Cosmic Collisions


The unprecedented observations of two neutron stars merging reported this week mark a new level of insight into cosmic materials, collisions, and processes.  The event was recorded by both the detection of gravity waves warping space-time (as predicted in Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity) and light emissions at different wavelengths, allowing scientists a clear view into the physics of extremely dense materials (thousands or millions of tons per cubic centimeter) and processes that yield rare dense matter like gold).  Peering into an event occurring 130 million light years away stretches humanity’s ability to sense and explore the cosmos–it is thrilling to think of how big our eyes and ears are becoming!

Science by itself makes observations in conjunction with theories, but it doesn’t interpret, explain, or make the knowledge speak to us on deeper levels. One function of art is to help us not only think about but feel, sense, understand, comprehend, through our senses, the implications of scientific insights.  These observations brought to mind two very relevant collaborations between artists and cosmologists.

When I watched a BBC video of the sound of the neutron stars merging, I thought of Gérard Grisey‘s composition Le Noir de l’Etoile, and his collaboration with cosmologist Jean-Pierre Luminet (also a wonderful writer and poet). Grisey heard a recording of emissions from pulsars, and wrote an hour-long work for 6 percussionists; in performance, they ring the audience, and the pulsar sounds that play are the “guest stars” of the evening.  You can view the original performance here.  Grisey timed performances to coincide with the passage of pulsars in the sky, so that the music was literally tuned to cosmic rhythms.  In his liner notes for the CD, Grisey writes, “When music succeeds in conjuring up time, it finds itself with a veritable shamanic power, that of connecting us to the forces around us,” and compares timing performances with pulsar emissions to solar or lunar rites of past civilizations.  Luminet’s liner notes assert that “Grisey’s music is indeed in the image of the stars: in turns rhythmic, violent, haunting, spluttering, incessantly starting over again…. The universe is not necessarily comfortable, nor is today’s music.  But this is our universe, our music.”

The neutron star merger also brought to mind “Cosmic Collisions,” a recent installation at Charles Jencks‘s stunning artland Crawick Multiverse.  Jencks’s ambitious vision is that “A garden should not only present [a] worldview or cosmology but also heighten our relationship to it, through the senses” (including the sense of humor) (The Garden of Cosmic Speculation, 5).


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Jencks thinks on cosmic timescales, imagining collisions between not only stars but galaxies.  In the video on the Multiverse homepage, he describes the landforms representing our galaxy and the nearby Andromeda galaxy, and reminds us that they will collide, pass through one another, and fold together in an amazing “dance.”


I visited the Multiverse shortly before the Cosmic Collisions installation opened, and had the pleasure of watching Jencks working at the site with Alistair Clark, who is the head gardener of Jencks’s Garden of Cosmic Speculation, and an amazing gardener, stone smith, and land artist in his own right.  Using shards he chipped from the large rock above, I left him a message in stone, along with a note explaining that it had been “a plus” to meet him and see his “A+” level workmanship.

A+ for Alistair



Adrift in a drift in time (STE 1O/13)

Gary Haven Smith‘s beautiful granite sculptures, and many of the powerful works in the Ogunquit Museum‘s outdoor sculpture garden, made Pierre Jardin want to DO something with stones.  Below the museum grounds, he found a small pebble beach in a cove that featured a fantastic rock arch formation (below house), a suitable setting for a site-specific composition.

ogunquit log and stone formationA long driftwood log, distinctly colored and textured, provided a handy base for a rock-work. The speckled rhyolite cobbles that provided splotches of red and brown among the predominant grey and black in the shingle immediately stood out as suggestive complements for the wood.

Log stonesJardin spent an hour gathering similar-sized stones and arranging them along the log, and then photographed them, thinking of reproducing–rather, iterating–the work in a collage.

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Collecting rocks and collating stones is a contemplative pastime that sets Pierre Jardin adrift in time in different senses: in quotidian time, he is off the clock, unaware of minutes and hours passing; in conceptual time, he imaginatively traverses the timescales of the materials he is working with.  What is the history of the tree whose trunk he is working with?  How old was it when it fell into the sea?  What was the driftwood’s itinerary–did it drift about for days, weeks, months, before beaching here?

The temporal drift of the rhyolite cobbles unfolds on a much more nebulous geologic timescale.  Clarence Ellis’s marvelous The Pebbles on the Beach (1954) remains unsurpassed in its account of the life of a pebble:

“Firstly we must always bear in mind that a pebble is a transient thing. It is in the half-way stage of a long existence.  Beginning as a fragment of rock, which itself is millions of years old, it ends its existence by being pounded into minute particles or grains.  Similarly, the shingle beach which consists entirely of pebbles, is also transient, for it is constantly being moved along the shore by the action of waves….

Secondly, the shingle beach is fairly shallow. It lies on a base far more permanent than itself, usually a shelf or platform of solid rock.  The sea cut out, or wore down, this platform when, long ago, it eroded the land on which the beach now stands: the resulting debris then formed the bed of shingle. The sea continued its attack upon the retreating cliffs, from which additional layers of debris came and still ceaselessly come.”

Through mindful attention to the stones and wood, Pierre Jardin is not only adrift in time–he likes to think of this kind of contemplative practice as a drift in time, a phrase he coined in the spirit of Madeleine L’Engle‘s Wrinkle in Time–a drift in time would be a meta-physical breach, a temporal opening, in which different timescales can be accessed and occupied.  In this particular time-drift, Pierre’s fleeting encounter with a driftwood log and rhyolite pebbles became a slow time exercise, a focused dilation of duration, through which he could drift with the log’s drifting journey, and linger with the pebbles in their “transient” journey in deep time, as they erode from stone into sand.

Of course, a drift in time only lasts for as long as one is able to sustain it.  In this case, Pierre Jardin was fortunate to have finished photographing the work just as a museum docent called down to him, “I am glad I found you–I am about to lock the gate to the parking lot–you have to come up immediately!”

RIP Gary Haven Smith (STE 10/12)

I was deeply saddened to learn that Gary Haven Smith passed away September 28th, just days after discovering his work at the Ogunquit Museum. I emailed him to share yesterday’s blog post and proposed a visit to his studio sometime, and received a kind reply from his widow, Susan Pratt-Smith, also an accomplished artist.

This morning, as I jogged under a dawning sky where the waning crescent sliver moon shone bright, grateful for another day of life and health, I thought again of the hours I spent with Gary’s sculptures on the lovely museum grounds.  In retrospect, I think that the sheer joy I felt infusing my body and mind as I meandered around and around the works originates in the power and pleasure of material transformation.  Smith’s work transforms granite boulders into elegant dynamic forms and flows; gigantic glacier-carved megaliths seem to become floating topological models molded by the slow wearing of water.  Yet, from his words on exhibition placards, I imagine he might have told me that he only brings out what is already there in granite.

And so I see Smith’s work as both alchemical or magical in its power to make granite fly, and organic and empathetic in its sensitivity to granite’s density and grace.  More than that though, Smith’s work transformed my fundamental feeling about granite, my most basic perceptions and ideas about the stone.  And that, of course, is the wonder of art–to transform our relation to the world, delighting and shocking us into discovering a new world in rediscovering the world we knew.

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Smith’s work “Ascension II” (2011, granite and gold leaf) seems the appropriate piece to post today.  Thank you, Gary Haven Smith, for your beautiful work.   An obituary detailing his marvelously creative life may be found here.

Granite Takes Flight: Gary Haven Smith (STE 10/11)

Pierre Jardin recently visited the Ogunquit Museum on the coast of southern Maine, and he was so stunned by a temporary sculpture exhibition that he nearly missed seeing the art indoors.  Gary Haven Smith is a New Hampshire native who works with local granite boulders, erratics transported and left by glaciers.  In the exhibition material, he attests that “the stones are full of fluidity and movement, and I work to release that.”

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This work, “Voluta” (2011), exemplifies the dynamic force of his sculptures.  The piece changes dramatically when viewed from different perspectives; the forms it carves in space, the forms that the piece encloses, continually morph as one moves around it, from moebius strip to dragon to yin yang to snake to rubber band….  The base itself is a beautiful piece, stolid and anchored, composing a powerful foundation that tapers to a peak, on which the curved sculpture seems to dance.

I associate granite with hardness of character and sublimity of scale; with a New Hampshire taciturnity peculiar to the White Mountains and their inhabitants, and a cosmic California sensibility found in Yosemite and west coast visionaries.  In the hands of Smith, granite transforms: it sheds its dour, heavy, solid, dense, igneous, plutonic character; it ripples and dances, arcs and swerves, folds and flies.  Strolling around this piece, Pierre Jardin felt uplifted like a mountain, his spirit light as a feather.

“Voluta” and five other equally unique works by Gary Haven Smith are on view at the museum through the end of October 2017.



Igneous Ligneous (STE 10/9)

stump stone stack matchStumps fulfill different functions in the Petriverse—they serve as passive vehicles for displaying groups of rocks, as bases for displaying single stones, or they become part of more integrated work.  In the composition seen here, the contours, texture and grain of the stump and stone on it merge together, as if the brown mottling on the rock completes the roughly circular shape of the cut face of the stump.  That rock’s rectangular form makes it appear to be a kind of blander rock base for the striking pair of uppermost stones, which form a kind of composition on their own: the outlines match neatly, as if the top were a peaked head with an eye on a body; they appear as a single rock formation where different materials have weathered into a deeply textured and complexly patterned whole.


Pierre Jardin named this work the “Igneous Ligneous Stump Stack”—a geological word followed by a woody word, modifying the stump stack.  The rhyming terms echo the close fit of stump and stone.  The prehistoric creature vibe of the piece evokes a species connotation, as if “Igneous Ligneous” were some sort of troglodyte tribe that walked the earth before homo sapiens, or haunts us as memories bubbling up from deep time.

Sandstone Stack Aglow (STE 10/8)

Mr SandstoneMr. Sandstone stands still in his corner perch on the front porch in the Petriverse of Pierre Jardin. His glow in the rays of the setting sun is enhanced, sadly, by light filtered through smoke from nearby wildfires.

Even though these two stones were found ten feet apart from each other amid the rubble of a shingle beach, they seemed to present themselves as a tandem.  The form and proportions, flat bottom and tilting topside, makes the lower stone a natural base for the other one, whose mottled texture and markings draw the eye, as if it is the rock on display.  The whitish flecks on the stone seem like paint; on seeing it, viewers often ask whether it has been altered.  The appearance of intentionally made marks enhances the pareidolia effect of the stone, the likelihood of people projecting familiar patterns or images onto it.  Hence, the “Mr. SandStone” personification offered by Pierre Garden.

Simultaneously though, the two rocks merge together into a single outline, comprising a modulated variation of color and mineral composition.  They present distinctly different textures and tones, colorings and moods, yet come together in an oddly organic fashion.  This composition embodies the way in which the line between natural and humanly manipulated, stone and art, beach and garden, can break down or become fluid….