History and Rules of the Game
The Game of Five Rocks
Some beachcombers make little piles of stones, call them cairns, and walk on. For the LeRoi-Nickel household in Portland, Oregon, that spur-of-the-moment creative task has evolved into a planful, aspirational, competitive art form evocative of work by the sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988). The annual roster of invited participants grows; the rules continue to evolve.
It is a simple proposition. Each member of a hiking party is asked to select — carefully, and with as conscious an aesthetic vision as time and place allow — five rocks. No more, no less, and of a total weight that allows them to be transported home or to a designated judging location. Each member produces a single assemblage that makes creative use of all five rocks, after which the entries are judged in what amounts to a critical blind tasting.
The activity became a game sometime around the fin de siecle as a rest-time diversion for the hiking party: creating impromptu sculpture out of driftwood, rocks, dried grasses, and other oddments encountered while hiking or walking the beach. A competitive spirit arose as the game evolved, leading to a short list of rules and a longer list of settled and unsettled policy. An annual late-December session on the Oregon seashore began in the second decade of the 21st century.
- Rocks. Each participant must select five rocks found onsite during the outing. Many may be considered; exactly five must be chosen. All five must figure into the final creation.
- Creator. Each sculpture must be designed and assembled by the participant. Discussion is permitted, but Five Rocks is not a team sport.
Somewhat settled policy
- Convener. The convenor determines the time, date, and place of the Game and invites individual participants.
- Communication. The convener gathers participants at the appointed time and place, reviews the rules (including any pro tempore modifications), and informs participants of the time and place for final assembly of the works. The convener settles any questions that may arise.
- Materials. Nothing beyond the five rocks can become part of the final creation. There have been well-meaning creative efforts to add seaweed, driftwood, or non-natural items like sea glass, but these generally have been frowned upon.
- Judging. For most of its history, Five Rocks relied on judges who were onsite, who could witness the construction of entries and thus know the identity of each work’s creator. As the list of participants has grown to include eager sculptors beyond the immediate family, standard practice now relies on remote judges who do not know which sculptor created which entry and are thus able to rank-order the entries based solely on their intrinsic merit — das Ding an Sich. Immanuel Kant would have approved.
- Images. If remote judges have only images, must those images be uniform with regard to size, lighting, camera angle and so forth?
- Presentation. Can the rocks be manipulated (e.g., spritzed with water, incised, or painted) before judges’ images are made?
- Names. Can assemblages be given a name (e.g., Sisyphos)?
- Judicial selection. How are judges selected and who selects them?
- Judicial communications. What instructions do the judges receive? Who sends the judges the images, gathers and tabulates their responses, and announces the results? This task could fall to the convener or a convener-designated tabulator.
- Judicial criteria. Judges currently operate in a free-form manner, an approach that is not always in keeping with the das Ding an Sich ideal. This remains under discussion.
View entries in a recent (December 2020) session of The Game of Five Rocks.
Click to learn official results from this year’s judging.