To be as impossible as possible.
The invention of photography had a significant impact on the traditional forms of art. Photography revealed the world frozen in an instant in ways the eye cannot excise from the relentless flow of events. But it also released the traditional fine arts from the responsibility to represent the world as it appears to explore the many forms of abstraction and expression that arose with Modernism. An important, but less acknowledged, impact was the ability of photography to document art activities and events that, by their nature, were impermanent.
The Canadian artist Michael Grab creates temporary sculptures and installations using rocks and other natural materials he finds in the environment in which he is working. What gives his work its magic is that the structures are held in place by nothing more than gravity. There is no glue, string or support, no tricks with Photoshop, all that holds these structures together is the perfect balance of one stone upon another. He calls this ‘gravity glue’.
It takes many hours, and sometimes days, to create these works, yet they must always be essentially ephemeral. After they have been photographed, the artist dismantles the structures returning the landscape to its original state. When a project takes several days, he disassembles his work each night, reassembling it the next day before adding new elements. It is a process that demands considerable patience. He must remain physically and mentally focused for many hours, working in a meditative state that draws on a deep and subtle harmony between the artist and the materials with which he is working.
What is stone balancing as a technique?
It’s the temporary vertical arrangement of stones using gravity alone to maintain the structure. Each stone is balanced on three tiny contact points – like a camera tripod – but the distance between the three points is very small, often only a few millimetres. The physics behind how it works is simple and intuitive. I need to feel the vibrations that emanate from the rocks touching these edges and adjust until they are in perfectly equilibrium.
What is stone balancing as an experience?
It is a kind of yoga that unites the stones, the environment, and the practitioner. There is a moment I call the zero point at which I intuitively feel that the structure is in equilibrium. At that moment, there is no perceived separation between self and the environment.
Viewed as an art practice, what makes a good stone balanced arrangement?
I am seeking an intrinsic sense of beauty and technical execution. I want it to be as impossible as possible. Thematically, there is a kind of humanoid verticality in a lot of my creations. For me, each structure represents a unique spirit or essence that comes from the rock’s individual chi [characteristic energy]. This chi is present in every aspect of each rock – texture, shape, colour, spatial orientation – all of which influence my choice of camera angle and the feeling I get from each structure. It’s like orchestrating music.
How much does the location influence your way of working?
Every place I’ve balanced stones has a unique energy to it, which influences the style of structure I end up building. Every place has its distinct types of rock with their own colours, shapes, and textures. Some rocks are easier the balance because of their shape or hardness. Coastal areas require structures that can accommodate the force of the wind, whereas forests or valleys, which generally have less wind, lend themselves to more delicately balanced arrangements. This is what keeps it interesting, unpredictable, full of life … and essentially romantic.
It is important to me to keep challenging myself, as well as pushing the limits of the artform. I made the photograph above a few months ago in Boulder Creek. This construction is what I call Gemini style. It has two top rocks, each simultaneous and independently point-balanced over a single balance point, but not themselves touching. This is an incredibly difficult design to execute successfully. I have never seen anyone else replicate it at this scale relative to the rocks beneath, which are themselves balancing on a point. This group is also a good example of how I like to incorporate other natural materials, like the maple seeds seen here and a random but complimentary piece of driftwood that came floating down the creek.
What ideas and feelings do you hope to evoke in the viewer?
For me, this work inspires a sense of beauty and magic, and a deep sense of connection with the natural environment. And when I feel it, I want to share it. But, abstractly, balance is such an important concept, not simply in our relationship with Nature, but for our survival. I want to highlight the importance of balance and promote an appreciation of our natural environment while reflecting on the human condition of imperfection, impermanence, fragility… but also our strengths.
[Left] © Michael Grab – Skógafoss, Iceland 2016
[Right] © Michael Grab – Boulder Creek, Boulder, Colorado, USA 2015
For you, is the work of art the stone sculpture or the photograph?
The art is very much both. The rock structure is a form of ephemeral sculpture or land art. But using photography and video is really the only way to document and share the work with the world. I use a Sony Alpha 7R III mirrorless camera with pro-grade lenses spanning a 12–200mm focal range. That wide focal range offers a lot of creative flexibility in how I capture the synergistic relationship between the installation and its environment.
[Left] © Michael Grab – Live Performance, Shanghai, China 2016
[Right] © Michael Grab – shooting ‘Amor Fati’, Boulder Creek, Boulder, Colorado, USA
You also speak about stone balancing as a performance…
While people can enjoy my work through the photographs or seeing the finished structure in a gallery, what viewers find most interesting is witnessing the process itself… seeing the structure come into being. Most people think what I’m doing is impossible until I actually let go of the final rock. One of my favorited things is to balance rocks in a formal performance setting or live-streamed via social media.
© Michael Grab – video of a stone balancing demonstration, Boulder Creek, Boulder, Colorado, USA December 2021
Doesn’t that audience or camera crew just add to the pressure…
It is something to work through – to transcend… When I was in Tasmania I was contracted for a film project. There was a high wind at the beach where we were shooting, and (between the wind and the pressure of filming) I was becoming overwhelmed by frustration. So, when I did eventually begin building, my expectations were pretty low. But, after working at it for some hours, I became fully invested and began to have more of a creative direction in my mind. This structure is quite different from most of my work. I had to let the elements guided the form itself: the unique blend of high wind and flat, slab-like stones.
The magical part of a process like this – which lasted for six or seven hours – is the way my mindset shifted from stressed and overwhelmed to become much lighter and, when I completed the structure, satisfied. But even more magical was the way in which the elements dictated this design. And then, several hours later, the sunset seemed to form around the structure, like it was responding directly to my commitment to persevere. As you can see in the photograph, the tessellated wave of blue cloud mirrors the structure itself: a perfect complement to that precise time and space. You cannot plan a synergy like that.
And you have also made work in China…
Yes, I’ve have given commissioned performances and led workshops in Beijing and in Shanghai.
People were very curious, if a little mystified, and keen to try rock balancing for themselves. In fact, when I was visiting near Xingping [Shaanxi Province], I stayed at a family-run hotel for several weeks. I became very close with the owners and taught them some rock-balancing skills. In the end, they accepted me almost as a member of the family. A large newspaper based in Guilin city, heard about me and came to do a newspaper story about Gravity Glue, which led to another magical twist of fate…
I was creating some personal work at the edge of the Li River. I had spent the day balancing a rock installation when a fisherman came by in his boat. I had no idea he was coming and, during the three weeks I was in the area, I never saw him again. Yet, as he passed, the spontaneous pose of the fisherman with the two cormorants alighted on his boat exactly echoed the structure I had been creating. It was as though some prescience in my unconscious mind had anticipated his arrival. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my career to date.
Why do you disassemble each arrangement when you leave?
There are several reasons, but the decision is always based on the current conditions. First and foremost, I prefer to leave no trace of my presence – in a sense closing the door behind me. There are other things to consider too. If it is place with a lot of human traffic then there are safety issues, should the stones topple over onto someone passing by. There is also the question of copyright – something I want to limit to what is in my camera.
If I have to leave the site but plan to return to do more work on a project, then I will usually disassemble before I leave for the evening, in order to preserve the rocks themselves, because sometimes a simple collapse may break a rock that is critical to the design I am working on. Even a light breeze can topple a delicately balanced structure.
What have you learned about yourself in the process of making these works?
I reckon I’ve cultivated a much closer relationship with the natural world. What I do is a kind of yoga and, in the countless hours of integrating my creativity with Nature, I’ve come to realise the natural world is no different from myself: something to be listened to and respected.
Stone balancing has taught me to understanding that nothing is permanent, that all things are perfect in their imperfection, and everything is interdependent. It’s a waste of energy to try to control everything. This practice requires me to surrender my process to the elements and to adapt rather than try to control the situation. And, in this, I have learned that I am often capable of things far beyond my current conception and that ‘impossible’ is just an illusion of limited thinking.
Michael Grab was born in Edmonton, Canada, in 1984. He relocated to Boulder, Colorado, in 2002, receiving a degree in sociology from the University of Colorado in 2007. He became a professional artist the following year when he stumbled into the art of stone balance through a kind of serendipitous accident. He quickly built a local and international audience for designing dramatically balanced rock formations along Boulder Creek, which flows through the heart of the city.
He has balanced rocks in over twenty countries worldwide – from Iceland to New Zealand, from China to Costa Rica – and now has a global reputation and extensive online presence. This has led him to undertake a number of commissioned artworks including live presentations in China, Germany, Scotland and Sweden, and a performance at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. Currently based in Boulder, Colorado, he remains dedicated to sharing his message of balance worldwide through performing, teaching, learning, and applying this ancient cultural and spiritual practice.
This article was initially published in Chinese, in the February 2021 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.