Nobody knows what happened to them, the people who populated the desolate Scottish Orkney Islands some 6,000 years ago, people who lived in architecturally advanced stone houses complete with beds and cupboards and tanks to keep their fish fresh and cool, the people who erected the majestic and mysterious Standing Stones of Stenness.
The islands have hundreds of such stones, some as tall as 25 feet. Many are believed to have served as field markers or directions to burial mounds. Others, among them the Stenness stones, were arranged in a circle around a stone altar.
"These stones were set up astrologically," says artist Kim Soren Larsen. "I stood with a compass right off the left edge of each stone, and they are perfectly placed, all turned in perfect 30-degree increments times 12 stones to equal 360 degrees. The people also figured out a way that they could put these things up with just two men. They would dig a hole, leverage the stones up, and they would slide in. It's amazing. This was 1,500 years before the pyramids. These were an extremely advanced people."
Larsen, a Chicagoan of Danish descent, traveled to Scotland in 1989 specifically to see the stones and record them on camera. He has since spent nearly two-and-a-half years portraying them in his unusual photomurals. These he creates by projecting a photographic image from a 35-millimeter negative onto a raw canvas on the wall of his darkened studio and laboriously outlining selected images in pencil. Then, turning off the lights and projector, effectively turning his studio into a darkroom, he hand-brushes liquid photographic emulsion onto the canvas and turns the projector back on, exposing the photo over his drawing.
The resultant artwork "transforms a photo so it transcends time and space," Larsen says. To heighten the mythological effect, he frames his work in lead and juxtaposes the completed pieces with lead rectangles, having chosen the material for both its look of antiquity and its ancient associations with alchemists who tried to turn it into gold.
Some have suggested, Larsen says, that inhabitants of the Orkney Islands died in a drought or during one of the brutal winters. Or perhaps they built boats of some sort and made their way to warmer climes in Scotland or Denmark, effectively bequeathing to people in the distant future their beautiful stones.
"You can just walk around in them. It's magical. I went out there at night, did half-hour time exposures with my camera with the car headlights. It was unbelievable, the feeling. It was a very mythical experience. The quiet, and the stars, and the beauty. It was a good feeling, not an eerie feeling. I just felt this calm, really a good, positive feeling. Like--god, I'd just like to lay down here and sleep."
Kim Soren Larsen's solo exhibition continues through October 3 at Lannon-Cole Gallery, 365 W. Chicago. Hours are 10 to 6 Tuesday through Saturday, later on Thursday; call 951-0700.