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Greif Alumni: Tradition and innovation. Caleb Stein's “How to Move a Mountain”

Article 

“How to Move a Mountain” is a photographic essay by Greif Alumnus Caleb Stein, exploring the Carrara marble quarry. Published by Luhz Press, this 100-page softcover book features Stein’s black-and-white photographs, an essay by our past Guest Room curator David Campany, and a design by Zoe Lemelson. Limited to an edition of 600 copies, “How to Move a Mountain” offers a profound look at the intersection of technology and tradition in contemporary art.

Stein’s “How to Move a Mountain” presents like an instruction manual, with an off-blue cover reminiscent of a school book or hymnal. It is as if the book holds the answer to a long-pondered problem, which I would have answered; “with the faith of a mustard seed.” By including Campany’s text at the end of the book, Stein allows us to engage with his series of striking black-and-white images without delving too deeply into the project’s origin or place. An approach I appreciated, as I could explore the secrets of the quarry Stein photographed at my own pace. My eyes traced his journey, as though he was leading me through and explaining the value of the ancient stone in the open-pit mine.

Like a skilled site surveyor, Stein takes his commission from The Smithsonian as an opportunity to connect the robotic machines chiseling away at marble in the Italian region of Lunigiana, with the larger debate surrounding Artificial Intelligence in the art world. This connection is underscored by reproductions of the digital renderings guiding the machines used at Robotor, a company utilizing robotics to mold marble into sculpture. Atheistically reminiscent of modernist pointillism, the schematics are printed on beautifully delicate tracing paper overlays throughout the book.

Still, my initial reaction to the work had little to do with the implications of technology itself. Perhaps because whenever I speak with Stein, he shows a talent for deeply pondering how imagery relates to our distinctly human traits. Having previously expressed to me his desire to disarm the tropes of masculinity in his work “Down by the Hudson”, Stein photographs with a unique tenderness, no matter if the subject is animate. A way of working that spoke to our guest editors, Gem Fletcher & Carmen Winant, when they included three images from “Down by the Hudson” in their final Guest Room curation in 2021.

Thus in my first reading of “How to Move a Mountain”, I patiently counted twenty photographs until the first clear human trace appeared—a set of three images where a human hand gently imposes details onto a marble sculpture with a chiseling tool. This juxtaposition of human touch and robotic precision evokes a long history of artistic collaboration, with masters like Michelangelo delegating work to apprentices. A piece of history that is eloquently detailed by Campany, in his text on the legacy of photography as an art that began as and still often is an act of 'copying'. Campany produces the balm we need, in a time when contemporary photography is stricken by an AI-induced panic. It seems art might survive this shift in modern-day helpers, to robots trained on code, rather than humans. It is a familiar phenomenon, albeit often driven by capitalist intention, with celebrity artists like Koons employing a workforce that includes computers to fabricate their sculptural creations.

In an era where ChatGPT is capable of following Sol LeWitt’s instructions, it should hardly shock that algorithms can aid in the further celebration of Raphaelism. Stein’s images capture the meticulous process of marble carving but also evoke a deeper reflection on the role of the contemporary artist. His depiction of pipes and wires bears a striking resemblance to one of our Issue 15 guest editors, Andy Sewell’s “Known and Strange Things Pass”, suggesting an interplay between the familiar and the alien in modern life.

Stein’s “How to Move a Mountain” successfully intertwines the old and the new, prompting us to reconsider the boundaries of creation and the evolving nature of artistic labor. The work is a thoughtful and compelling exploration of tradition and innovation, making it a must-see for anyone interested in the intersection of art and our rapidly expanding use of technology.