The Stone Labyrinth

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Pablo Edronkin

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Installation art is a form of expression by which an art piece becomes part or integrates into the environment so that both coexist for a time as one entity; that lapse of time can be minimal - sometimes just seconds - or permanent. Take for example, Athen's Acropolis or the Eiffel tower; those are nice, but I have my own labyrinth.

Whenever you think about installation or environmental art names like Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Claes Oldenburg, Walter de Maria, Andy Goldsworthy, Ana Mendieta, Dennis Oppenheim - striking, maybe, a chord of familiarity -, Michael Heizer and even Marcel Duchamp pop into the mind, but in a way, many people dedicate part of their lives to this form of expression without thinking about the fact.

This story involves myself as well as Federico Ferrero, Gustavo Sakuda, David Miranda and Luciano Marcer. About twenty years ago we began thinking about constructing an outdoor giant chess set in the middle of the Andes; since we often trekked over a series of mountains to reach a lake located far away from any town or inhabitant, after a while we began knowing in detail the route. It takes at least two days to reach the lake and for the most part, there is no trail to get there. The region has no owner - it is truly a no man's land - and the region is one of the last of the world were essentially you can do almost anything you want. Legally speaking the land belongs to the Argentine state, which makes the provision that if anyone does or constructs anything permanent there, it becomes yours after a number of years; but since the climate is subpolar, there are not many actual volunteers. But the lake is there and is reachable only by land, trekking in the old fashioned way, or by plane or helicopter.

I actually own a small plane - a Piper Cub Special - and I know that I can land there, but doing so is on the edge of real danger so I would rather not attempt to do that. Thus, the only viable way to get to the cabin is by going over the mountains, including a large glacier. Crossing a glacier requires planning and some degree of technical knowledge. Glaciers constantly move so, every time you attempt to cross one you have to study the route, probe the ice and so on. Thus, it takes a while to do and the worse that can happen is that bad weather catches you in its middle as you go on with your ropes crampons and the rest of your climbing gear.

First stages of construction.
The labyrinth during its first stages of construction, 2007.
One of the first walls.
One of the first walls that were constructed.

In the way to the cabin, just a I and my friends and family reach the glacier, we have to stop for at least a couple of hours, until we find out if crossing the glacier that summer is viable or not, and how to do so. After doing this rite a couple of times, the idea of building a chess set to entertain ourselves popped out of nowhere, as well as the idea of using it in such a way that only one move would be made every time we pass over the place. We began considering the construction of the giant chess set but never actually started it; the main reason is that while there are lots of stones there we did not find a way to turn them into the required chess pieces without heavy stone-cutting equipment that would be even very hard to get to the actual site.

Why a labyrinth? Why so much work? Why the effort and the expense? I guess that the right answer is why not? There is so much that it is conventional, pedestrian, in our world that doing something a little bit unusual appears to have negative connotations, but the only really negative thing about these things would be not to do them.

Drinking some mate.
Myself, having some mate during the construction of the labyrinth.
Carrying stones.
And myself again, carrying stones to build a pirca wall.

But in 2007, as we reached the glacier, we found that attempting to cross it was too dangerous that season so, instead of going to the lake we decided to explore an unknown lateral valley, seeking for wood, on the highest part of the forests that cover the lower part of the mountains. We found such a place and we constructed a small shelter with stones, but it was too windy there, so the next day we began improving the walls. Essentially we used an Indian technique known as "pirca" which was first developed by the Incas. Macchu Picchu was basically built in such a way, although we did not cut or polish the stones before placing them as the Incas frequently did for aesthetic reasons under their own cultural values. It would be too long to describe the technique in detail, but it leads to extremely resistant structures as the stones accommodate between themselves and the terrain using no cement or anything similar to glue them together; it is all about fitting.

So, after building the first meters of wall, and since we had nothing to do for about two weeks, we actually began extending the structure and soon the idea of turning it into a labyrinth became our goal. The stone labyrinth is now irregular-shaped, covering about half a hectar or acre; it is still unfinished but its base plan and wall contours are in place, and ever time I pass over there - usually twice a year - I put a few more stones.

A view of the south side, unfinished.
A view of the south side, unfinished.
A view of the layout, west side.
A view of the layout, west side..

The labyrinth is entirely constructed with stones using the pirca technique, with no assistance other than from the shape of the terrain and gravity. It is a true, functional labyrinth; the goal is to get from its entrance, pointing to the south, to its center, where the original shelter lies along a sun dial that be built to schedule our working hours (when you are in the mountains you have to keep track of the useful time, measured as the sunlight you have during the day.) The walls of the labyrinth are high and wide enough so as to hamper most if not all attempts to go over them, so, visitors to the labyrinth have to actually go through it in order to reach the center, or to get out. Its location prevents it from being seen from afar: It can only be detected from about a hundred meters.

Pircas have been used not only by the Incas, but even in modern combat, as part of trenches, and they have proven to be resistant even to direct artillery and anti tank missile hits, so anything constructed in such a way usually lasts for centuries, or even more. In the case of the labyrinth, it has resisted so far two seismic events - one being a large earthquake - and the eruption of the Chaiten volcano twice - which even led to the definitive evacuation of a whole city that was moved entirely to another location, in nearby Chile. We found no damage in the walls after those instances, and the volcanic ashes, acting as fertilizer, helped plants growth around the structure.


The Labyrinth; pencil, 2012, by Pablo Edronkin.
A view of part of the Stone Labyrinth, 2012, by Pablo Edronkin.



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