I don’t know if it’s just because I’ve been dipping into Ann and Jeff VanderMeers’ anthology The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories but today sand seems strange to me. On another day – a sunny one perhaps, for it’s oppressively overcast outside – this would not be so. I love the beach, and as I write it is summer. Normally, I suspect, thinking of sand would be to recall childhood trips to the beach with my father, Paul Simon’s greatest hits spinning over and over on the car’s cassette player, a barbecue awaiting us when we got home. But I am not thinking of these things today. It is not sunny. And I am sad. And I have the Weird on the brain.
What I am thinking of is those sand dunes that are said to sing. Sandstorms, cutting and blinding. Time, in the form of an hourglass, visibly, unrecoverably draining away. Sand, the internet tells me, is a ‘non-renewable resource over human timescales’. Beaches, with their trillions of grains of sand, are ready metaphors for magnitude. And yet we associate it with ephemerality – running through our fingers, washed away in the form of sandcastles. Anyone who’s been to the beach knows how it gets everywhere, and stays there.
In Jewish mythology, golems are (often malevolent) creatures composed of inanimate matter, usually clay or mud. It’s not hard to imagine one made from sand, though, and I think I’m right in saying that sand spirits are present in Arabic legends, and also that the distinctive red sand of Australia features prominently in several Dreamtime stories (certainly it is integral to the sand art of Indigenous Australians).
On some level, thinking of these things produces the same shock as those urban beach volleyball courts that sometimes pop up, or those beach-themed city bars that entail the trucking in of tons of sand, or even those miniature Zen gardens you sometimes see in offices or reception rooms. By a process of decontextualistion, they make sand seem strange again, uncanny almost in a way it can’t when you’re on a beach and you can hear the stuff grinding down between your teeth as you speak.
In 2015 I interviewed the Indonesian-German performance artist Melati Suryodarmo about her work 24,901 Miles. I wrote: ‘Over a roomful of red sand 15 centimetres deep, Melati Suryodarmo transports a large, white mattress. She carries it on her head in the familiar burden-bearing posture of the Global South, and arches it over her prostrate body as though sheltering from the elements. The other object in the space is an old spade with which Suryodarmo moves, Sisyphus-like, shovelfuls of sand from one part to another without discernable purpose. At other times, it is clear she is attempting to erect a trench or ridge, but the arising of such utilitarian actions seems always accompanied by a sense of defeat – at any moment her sculpting of the landscape may be abandoned, Suryodarmo’s task unfinished as she resumes dragging the spade unproductively around the space, or wearily retreats to the sanctuary of the mattress.’