Saturday, August 21st, my wife and I made a group trip with a number of other people to the Star Axis
in northeast New Mexico. The trip was arranged and led by the Contemporary Art Society of Albuquerque as part of the Land/Art New Mexico
exhibitions, and about 2 dozen people caravanned by car out of Albuquerque at 8:15 or so in the morning, after we all signed papers waiving our right to sue if we got hurt, and agreeing to use no photography. After a designated meetup at the Clines Corners
truck stop, we traveled an additional 45 or so miles to Highway 84 and turned north. A little past the village of Anton Chico
, we turned off onto a dusty ranch road, and followed it through brush, cacti, and cattle as it wound around a set of lonely mesas. On top of the farthest mesa we could see an interesting structure, its lower part cutting into the mesa and the upper part rising slightly out of it, almost like a knife wound into the escarpment with a little piece of the knife sticking out the top.
Upon reaching the top of the mesa, we were met by the artist who conceived and is currently constructing the Star Axis, Charles Ross
. He was accompanied by his wife, a Korean art student who is serving as his intern for the summer, and his three-legged dog Star. After a quick introduction, we started walking the few steps to the top of the mesa. We circled a small, pyramid type structure and then walked over to a very low rock wall, where we were greeted by a stunning view to the south and a sheer drop off into the human-constructed canyon that is the lower part of the Star Axis.
As a layman, it was hard to wrap my mind around what the Star Axis is. Here is what I know. The artist, Charles Ross, had been working on art, some involving prisms and others involving “solar burns,” that had led to some intimate knowledge of the movements of the stars and the constellations. Humans have always used the stars to orient ourselves to our world and our universe, to mark our places in time, and to build monuments. In particular, certain stars have distinguished themselves, and many of the monuments of past civilizations, such as the Egyptian pyramids
and the structures in Chaco Canyon
, have had their architecture based on astronomical observation.
Our earth spins on an axis, but the axis itself is not stable
. Like a spinning top as it slows down develops a wobble, our earth wobbles on its axis. The wobble is not noticeable to us, but over a 26,000 year cycle, the wobble results in a regular change between North Stars. The North Star we see today, Polaris
, was not the North Star that the Egyptians used to align their great pyramids 5000 years ago. That star was Thuban
, and Polaris was somewhere else in the night sky. In 5000 years or so, Alpha Cephei
will replace Polaris as the North Star, and 7000 years after that, Vega
will be the North Star that some future humans or other sentient race on earth will steer their ships by. Because of this wobble in Earth’s rotation, the axis of our planet traces out a circle in the sky over 26,000 years, with each of these four stars becoming in turn the North Star.
Ross is in the process of creating a monumental work of art that, like the pyramids and Chaco Canyon, unites our world with the stars. The Star Axis consists of a diagonal cut in the earth, up which a series of stairs leads up to an opening to the sky and to Polaris. The angle of the cut and the stairs parallels exactly the axis around which the Earth revolves. The ascent up the stairs basically takes one through the 26,000 year cycle of the earth’s wobble. If one stands at the bottom of the stairs today, and looks to the top, one will see Polaris. If one stays there all night, one will see Polaris move in a small circle about the size of a dime. However, as centuries and millennia pass, the circle that Polaris describes will get larger and larger. In 5000 years, a person standing farther up the stairs would see Polaris inscribe a larger circle, and another 5000 years after that an even larger circle as long as they stood farther up the stairs. The stairs, cut into the mesa, is part of the artist’s vision to bring people to view the heavens from inside the Earth.
At the top, a chamber inside the capping pyramidal structure has a bench in which one can sit and watch the stars move across the night sky. Each star takes one hour to make the trip across the opening of the pyramid. Unfortunately, we visited in the daylight, so we did not get to see the astronomical effects of the Star Axis. We did have many chances to talk with the artist. The monument is being built on land that was obtained from a ranch owned by John F. Kennedy’s ranching advisor, who asked Ross what he needed and when he was told about a square mile of land, said “well, go out and pick one, we have lots of those.” We learned that Charlize Theron
almost took a header over the edge of the installation while running at night – just managing to catch her hands on the wall as her body went over the edge. The monument has been under construction since the late 1970s, and each year, depending on funding, 2-5 months of work are put into it. Ross envisions the place as a destination for small groups of people, up to 6, who will stay in a guest house and have the installation to themselves overnight where they can watch the stars and have an astronomical, astrological or even spiritual experience.
A number of interesting questions came up from the group. The monument is supposed to stand for 26,000 years or so, and one man wanted to know what might happen in the far future, when perhaps a very different world means that the United States does not exist. “Who can predict the future?” asked Ross, and said that funding will be set aside for its maintenance for as long as human laws hold out. Ross said that if full funding could be reached immediately (about $2 million), the installation could be completed in five years. However, funding is coming in a trickle, hence the limited time that he is able to work on it each year. I asked if he has made provisions for the project’s completion should he not live to see it through to the end. His answer was ambiguous: “Sort of.” He appears to be adding more to the design and rethinking his original plans even as the project moves forward, and has said that the Star Axis has grown beyond his original vision.
Whether Ross completes it or not, the Star Axis is a real glimpse into the mind of an artist with a burning vision, as well as a way for humans to connect to earth and sky in a way that broadly parallels the ancients while also allowing contemplation of past and future. I am glad I visited, and only regret I might not get its full experience, under the lonely New Mexico night, with stars burning the sky and perhaps the lonely howl of a coyote in the distance.
If you want to see some stunning photos of the Star Axis, visit the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History
, where a number of Edward Ranney's photos chronicle the 30 some odd years of its construction, and where you can see a scale model of the installation. Additionally, at 1:00 p.m. on August 30th
, Edward Ranney and Charles Ross will be speaking of the Star Axis at the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History.