The nights are dark and the mesas isolated, but the stars hang clearly overhead in the desert. It is this spatial dynamic that, in 1971, drew artist Charles Ross Ross from the galleries of New York City to New Mexico in search of a site for “Star Axis,” the architectonic observatory he has been conceptualising and building for the past 49 years.
‘In the beginning, I wasn't completely sure of all the qualities I was looking for in the land,’ says Ross of his four-year search throughout the Southwest. ‘When I finally found this mesa, I realised I had arrived at a place where you could stand at the boundary between earth and sky.’
Star Axis is both sculpture and science. Its calculated relationship with astronomy recalls the pyramids of ancient Egypt. The structure stretches eleven stories high and a tenth of a mile long, and consists of five primary features: two chambers, a 147-step stairway, a pyramid, and the adjacent ‘shadow’ field across which the pyramid’s outline moves with the desert light. Each interconnected component is exactingly calibrated to allow viewers to explore the relationship between time and celestial movement. It’s a massive undertaking of sandstone, bronze, granite, stainless steel and raw earth, built directly into the shelf of the mesa.
‘The piece should rise up out of the land,” says Ross, “not be imposed on it.’
The eighty-two-year-old artist is speaking by phone from the site, 85 miles outside of Santa Fe. Construction on the project, now in its 44th year, is ongoing despite the pandemic, though the team is smaller. Rather than travel back and forth to his home in New York City, he and his wife, painter Jill O’Bryan, plan to stay in New Mexico, isolating in the desert until a vaccine is discovered.
In the meantime, progress on ‘Star Axis’ continues. Ross and his crew are finishing the lower half of the build this week: a long avenue excavated 75 feet into the ground and constructed using ancient Roman building techniques. Here, Ross explains, visitors will “enter the earth to reach the stars.’ Next, they plan to install the bench in the Hour Chamber and finish capping the Solar Pyramid. Ross also needs to pin down an institutional partner to run operations once ‘Star Axis’ is finished. He estimates that will be in 2023. Until then, it will remain off-limits to the public.
Star Axis is often cited as an example of land art. During the revolutionary period of the 1960s and 1970s, conceptually-driven artists such as Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer (whose ongoing piece “City” is located in nearby Nevada) used scale and natural elements to transform rugged landscapes into large totemic sculptures known as earthworks.
With the Pennsylvania-born Ross, the approach was interdisciplinary. Ross studied mathematics at UC Berkeley before completing his masters in sculpture. Beginning in the 1960s, his work with acrylic prisms revealed a fascination with light. In later pieces such as “Sunlight Convergence/Solar Burns,” Ross shifted from the dispersal of light to its focus, using giant lenses to aim the sun’s rays onto wood panels. The resulting scorch patterns, graphic and arresting, traced the curvature of the sun through the sky and deepened the artist’s involvement with astronomy.
Though grounded in the earth, Star Axis is fixed towards the sky. Each aspect of the project’s design has a basis in star geometry—the width of a triangular window, the angle of a limestone wall, the distance between each step. All transmute spatial information about the sky above us, and how the celestial bodies move through time.
The central Star Tunnel, for example, is aligned with the earth’s axis. As a visitor ascends the stairs, they are experiencing a 26,000-year cycle of precession—the earth wobbling on its axis—revealed through a portal at the top of the tunnel. The widening perspective of the sky reveals the shifting orbital path of the star Polaris over time. Ross collaborated with the team at the University of Washington’s Department of Astronomy to precisely date the stairs. Small inscriptions on the handrails will track visitors’ progress from 11,000 BC to 15,000 AD.
Understanding the embedded equations might enrich visitors’ appreciation of Star Axis. Or perhaps something primordial in our bodies recognises the power of the planetary math, even without knowing every angle.
‘Star Axis offers a whole-body experience of star geometry,” says Ross, “and what that might awake in you.’
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