Every time I walk past the Modern's Cornwall Summer Circle, 1995, by Richard Long, it reminds me of Stonehenge. The two structures share the obvious circular/stone construction, but there are also underlying elements of ritual and a shared sense of void. (Stonehenge is composed of a series of concentric circles, formed by monumental rocks that were hauled and placed there by Neolithic people in three phases beginning around 3100 BCE. Long's Cornwall Summer Circle is a single circular outline populated by 237 slate stones.)
While stones are used in both structures, their physical appearances are quite different. The rocks in Stonehenge are monumental in size, smooth and rounded by time spent in the elements. The rocks in Cornwall Summer Circle are, by comparison, smaller and more angular. The sharp, pointed objects of Long’s work lie in contrast to their arrangement. If Stonehenge can be considered a symbol of early man’s triumph over his natural environment, (the stones that compose the historical site were hauled more than 150 miles by man, according to National Geographic), Long’s work too can be associated with the triumph of nature—the rocks as a component of the natural world recontextualized within a manmade environment.
An article in the New York Times asserts that Stonehenge was at least in part a burial ground, but National Geographic contends that the circular configuration was possibly intended for worship. The circle has symbolic ties to many elements in the natural world: it is the shape of the planets; it holds astronomical implications; and suggests the cyclical nature of the seasons, as well as the most basic cycle of all, life. Long frequently incorporates circles, as well as lines and spirals, into his work, stating that archetypal shapes and their basic elements carry a sense of symbolism and ritual. And the circular nature of both spaces can be linked to the idea of ritual if one considers the act of circumambulation, to ritualistically circle something on foot.
Our ability to walk around the circular formation of Long’s work accentuates the most powerful aspect of Cornwall Summer Circle: the central void created by the rocks. The desire to experience the empty space is a fundamental part of both the artwork and Stonehenge. There is a perceived sense of importance granted to the center of the circle, made even more profound by the inaccessibility of the space: the surrounding rocks make it nearly impossible to experience in Cornwall Summer Circle, and the conservationists at Stonehenge have roped off the structure prohibiting foot traffic.
All we can do is walk around both structures, admiring them for their complexity as well as their simplicity...until at last, we come full circle.