3D Rendering  and early model.

Fitting these Syllables

Installation for MASS MoCA

Fitting these Syllables, a proposal for Mass MoCA:

The title of this project comes from the Ted Hughes poem, Walls (below) from his book Remains of Elmet.

On top of the hill out behind Mass MoCA two large curved stone walls of varying height, tapered from bottom to top, create an embrace for viewers who ascend one of the two curved stairways that escalate from the flat “concert” field to the hilltop.

The view includes all the buildings of Mass MoCA and the Berkshire mountains beyond. The taper of the fieldstone walls becomes tapered red glass. At night the illuminated glass seen from the museum will create two red curves floating in space.

In the stone paved area within the embrace of the curve there is a “sound well” of stone and iron. Viewers gathered around this well will hear the recorded musical piece whose composition includes the voices and sounds of the stone wall’s construction.

This wall will be built by a crew of six or seven good stonemasons and their helpers.

All sounds of the wall-making will be recorded: all the voices, all the sounds of the tools on the stone, and the stone on stone. The recorded sounds will be edited into a musical composition. The final edit will toggle between the soundtrack of the working and the silence of the stone. This invisible audio technology will make manifest the quintessential lost voices and music of these ancient granite strokes on our landscape. I will dedicate this work to the late Maryanne Amacher, the shy, brilliant composer who I had the good fortune to know at the Center of Advanced Visual Studies in the 1970s.

I built my first stone wall in 1969. And I’m still working every day with stone, primarily New England fieldstone. There is a distinct smell to fieldstone as you work it with a hammer and a chisel. There is the earthy fragrance of the dirt and lichen on the surface of the stone, and when the stone splits, an astringent mineral perfume is released from its million years of confinement. Stonemasons know this smell.

And the sounds. The chip-chip-chip chirps of the hammer and the point, the cell door slam crack of the bull set, the resonating ring of a high quality chisel. These sounds continue through the daylight hours until the wall reaches its completion, and, along with their lunch boxes and tools, the voices of the masons disappear and only an old mason like myself remembers them.

In the early eighties, when I was wrapping up a job in Boston’s South End to get married and go on my honeymoon, an old Italian mason approached me. He’d heard we were going to be in Florence. “Mark”, he said, “You gotta see the Duomo. You gotta see this job!”

To see the hand work in each stone of this architecture, to see clearly the long gone men who struggled for years, with the problems, the accidents, and the daily violence to fingers, hands, and backs, the cold and the soaking storms, the fist bumping triumphs, all a discrete knowing, bits of human memory, gone like raindrops.

Artist: Mark Mendel ~ mark@markmendel.com


What callused speech rubbed its edges
Soft and hard again and soft
Again fitting these syllables

To the long swell of land, in the long
Press of weather? Eyes that closed
To gaze at grass-points and gritty chippings.

Spines that wore into a bowed
Enslavement, the small freedom of raising
Endless memorials to the labour

Buried in them. Faces
Lifted at the day’s end
Like the palms of the hands

To cool in the slow fire of sleep.
A slow fire of wind
Has erased their bodies and names.

Their lives went into the enclosures
Like manure. Embraced these slopes
Like summer cloud-shadows. Left

This harvest of long cemeteries.

–Ted Hughes
-From Remains of Elmet