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Stones like mediums, the beach like canvases

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Dunbar, on the east coast of Scotland, is a town of two beaches: one covered with sand, the other covered with pebbles. The sandy beach on the east side of town regularly fills with surfers, kayakers, dog walkers, and children exploring the rock pools. The other, known locally as Eye Cave Beach, is home to another pastime, one akin to the UK’s cultural affinity for bizarre hyperlocal quasi-sporting events like the Man vs Horse Marathon of Llanwrtyd Wells, the East Anglian dwile flonking or the annual cheese roll at Cooper’s Hill in Gloucestershire: stone stacking and the annual European stone stacking championships.

Stacking stones is exactly what it sounds like: the practice of making towers or carvings out of stones. In the case of this artistic and athletic iteration, this comes about with full acceptance that these structures are temporary and will in all likelihood collapse, but they are reminiscent of more permanent utilitarian structures – the waymark cairns of Scotland, the inukshuks of l ‘Canadian Arctic and taalo burial cairns in northern Somalia.

Their importance to Dunbar is consistent with a more recent history of “land art”, an art created from and in the natural world. James Craig Page, artist and co-founder of the Dunbar Street Art Trail, was already familiar with land art thanks to the 1967 work of Turner Prize winner Richard Long. A line made by walking, in which Long walked a line in a field before photographing him. But in 2015, Page became aware of stone stacking as an art practice after seeing examples shared online, and started experimenting. “I went down and I tried, and it became my new creative addiction,” he says.

Artist James Craig Page is the creator and director of the European Stone Piling Championships, which take place in Dunbar, Scotland. Photo by Ian Georgeson / Alamy Stock Photo

After playing with form on the beaches of Dunbar – meticulously searching for smooth, flat stones and finding the point of balance between them, something stone stackers describe as a “click” and chatting with the many curious people asking him what he was doing – Page started to introduce stone stacking into the community. The first stone stacking event in Dunbar was part of the Dunbar Street Art Trail in 2016, and having seen the impact it has had on young people in particular, Page approached schools and started running workshops in the classrooms. This is where he began to appreciate its meditative, almost therapeutic effects, especially on children diagnosed with ADHD: the jaws will drop saying, “That kid never sat there for 30 seconds, and he just sat there and did that for 30 minutes. ” held in 2017.

The championships start in the same meditative way. The stage is already set when the spectators arrive, with the beach covered in piles of stones and land art collages set up at low tide by Page and other guest artists. Towers of seven or eight stones, barely an ankle high, and artistic installations made up of several towers at least two meters high, like fragile stalagmites, illustrate all that is possible to accomplish thanks to to this simple medium. Slowly, as people begin to gather, marveling at the gravity-defying patterns and shapes, more than one tries to build a pile.

Various competitors take part in the Stone Stacking Competition, which includes a variety of challenges and events. Pic by Sally Anderson / Alamy Stock Photo

As the day progresses, the serenity gives way to a more competitive atmosphere. The first event is a half-hour competition for the tallest tower: first things are calm and methodical between the competitors, but then, as the towers start to crumble as the clock goes down , the whispers turn into shocked exclamations and finally applause when the time is right. and spectators watch the towers to see who emerged victorious. Later in the day, there are head-to-head events in which competitors have only three minutes to build a stack of seven stones and keep it upright. While the spirit among the participants is more playful than pugilistic, each of them defining themselves as artists rather than athletes, this does not detract from the seriousness with which they take the competition, although to paraphrase the remarks of David Foster Wallace on tennis is more like the artists are playing a game against themselves. Usually people come from all over the world to participate, with around 30 to 40 competitors each year. The 2019 event brought together people from 19 countries, and although COVID-19 travel restrictions ensure 2021 is a UK-only event, there are still 30 people attending and 2,000 people coming to watch during the weekend.

James Brunt, an Earth artist who sometimes incorporates stone piles into his work, comes every year from Sheffield, England to make the event feel part of the larger stone stacker community, as well as to enjoy the uniqueness of the Dunbar coast. . “For me, it’s just a very different geology; the stones are very different, ”he says. “There’s a whole different feeling, so you work with them differently. “

As the contestants focus on their work, there is the silent chatter of spectators who analyze and dissect the proceedings as if they are watching a World Cup final, punctuated by thudding as the tide rises and resumes the laps that had risen so surely in the morning. Meanwhile, the seagulls nesting on the cliff face scream and dive as if they were the audience of something far more gladiatorial.

Land artist James Brunt puts the finishing touches on his sculpture at the 2021 European Stone Piling Competition

Land artist James Brunt puts the finishing touches on his sculpture at the 2021 European Stone Stacking Championships. Photo by Sally Anderson / Alamy Stock Photo

It is easy to see why the stacking of stones has been adopted by so many people. Social media was where Page first saw the practice, and on platforms like Instagram and Twitter, brilliant images of improbable stone piles, such as those created by stone stacker Michael Grab, alias Gravity Glue, regularly go viral. This leads imitators to go out into the wild to do the same thing en masse, without wondering, for example, if the stones they collect serve as shelter for animals. Conservation scientist Ricardo Rocha says that while batteries can be beautiful, people should keep in mind that they are not necessarily benign, having noticed that in his home archipelago of Madeira, Portugal, the practice damages the natural habitat of the Selvagens gecko. “Outside of protected areas, I think that’s less of a problem,” he says, “but if you build these structures, you want to do it in a way that minimizes the possible impact.

John Hourston, founder of the environmental group Blue Planet Society, shares concerns about damage to habitat, but also opposes eye pollution from stacking stones, calling it a ‘plague’ that dilutes sentiment wilderness of a place. “What happened to ‘leave no trace’? He told me on the phone, adding that deletion UK beach stones and pebbles are in fact illegal under the Coastal Protection Act due to the potential impact on coastal erosion, flood defenses and wildlife habitats.

No matter where you draw a line in the sand on what is and is not acceptable in the wild, this weekend, in this one place, playing in the wild is okay. Every year, everyone is welcome and even encouraged to play with stones. That’s the reason so many people come, and that’s also what Brunt leaves me: “I’m a kid. I play, “he said,” never stop playing, so many of us do! As the day draws to a close and play on the beach turns into play on the streets, with local bands performing and local beers flowing, the tide rises and cleans out all the remaining piles, sending out more thuds. reverberate around Eye Cave Beach.



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Cory E. Barnes

The author Cory E. Barnes