Before there were churches or temples, there were totems, cairns, and menhirs—towers of stone and wood.
In almost all early and animist cultures, from the Ojibwe tribe in Canada to communities on the Indonesian island of Sumba, such pillars marked sacred sites or symbolized ancestors or important spirits.
Some anthropologists have theorized that this urge to mark the landscape or build a tower is a primordial and universal human impulse.
It also seems to be a very modern one. One of the most Instagrammed artworks recently is Ugo Rondidone’s Seven Magic Mountains, an installation of seven totems, ranging in height from 25 to 35 feet, in the desert south of Las Vegas. He built them by stacking boulders he’d painted in Day-Glo colors.
The Swiss artist was inspired by land art’s history. The project has drawn so many pilgrims that it has been extended through at least the end of the year.
For Rondinone, the installation was a way of engaging as many people as possible with nature, marking a place to contemplate with a more heightened awareness.
“It’s a given when you put something in contrast [that] it elevates the other part,” said Rondinone on a video for the Art Production Fund, which helped support the project, “so I hope that the people who look at this piece will extend their view to the surroundings and the landscape.”
It’s possible that this interest in the totemic form is connected to the recent revival of all things Ettore Sottsass. Founder of the Memphis Group, Sottsass shifted easily between industrial design, architecture, and art, creating everything from Italy’s first computer to the Valentine typewriter.
In 1967 he unveiled a collection of 21 oversize totems made of ceramic pieces in bright colors for an exhibition that made a reference to his diverse influences: “Menhir, Ziggurat, Stupas, Hydrants & Gas Pumps.” Several of the totems, rarely seen before, were shown at Sottsass’s retrospective at the Met Breuer in 2017.
Although Ashley Hicks (son of the British design legend David Hicks) says he loves both Native American and Pacific Islands totems, his own tabletop-size columns of tinted and marbleized resin and gilt bronze parts have “no spiritual or sacred intention behind them.”
He laughed. “I just like piling stuff up!” One of the first large-scale totems that he made was for a French client who was reluctantly leaving her home in Paris for a townhouse in London. He described this particular piece as “a string of giant candies to make her feel happy about going up the endless flights of stairs, rather than along the pretty enfilade in her old apartment in Paris.”
For Hicks, his pieces are “jewelry for rooms” (he will soon show his totems at R & Company in New York), but for the Paris-based artist Nicolas Lefebvre, totem forms are more sacred. He assembles them from thousands of artifacts he collects on his travels—an Egyptian cross of life, an African spear, an Art Deco plinth—that he sometimes attaches with handmade natural glue.
One of his first works was a reliquary fashioned from metal and wood in tribute to his mother, who had recently died. He continued, over the years, to make what he calls a “dialogue between elements.”
Some of the first to understand and collect his work were museums, including the Louvre Abu Dhabi. “The institutions that collect my pieces see them as intellectual work, but for me it’s all about intuition,” Lefebvre said. Not quite design, not quite art, Lefebvre’s totems are like portals to the past that create a dialogue with the present.
This summer he was asked to build a large-scale totem at the Hôtel de Ville, Paris’s 14th-century municipal headquarters, with the help of Syrian and Iraqi teenage refugees. “I think all people have a common story,” he said. “With my totems I mix the energies of many cultures to create a universal object.”