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ELECTRIC STONEHENGE

Atlanta Art Papers, by Charles Lyman

 

In the late 1880's, Louis Lumiere invented one of the world's first movie cameras and took a picture of a train arriving at a railway platform. Every filmmaker knows that when the film was first shown, the spectators in the front seats panicked and jumped for fear that the image of the train would run them down. Th eir personal sense of space had been invaded by an illusion. The idea of such complete contact between the audience and the art has fascinated filmmakers ever since. The idea is to break down the viewer's sense of detachment, and involve him completely in the world represented on the screen.

The present tradition of filmmaking and showing has evolved along lines already proven effective in the dramatic theatre. Most films are shown on a fixed screen on a proscenium, in front of an audience sitting in a darkened room facing forward. The audience is expected to remain quiet and unmoving throughout the performance (except for laugher).

But, concurrent with this steady and successful development of that tradition, has been an experimental cinema which seeks to expand beyond the original 3:4 screen size ratio to a totally involving, environmental image. The shared characteristic of all these attempts has been to make the process of watching a film more like the physical process of seeing, where the viewer is surrounded on all sides by three dimensional reality, and must constantly make choices as to what to watch next. There have been many attempts to expand the screen and image to fill the peripheral vision of the spectator. Abel Gance began working with three screen polyvision in the 1920's, and similar ideas have been explored through cinerama and the wide screen presentations common today, to the 360 degree movie pavilions seen at world's fairs or Disneyland. There has been interesting work done with three dimensional images, and we may have holographic moving images in the not too distant future. A detailed discussion of these works is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say that there have been at least as many disappointments as successes, and that it is difficult to get beneath the showy spectacle of multi-screen presentations to the human values which are the heart and purpose of art.

My theory is that this is chiefly the result of a failure to recognize that films designed for a two dimensional screen in front of the audience are a total different medium that films designed for projection around the audience. The single, frontally located screen is a window through which one views a play on reality. The traditional forms of the dramatic theatre - plot, structure, dialogue, personal identification with a character - can all apply to what goes on in that window. Multiple images, on the other hand, imply a surrounding space defined by light, and the effect of that space on the viewer is better understood by comparing it to architecture than to traditional film.

Projected space, like architectural space, takes effect on the mental and bodily sense of location, balance, and direction. It tends to be abstract rather than specific and informational, and appeals to the subconscious and the emotions as much as the rational intellect. The sense of space involves the feeling of being lost and found, directed or directionless, balanced or dizzy, sheltered or exposed. These sensations are primal, and like territorial imperative, are felt by most animals. In addition, there are the specifically human feelings of sanctified and taboo space, chaotic and calm space, clean and dirty space, beautiful and ugly space, and so on.

The raw material, the empty canvas of space created by light is a dark void. Darkness is most readily controlled, and therefore performances are most commercially feasible, indoors. But being indoors will always imply shelter, security, and an ordered environment. I am interested in the ancient and now largely subconscious need to locate oneself in outdoor space, to establish a relationship with the surrounding landscape, the sky and the elements, the movement of the sun and stars. The need is subconscious in most modern people, because the majority of the world's population lives in urban spaces which are almost entirely man made. These people are protected from the elements, shut off by atmospheric conditions from the stars, and largely independent of day and night because of artificial light. They navigate the landscape using roads and signs and when they are lost, they can refer to maps which not only show them where to go, but can also account for who owns every yard of earth along the way. They are connected to a system of landmarks, and the grid of imaginary lines which civilization has laid over the earth, and except under unusual emergency conditions, are never lost in a landscape space in the desperate and dangerous sense that early man became lost. Nevertheless, those modern men who have missed their bearings in an ocean fog, or endured the sensory deprivation of a totally dark and silent space, can testify that the instinctive terror of being exposed and lost still exists.

Five years ago I moved my family from Chicago to a farm in the countryside of central Florida. Almost immediately I began building a permanent structure which would allow for experiments with light created space in an outdoor landscape. This construction has developed into a complex of platforms and towers on the crest of a hill in a tropical landscape. The structure and the beams of light and images which animate it have become a reflection of my own desire to come to grips with a new landscape. As I have designed and built, I have come to feel a profound link with the landscape art of prehistoric man.

It is clear that spatial location was of such importance to prehistoric man that mental mapping became involved with and often indistinguishable from cosmology and religion. Probably the details of calendar making, mapping, and the establishment of a point from which all other points and directions were measured were mysteries understood and exploited by priests and shamans. Presumably it was these savants who organized the construction of extraordinary monuments, like Stonehenge or Carnac, where rites could be celebrated outdoors by crowds of people. We know nothing of the rites, but it is clear that the monuments are intended to celebrate a way of seeing, of orienting men in space, time and landscape. For example, the Nascar line of Peru and the white horse of Uffington, England, are enormous, outdoor line sculptures whose areas cover square miles. Their outlines are cut into the landscape with ditches and mounds, and their size and scale are such that they can be seen only from hilltops miles away, or better yet, from the air.

These lines are the work of people who navigated their landscape using a system of trails and landmarks, supplemented wherever possible with a view from a high place. Some otherwise undifferentiated landmarks might be specially marked. These landmarks might also serve as personal or tribal boundaries. There is a quantum leap of imagination between this sort of understanding of space, which develops sequentially in the course of travel from one spot to the next, and the sort of god-like overview implied in mapping technique, where the landscape is miniaturized and described with symbols. A similar leap of the imagination occurred to the Nascar builders, who had to imagine what their work would look like from the air. Their lines might be thought of as both the brand which distinguished their territorial space from other men's, and as a signal or offering to the heaven dwelling gods, who alone were in a position to see them completely. If there were ceremonies associated with them they probably involved the participants walking along the lines, as one would a hunting path, redefining and identifying the outline. The White Horse of Uffington has been scoured in a cleaning ceremony every few years for thousands of years.

The hill figures imply a viewpoint, an orientation to the landscape on which they are etched. So do the standing menhirs (rocks) of Carnal in Southern France. There enormous boulders have been set up in parallel row across a mile and a half of rolling countryside. These rows become sightlines through the landscape.

For the viewer who stands between them, they form perspective lines (like the disappearing railroad track) which allow a judgment of distance. In this, in the strobing or marching men's effect on the viewer who walks past successive men hits, and in the regular shadows formed by the moving sun striking the rows obliquely, Carnak is the remote ancestor of the colonade. Its ceremonial use was presumably as a processional, to be walked or paraded through. One end probably provided its climax and conclusion.

Carnak and the Nascar lines provide spatial location by means of landmarks and sightlines. Another leap of imagination is necessary for orientations in wastes without landmarks, such as the ocean, plains, or deserts, particularly at night. This requires sights of the sun and stars, Next in complexity is an understanding of solar time itself, and the development of a calendar, thus providing self-location in both time and space. Stonehenge, on the Salisbury plain in England, is precisely located in its landscape according to the movement of celestial bodies and the passage of calendar time. It consists of several concentric circles of huge, standing stones. These stones and the gaps between them coordinate to define a series of views and sightlines of the surrounding landscape for the viewer. The stones are also arranged so that the sun and moon rise over or between them at certain times of the year. When the sun rises on a sightline directly over the "heel stone," for example, it signals the beginning of the summer solstice. Recent research using computer processed data has determined that the stones are also used to locate stars in the night sky.

The awesome power of these ancient monuments, still potent after thousands of years, was always on my mind as I began construction of my own backyard monolith. I wanted a structure which was non-utilitarian, which did not provide shelter except in the spiritual sense, which embraced and interlocked with the landscape. Like the ancient ceremony centers, it was to be a place for the celebration of and event by a large group of people. It was to establish this group in relation to the landscape around it and the sky above it. It was to be a landmark in space and a reference point in time. Up to this time my work in film and film events had been fragile, portable and ephemeral. Here I sought permanence, and chose telephone poles and cypress timbers mounted in cement as materials. I wanted the sheer magnitude of the structure to speak for the human effort and commitment involved in its making.