Big Rock Ahead

Reports last week announced that that it was the collective act of building and rearranging Stonehenge which drew thousands to Wiltshire, rather than its ultimate purpose. What is it about moving rocks that captures our imagination?

The unveiling of one rock balanced on top of another last week in Kensington Gardens (a work by the Swiss artists Peter Fischli and the late David Weiss) might have appeared a somewhat conventional public art commission for the Serpentine Gallery – a monolithic, primordial landmark sculpture. But the movement of these glacial boulders to the London park and the precarious, seemingly temporary, nature of their balancing act alters the impression of this work from one of sculpture to performance. It is the journey and potential collapse of this sculpture which makes it such a powerful gesture.

Might we think about Fischli and Weiss’ sculptural gesture not in terms of monumentality but in terms of action – echoing the ancient human actions of displacement and construction and of course, the glacial displacement of territory over millennia?

Geographer Doreen Massey tells a beguiling story of an immigrant rock which became centre of a poster campaign for the city of Hamburg.

“A huge rock, dredged up in the river Elbe, and which had become loved by the inhabitants of the city, turned out not to be a ‘local’ rock at all. Rather it hailed from the north, probably Sweden, a glacial erratic left behind by the retreating ice. The poster pictured it in a campaign around immigration rights, dubbed the rock ‘our oldest immigrant’. In the production of this poster the understanding of ‘nature’ as endlessly geographically mobile enabled some political messages to be established and, equally significantly, others to be undermined. Most immediately it problematized any notion of intrinsic indigeneity (in the sense of having been eternally present), any question of things being essentially and only local. It problematized the notion of local belonging. It demonstrated both allegorically and materially that local place identity does not grow out of the soil. (If even the soil is not ‘local’…) The importance of such demonstrations was that they undermined certain political claims to place…[a] re-imagination of the ground beneath our feet.”

Could Rock On Top of Another Rock be considered, not only as Peter Fischli has suggested, as “mark-making”, but as a political gesture which unsettles the identity of the Royal Park and its environs?

Last year, the logistical manoeuvre of a 340-ton granite megalith (Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass) from the desert through the streets of LA certainly triggered memorable sights…

Wilshire Drive closes for Levitated Mass

Sign signalling Michael Heizer Levitated Mass movement

…but it was the audacity of the intervention – the movement of one piece of territory to another – which lent this work its political significance.

Alex Hartley’s Nowhereisland saw the geological displacement of an island territory from the High Arctic to South West England last summer during the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. Geographer Tim Cresswell wrote memorably of this place on the move.

Nowhereisland on the move

Nowhereisland was a migrant, Cresswell suggested. Emerging from the melting ice of a retreating glacier, from a place which itself bears the marks of current global crises, Nowhereisland came to represent the migrant’s journey. It was the movement, the journey of this island, rather than its status as a sculptural object or iconic work of Land Art, which encouraged thousands to sign up as Nowhereisland citizens.

The implication of Fischli and Weiss’s precarious action and Heizer’s and Hartley’s movement of one landscape to another is that public sculpture is as much about the formation of a temporary community who witness the act of displacement or the temporary intervention in their locality as it is about the final sculptural form itself.

Claire Doherty
Director, Situations

Image credits:

Installation view, Rock on Top of Another Rock 2013
Serpentine Gallery, London
(7 March 2013 – 6 March 2014)
© Peter Fischli David Weiss
Photo: 2013 Morley von Sternberg

Michael Heizer
Levitated Mass on its way through LA streets to LACMA, 2012
Courtesy LACMA

Alex Hartley
Nowhereisland, 2012
Photo: David Bickerstaff
Courtesy Situations and the artist

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