Marfa, Texas Is Getting Its Own Solar-Powered Stonehenge
Over the past six months, on a patch of desert ranchland outside Marfa, Texas, one man’s mysterious vision has been taking shape. First, nine massive chunks of quarried black marble were trucked in from northern Mexico and craned into a circular formation, echoing Stone and Bronze Age erections in the British Isles. Next, one of the megaliths, the “king stone,” was outfitted with a state-of-the-art solar array; at the same time, the other eight were carved to integrate LED lights and speakers. Soon—during a full moon, it is foretold—the whole thing will come to life.
According to artist Haroon Mirza, the layout of the stones was inspired by a 4,000-year-old site in Derbyshire, England, known as the Nine Ladies. There, if local legend is to be believed, nine women were turned to stone for dancing on the sabbath. Likewise, Mirza’s project, known simply as Stone Circle, seems frozen in time, juxtaposing long-forgotten cosmological and ritual uses for art with newfangled ways of harnessing and relating to the heavens.
“It’s neo-Neolithic,” Mirza says. “The idea of it is at least 50,000 years old. But the technology here is very contemporary, and almost, for this area, futuristic. In Marfa, since this project started people have only just become interested in solar energy.”
Early in the process of developing Stone Circle, host arts organization Ballroom Marfa partnered with renewable-energy company Freedom Solar to install the panels on the “king stone.” Freedom Solar donated half the installation up-front and rebated additional money for every new solar customer that Ballroom Marfa referred. This incentivized local supporters of the project to experiment with solar panels on their homes and to talk about solar power with their neighbors.
Now the project has recovered nearly the entire cost of the installation, and at the same time increased solar kilowatts generated in and around Marfa by 3,000 percent. “By trying to fundraise, we ended up embarking on this campaign for solar energy,” says Ballroom Marfa director Laura Copelin. “That was an unintended consequence—a surge in solar energy in West Texas.”
Stone Circle may have launched an unexpected solar-energy movement in a part of the country best known for crude oil, but the project’s roots lie in its creator’s fascination with far more ancient technologies. Mirza, 40, grew up in the UK as the child of immigrants and became fascinated by stone circles as an adult, touring archeological sites with his now-wife. “It’s clear that they were referencing celestial objects,” Mirza says of the ancient builders of sites like Stonehenge. “But why—whether it was ritualistic, whether it was a science experiment, or whether it was other reasons—is kind of unknown.”
As his art began to focus on the applications of modern technology—earlier this year, he was an artist-in-residence at CERN, the research center in Switzerland that hosts the Large Hadron Collider—Mirza latched onto the mystery of how and why the ancient sites were built. He also began to think about how humans 10,000 years from today might similarly puzzle over our era’s most cutting-edge constructions.
“When we look at a stone circle, we try to imagine the technology of a civilization that was active around that circle,” Copelin says. “Mirza sees that same kind of effect playing out with CERN and some of the other large structures we have now. He’s interested, in that sense, in colliding the past and the future, these two different sets of technology and different mysterious ways to mark a site.”
For art mavens, desert road-trippers, and anyone interested in the sorts of prehistory-referencing spiritual ceremonies popularized by Burning Man, Stone Circle will soon become a landmark on the West Texas tourist circuit. That circuit already includes Marfa’s Chinati Foundation, an Army base filled with Donald Judd’s minimalist sculptures; the McDonald Observatory, a major astronomical research locale; and Prada Marfa, a fake storefront deep in the Davis Mountains also managed by Ballroom Marfa, which has developed a minor celebrity among far-flung, semi-permanent outdoor artworks. (Mirza’s work, however, won’t be the only massive rock formation in that part of the country—Odessa actually has a Stonehenge replica.)
Stone Circle is intended to persist in the landscape for at least five years. Visitors can explore it on their own any time during Ballroom Marfa’s business hours. Full moon events, called “activations,” will take place just after sunset. As the sky darkens, Stone Circle will come to life as a giant musical instrument, purring out all the stored solar energy captured over the previous month as a 40-minute program of surround-sound tonal buzzes. Mirza has composed music for the first few full moons, and he hopes to work with other composers to program new “solar symphonies” in the future.
‘I hope it brings people. But I don’t really know what culture is going to form around it. I don’t necessarily hope or expect people to come here for a rave.’
Artist Haroon Mirza
Stone Circle was scheduled to have its first activation in late April, but a last-minute hailstorm threw a wrench in the plans. Such is life in the harsh environs of West Texas. The new target date for the debut of the sound-and-light show, with overhauled weather-proofing, is June 27. The event will reprise every full moon from then through 2023.
Mirza stresses that, while he hopes the full moon events will be festive, they’ll probably feel quite different from your typical outdoor electronic music event. As a musical instrument, Stone Circle is defined by its limitations—its tones can sound harsh and alien to the ear, and only three distinct notes can be played on any given stone. The musical result will be more Close Encounters of the Third Kind than Daft Punk.
“I don’t think these compositions are going to be ‘party,'” Mirza says. “I think it will bring people. I hope it brings people. But I don’t really know what culture is going to form around it. I don’t necessarily hope or expect people to come here for a rave. I think it might be a bit more contemplative than that.”