July/August 2005

more feature articles:

Monsters in the Closet
Learning to Love
David Altmejd‚s Werewolves
by David Velasco

Timeline 2005: Charles Ross‚ Star Axis
By Jon Carver

„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.

Star Axis 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.

A spectacular 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)

Star Axis 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.

The 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 future.

Left: Schematic sketches showing the orbits of Polaris as seen from the Star Tunnel (Charles Ross © 2006)

The structure 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 cosmos.

Charles Ross 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 and galaxies.

Star Axis‚ 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.

Means and 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 generosity.

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 intent.

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 the opening.

Like the 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)

While Star 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.

Upon 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 years away.


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