Michelle’s Stuart’s Niagara Gorge Path Relocated: The cyclical nature of the things

Case Study: Artists & researchers who shift perspectives on the material world.

“The curvature of time in oral cultures is very difficult to articulate on the page, for it defies the linearity of the printed line. Yet to fully engage, sensorially, with one’s earthly surroundings is to find oneself in a world of cycles within cycles within cycles.” (Abram, 1996, p.186)

In 1975, American artist Michelle Stuart left a 140 metre sheet of heavy-duty rag paper hung over the side of a gorge in New York state. The paper was bashed with rocks and Iron (III) Oxide sourced from the gorge. The paper was left there, exposed to the elements, until it eventually, wholly disintegrated.

The work is Niagara Gorge Path Relocated, 140 x 1.5m, Lewiston, New York. Materials: Red Iron (III) Oxide on muslin-backed rag paper. Commissioned by ArtPark.

Niagara Gorge Path Relocated no longer exists in a conventional, art object sense. It cannot be seen, heard or touched.

Around 10,000 BC, following the most recent Ice Age, the Great Lakes were forming throughout the Canada-United States border. A river flowed from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. Somewhere along its path a waterfall began to fall, this was an early form of Niagara Falls. This site is where Stuart hung her paper. Today the Niagara Falls waterfall is 11km upstream from there. The waterfall has journeyed upstream at roughly one metre per year, as crashing water chisels through earth. Niagara Falls will travel until it ceases to exist. The creation and destruction of paper

Prior to her art career Stuart worked as a cartographic draughtsperson for the US Army, where she mapped the earth from above, turning arial vistas into readable imagery. This job followed the path of her father, who mapped the waterlines of California’s deserts. Stuart has often employed practical methods typical of topography to document landscapes within her work.

Muslin-backed rag paper is hard-wearing, it is created through an industrial process where machines churn cotton rags in water. The mass becomes a water-y pulp as the individual fibres separate, at which point it is sieved through a large mesh frame and the fibres re-form creating a sheet of rag paper. Stuart worked with rag paper in the army.

For many of her paper works, including Niagara Gorge Path Relocated, the paper needed to withstand being bashed repeatedly with rocks - which was a method she employed to transfer pigment onto the paper.

The sheet was left in Lewiston Gorge until the elements gradually tore the entire piece from the gorge, as Stuart had intended. Shreds of paper drifted with the wind, worn smaller and smaller until wholly dispersed, returned once more to microscopic fibres. The fibres became a part of the environment. At this point, the materials left the cultural realm where they were an art object, where they might have been preserved in a museum, gallery or collection. The alien cotton fibres, brought to the site by Stuart, merged with new landscapes. Depending on where each fibre settled, or tangled, they became part of something new.

Stuart believed that when the paper finally disintegrated, "its union with the land evoked the perception of time and with it the awareness of the continual flow of nature's processes" (Stuart, 2011, p.26)

Fibres carrying bashed earth could have carried that matter to new places, or merged with a small sapling becoming part of it as it grew. The cultural value that was once inscribed upon the fibre becomes a potential mineral value for flora & fauna.

The Story

By leaving the paper to disintegrate, she removed the physical document, meaning the full narrative of the work can no longer be ‘viewed’, it can only be told.

To destroy the paper document is to destroy its readability, and so a different method is required to keep it alive. The artwork becomes a story.

“Stories hold, in their narrative layers, the sedimented knowledge accumulated by our progenitors. [..] [For] oral cultures, the ceaseless flux that we call “time” is overwhelmingly cyclical in character” (1996, p.181 & 185). David Abram

The story enables the work to depart from linear, human timelines, and to enter a cyclical time scale. The materials are in flux. They continue to exist as dispersed micro fragments.

Stuart is fashioning and refashioning matter, showing us how nothing is static. Water drops, paper disintegrates, rocks erode, waterfalls journey. None occur at a definitive moment: these cycles are in constant transition.

Even Niagara Falls, which feels so huge and permanent through human eyes, is constantly moving. From the moment the waterfall first existed, its eventual destruction also began.

Trying to define when the artwork occurred is a complicated task - was it in the moment it was first hung over the gorge, or was it in the first moments that the wind began ripping it apart. Perhaps it was when Stuart was gathering rocks and bashing pigment into the paper. Because the work is about flux, I would argue there is no singular point in time or form with which it can be stamped. It continues to ‘become’.

“Becoming is the dynamic movement of temporal-ization and change that never ‘is’ but exists in between the ‘no longer’ and the ‘not yet’, pulling in both past and future directions at once” (Robinson (ed), 2009, p.221).

Michelle Stuart, Niagara Gorge Path Relocated, 1975. Rocks, earth (red Iron Oxide) from site, Lewiston, NY, on muslin-backed rag paper, 460 x 5.2 feet. Photograph. © Michelle Stuart. Courtesy of the artist and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects.

There are photographs of Niagara Gorge Path Relocated - taken from a distance, showing the full sheet of paper hung over the ridge of the gorge before it blew away. It is an amazing visual, though it pinpoints the work to a singular moment, it neglects to tell us about the ‘story’.

Thus the properties of materials, regarded as constituents of an environment, cannot be identified as fixed, essential attributes of things, but are rather processual and relational. They are neither objectively determined nor subjectively imagined but practically experienced. In that sense, every property is a condensed story. To describe the properties of materials is to tell the stories of what happens to them as they flow, mix and mutate (2007, p.14). Ingold

There was a story within each material before the photograph was taken, and the stories continued afterwards. Because the nature of the work is flux, at any moment of its existence there are parts that have happened and there are parts that are going to happen. The photograph depicts a being. The story tells of a becoming. The photograph freezes the work in time. The story allows the work to exist through time.


By working with so few materials, Stuart directs our attention to the local red Iron (III) Oxide (Fe2O3), which was bashed into the work. The flesh of the gorge that binds this work to Lewiston.

When Earth first formed, it engulfed huge quantities of iron into its orbit. Single-celled organisms eventually formed and raised the atmosphere’s oxygen level, and for the first time iron became oxidised. This process cast landscapes in a blanket of deep red.

Oxidation is a ‘becoming’. It is a slow, eternal process harking back to Earth at the moment life began.

The product of this oxidation is used as a traditional artist pigment known as Red Ochre. It has historical significance in the area of Niagara Falls and the surrounding areas, where remains of the Red Ochre People have been found from the Paleo-Indian period around the time of the Ice Age. They used local red ochre pigments from the ground in their burials.

There is a cycle in humans being born and buried. The Red Ochre People are buried in the landscape - their bodies are tangled within the geological history of the site. Stuart’s piece is in the same web, bound together by place.

Stuart takes iron oxide from the earth, adding it to paper where it is read as pigment - leaving its geological context and entering human culture. It dissolves back into the earth and leaves human accessibility - returning to a geological material.

From iron to ochre to iron

From thing to colour to thing

From earth to body to earth

Stuart’s blood exists as a material inside the work. She covered the 140 metre sheet of paper with earth, demanding a great amount of physical effort. The process was so intense that her hands often started to bleed, and her blood seeped into the fibres, mingling blood iron and gorge iron. Leaving through DNA a ghostly presence of the artist in the area.

Beginnings and endings

The site of Niagara Falls is sublime - The waterfall is predicted to continue for another 50,000 years, while water crashes down the sheer drop in a matter of seconds. Water, like paper in Stuart’s artwork, represents the fleeting human.

The multi-toned strata which are exposed on the cliff's edge show millennia in a single glance. Erosion has revealed earth from the past, bringing it to the surface, while earth washed by the river becomes sediment at the lowest strata level.

Time here is not accessible as short term and long term, but as “cycles within cycles within cycles.” (Abram, 1996, p.186).

Paper is a material that facilitates linear time, but in destroying the physical document, the piece becomes a story, which is by nature, circulated. Stories are cycles that shift continuously through time and space, echoing the constant reforming of landscape.

Written by Maddie Rose Hills

25th April 2024

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Note: I wrote a version of this essay in 2020, and have re-visited it in 2024.