaying the use of gogottes as decoration in the garden at Versailles – apparently Louis XIV of France was a fan. The exhibition catalogue also includes an essay by David Attenborough, providing his reference for these buried treasures. Having explained the known science behind the rocks, he writes: ‘Maybe geologists, having corrected our ideas about the nature of the cement will tell us exactly where it originated and how long it took to create these extraordinary shapes – decades, centuries or millennia. But I suspect that it will need an art historian and perhaps a psychologist to explain why the wonderful mysterious shapes so bewitch us.’ In honour of Attenborough’s 90th birthday, the Eskenazi’s donated a particularly large gogotte to the Natural History Museum, London. It can be viewed in the Lasting Impressions gallery.
To get a feel for the variety of these rocks however, it’s best to head to Eskenazi, where the 12 gogottes are set out over two floors with plenty of space to admire them from all angles. The catalogue is necessary for background as the gallery walls are bare and no information is provided apart from the size and weight of each piece. This is an art gallery, not a natural history exhibition. Eskenazi is open to the public, though as befits a dealer in Mayfair, it feels exclusive. Nevertheless, the staff are friendly and Daniel Eskenazi is determined that the gallery should remain open to all.
Gogottes are, at the end of the day, lumps of sand, but there is something charming and beautiful about them, as if nature watched human attempts at sculpture and decided to raise us. For anyone interested in exploring the fine line between art and nature, they’re worth a look.
Gogottes: A Rift in Time and Song: Chinese Ceramics, 10th to 13th Century (Part 5) is open until 1 June at Eskenazi. Entry is free. For more information click here.
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