Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Merlin, Madagascar, and Mori: The Mystic Road to Stonehenge

Mystic origins of the cosmically synced Transcircle 1.1

Jacquetta Hawkes, the British archaeologist and writer, once stated, “Every age has the Stonehenge it deserves—or desires.”

I don’t know which Stonehenge Mariko Mori deserves, but looking at Transcircle 1.1, the Stonehenge-inspired, LED-powered circle of monoliths at the center of her current Rebirth exhibition, it’s clear which one she desires: one that serves as a channel for our ancestors.

With Transcircle’s combination of ancient British and Japanese spirituality, specifically Druidic and Shinto traditions of ancestor worship, Mori joins a long line of people to associate the monoliths with themes of death and rebirth.

Archaeologists and researchers continue to debate the purpose of the standing stones, with theories ranging from the conventional (Stonehenge is some sort of giant celestial observatory) to the curious (the stones were chosen for their acoustic qualities). Though our temporal separation from the founding of the wonder, dated some 5000 years ago, complicates explanation, that hasn’t stopped many, including Mori herself, from positing their own interpretations.

One of the earliest and most enduring stories surrounding Stonehenge stems from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (1136), perhaps best known as the source of much of the King Arthur mythos. Strangely enough, one of the main actors in the Arthur drama also plays an important part in Monmouth’s account of the construction of Stonehenge.

Wishing to erect a monument to several hundred British nobles slaughtered at the hands of the treacherous Hengist, Aurelius Ambrosius, King of the Britons, consults Merlin for advice. “Send for the Giants’ Dance that is on Killare,” the wizard says, prompting an expedition of gallant knights to bring back the stones, or Giants’ Dance, in question. After wresting the stones from the Irish king, Ambrosius’s forces convey them back to Britain, where Merlin uses his magic to set them in their current state. No pullies and cranes. No armies of workers. No rafts. Just magic.

Most relevant to Mori’s work is the fact that Monmouth interprets Stonehenge as a place of burial and commemoration, rather than as the astronomical instrument that others later took it to be. While Mori’s Transcircle 1.1 focuses much more on rebirth than on the finality of earthly burial, both this piece and Monmouth’s Stonehenge tie the monoliths to some aspect of death, exemplifying the “creative stream [reaching] right down to the present” that Mori uses to describe her affinity to that other ancient legacy of Japan’s Jōmon period.

Talking about “creative streams” Mori takes her greatest artistic liberties in interpreting the monoliths through the lens of early Druidism, an idea both widely repudiated and enduringly popular. Though the Druids probably did not appear until around 400 BC, several thousand years after the beginning of the construction of Stonehenge, and also conducted the majority of their rites in groves rather than in temples, this knowledge has not deterred Mori and others from echoing the undoubtedly romantic idea of Druidic mysteries.

“Stonehenge as Druidic temple” owes much to the work of John Aubrey, a 17th-century English antiquarian who both excavated the ring of holes now named after him and wrongly attributed the monoliths to the work of Celtic Druids. However erroneous, this connection, strengthened by a generation of Romantics in later centuries, proved enduring enough to influence both Mori and current neo-pagan groups. While Mori celebrates this tradition through her art, neo-pagans do so by descending upon Stonehenge to mark the solstice—prominent among them, a bearded former soldier who goes by the title of Rev King Arthur Uther Pendragon, Battle Chieftain of the Council of British Druid Orders. [Note: Mori's recent "Sun Pillar" installed on an island in Okinawa prefecture also utilizes the light of the solstice sun (video).]

Arthurian legends and Druidic tie-ins have largely fallen out of favor in today’s Stonehenge research. That being said, an endeavor known as the Stonehenge Riverside Project, responsible for some major excavations of the site in recent years, reflects elements of both traditions, as well as of Mori’s own work.

In his writings on Stonehenge, Geoffrey of Monmouth makes the claim that the stones were transported by giants “from the farthest ends of Africa.” The thought of transporting these monoliths over a distance of a few miles, much less several thousand, seems almost impossibly daunting, placing Geoffrey’s story firmly in the realm of fiction. However, Mike Parker Pearson, the English archaeologist behind the Riverside Project, wouldn’t write Africa out of the story entirely.

Back in 1998, Pearson and Ramilisonina, a Malagasy archaeologist, published a groundbreaking paper in which they drew parallels between Stonehenge and Madagascar’s tradition of ancestor worship, putting forth the idea of a “Stonehenge for the ancestors.” The two drew a comparison between Stonehenge as a home for the dead and Woodhenge, a nearby collection of timber circles they believe to be the remains of a human settlement, as a home for the living. Pearson and Ramilisonina saw the same dynamic at work in Madagascar. Speaking with National Geographic in June of this year, Pearson says,
In Madagascar, they build in stone for the ancestors because it is a permanent medium—permanent like the ancestors—whereas they live in wooden houses because those will perish just like human life will end. I laughed initially and said, "Well, I don't think that's necessarily really going to have anything to do with Britain 5,000 years ago." 
But I realized that actually we did have timber circles very close to the stone circle of Stonehenge. That was quite a bombshell for me.
In light of this research, Mori’s reimagining of Stonehenge in Transcircle 1.1 as a kind of antenna for cosmic and primal energies begins to look far less speculative. Indeed, the immense age and incompleteness of Stonehenge make it open to a variety of interpretations, like all high art and low art.

You can almost imagine the same thing happening in reverse with Transcircle 1.1. Now a centerpiece of an artist’s rebirth, centuries later it falls into disrepair, turning up in some mundane location. What was it for? Who made it? With what purpose? A sun marker. Cemetery. A temple. All of the above. Or none. We can dream, and wonder.

--Andres Oliver

Image: Transcircle 1.1, 2004. Stone, Corian, LED, real-time control system; 132 3/8 inches diam., each stone 43 3/8 × 22 1/4 × 13 1/2 inches. Courtesy of The Mori Art Museum, Tokyo. Installation photograph by Richard Goodbody.

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