The Art of Balancing Stones: How Artists Use Simple Materials to Make Impossible Sculptures in Nature

Not so long ago, a wave of long-form entreaties rolled through social media insist­ing that we stop build­ing rock cairns. Like many who scrolled past them, I could­n’t quite imag­ine the offend­ing struc­tures they meant, let alone recall con­struct­ing one myself. The cairns in ques­tion turned out, mun­dane­ly, to be those lit­tle stacks of flat rocks seen in parks, along­side trails and streams. They’re as com­mon in South Korea, where I live, as they seem to be in the Unit­ed States. Both coun­tries also share a great enthu­si­asm for Insta­gram, and it’s the appar­ent Insta­gram­ma­bil­i­ty of these cairns that has increased their num­ber (and con­se­quent eco­log­i­cal and cul­tur­al harm) in recent years.

No mat­ter how many likes they gar­ner, these com­mon cairns require lit­tle or no skill in the build­ing. The same can hard­ly be said of rock bal­anc­ing, an art that demands a great deal more dis­ci­pline and patience than many an influ­encer can muster. The Wired video at the top of the post pro­files one of the most famous liv­ing rock-bal­ancers, a Cana­di­an named Michael Grab.

“One of my core dri­ves is to make the for­ma­tion as impos­si­ble as pos­si­ble,” he says, refer­ring to the appar­ent defi­ance of grav­i­ty per­formed by all the rocks he finds and arranges into stacks, arcs, orbs, and oth­er unlike­ly shapes. In fact, it is grav­i­ty alone that holds his art­works togeth­er — and repeat­ed­ly destroys them in the count­less tri­als and errors before their com­ple­tion.

Yes, Grab has an Insta­gram account: Grav­i­ty Glue, on which he show­cas­es his pre­car­i­ous­ly sol­id sculp­tures as well as their nat­ur­al con­texts. So does Jon­na Jin­ton, a Swedish “artist, pho­tog­ra­ph­er and Youtu­ber” who also bal­ances rocks. “It’s such a great way to also bal­ance myself,” she says in the short video just above, “and to cre­ate some­thing beau­ti­ful at the same time.” For her, the art has become a form of med­i­ta­tion: “As I try to find a tiny, tiny lit­tle bal­ance point, my thoughts are com­plete­ly silent, and that’s a very good feel­ing.” Jin­ton does­n’t say whether she per­son­al­ly ensures the destruc­tion of her works, as Grab does. But doing so, as one should note before enter­ing the rock-bal­ancer lifestyle, may keep you on the bet­ter side of the eco­log­i­cal rec­om­men­da­tions and indeed the law. But then the afore­men­tioned anti-cair­nism seemed to hit its zenith in ear­ly 2020, since which time, it’s fair to say, the world has had more press­ing con­cerns.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Philo­soph­i­cal Appre­ci­a­tion of Rocks in Chi­na & Japan: A Short Intro­duc­tion to an Ancient Tra­di­tion

Dis­cov­er the Japan­ese Muse­um Ded­i­cat­ed to Col­lect­ing Rocks That Look Like Human Faces

Watch a Mas­ter­piece Emerge from a Sol­id Block of Stone

A Mod­ern Drum­mer Plays a Rock Gong, a Per­cus­sion Instru­ment from Pre­his­toric Times

Watch an Archae­ol­o­gist Play the “Litho­phone,” a Pre­his­toric Instru­ment That Let Ancient Musi­cians Play Real Clas­sic Rock

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (4)
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  • Andrew says:

    This type of activ­i­ty unnec­es­sar­i­ly dis­turbs ecosys­tems and is anti­thet­i­cal to the con­cept of “leave no trace” that we should all be abid­ing by in our expe­ri­ence of the out­doors.

  • CAROL RIOS says:

    I agree… some­how, how­ev­er, when a per­son comes in a men­tal state of med­i­ta­tion, com­pas­sion for all life, that mind­set I feel, is shared by the envi­ron­ment. If not, the envi­ron­ment will find a way to move things to their pre­ferred posi­tions. We are not sep­a­rate from any­thing in nature. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, I feel we must wake up to that real­i­ty to under­stand how peo­ple like your­self have come to real­ize and under­stand the con­cept of leav­ing no trace.

  • Boghos L. Artinian says:

    A hith­er­to undis­cov­ered vari­able force, oth­er than grav­i­ty, must be bal­anc­ing the impos­si­ble arrange­ments of stacked stones.

    Boghos L. Artin­ian

  • William Floyd Price III says:

    That’s just some­thing peo­ple with no patience and intu­ition say 🤭😂🤣😭

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