Photos: Charles Ross
The rise of land art related to outer space in the 1970s can be regarded as the artist’s answer to the metaphysical questions that arose from man’s landing on the Moon in 1969. In the southern parts of North America—Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Nevada—three projects help us to understand the Moon and beyond, two of which remain unfinished.
“A small step for man, a giant leap for mankind.” Neil Armstrong chose his words wisely. To capture the essence of something so big, so far away and so incomprehensible, the words we use to describe it can make all the difference. That is why it is so difficult to talk about space without metaphors. From naming our planets after Roman deities, to the coining of the term “space race” in the 1960s, our perception of the Universe has always been steeped in allegory. The seemingly infinite realm of outer space is simply too complex to grasp in ordinary words—which is why an understanding of its proportions is so sought after in art.
An example of this is Charles Ross’ STAR AXIS, which started in 1971 and aims for completion in 2022. At its outside dimensions, STAR AXIS is eleven stories high and one- tenth of a mile across. His project is both an architectonic sculpture and a naked eye observatory. More than De Maria it relates to astronomy – Ross uses star alignments in different time scales and molds them into sculptural form. Ross, with this work, intuitively proportionalizes Humankind within the context of the vastness that surrounds us.
But unlike De Maria the visitor is not surrendered to the Infinite Powers Beyond. By building this instrument Ross actually gives Man a self-controlled power to see, understand and experience Space, without any additional instruments other than his work of art. Quite literally so. To find the ultimate site he drove around the southwest during four consecutive summers. There were technical requirements, of course, but there was another, more mysterious quality needed. “Somehow, I kept returning to the mesas of New Mexico. Later I realized that the powerful spirit of this land gave me a feeling of standing at the boundary between Earth and sky. Here, both elements have equal weight, and you can see the curvature of the Earth as you look out into the ocean of light that plays across the plains.”
When The Guardian came by for a visit in 2016, Charles Ross put it this way: “If you spend enough time there, a different part of your awareness wakes up. I think there’s a recognition within the body of these alignments that we’ve had for ever. It’s in our genetic code. A place like Star Axis lets that code express itself.” Ross actually thinks of Star Axis as sky art rather than land art. But the real point of his creation, he says, is sensing your place in the universe. “I never feel small under the stars at Star Axis, I feel more like, ‘Wow, all of this has been made for me – for all of us.”
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