Gongs and cymbals of all sizes and styles were a feature of MOFO (MONA FOMA)– an arts extravaganza I attended over the weekend in Hobart, Tasmania. As well as being a joy to listen to, these instruments gave me a new perspective on the elemental aspects of metal. So now music making joins Chinese philosophy, the chemical elements, alchemy, blacksmithing, sword-smithing, sculpting and jewelry-making in the fascinating story of metal.
Metal is described as an element in two widely known frameworks, the periodic table and in western accounts of Wu Xing, the philosophy of five agents or phases that permeates Chinese thought and action (for example Chinese horoscopes, Chinese medicine, Feng Shui). In both cases metal does not fit neatly into the commonly held western perception of elements as natural forces like earth, air, water and fire.
The deeper you search, the clearer the elemental role of metal becomes. The connections between metal and the elements are many and varied. It is considered an element in its own right, metals can represent elemental forces, making things out of metal is an elemental process, metal changes its form when exposed to the elements and musicians make magical music when metal interacts with air.
Most of the chemical elements in the periodic table are metals. Gold, silver and copper in their ‘native’ form were the first metals transformed into objects for human use and appreciation. Meteoric iron, an element that fell from the sky, was also used by cultures such as the Aztecs who used it to make knives. Copper usage (in its unalloyed state) for tools, weapons and decorative items dates back thousands of years across diverse cultures. Native North Americans around Lake Superior identified copper with the sun, the ultimate expression of energy. For the Inkas, gold was a symbol of the sun and was highly valued. Silver, and the moon it represented, surpassed gold in the eyes of the Chimu who pre-dated the Inka. These cultures exemplify the connections made between native metals and elemental forces such as the sun and moon.
Gold and silver are the archetypal metals in Wu Xing, the Chinese philosophy of the “five phases” or “five processes”. Most western descriptions describe the five phases of Wu Xing (metal, earth, water, fire and wood) as elements. This term is commonly used in English publications on Chinese medicine, Feng Shui, Chinese astrology and more. Specialists in Chinese philosophy explain that this translation is inaccurate and should not be used, at least not in all circumstances. My sense is that the use of the word element is here to stay in this context.
The five phases in Wu Xing have been described as the five materials considered necessary for life or the five ways in which energy expresses itself in the natural world. This makes me feel at ease about them being called elements. As long as there is an understanding of the cyclic and interactive nature of Wu Xing and that the elements or processes aren’t fixed. Another important aspect is that metal, and the other four elements in this framework, have many associations – with colours, seasons, directions, animals, planets, health, personality types and more.
Chinese astrology provides a timely example of these associations. We are entering the year of the Red Fire Monkey. In Chinese astrology the Monkey is associated with the fixed element of Metal. A person’s characteristics are said to be determined both by the fixed element of their zodiac sign and the element of the 12-year cycle they were born. So anyone turning 60 in 2016 will have characteristics of both Metal and Fire. Metal attributes are considered to be firmness, rigidity, persistence, strength, and determination in Taoist thought.
Alchemists provide a different perspective on metal and the elements. In alchemy, metals represent combinations of the qualities that make up the elements of earth, air, fire and water. One of the aims of alchemy is to transmute base metals such as lead into precious ones such as gold and silver. The Philosopher’s Stone, for many a symbol that represents the final outcome of man’s inner transformation, is the tool/substance that facilitates the process.
My light-bulb moment about the elemental nature of hand-making objects out of metal came after watching a video on the traditional art of Japanese sword-making. The importance of earth (iron sand and clay), air (the bellows), fire (the forge), and water (used for quenching the steel) in the creation of the sword was striking. It was only later that I discovered the words of Alan Coleman, a sword maker based in Oregon, describing the elemental nature of the process. He describes the practice of being a swordsmith as one where all of the elements are bought together by the human element to create an object of beauty, and terror (when used historically by the Samurai).
Blacksmiths have a broader remit than swordsmiths. They make and repair many things, such as complex weapons and armor, gates, grills, agricultural implements and nails. These objects are created out of wrought iron or steel by forging the metal, using tools to hammer, bend and cut. Implicitly, earth, air, fire, water and the human spirit are fundamental to the blacksmith trade.
Blacksmiths have been held in high esteem through much of history. Vulcan, the Roman god of fire, was patron of blacksmiths and workers in metals. According to sacred-texts.com, in the Middle Ages blacksmiths were looked upon as superior to other artisans, owing to their faculty of seemingly toying with fire, rendering the dangerous element subservient to their will, and by its aid manipulating iron with ease and dexterity. Blacksmithing went into decline following the industrial revolution and largely became associated with shoeing horses. In the last few decades it has seen a revival and new communities have formed to create objects of utility and beauty. Being a ‘woman of fire‘, my favourite is the ‘Sisters of Fire’ – a group of women who love fire, blacksmithing and welding.
Metal is also used as a material by jewellers such as Thomas Mann and sculptors like Wim Delvoye to great effect. Wim has two outdoor sculptures at MONA (where MOFO is held) made out of steel. With exposure to the elements, the rusting metal is a sight to behold. Given enough time the sculptures will corrode entirely to rust and disintegrate, a potent symbol of the dynamic nature of the elements.
We now return to where we started. The connections between metal, music and the elements. Musical instruments made out of metal interact with air to create amazing vibrations. Konrad Park, one of the performers at MOFO, used a drum and several cymbals to play improvised music to images of the sun. As he held the microphone to the vibrating cymbal, inspired by images of solar flares, the elemental power of metal shone through. The enchanting organ recital by Christopher Wrench also demonstrated the subtle and beautiful interactions that can arise between metal, air and the human spirit. It was a joy to behold.