Charles Ross‚ Star Axis
„You‚re a shinin‚ star, no matter who you are,
shinin‚ bright to see, what you can truly be.š
ųEarth, Wind, and Fire
Being what you can truly be is nirvana.
Enlightenment is continual realization of the self in the world
and of the world in the self. Every mystical experience seeks a
reconciliation of heaven and earth, a union of the cosmos and
the individual, and a fusion of the individual in the cosmos.
Einstein once told us that our feet stay on
the ground as a result of all the combined forces in the
universe. Higher Physics theorizes that we inhabit an
eleven-dimensional cosmos that is simultaneously expanding and
contracting. „Science,š in the words of sculptor Charles Ross,
„is finally hitting the wall of mysticism.š
Charles Ross, buttresses at night with 90 minute star trails,
Star Axis, 1971Ųin progress, Chupinas Mesa, New Mexico, outside
dimensions: eleven stories by 1/10th mile (photo: Charles Ross © 2006)
An architectonic earthwork and naked eye observatory, Star Axis
anchors star geometry in earth and rock: every shape, every
angle, every structure is determined by star alignments. Inside
Star Axis you are precisely aligned with Earth‚s axis. The
chambers and Star Tunnel provide places to experience Earth‚s
spins in different time framesųone hour of Earth‚s rotation, the
shape of a season, the historical increments of the 25,920 year
cycle of precession.
is a rock-solid master-mix of astronomy, spirituality,
philosophy and for the most part, art. Conceived in 1971, this
eleven stories high, half-mile wide earthwork is in its final
phase of completion. Once finished, it will stand alongside
Robert Smithson‚s Spiral Jetty as one of a few truly
incredible artistic accomplishments of our time.
clear light bathes the high desert mesas of Northern New Mexico,
amplifying color and form. Its intense visual pleasure has
unsurprisingly drawn artists such as Charles Ross, a sculptor
working mainly with light, to the area. In 1965, Ross began
working with human-scaled prisms of his own design to throw
brilliant bands of spectral sunlight across architectural
interiors around the world. As the earth turns, luminous
rainbows play across floors, walls, and ceilings, demonstrating
the natural passage of time.
In 1993, Ross was commissioned
by the French Ministry of Culture to produce a permanent
installation for the Fifteenth-century Château d‚Oiron in the
Loire Valley. The Year of Solar Burns was created on the
Star Axis site by successively placing 365 identical wooden
planks under a huge magnifying glass for a day. Crossing the
sky, the sun burnt a slow arc into each panel, indexing its
daily course. Placed end to end in the order of their making,
these arcs created a beautiful double spiral. „All great art is
about discovery and perception,š states Ross. This appearance of
a spiral form was a marvelous surprise for the artist.
Charles Ross, Star Axis: daytime view of buttresses (photo:
Charles Ross © 2006)
holds many such wondrous mappings of celestial geometry for art
watchers and stargazers alike. Every line, shape, and angle of
this monumental sculpture has been determined by Ross‚
astronomical calculation and checked by satellite repeatedly.
The construction is off by a millimeter or less in any
direction. Such precision is only one of the hallmarks of his
accomplishment. The ineffable rarely finds such empirical proof.
centerpiece of Star Axis is the Star Tunnel. A
partially enclosed, specially constructed stairway rises in the
center of an inverted cone carved into the mesa‚s bedrock and
secured with six-foot thick rock masonry walls. This stairway
runs parallel to the pole-to-pole axis of the earth. Were it
constructed on the North Pole, it would rise straight up. On the
equator, it would run along the ground. Here, where the Sangre
de Cristo Mountains meet New Mexico‚s eastern plains, its angle
makes for a fairly comfortable ascent.
Our blue-green planet wobbles
on its axis, going through a 25,920 years cycle. The axis of the
earth now points to Polaris, the North Star, shining brightest
in the sky. This isn‚t always the case. For the ancient
Egyptians, the pole star was Thuban. In about 11,000 years, the
pole star will be Vega. 26,000 years from now Polaris will be
back on top. The Star Tunnel compresses this vast time
span, so that we can experience it as a succession of moments.
Walking up the steps that are each inscribed with a series of
years from 11,000 B.C.E. to 15,000 C.E., a zenithal circular
portal allows us to see Polaris‚ widening spiraling positions as
it passes through what astronomers call precession. Plato called
this phenomenal cycle „The Great Year.š Standing on one of the
steps, Polaris can be seen as he saw it. A lower step shows the
North Star as it appeared before the Bronze Age. Further up,
Polaris can be encountered as it shone for Copernicus. The Star
Tunnel is a time-travel device. Ascension takes us from deep,
deep in the past, through the present, and far, far into the
Left: Schematic sketches showing the orbits of Polaris as seen
from the Star Tunnel (Charles Ross © 2006)
has four other main elements. The Solar Pyramid projects
the sun‚s daily and seasonal movements across the Shadow
Field. The Shadow Field indexes the bow-shaped path
of the pyramid‚s shadow, lengthening in the winter and
contracting in the summertime. Located in the heart of the
pyramid, the Hour Chamber allows us to experience one
hour of the earth‚s rotation. The Equatorial Chamber,
which is the entrance to the Star Tunnel, is a stage for
the stars traveling directly above the equator. With granite
walls corresponding to the angle of the sun on the longest and
shortest days of the year, the experience of standing inside the
Star Tunnel is to literally inhabit the shape of the
seasons. The deftness of the form of this room produces a sense
of peace based in bodily memory, for anyone attuned to the sun.
In fact, this feeling of alignment and oneness with the cosmos
is the work‚s truest purpose. An intellectual grasping of
Star Axis‚ astro-geometry matters less than viscerally
experiencing your individual body‚s profound relation to the
contends that all these angles and shapes are built into our
DNA. Indeed, how could it be otherwise? This holism is broadly
ignored by late-capitalist culture to our severe detriment.
Star Axis‚ greatest achievement may be its declaration in
solid stone of our absolute oneness with nature. Materialized
and monumental, Star Axis makes this unity stunningly
obvious. We are spun from the same spiral that lets leaves
follow the sun, keeps snails in their shell, transverses tides,
holds planets in orbit, and lights the eternal night with stars
massive rock walls and Masonic pyramidal shape have inevitably
been compared to the ancient monuments of architectural history.
Egyptian pyramids, Stonehenge, and Mayan and Aztec ruins easily
come to mind. While there are many similarities, the
distinctions between Ross‚ work and these artifacts are equally
important. If these ancient monuments are all architectonic, Star Axis is decisively sculptural. The work‚s experience
has little to do with the spatial enclosure of architecture.
Star Axis: Lower Star Tunnel (photo: Charles Ross © 2006) The
Star Tunnel is eleven stories high and exactly parallel to the
earth‚s axis. A circle at the top of the stairs frames all of
the orbits of Polaris over time.
methods of construction also elucidate significant differences.
While the projects of antiquity were predominantly realized by
tyrannical regimes through systematic exploitation, Star Axis
is the result of the good will of a handful of benefactors and
the work of a small crew, which includes the artist. From this
perspective, Star Axis is the inverse of those brutal,
yet beautiful edifices of the ancient world. It pays homage to
the simple and complex wonders of nature, not to a particular
cult and/or ruler. It exalts each and every individual who has
the good fortune to experience itųas the song says, no matter
who you are. Nor is Star Axis a monument to Ross. Quite
unassuming and mindful not to overdetermine the work‚s
interpretation, the artist provides modest explanations, and
foregrounds his desire that the work speak for itself. His is a
joyous humility before the wonder and mystery of being. In this
sense, Star Axis is nothing less than an act of supreme
If his detractors, who
criticize Ross for overweening ambition, are looking for the
grand edifices of our current society, they ought rather
consider the Fresh Kills Landfill outside of Manhattan. Along
with the Pyramids at Giza and the Great Wall of China, this is
the largest evidence of human activity visible from outer space.
Like the former, it was „builtš upon the backs of millions. It
also clearly states our culture‚s incredible wastefulness. Star Axis is by comparison modest in size, and far kinder in
Star Axis: looking out from the Equatorial Chamber (photo:
Charles Ross © 2006).
From inside the Equatorial Chamber you can view all the stars
that travel along the equator. During the spring and fall
equinoxes, the sun appears to travel in a straight line across
architectural experiments of Arakawa and Gins [see ART PAPERS
29:2], this is art predicated on the body in movement. The work
is a sculpture to be performed. It only exists as the
viewer-participant navigates the spaces it encompasses.
Activated by the sensate individual, it is literally and
metaphorically open-ended. As Star Axis extends
physically toward the infinite, it simultaneously stretches into
the unconscious. It is both timeless and shaped by the temporal
specificity of experience. It raises fascinating philosophical,
spiritual, and scientific questions concerning the relationship
of the body and humanity to the cosmos and the seamless expanse
of time. It makes intensely palpable the pondering of who we
are, why we are here, and the true nature of the universe.
You could approach Star Axis
from the perspectives of any number of religious or secular
belief systems or obsessions. In each case, the wonder is that
the work would seem to be affirmative. It is a beautiful place
for a Buddhist to meditate. A Christian could make it an
open-air church. A Satanist would marvel at the magnificent
depth of darkness, and a New Ager awaiting the arrival of the
Pleidians might see it as a docking station for extraterrestials.
An Atheist would have her atheism confirmed, and a Taoist could
find peace in the perpetual interplay of light and dark, the
cosmic cycles of yin and yang. A Jew would come
away a Jew, a Muslim would confirm his faith, a Pagan would find
good reasons for polytheism, and best of all, an aesthete will
experience the bliss of pure beauty. All involved would tap into
the original wonder and awe before the fundamental mystery that
set them on their various mystical paths to begin with.
Astronomers were our first priests and priestesses. When I asked
Charles Ross if Star Axis has a ritual function, he
paused for a moment then said quite simply, „I‚m not looking to
establish a cult.š
Star Axis: day and night (composite photo: Charles Ross © 2006)
Axis is so seemingly universal, and will look, upon
completion, as if it has been in the land forever, the fact of
its being conceived in 1971 by a Berkeley
mathematician-turned-sculptor makes perfect sense. It reflects
the optimism of that turbulent period, when we believed war
could be stopped, and consciousness evolved. In our dark days,
we sorely need a return to that kind of life affirming optimism.
It begins and
ends with the capacity for mystery. What existentialism called
the void is the new humanism. Cosmos might be a better term for
it. Void implies immense emptiness, a lack, while the world is
exuberantly energetic and fecundųfrom your bellybutton to the
Big Dipper and back. This brief life, the short stay of humanity
is the tiniest part of the big picture. Art has never been as
long as it is in the example of Star Axis.
Star Axis with two hour star trails (photo: Charles Ross © 2006). The bright star near the center is Polaris.
completion the site will include a visitors quarters, making it
possible to spend the starry night. It will be well worth the
pilgrimage. Time alone will tell if Star Axis becomes a
monument to a lost civilization, or a monument to what a
holistic civilization might become. In Star Axis human
individuality is not so much erased (the false goal of too many
mystical and religious doctrines) as placedųplaced solidly on
the earth and simultaneously in the heavens.
Jon Carver lives and works at the back of a box
canyon in Lamy, New Mexico. Profiling thirty-two New Mexican
sculptors, his book 3-D Art/Techne was recently published by
Fresco Fine Arts of Albuquerque. His reviews from the environs
of Santa Fe can be found in ART PAPERS.
Star Axis‚ planned completion date is still a few short