Cairns are collective sculptures, piles of stone that act as markers, beacons, memorials, topping out points, and that are often of anonymous or uncertain heritage. Most people can’t resist adding a stone to a cairn on a pathway or hilltop as they pass by: there’s something very satisfying about contributing to the accumulation of previous stone-y gestures and interventions.
From December 9th 2016, the artist and cultural geographer Rob St John, along with various passers-by, will build a cairn inside the Switch House building at Tate Modern. The cairn will be constructed of clay tiles (a nod to the London Clay bedrock underneath Tate, and the tones of the Switch House brickwork), wooden cedar shingles (cut from the Hooke Park woodland in Dorset where the cairn will subsequently be installed), and a small number of transparent perspex tiles (a prompt for us to think about the strange new geological strata of the Anthropocene). All this layered strata will finally be covered with slowly activating lichen and moss paints.
Opposite the cairn, in the north-east corner, an old gramophone horn and wooden munitions box are re-purposed as a sound-gathering device, through which visitors can ‘lend their voice’ to a layered soundscape consisting of voices and field recordings taken in and around Tate Modern. Earlier visitor contributions are heard only as faint traces, each affected by the reverbs of various spaces in the building (the Turbine Hall, the Tanks). So, in effect, each new contribution will be part of an ongoing conversation with the flows of both people and place.
When the installation period is over, the new soundscape will be dubbed onto 1/4 inch reel to reel tape, and the spool buried within the completed cairn. The whole structure will then be transported to Hooke Park woodland in Dorset, where in collaboration with the Architectural Association and Common Ground, it will be made freely accessible to visitors and documented for years to come. Over months and years, it is likely that the spores and seeds ‘painted’ onto the cairn materials will germinate and grow; to emerge, pattern and even destroy the collaborative cairn.
There is uncertainty about what the cairn will become, both in its creation and subsequent development, and in how it will relate to each sited situation in urban London and rural Dorset. The structure could provide new habitat niches for vegetation, insects and small mammals in the woodland, but there is no way of knowing. What is initially blank or obscured on the tiles has the potential to erupt into life and colour in the cairn’s development: an ecology of chance built in the city and bloomed in the country.