The second in a series of pieces written to photographs taken by Nicholas James Seaton on our autumn/winter 2013 shoot in Canada. Each focuses on an element, albeit a new kind of element.
By Jon Day.
In his 1885 treatise ‘Physiologie de l’asphalte’, Alexis Martin described the way in which asphalt, then a relatively new element in urban life, was beginning to be read by city dwellers. ‘The manufacturer passes over the asphalt conscious of its quality’ he wrote:
the old man searches it carefully, follows it just as long as he can, happily taps his cane so the wood resonates, and recalls with pride that he personally witnessed the laying of the first sidewalks; the poet walks on it pensive and unconcerned, muttering lines of verse; the stockbroker hurries past, calculating the advantages of the last rise in wheat.
One of the great tyrannies of the modern city is the speed with which road-surfaces are renewed, making obsolete the slap of time. Roads were once democratic spaces, created by the collective movement of generations of travellers. In his poem ‘The Path’ Edward Thomas described a track ‘winding like silver’, worn into the woods by children who, ‘With the current of their feet’ created a monument to their passing.
Now that most roads are metalled, something of the relationship between traveller and path has been lost. Asphalt is shed annually, like the skin of a snake: scraped off with flailing chains, spat out into waiting trucks, and laid anew by machines which resemble combine harvesters. Asphalt suffers from an amnesia unknown to mud and stone. But still it struggles to remember. On city roads potholes remerge perennially, always occupying the same places. The marks of passing buses are recorded as depressions in the tarmac.
We think of asphalt as a lifeless material, as a neutral barrier between driver and landscape. Attend to it, however, and asphalt comes alive. It’s a fickle material, changing with the seasons. Greased with rain it flares with the rainbow splashes of oil slicks. In the winter it becomes sluggish and brittle. The water gets in underneath it and cracks it open. In summer, awakened by the heat, it oozes and begins to flow, at glacier pace, through the streets.
In 1927 Professor Thomas Parnell, a physicist at the university of Queensland, placed a small nugget of asphalt into a funnel before entombing the whole in a bell jar. About ten years later, the first drop of pitch fell through the funnel. Eight drops have plinked into the petri dish so far. The eighth drop fell on 28 November 2000. The next is due imminently.