Books & Arts | Published:

Science in culture: A modern megalith

Nature volume 443, page 636 (12 October 2006) | Download Citation


Mariko Mori's glass sculpture responds to the death of stars.

Prehistoric standing stones and rings, many erected more than 5,000 years ago, are awesome achievements. Not surprisingly, the greatest of them, such as Stonehenge, have served over the centuries as magnets for legends and mystical mumbo-jumbo.

The reality being revealed by modern archaeoastronomy provokes almost as much wonder as the legends. Perhaps most astonishing are the astronomical alignments that have been demonstrated in megaliths. It is clear that our 'primitive' forebears not only observed celestial phenomena with remarkable precision, but also built their great stone monuments as a means of relating their earthly existence to cosmological events far beyond their reach.

Such astronomical megaliths serve as the inspiration for an installation by that most high-tech of artists, Mariko Mori. A student of fashion in her native Japan, she worked briefly as a model before studying art in London and now lives in New York. She began by exploiting multimedia to fashion herself into a futuristic 'cyber-chick', transformed into a synthetic fantasy of kitsch sexuality, far removed from the ragged desires of our organic reality.

Superficially — and it is easy to see such work as superficial — she seemed to belong to a late species of pop art, delighting ironically in the sheen of slick popular imagery. However, she has insisted on a more serious purpose, adducing her immersion in Buddhist philosophy to stress the interconnectedness of all things, via art, science and technology.

Tom Na H-iu: the output of a neutrino detector becomes a meditation on the soul. Image: SHIRAISHI CONTEMPORARY ART, TOKYO

With her earlier work it was difficult not to see these high claims as somewhat forced. However, her recent creations have laid this problem to rest. She has been collaborating with scientists to produce experiences that are startling in their technical sophistication, yet evoke both the inner world of our minds and the outer worlds of the cosmos.

At the 2005 Venice Biennale she exhibited Wave UFO, a futuristic pod in which the brainwave data from electrodes attached to three participants were projected on the ceiling as mutating coloured shapes. Three kinds of waves — alpha (blue), beta (pink) and theta (yellow) — were used to render visible endlessly variable arrays of mental processes. Now, at the 2006 Singapore Biennale, she is showing Tom Na H-iu, a 3-metre-high radiant glass monolith that is plugged into cosmic radiation.

The translucent megalith is suffused by light from an internal LED, controlled by a computer, which is, in turn, linked to the Super-Kamiokande detector used in the Kamioka Observatory in Japan to detect neutrinos from outer space. Among the neutrinos that govern the megalith's light emissions are some that emanate from exploding, dying stars — supernovae. Programmed to respond to the detection of different neutrinos in real time, the sculpture glows with colour-coded traces of ancient violence from remote regions of the cosmos.

In Celtic mythology, say the work's promoters, Tom Na H-iu is a place where the souls of the dead linger before being reborn, and the Celtic standing stones that inspired the artwork were believed to play a role in this spiritual transmigration. Mori is tapping into the puzzles of birth and death across enormous distances and deep time. The microscopic is a mirror of the cosmic. The lives of our minds and bodies are integral to the processes that govern the Universe.

Just as our Neolithic ancestors reached out to the stars, tuning into the apparently eternal patterns that ruled their seasonal lives, so Mori's sculpture resonates to the beat of celestial time. However, that beat is no longer that of the traditional music of the orderly spheres, but drums out the death march of great stars.

A larger version of Tom Na H-iu is on show with other work by Mori at the London gallery Albion until 22 December.

Author information


  1. Martin Kemp is professor of the history of art at the University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 1PT, UK. His new book, Seen | Unseen, is published by Oxford University Press.

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