“I’ve figured out the ellipse!” Elise called.
We turned and looked at her. I was skeptical; we just had an unproductive 20 minutes trying to figure out the alleged ellipse, made of 21 feet of string that ended with me saying, “It’s just not possible to have an ellipse that is 21 feet across and lay out the circumference with 21 feet of string.”
We were trying to build a human sundial in the backyard. I have been fascinated with them for quite some time. Essentially, I created the dial in the back of the soon-to-be Between the Covers literary bed and breakfast on Market Street, based on calculations of my position geographically. Participants then use their bodies as the gnomon (the sticky up part of a sundial) to cast a shadow on the dial. Because the earth is constantly moving, where one stands has to change, depending upon the time of the year. Hence, a guide is drawn on the gnomon to show us where to stand at April or October, January or June, etc. There is a lot of math involved. Thank the gods we had a NC School of Science and Math alum with us that day.
“No, no it works like this…” Elise jabbed the marker sticks back in the ground and strung them up like two hands playing cat’s cradle. Before we knew what happened, she was tracing out the circumference of the ellipse with the third point of the string.
“Ah!” I screeched with comprehension and delight. “Thank the heavens you were here Elise. I never would have figured that out.”
We sprang into action behind her with spray paint so we wouldn’t lose the ellipse. The black and green streaks weren’t beautiful on the grass but they would suffice for this stage of the installation process.
I arrived with an armload of notes, papers and a book on sundials in preparation of the installation. My helpers looked at me more with curiosity than skepticism. On some level, I guess I am proud my proclivity for weird projects—coupled with actual follow-through—has normalized things enough for the people around me to grasp that pretty much anything is possible. Take the day I showed up with privacy fencing listed as “stockade,” for example. After Austin and I finished installing it, I commented to Allison it was for the cattle we were getting. She asked if I was serious or not—because, at this point, she really couldn’t tell anymore. The flip side is perhaps I should feel guilt for distressing my loved ones so much.
So, why a human-powered sundial? Well, it is an interactive installation of art and science that speaks to a variety of questions that have plagued humans down the ages. Perhaps the recent eclipse might have generated more acute interest in movements of celestial bodies and their impact on us. Part of what a sundial does is try to help us harness an understanding of our place in the scheme of things.
Sundials have been found throughout the world in some form or fashion, going back to the ancient world. However, the components developed and refined by the Greek and Islamic cultures are what we primarily trace most modern sundials to. The real refining of sundials and developing of sophisticated calculations came in the renaissance. We finally got around to accepting the idea of heliocentric system (thank you, Copernicus). With that came advances in mathematics and astronomy—which refined the sundial further.
As a piece of public art, they fill an interesting place as a cross section between science and mysticism. It takes math and science to calculate and create a sundial, but they appear frequently in church references and art, to mark time for mass and prayers (sometimes they were called “Mass Dials”), as well as remind of the magnitude and power something greater than ourselves has over the world.
Perhaps as an example of public art, one of the more famous and talked about sundials in recent history is actually a sky scraper. The Taipei World Financial Center, now called Taipei 101, in Taiwan is 101 floors, and its neighboring park is designed to use the tower’s shadow as a gnomon to tell time.
What we installed in the backyard of the B&B is called an “Analemmatic Sundial” or a “Human Sundial.” The Analemmatic Sundial is credited to M. de Vaulezard, who in 1640 wrote “Treatise on the Usage of the Analemmatic Dial.” In 1654 Samuel Foster published a book further refining the dial. According to the Journal of the British Astronomical Association, the work of the Analemmatic Sundial has occupied some of the most famous astronomers and mathematicians down the centuries.
To use an Analemmatic Sundial, one must be positioned on the gnomon according to the time of year. After getting in position, one would raise an arm aloft to make her shadow longer. Her shadow should fall on one of the bricks positioned on the ellipse and labeled as the hour markers.
I am just tickled the two points the gnomon moves between are the winter and summer solstice, with the equinox exactly at the center point. It is a nice reminder how they are not arbitrary days of primitive people or mythic superstitions, but rather markers of the movements of our planet, our bodies on that planet, and the sources of light, heat and tidal movement. Without the sun, we would not be able to survive on planet Earth.
Elise carefully measured out the hour points, while we followed along, marking with spray paint, when she gave the signal everything was good to go. Then we began to bury bricks at the points to be used as markers.
“What do you want the gnomon to look like?” she asked.
I had a variety of different pictures and ideas in the stack of papers. We sorted through the possibilities.
“I like this one, with the sun pointing at the solstices,” I tapped at one picture. “How about something like that?”
On a cool morning a couple of weeks later, Elise figured out the gnomon position and points, and painted the markers on the pavers.
“It looks beautiful!” I gushed. “We need to go to Steven’s for some sort of sealant so it doesn’t get ruined when it gets walked on or the yard gets mowed.”
Elise and Heather picked out the perfect sealant to protect the gnomon. As we left, Elise cradled the jug carefully in her arms.
OK, I thought. She’s quiet but she is pleased with this after all. Good, because she really is the only reason this project happened at all—let alone looks so good.
Perhaps with the twin events of the eclipse last week, and the escalating conversation about public art that currently engages us, I find this particular project particularly timely. (Pardon the pun.) Jock and I watched the eclipse from our front yard and periodically had to inch to the east, leading up to the main event as our view would become blocked by trees. It really reminded me how we are in constant motion, which is what made the eclipse possible. Perhaps having an interactive piece of art like this offers us hope: We really are part of something much bigger.
Art should provoke, should case response and thought. Providing context for who we are and what our place is in the universe is one aspect of it. Using art to illustrate the principles that make our very existence on this planet possible truly fulfils the mission of public art and the intersection of science and the humanities.
Take a deep breath, stand on the gnomon, find your place today, raise your hand above your head, and look at where you are right now.