Although the word “cairn” comes from the Celtic languages, the idea of piling stones as a monument is pan-cultural and its origins are prehistoric. In treeless uplands around the world, it has been traditional to build stone cairns along a route to mark the way. Each traveler added rocks as they passed so that over time, the cairn became more visible and thus, a better landmark. In Scotland, it was traditional for warriors going into battle to place a stone in a pile, forming a cairn. Warriors who survived the battle carried a stone away. And so the remaining stones became a memorial honoring these who fell.
When the Zuckerman Museum was searching for a visual method to mark the progress of it’s mission, I thought of the ancient tradition of cairns as a way to not only indicate the passage of time, but to memorialize the collaboration between artist, institution and public. Each year, Museum staff, exhibiting artists, and visitors, all partners in the Museum’s mission, contribute to the construction of the cairn. The Museum, as the institution that holds and contains the exhibitions, contributes the base, a cast concrete block that resembles a raw block of granite with a shallow basin carved into the top. The stones that make up the actual cairn are contributions from the artists. For each exhibition that is mounted in the Museum, one stone is contributed to the cairn with an artist from that exhibition actually placing the stone on the pile.
But what about the visitors? As an artist, I like projects that create an experience for viewers as well as a material object. But rather than just being a passive witness of a performance, it is important to me that I find a way for the viewers’ participation to significantly add to the sculpture. I found the answer in geology. Throughout the duration of an exhibition, Museum visitors are invited to add a small handful of objects such as pebbles or seashells to the stacked stones that are dispensed by a modified gumball machine in the lobby. The gumball machine contents vary with each exhibition so that over time, different layers form around the stones reminiscent to the fossil laden layers of sedimentary rock that mark geological time.
The Cairn has an immediate visual impact that speaks to the exhibition history of the Museum but the project also features more detailed information in the form of a searchable database on the Museum website. The database is a simple repository of the Museum’s exhibition history. Each stone in the cairn carries a unique identification number that corresponds to a record in the database. Each record features a photograph of one of the exhibiting artists holding the stone, a list of the exhibition artworks and artists, and links to the exhibition archives.