As an art historian with a preference for permanently sited earthworks and austere, large-scale sculpture, I’m drawn to art that heightens my awareness of space and scale. From photographs, it appeared as though the freestanding bluestones and sarsen trilithons (two vertical stones topped by a horizontal) of Stonehenge would offer just that. While the anthropological and archaeological investigations of the site have their own fascination, there might be something to be gained in approaching Stonehenge phenomenologically, as one would a minimalist sculpture, with a focus on the spaces between the stones, the stones themselves and their relationship to the viewer.
The initial impression of Stonehenge is striking. An arrangement of gray stones rises straight up from the flat ground, by far the tallest forms in the vicinity. It is impossible to get right up to them most days of the year. Since 1978, in order to protect the site, visitors have been kept to a footpath that runs around the perimeter, still allowing for fairly close proximity, but not for direct engagement. Walking around the path, the view of the stones constantly shifts. They appear framed in subtly different ways perceptible to the careful observer. The presence of smaller stones, initially blocked from view by the larger ones, is gradually revealed. While imposing, Stonehenge seems scaled for human interaction. The spaces between the stones, aptly referred to as “doorways” as early as the year 1130, are inviting even in its currently compromised state, and could easily allow for multiple people to enter the circle simultaneously, one from each space.
These tangible observations are in line with the principles of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the French philosopher whose focus on human perception and lived experience provided a theoretical legacy for some 1960s and 70s art that still resonates today. Merleau-Ponty observes that in perceiving an object, “for every change of distance or orientation, [there is] a corresponding change of shape and size.” Among other properties, including light and color, he replaces objective size with subjective scale, thus acknowledging the primacy of lived experience. This earthbound approach is centered on immediate engagement rather than on preconceived ideas, and can thus be a catalyst to seeing with fresh eyes, helpful for seeing something as familiar through reproduction as Stonehenge.
This direct engagement can also open the way for perceiving Stonehenge’s transcendent qualities, as its sum is much larger than its parts. Stonehenge may have once been the equivalent of a great cathedral in terms of its purpose and the massive group efforts involved with its construction. Today, no longer regularly used in ritual, it still possesses a mute power. We may not know specifically how it was understood as a spiritual site over time, but we can nevertheless fathom that it was. The enormity of geological time combined with the longevity of the site and the stark presence of the stones has a potent effect when standing before it.
How does this compare to the experience of recent sculpture? Richard Serra’s Every Which Way, 2015, for example, has strong formal affinities with Stonehenge. It consists of sixteen rectangular monoliths made of steel, 7, 9 or 11 feet in height, arranged in an orderly fashion with spaces in between them. Walking amid them provides a heightened sense of awareness of one’s size in relation to their varying heights. The viewer becomes aware of each change of direction and of how the steel forms relate to the spaces between them. Both Stonehenge and Serra’s sculpture derive meaning from relationships between simple forms and the space they occupy, employing heavy, dense and virtually immutable materials. Both were intended as situations for a roving spectator-participant. While Every Which Way has been exhibited indoors, its weatherproof material allows for a potential home outdoors, where, as with Stonehenge, the conditions of weather and light would add to the experience. Stonehenge and Every Which Way are open propositions without fixed meanings, Stonehenge because so much about it is still unknown, and Every Which Way because the viewer’s engagement is needed for its completion. Even its title stresses the bodily experience of moving around the objects.
Beyond these correspondences or perhaps because of them, Stonehenge helps us see Every Which Way as more than its simple structure. The similarity of Every Which Way to Stonehenge, whether conscious or unconscious, is part of what imbues Serra’s sculpture with a deeply emotive and brooding presence, a sense of power and a somber promise to withstand time. This relationship can be extended to other large-scale artworks comprised of upright geometric forms, created in a world in which Stonehenge has always stood as an example.
The comparison is illuminating in the other direction as well. There is indeed something to be gained in approaching Stonehenge as we would a minimalist sculpture. Using the phenomenology of experience as a starting point complements investigations of the history of the stone circle by returning us to the surprise and fascination of a direct encounter with something awe inspiring, and connecting us across time to others who have stood in the same place.
Julie Reiss is Program Director for Modern and Contemporary Art and the Market at Christie’s Education New York. She gained her B.A. from Reed College and an M.Phil and Ph.D. from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. A pioneering scholar in the field of installation art, she is the author of From Margin to Center: The Spaces of Installation Art (MIT Press, 1999), as well as numerous articles and reviews.