Sounding Stones (Leslie Iwai, 2004)
Nestled in Omaha’s Elmwood Park, amongst the trees at the north end, lies an unexpected work of public sculpture. If you drive past the park on Dodge Street you might miss it, but if you walk through the park the sculpture becomes the focal point of the surrounding area. It is Sounding Stones, by Nebraska-native, Wisconsin-based Leslie Iwai.
The sculpture consists of five concrete blocks, each shaped like some sort of pillow with a hole through the middle. The apertures are big enough to sit inside, and if you do so you will notice there is a single word engraved on each stone, in a no-nonsense sans serif font.
What does all of this mean? “Sounding” is an ambiguous word here, with two competing meanings: “making a sound” and “taking a sounding,” and Iwai acknowledges both of these meanings in her artist statement.
The location of these stones in Omaha—a city in the middle of our nation—is important. Soundings are taken in the middle of a body of water to measure its depth. Likewise, in taking the “soundings” of our community, we measure its depth. The open core of each stone is to be a place for crying out. God purposes for all people to break complacency and praise Him. But even, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”1
I imagine these particular stones like the bells of trumpets—indeed the form of each stone bears a resemblance to the instrument. What kind of music would happen if you blew through the hole in each stone? Imagine them as magical trumpets, capable of amplifying your voice above the roar and whoosh of traffic.
I approached Sounding Stones from the south last week; let’s think about the five words on the pieces, and how the stones are arranged in sequence. “Humility”—that’s a comfortable idea. Everyone should be humble, right? Narcissism is still frowned upon, and the humblebrag is rather out of fashion. As we walk into a slight valley on the other side of the trail, we see a stone marked “Simplicity”—again, a very easily-understood concept; there are magazines, self-help books, and blogs in abundance which will offer to help you lead “the simple life.” Our culture is very comfortable with the idea of simplicity (even if the way we live our lives doesn’t always acknowledge the value of that idea).
But when we turn to the north, we see the last three stones grouped together.2 The “virtues” here are slightly more difficult.
“Community”—yes, everyone can probably agree that community is a good thing, but does anyone know how to practice it anymore? True community—being available for others, and being vulnerable with them—can be rare and hard to maintain. Social media can give us a semblance of community, but it is so easy to insulate ourselves in a cloud of like-minded voices and create a false sense of community; this is the first of Iwai’s character traits that seems, sometimes, out of our reach.
The final two stones are even more troubling: “Submission” and “Brokenness.” Our current culture, obsessed with the ideas of personal autonomy and individual agency, has a hard time accepting the idea of voluntary submission. And in the age of the curated Instagram feed, brokenness is something you will never see.
What are we supposed to do with these character traits? Think back to my metaphor of the magical trumpet. Imagine proclaiming a message to the world through one of these stones—your message will be amplified if you practice the virtues inscribed on the stones.
Anything you wish to say will be given greater force and reach if done with humility and simplicity, in community, and with a degree of submission . . . but . . . brokenness?
One of the more puzzling and counter-intuitive passages of scripture is found in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, where Paul describes how he was beset by some form of physical ailment, and asked for it to be removed. “No, I’m not going to do that for you,” God says—“My strength is made perfect in weakness.” What a strange passage—how does the strength of God become perfect when it is allied to our weakness?
The strength comes when we know that we are broken, and we let the rest of the world see that. How much more powerful is a message when we know that the person who delivered it did so against imposing odds and adversities! Even more so: the Christian message of salvation and forgiveness is a message of admitting our own brokenness, and our need to be repaired by a savior.
And of course, the Christian life is one which ought to be lived in humility, simplicity, and community, with a proper submission as well.
So if you are ever in Elmwood Park, I would encourage you to visit Sounding Stones. Maybe you should even shout a message to the world through one of them, and imagine what your message might look like if it were given in the spirit of Iwai’s five virtues. Then, try to live your life’s message like that.
Here is a very personal testament to the meaning that Sounding Stones had for one blogger, and here is an account of the controversy that erupted when Sounding Stones was moved, in 2007, from Omaha’s Turner Park to make way for development. I’m not sure if Iwai would say her sculpture is site-specific, but there is so much to think about regarding the individual situation of each piece. Like the rocks in a Zen garden, the stones relate to each other in ever-changing ways as a visitor walks around them in the park. Also, notice how, in the photo above, the stones are all pointing towards each other—as if they are “sounding” in dialogue or colloquy.
More about AI art
The conversation on Substack is getting broader regarding the place of AI art and writing in our culture; three other writers discussed these ideas last week, and if you are at all interested in AI, you should read their essays. Erik Hoel gives more reasons why AI art is not really art, claiming that it is mere pareidolia, and drawing on points made by Leo Tolstoy about communicativeness. Mark Baker examines AI from a writer’s perspective, and shares Hoel’s disdain, but not his concern—Baker contends that AI art is not worth worrying about, and he uses a great metaphor about human agency and activity: “A cannon can throw a shot further than a shot-putter can. It does not mean that cannons have replaced athletes in the Olympics.” In contrast, M. J. Hines is actually excited about the possibilities that AI-generated texts have regarding one of the principal concerns of twentieth-century literature: the blurring and scrambling of the authorial voice. Hines is planning to write a series of AI-based projects which will explore the parameters of this new technique.
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Wayne State Magazine, Summer 2006, pages 4-5.
They aren’t really as close together as they look from this angle, but that’s part of what makes their placement so intriguing.