When I first looked at Pascale Marthine Tayou’s piece Colored Stones, I was not completely sure what to make of it. Stone pavers sit in a 10-foot pile on the gallery floor, teetering on their edges. They are light gray, granite setts with a slight bit of sparkle in the visage. On one side, each stone is painted vibrant and varied jewel tones. They look as though, at any moment, they could come tumbling down.
In speaking about the piece for an interview with Serpentine Gallery, Tayou said in reference to his identity within the colored stones, “...I could be dangerous, could be a revolution.” Ripped out of their “correct” place in the street and in the ground, Tayou asks us to examine what we perceive to be permanent in the landscape of our constructed cities and world.
The meaning of Tayou’s stone pavers and their connection to daily life sneaks up on you. After pondering the piece, I again entered the world outside of the art gallery. In going about my daily routine, I suddenly started seeing stone pavers like the ones in Tayou’s piece absolutely everywhere. In Richmond, they line our streets and build our walls. My feet walk upon them every day and I, personally, am privileged enough to give little thought to their histories, context, and larger meaning on regular basis. Innocent as they may appear, these stones are steeped in a history of classism, racism, and supremacy.
Take, for example, the stone pavers that line the road of Monument Avenue with its row of long-disputed Confederate statues that can, at times, feel as permanent as the stones they rest upon. But, what happens if we rip up the stones as Tayou has? What happens if we paint them colors and stack them in the middle of a gallery? Is their former power rendered obsolete? Do they take on a new meaning? This restructuring and disruption reminds me of times when people have taken to the statues on Monument Avenue with spray paint, leaving messages of protest and indignation: “Black Lives Matter,” “Big lies genocide,” and “Your vote was a hate crime” among them. The marking of the stone and concrete which holds up these metal structures, shows the true fragility of the statues and the power structures upon which they rest.
By taking the stones out of their “permanent” context, and placing them on a gallery floor, Tayou has given them a different meaning. The power they once had is stripped away and they are instead imbued with something new. The jewel toned addition gives a lighthearted feeling, one of joy and celebration. Repositioned in this way, these material objects invoke a sense of revolution as opposed to stagnated permanency; reclamation as opposed to oppression. There is a celebration of unique identity as opposed to a set of prescribed boxes.