Mira Calix Proves That Nothing Is Set In Stone With New Project For London's Cultural Olympiad

Mira Calix Proves That Nothing Is Set In Stone With New Project For London's Cultural Olympiad

On a grassy rolling hill just outside of London, a mysterious stone structure is emerging from the idyllic English landscape. Comprised of hundreds of stones of varying sizes, the monolithic, egg-shaped sculpture seems at once organic and man-made, like a modern Stonehenge. More importantly though, it sings. Dog walkers and passersby taking a stroll through Fairlop Waters, the Redbridge nature reserve where the sculpture is situated, between the dates of June 21st and September 9th will be privy to this unique sound installation from Mira Calix, called Nothing Is Set In Stone.

Inspired by the idea of constant movement, change, and impermanence, Calix touches on the topics of erosion and physical transformation in this new work. Using a metamorphic rock called Angel Stone (aka Gneiss stone), she has assembled a sculpture that implies an embedded sense of movement—the stones always look as if they’re tumbling or on the precipice of tumbling. And although they are solid, they possess an element of ethereal transience.

The structure is lined with internal speakers that broadcast a non-linear composition out into the surrounding area. The sounds change as visitors move around the structure and waft out into the atmosphere, disappearing with the wind. Visitors can only construct the composition in their minds by stringing together the disparate melodic elements they encounter as they make their way around the sculpture, and the same composition can never be heard twice.

“There’s a British saying that has helped me. People say, ‘This too shall pass.’ It’s really wonderful to know that this, too, shall pass, that everything is transient,” explains Calix. “This constant movement, some of it appears to be very fast and some of it is invisible and yet it’s still happening. We forget in day-to-day life, and it’s really important. Some people hate change—I don’t. Most people fear change, and a lot of wars and ills of war are because people fear change. I think change is unavoidable so you might as well embrace it. You should also be privy to change things you’re not happy with.”

The project was commissioned by Oxford Contemporary Music as part of the Hidden London program for the Cultural Olympiad, London’s cultural festival coinciding with this summer’s Olympics program.

Calix has been collaborating with minerologists from London’s Natural History Museum for the project and even traveled to South Africa for a residency at the Nirox Foundation. There, she recorded the vocals for Nothing Is Set In Stone with members of the University of Johannesburg choir and built a miniature version of the sculpture to house her notes, which she cheekily dubbed Silent Stone.

While recording vocals for the project with the University of Johannesburg choir, they perform the traditional song ‘lak’utshona ilonga.’

We sat down with Calix on a recent trip to NYC to find out more about the inspiration and creative process that informed her new project.

For this project, you’ve been working pretty closely with minerologists from the Natural History Museum in London. What’s that been like?
Their labs are amazing. They slice meteorites. They slice pieces of Mars. They slice Earthly stones, which are also really exciting, into hundreds of millimeters. They have such sophisticated tools, and things from all over the world are sent to the Natural History Museum in London. The guys I’m working with are the most specialized in doing this. It’s amazing to call those kinds of dudes up and go, “So, what do you think about this stone?” You know, to have those kinds of resources. Although they’re completely scientific people, they’re really creative. People forget scientists are creative.

What was the best input that they’ve given you?
Well, this stone piece is gradient. At the bottom and top are very small stones, and we use bigger and bigger stones so that at about the average human height, around 160-175mm, the stones are at their biggest. So they’re quite large. I really wanted to show this gradient size, because I wanted to show this erosion process, how stones tumble, without hitting anyone over the head, and to make it aesthetically driven.

I showed them two visualizations because my very initial idea, sort of years ago, set up the piece in reverse—the smaller stones would be in the middle and the bigger stones would be on either end. I always had this idea of the gradient, and then when I was looking at visualizations, I kept leaning towards the exact opposite of what I originally planned. And so I showed them both, and I said, “I was going to do it like this, but now I’m thinking about doing it like this. What do you think?” They were like, “No, no your instinct is correct! You should do it the second way because of how Strata falls. What you were originally going to do was completely the natural order, but the reason you are drawn to this is because you would never see this in nature. It’s inverted and therefore, it’s disconcerting. It feels organic and natural, at the same time something in your brain knows it’s manmade.” They gave me this theory of why I was making my choice.

Calix with a model of the sculpture.

A rendering of the sculpture.

Does knowing those things about your choices change your relationship with the piece at all, or the way that you think about it?
In a way. It doesn’t inform my decisions, but it has made me consider those instinct choices in a way I wouldn’t normally. I chose it because of X, and I was trying to communicate something through that choice, and then I find out there’s a real reason for that decision I made. It’s quite interesting because you have this really different perspective.

A very early stimulus for this piece was this idea of taking one pebble away from the beach. I became fixated with all these stones that I keep all over my house. Time has slowed down for them. They’re away from all the other stones and so the erosion process slows. The first meeting I ever had with [the scientists] I told them this, and the motivation for the piece. So often you don’t really know why you want to make something, you just have to make it. I was so fixated on the stone that moved, and they just said to me, “All the stones that are left behind, time speeds up for them.” And it’s such a clear idea, and it’s so much of what my piece is about, and yet I was so focused on the one element. I was so focused on one part of the puzzle. It’s things like that. It’s hard to explain how and why that meant so much to me, but it has.

A close-up shot of the Gneiss stone.

Tell me a bit more about the motivations for the piece. What drew you to this idea? What compelled you to do this?
It’s really this idea of pulling the stone away, suspending something or slowing down change. Even things that appear to be still, like the pebble on my windowsill, are constantly changing. We are all constantly in motion. The only constant is change. It’s a very obvious thing to say, but we don’t go around thinking about. It’s something I became quite compelled by.

But isn’t erosion a symptom of negative change, in a way?
It is and it isn’t. There is natural erosion that has gone on way before we got here, and it will continue to go on after we leave. People look at it as death of a kind. Where I live, there are issues of erosion because potentially the villages by the sea won’t be there for very long. There are other villages that have already gone into the sea. Some coasts of England are very vulnerable. We view it as negative change because we’re going to lose some land, and we fear that change because you lost that land. That natural process of erosion, although we have in certain areas sped that up, is a natural order. The fact that this island is here at all is due to erosion.

It’s not that I’m saying there is no negativity to it—of course there is—but it’s very negative from our point of view as a human being because we built something somewhere and it’s worth billions. Our value isn’t what the real value is in the grand scheme of things in the world. But we do have big problems with that. I live somewhere, in Suffolk, where we are constantly battling the sea.

Calix constructing the outer layer of the sculpture.

So this is a sound sculpture—tell me a little about the composition and the experience people will have when they visit it.
When you look at this piece from a distance, it’s on a nice English rolling hill, it just looks like sculpture or a pile of stones. As you come closer, you start to pick up elements of [the sound]. You create the song by where and how you are. It’s all the same [musical] elements that run all the time, but where you are is a very different experience much more than a surround sound experience. This is even more open because there’s nothing for it to reflect off of. It will just vanish.

Music is generally considered ephemeral—it’s pushed through air. Most people know if they’re reminded, if they’ve been to an amazing gig, there are moments when you physically feel like the sound is right in front of you, like you can touch it. You get tricked. We go away from these situations and the sound is very unphysical. That is, again, a huge part of it—putting this very light thing in this very heavy thing and pushing one through the other, and reminding people of how physical music can be. It moves around spatially. Because it is outside and there is no reflection, sound disappears very quickly. It blows away in the air.

It’s up to you how long you spend there and how much you explore. You have to put your ear up to the stone to hear some of it. I wanted the physicality. Some of it you can stand back and hear. One I’ve called the halo, which is this clear movement up and around, just like a halo around the sculpture. The other is a pinhole, you just really have to find them. They come and go, and you may never hear one or you may hear all of them.

You can visit “Nothing Is Set In Stone” at Fairlop Waters in Redbridge, London between the dates of June 21st and September 9th.