Marfa's Newest Work of Public Art is a Solar-Powered Stonehenge

British artist Haroon Mizra's monumental public sculpture is a rare newcomer to a site identified with a single iconic artist—and lorded over by possessive ranchers.

Haroon Mizra, Rendering for stone circle, 2017. Courtesy of hrm199, Ballroom Marfa, and Lisson Gallery

In 1971, fed up with the flashy and overcrowded New York art scene, Donald Judd packed his bags and headed southwest to a small cowboy town named Marfa. Beneath the endless skies, Judd dreamed up an alternative strand of minimalism (notoriously, he despised the term) that eschewed the urban white cube for sublime desert surrounds. A half-century later, British artist Haroon Mirza is unveiling his own project in the same location.

Known for multimedia installations that blend properties of sound, space, and light in an nod to psychedelic and ambient aesthetics, Mizra has made another work that checks all the right boxes. An astrologically aligned ring of boulders clad in solar panels that absorb and release energy in correlation with the phases of the moon, stone circle blurs boundaries between genres and media. Sitting somewhere between ancient mysticism and contemporary technology, it performs both astrological and scientific functions.

stone circle, which opens officially in Winter 2018, is squirreled away about ten miles northwest of the city, at the end of a sloping municipal road. “You really have to go looking for it,” Matt Grant, lead preparator of Ballroom Marfa, told me. In collaboration with Mirza’s gallery, Lisson Gallery, Ballroom is responsible for this latest addition to Marfa’s public art offerings, which may seem surprisingly few and far between given the town's Judd-given status.

In fact, Mirza’s only precedent (excluding the work housed on the Judd-laden land that belongs to the Chinati Foundation) is Berlin duo Elmgreen & Dragset’s iconic Prada Marfa (2005), which was installed along the stretch of highway near Valentine, Texas (about 40 miles outside Marfa) over a decade prior. So why is public art such a rarity in what might seem like a perfectly sympathetic location? Ultimately, it’s not an issue of available space, but rather who owns it.

Elmgreen & Dragsett, Prada Marfa, 2005. Photo by James Evans, courtesy of Lisson Gallery

“Unlike much of the United States, land in Texas is mostly privately owned,” confirmed Grant. This makes public projects like stone circle and Prada Marfa tough to negotiate and realize. “Ballroom managed to strike a deal with the ranchers through a family connection,” he told me. Good for the next five years, the longer-term life of Mirza’s installation may depend on its ability to attract tourists; if it fails to attract an influx on par with Prada Marfa (modest and rather specialized as even that may be), it may simply melt into desert mirage.

So what did the cowboy curators see in Mirza’s work? Perhaps they were tickled by stone circle­’s otherworldly air, with its imported Mexican boulders “appearing,” in Mizra’s words, “inexplicably, like a crop circle.” And did Marfa’s serendipitous rebrand as the art world’s desert outpost come into play? Grant’s response was equal parts mysterious and prosaic: “I can’t say exactly, but we’re not going to deny they’ll profit hugely off of this.”

stone circle will open in Winter 2018 and remain on view for the following five years.