Just outside the entrance to Reno's Nevada Museum of Art stands Cairn, a kneeling man made of rocks. It was commissioned in 1998 as part of a major exhibition, From Exploration to Conservation: Picturing the Sierra Nevada.
The sculpture derives its name from the cairns of Europe, which date back at least to the Bronze Age. They were piles of stones used to mark a specific site – a burial, a road, a boundary. The museum's Cairn was created by Celeste Roberge, who began making this type of work in the late 1980s. Like her more recent stacked rock sculptures that incorporate furniture, the cairns represent an exploration of geological time, or the perception of geological time, as it intersects with human time.
Roberge’s cairns are welded steel grid figures, roughly conforming to the shape of the artist’s own body – but over life sized. The rocks used for filling the sculptures come from the region in which the artworks will be sited. The steel grid and the rocks themselves offer a complex aesthetic, of a formal grid with an arbitrary jumble of the rocks behind it. That jumble includes an infinite variation of round and flat shapes, voids, and a wealth of different textures and colors. The cairns are, in the aggregate, massive and weighty, and seemingly unchanging, at least within our human time frame. Yet, with irony or humor, they help define a human form.
Beloved by visitors and members, Cairn quickly became an iconic artwork for the museum, and was thus relocated to its guardian’s position by the door when the museum opened its new building in 2003. It is interesting to watch people stop and detour over to examine the work, to see kids climb on it, and to watch frequent visitors give it a surreptitious little pat as they go past.
None at this time.