A trip to Stone Alignments/Solstice Cairns (1979),
a site-work in the East Columbia Gorge
Tuesday, June 21, 2011, 6pm-12am
The occasion is the summer solstice, and the mechanism is Stone Alignments/Solstice Cairns. The mechanism, Michelle Stuart’s first earthwork, was commissioned by the Portland Center for the Visual Arts in 1979. It is endowed with a stunning surround, enhanced by weather, light, and shadow. At 45º41’33.14” (North latitude) and 121º19’01.41” (West longitude), 400 feet above the Columbia River where the Cascadian rainforest gives way to the high desert of Eastern Oregon, is a stone ring. 100 feet in diameter, with cairn-terminated axes delineating magnetic North, it is the point of sunrise and sunset on the longest day of the year. Like many other earthworks, it was designed to synch modern man’s experience to something with primal circuitry. Here, one gets a sense of life as it was for the primitive time-keeper.
The land itself, a high clefting gorge, is old and uncut; the work, against the muscular men’s department of the Land art movement of the 1960s and 70s, stands out as a decidedly feminine variant. Stuart did not bulldoze or mar earth; she let the natural monumentality of the cliffs, the wind, the glacial cut of the Columbia Gorge speak for itself. She picked up stones and piled them into modest rows in an elemental, prehistoric act that distinguishes humans from animals. Cavemen made stone piles, and they worshipped the sun; Stuart’s piece makes no pretense of going any further. Should a green-headed alien stumble upon it, it would not have to be human-like, or very intelligent, to figure out what is going on here. The alien would not have to open its eyes wide to recognize the presence of time as something being done to you, instead of something to be done with. Not to try too hard to make a case for Stuart as a heavy-duty metaphysician (heaven forefend), but this work makes an effort. The lasting effect is that time designs your experience of the work. Time deepens and slows. You get that good caveman feeling that comes with freeing yourself from the boundaries of human measure.
Thirty years after completion, time has worn the piece into a different state. Lacking preservation efforts like those at Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) or Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field (1977), nothing about Stone Alignments/Solstice Cairns suggests it will be there for years to come, so we go to the site to witness and bring questions: What kind of dimension or deformation has the place acquired from age? Will the passage of 32 solstices have made it unrecognizable, and, if so, does it still communicate emphatically? Contextual by definition, earthworks may seem wild, but they too are artificially confined by language, photography, and art history—what happens when those confinements give way? That is, what happens to an earthwork that is not recognized and groomed by art history? Once we’ve seen it and witnessed the purpose for which it was conceived—however moving that may be—then what? Preserve it in photographs, to be experienced secondhand, decontextualized and accompanied by mediating descriptions? Preserve it by hand, placing fallen stones back in order and defying the very passage of time that the piece itself gauges? It’s a problem: how does it live beyond a viewer’s direct, physical, windswept experience? How do we preserve something that’s all about our inability to preserve land and space?
Please join us as we watch the solstice sunset alignment at Stone Alignments/Solstice Cairns on June 21, 2011. This excursion will be an opportunity to experience, in phenomenological terms, an inaccessible and nearly forgotten site-work in its native habitat. It’s a crepuscular alignment of earth, sun, sky, and stones in the Columbia Gorge.