Wednesday, November 23, 2005

American Stonehenge

Doesn't look much, does it? Just a bump in the endless scrublands of the American southwest. Actually, it's a modern day Avebury, a hi-tech Carnac, a contemporary pyramid fashioned by laser beams. It's also damn hard to get to.

Star Axis

Seventy miles west of Santa Fe, New Mexico, a dozen miles from the nearest wind-blown desert settlement, one of the world's most extraordinary artworks is nearing completion. Called Star Axis, it is the beloved brainchild of fifty-something US artist Charles Ross.

Star Axis is, its progenitor claims, a 'naked eye observatory'. The essential purpose of Star Axis is the viewing of New Mexico's wonderfully cloudless desert night skies. But the observatory looks like no other earthbound telescope. With its pyramids, stone chambers, viewing platforms and sombre pharaonic staircases, it could be an unexpectedly pristine pre-Columbian excavation, or even the neolithic home of a wistful alien.

For the genesis of Star Axis we have to go back thirty years or more, when Charles Ross was a member of a famous, and infamous, art movement. This movement has had various names over the years - Land Art, Earthworks, or Environmental Art. Whatever its true title, most people agree that Land Art began in 1968, when the Dwan Gallery in New York staged an exhibition of works which all seemed to celebrate and elegise man's relationship with Mother Nature.

Featured in the exhibition were several artists who went on to great fame within the genre. The curator of the exhibition, Robert Smithson, later built Spiral Jetty. This is a huge whorl of dark rocks, that spirals into the polluted pink waters of Utah's Great Salt Lake like the ravenblack hairbang of a Twenties flapper.

Walter de Maria, another Dwan artist, also went on to fame: when he stuck four hundred shining steel javelins in the undulating scrublands of western New Mexico. De Maria entitled this justly celebrated artwork Lightning Field (as it was designed to attract lightning in a storm-prone area). Yet another Dwan gallery luminary, Michael Heizer, chopped 240,000 precise tons of granite from Mormon Mesa in Nevada and called it Double Negative. Heizer labours to this day on the construction of his very own Aztec fortress: Complex One, an enormous edifice of courts, walls and truncated pyramids, sited on Heizer's own remote Nevada ranch.

Compared to these revered artistic names, of Heizer, Smithson and de Maria, that of Charles Ross is relatively lesser known. But with the completion of Star Axis - expected in the next couple of years - he may become more famous than any of his Land Art co-creators.

This fame, if it happens, has been a long time a-coming. Charles Ross first conceived of his artwork in the early 70s. For the next four or five years he and his assistants criss-crossed the desert states of Utah, New Mexico, west Texas, and Colorado, searching for the perfect site. By 1975 they had found their grail; the purchase of Chupinas Mesa followed a few months later.

But that was just the beginning. From the off, Star Axis was a mammoth project, requiring prodigious amounts of preparation. For several more years the site was surveyed from planes, and the artwork mapped out with topographical models. Fully five miles of road were also laid down, to enable access to such a faraway location.

Finally, construction of the art work proper was commenced. Ross & Co excavated the Mesa's central cone, built stone channels, threw up a cone-rim to protect the heart of the work, and constructed various buttresses, walls and towers. All this time, the architect had to be wholly mindful of the true purpose of the artwork - to provide naked eye apertures wherefrom certain cosmic sights and progressions could be viewed. Therefore the building had to be done in the most exact way, with computerised modelling and so forth.

The last few years have seen - funding problems notwithstanding - an acceleration in pace. The buildings have been faced with beautiful grey and ochre stone, which shine in the desert light. Accommodation has also been built, for the selected visitors who will one day be invited.

So, if you are lucky enough to visit this enormous art work, what do you see? Star Axis has four essential elements. The first is the Hour Chamber. From here one can view an hour of the earth's rotation. Charles Ross himself describes it like this: 'The opening of the Hour Chamber is a 15 degree triangle, the amount the sun travels in one hour. When seated on the observing bench positioned in the back and centre of the Hour Chamber, this thirty three foot tall triangular opening frames sixty minutes of the stars directly beneath the pole. This celestial pole is precisely framed by the peak of the triangle.'

Put it another way: this is a room to silently view a shard of the earth's movement, a glimpse of our cosmic dance. Sitting in the darkness of the Hour Chamber is akin to sitting in the nave of a great Gothic church - trying to discern the meaning of that bright blue stained-glass window in the choir.

This reverent ambience is underlined by the solemn climb to the Hour Chamber: up through the so-called Solar Pyramid. This itself is the second element of Star Axis. Practically speaking, the Solar Pyramid is a kind of sun dial: its triangular shadow marches across the desert floor as the hours pass. This 'shadow field' has been closely designed on astronomical and aesthetic principles; the size of the shadow field also changes with the seasons. The echoes of the great Aztec pyramids, eight hundred miles to the south of Star Axis - and similarly designed on heavenly principles - are obvious.

The third artistic compass point of Star Axis is the Equatorial Chamber. This was almost an afterthought - Ross only built it when he was devising an entrance to his piece de resistance, the Star Tunnel. The Equatorial Chamber is a kind of Mayan hallway, a place to 'reorient yourself' within the building, and with the heavens above. This intense space also happens to be precisely aligned to the earth's axis, and is perpendicular to the equator.

The final element of Star Axis, and its spiritual core, is the Star Tunnel. Here's how Charles Ross describes his coup de theatre: 'At the center of the Star Axis site, an inverted cone has been carved deep into the capstone of the mesa and lined with rock masonry. Within this cone a specially constructed tunnel will rise eleven stories. Visitors will enter the tunnel from the bottom of the cone and walk up the stairs in perfect alignment with the Earth’s axis and its outward extension to the stars. As the axis moves away from Polaris to point to other regions in the sky, the relationship between Polaris and the pole diverges in ever-widening circles.'

As he goes on the explain, in the Star Tunnel the earth's '29,920 year time frame of precession' is 'spatially experienced by moving up or down the tunnel's staircase'. In other words, the heavens above are turned into a slot to view astronomical time. Being in the Star Tunnel is like being in a Soho peep show - but looking at Moses. It's odd, and unnerving, and ultimately rather moving.

There are other touches. Dates engraved in each stair of the Star Tunnel identify the years relating to the stars above. Thus, as Charles Ross puts it, the visitor can view the orbit of Polaris as it existed for Nefertiti, or Plato, or Leonardo da Vinci, or as it was in the Stone Age and will be again in A.D. 13,000. Other apertures are designed to make certain stars appear at certain angles, and so on.

If this sounds like a paean, it shouldn't. Star Axis, like all Land Art, is not without its flaws and its detractors. Many people ask how these gigantic artworks can justify the despoliation they represent. And standing a few hundred yards from the Solar Pyramid of Star Axis, it's easy to see that point of view. Did the desert ask to be sliced open and imposed upon? Do the mesas and the wilderness gain from such 'arrogantly' artistic interpretations?

And yet, and yet. The same criticisms could be levelled at the great megalithic monuments of Carnac, Kilmartin, Silbury Hill and Newgrange -along with many others. And this just goes to show the exalted company Star Axis keeps. As it rises from the sandy wastes of New Mexico, Star Axis is sincere evidence that man has not lost his intuitive connexion with the heavens, his ability to celebrate our earthly condition in a humble yet magnificent manner. Whoever threw up those sarsen stones on Salisbury Plain would feel very much at home amidst the sagebrush and the pyramids of Chupinas Mesa.

Star Axis is scheduled for completion in 2006.

For plentiful information on visits and funding go to

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