The Meaning of Stone

Sculptor Stephen Cox talks about his Yogini cult inspired exhibition which opens at Ludlow Castle, Shropshire tomorrow

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The Independent Culture

When respected British sculptor Stephen Cox moved to Shropshire a decade ago he found a sign of “great serendipity” that at a nearby quarry on Clee Hill, workers mined a very similar basalt stone to the black dolomite, known as ‘Dhu stone’, with which he has been working in India for decades.

Travelling to remote parts of India and researching local traditions has served the artist with another piece of stone-related parity. He has created 10 statues inspired by the Yogini, an obscure strain of the Hindu religion, which will be exhibited in the dramatic setting of the Ludlow Castle. All that is left of the huge medieval ruin is its hardy stone exteriors.

The statues on show are part of a series of 64, which is the number of Yogini temples in India and the number of statues at each temple. They resemble headless nudes at first glance, but on closer inspection reveal intricately carved details which create a double impression: breasts become eyes, genitals become mouths, lines of the abdomen become noses.

“I think it’s an extraordinary sect which is extinct, pretty much – I’m sure there are still people who practise some aspects of it, tantric yoga etc. But certainly in its original form it’s probably been 50 or 60 years since it was pretty much abandoned,” Cox said.

The Yogini philosophy is to remove cast divisions from its members and, for further anonymity, to cover their faces with animal masks and to come together in groups as equals. The temples consisted of a walled circle of stone figures.

“These places are open air temples where people would go to make a puja, or Hindu prayers - a ceremony of chanting and Sanskrit in which spirits are invoked.”

For the last 30 years this Royal Academician has made pilgrimages to the quarries of the ancients and developed their techniques to make his own work. With the help of a Silpi, a local Indian carver, he has completed the latest set of work just in time for them to be shipped from Asia to Shropshire, but not without a final mishap.

Two days before the show opens he tells me: “I’ve just finished some re-carving of work that came back from India. I’d like to say it was something to do with the light but in fact one of my carvers misunderstood me and something that should have been rougher became smoother.”

The exhibition at Ludlow also includes a sculpture that represents the sarcophagus of Prince Arthur, the older brother of Henry VIII, who resided at Ludlow Castle guarding the Welsh marches with his wife Catherine of Aragon. It was also there at the castle, where, at the age of 14 the frail young prince died. This piece represents this event, and is also made out of ‘Dhu stone’.

The Meaning of Stone is at Ludlow Castle from tomorrow until 6 November 2011,