Stones

 

A Time and Place (as it appeared in Art New England, 2002)

 

By Charles Giuliano

 

 

      Charles Giuliano is the director of exhibitions for the New England

School of Art and Design at Suffolk University. He is a contributing editor

and columnist for Art New England, publishes the on line, Maverick

Artsletter and contributes to Nyartsmagazine.

 

 

 

      "There is a time to plant and a time to sow. A time to pluck up that

which is planted. There is a time and place for everything. And everything

in its place," Old Testament.

 

         During the Neolithic period of England, some five to eight

millennia ago, the peoples of that time erected great stone megaliths. The most

famous and widely visited of these is Stonehenge in the South of England

near Salisbury. Today, this post and lintel great circle, shaped like a key

hole with a central altar is understood to have served as a clock and

calendar as well as a site for ritual celebrations of the solstices. The

circle is so precisely configured that twice a year the rising sun perfectly

dissects the great circle. And the daily deviation for this center line

marks the progression of the months and seasons.

 

          This is a level of technology that was derived globally by many

cultures. It was a crucial evolutionary step as early man developed from the

phase of hunter and gatherer to agriculture and domestication of animals.

This allowed for creating cities and societies of ever greater complexity.

 

         All of this is known and readily understood today. The study of

geomancy, (divination by means of some aspect of the earth, particularly by

the observation of points and lines on the earth), is the frequent subject

of documentaries on the Discovery Channel or other television networks. It

is a discussion that continues to intrigue children and students. Tourists

flock to such sites as Stonehenge, the Pyramids of Egypt and Mexico, and

sites all over the world that evoke such celestial reckoning and divination.

 

     Perhaps, we too readily understand. It is too easily explained as a

global phenomenon of Early Mankind. This tends to purge  great sites of

their mystery, power and poetry. They are about more than just inherent

information and links to human development.

 

      In our greater understanding of such architectural and archaeological

phenomena we have become distanced from their greater humanistic,

shamanistic resonance. They convey the important message of a time when

mankind had a more intimate connection to the earth and natural phenomena.

Indeed, their very lives, on every level, depended upon this fragile

connection to nature and divination of the very earth itself.

 

       To plant and sow based purely on the weather, a bright, sunny Spring

day, for example, might be followed by a frost and the disaster of a crop

failure. This would translate into starvation and death. Today, if a crop

fails that just translates as higher prices for produce shipped from some

other part of the world. We have become accustomed to paying more but

enjoying fresh strawberries and asparagus during the winter season. But for

the Druid people of Neolithic England the development of a reliable calendar

was crucial to their very survival. There was  no margin for error in

matters of planting and harvesting.,

 

        It is the power and poetry of these great megaliths that inspired

the video, "Stones," by the artist, Jane Hudson. The footage she shot on

location in Avebury, a British site some 5000 years old, has been digitally

altered to resemble grainy old film. This is to enhance the feeling that it

is vintage documentary footage. But there is no narrative and just a sound

track of the howling March wind and the inclemency of a nasty British Spring

day.

 

       The video piece, projected in large format approximating the actual

scale of the original "Stones," is intended not to be a documentary. It

provokes many interesting questions but offers no answers. The video asks us

to experience these ancient objects in and of themselves. To get a feeling

of just what they are. To become intrigued while sensing  their presence and

power.

 

        Indeed, the experience is artful. There is a zoom in on an isolated

stone. As it comes into focus there are occasional special effects, changes

of lighting, flashes of lightning, signifiers of  an artistic experience.

 

       Presented as a loop, we determine how much or little of our time to

experience the work. There may be a trance like involvement or an abrupt

termination.  The monumental simplicity tends to linger long after we leave

the work itself.  Powerful works of art have that ability to stay with us.

Particularly when impregnated with simplicity and poetry.

 

        " I have traveled extensively to what remains of a number of ancient

civilizations, having been drawn to the question of origins, really since

childhood," Hudson said recently after we had viewed the piece. " From the

pyramids of Mexico and Guatemala to the Neolithic structures of Sardinia and

Ireland, and the great stone temples of England, I have been drawn back,

before history, to the presence of stone. I wonder not at the elegance of

the classical, its precision and aesthetic familiarity, but to the

proto-plinth, the substructure of structure that history has built upon. In

these marvelously obscure constructions, lacking recorded use-value, one is

faced with a production that eludes meaning while insisting on its lost

purpose and its present 'thingness'. There is always a determined shape,

whether enclosure or processional that engenders awe and a connection with

powers both earthly and celestial.

 

          "At this point in time the experience of such places is relegated

to a touristic distance. Even the earnest New Age devotee projects a

fantastic imaginary onto them. Made of a combination of cobbled mysticisms

and media representations, these ideas serve to glamorize the intentions of

the original builders and promote a romantic narrative onto the contemporary

cultures in which they exist. At the same time it is still within our

capacity to experience the sheer magnitude, the scale, the rough certainty

of placements, the basic material, the mother-of-all-matter, stone. We are

taken back, beyond language, to our root gestures toward imaging the shape

of our being, and our relationship to powers beyond our control."

 

          The decision to shoot the work in Avebury, rather than the more

familiar Stonehenge, was precisely to avoid the familiar and obvious. It is

a much larger site that has had an unfortunate history. During the Christian

era in the 8th century AD, a town was established in the very center of the

great circle of megaliths. This was a largely anti pagan gesture to deny and

defuse its religious connotations. There were deliberate acts of

destruction. Stones were knocked down and broken up to provide building

material. Sight lines were blocked and the intention of the site was

destroyed forever. Because Avebury was rougher and more crude it failed to

evoke the more obvious romanticism of Stonehenge which is more close to our

notions of classical post and lintel architecture.

 

       It is, however, this more tragic, primitive and neglected aspect that

attracted the artist. Her act of art making seems more vital and

restorative, a greater act of respect and devotion, of care providing, than

to just exploit the ready recognition of Stonehenge and its familiar

connotations. No, the Avebury site is more of a stretch, fresher, and more

demanding and rewarding in this artistic context.

 

      It is, indeed, a fascinating site. "It is speculated by historians and

geomancers alike that Avebury lay at the heart of a system of scared circles

stretching from the extremities of Cornwall in the west to Yarmouth on the

East Coast of southern England," Hudson explained. " A 'trackway' or

overland route connected these sites and drew pilgrims toward seasonal

celebrations culminating at Avebury.

 

          "Remarkably, this site has remained somewhat obscured to world

travelers who tend to visit Stonehenge as the archetypal Neolithic temple.

Stonehenge resembles out classical notions of architecture, with its

post-and-lintel construction and relatively modest circumference. It is like

a building. Avebury, and other sites of a like period, tend to be demarked

by the standing stones alone. They mark the land, giving prominence to the

natural, magnetic convergences rather than to an edifice and its human

administrators.

 

         "There is an acknowledgement of a relationship between man and the

earth and between the earth and celestial behaviors. Often aligned with

movements of the sun and moon, even constellations, these locations act as

calendars, observatories, and as containment or focusing tools for

magical/spiritual purposes. Placed on the land in relation to the presence

of underground springs or geomantically powerful configurations, they served

to identify and archive the laws that govern the behavior of all living

things.

 

          "Constructed between 4-6 thousand years ago, these circles of

stone represent a profound loss. Until this time people had lived entwined

in the progress of the seasons, understanding the integration of human kind

and nature. With the introduction of agriculture, a certain separation

occurred as man gained control of natural production, forsaking the integral

for the symbolic. Human psyche and its projected imaginary were to become

the determining measure of the Divine."

 

          Discussing the work itself Hudson explained, "I shot them from a

low vantage point enhancing their stature in relation to the ground in which

they settle. They become icons, characteristic and somehow, beyond time.

There is little of contemporary life in the images save the flight of a bird

or a diminuated building.

 

         "I have introduced special effects, lightning, glowing, magical

events, to suggest an affect of innate power. Installed on a grand scale,

the projected images place the demand on the viewer of a visceral

engagement. They pulse in and out of a deep space. Rising as if our of a

loct continuity only to fade again beyond recall. The frame of the images

expands beyound its edges, pressing into the present, and then receding to a

null point from which yet another frame emerges. The sound of the wind, and

insistent drone, seems to carry the images like leaves from their invisible

source."

 

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