Healing the land

This article appeared under the title Healing the Land in the Arts News section of Urthona : a journal for rousing the imagination. Issue 19, Winter 2003.

In mid 2002 I travelled to England to further my ordination into the Western Buddhist Order - to live and work with other Buddhists. Our large importing business has recently moved to new premises on the outskirts of Cambridge. The warehouse is sited in an old chalk pit, next to an old landfill. The landfill has been covered and is now being left to settle, but scattered around the surface of it are reminders of its previous use - broken concrete fence posts, strands of wire, bricks, odd bits of metal and wood lie half buried amongst the flourishing weeds. For a scavenging assemblage artist it was like stumbling into paradise!

The recent history of this land is one of violence - first being used as a dumping site and them being bulldozed and left to rot. Scattered around are gas pipes which collect the gas produced by tonnes of rubbish decaying, and send it to be burned off. One of my strongest feelings about this patch of ground is that it needs love, it needs care and perhaps after all this brutality it needs redemption. The earth is very resilient, and will in time restore this ground to something like a pristine state, but my guess is that long before the natural processes can do their work the humans will be hacking at it again.

My response to the land and the scattered debris was to try to mark the fact that the land is sacred. There was a strong history of sacred ground in England as we know from the many stone rings. I started off creating a semblance of the Buddhist architectural form known as a stupa, to indicate my good intentions to the land. I gathered up materials and simply piled them together, or stood them in the soil. This grew to become a mandala of multiple rings and circles, with protector figures to ward of the evil influence of the developers.

My favourite material is the old concrete fence posts which have been bent and broken to reveal steel reinforcing rods in their bodies. Where the breaks are in the middle the rods are like ribs or bones, but when the come out of the ends they remind me of hair standing on end, or arms reaching out. There is a magical quality to this, somehow reaching up into the sky to bring down healing energies into the wounded earth.

I've spent many hours on the landfill now. Many lunch hours, over many weeks and months have been spent creating shapes and forms which express everything from sadness, fear, faith, to humour and virility, but all somehow tied to the land and my relationship to it. What was a wasteland is now a sculpture park, and with a hotel being built on adjacent land it will get some exposure where as it's mostly hidden at the moment.

People come from all over the world to work in this warehouse, but New Zealanders seem to have a special connection with their land, with the land. Volcanoes and earthquakes - literal, mythic, and psychic - were very much a part of growing up in New Zealand, and this has left a deep imprint on me. However my forebears were English even if they did leave in search of a better life. It's something of a return journey for me, for my family. So here I am a recycled Englishman, recycling the remains of empire, in order to recycle the land.