Paying One’s Respect to a Mountain

Over the last three years I’ve climbed and mapped sacred mountains in Asia, as well as man-made monuments that refer directly to the cosmological. As an artist I fuse archaeology, legend, history and the site specific pilgrimage together – exploring on foot – while documenting with video, photography and GPS and react to the location through performance and later participatory installations.


“You must ascend a mountain to learn your relation to matter, and so to your own body, for it is at home there, though you are not.”
– Henry David Thoreau

Over the last three years I’ve climbed and mapped sacred mountains in Asia, as well as man-made monuments that refer directly to the cosmological Mt. Meru and Mt. Sumeru of Buddhist and Hindu tradition. As an artist I fuse archaeology, legend, history and the site specific pilgrimage together – exploring on foot – while documenting with video, photography and GPS and react to the location through performance.

The mountain pilgrimage has become my lens into deciphering aspects of my new home. To share I create participatory art that attempts to poetically embody and translate my own experience to new audiences. In this artist talk, I will introduce my mountain treks in China, Indonesia and Cambodia and also discuss the challenges and successes I encountered in translating these site specific projects and performances into installation pieces.

This work draws on the tradition of Somatics, where direct experience and the body are key ingredients in exploring the inner world through physical engagement with location. It is also inspired by Yi Fu Tuan and his thoughts in Space and Place, where “the human person, who is animal, fantasist, and computer combined, experiences and understands the world”. As an artist much of my understanding of place is through walking. Artists including Francis Alys and his Paseos, Guy Debord’s Derives, Janet Cardiff’s audio and video walks and Walkbook, and Hamish Fulton’s walk art have also drawn on the walk as a source for their making.

The mountain has been my lens, specifically magical and mystical epicenters in Asia. Walking has been my way of engaging in these spaces. To understand my new home of Singapore, I climb through mountains of religion. There is something transformative about ascending, climbing, straining towards a peak, especially a peak with a temple perched on top, ideally along a path with hundreds of other climbers, that pushes my awareness out of my own experience into a synergetic flow of humanity. I've been drawn to these places that push my endurance and awareness. It is on mountain pilgrimages that my subjective experience begins to feel integrated into a larger awareness. This is hybrid practice-based research that attempts to combine approaches from interactive art, somatic bodywork concepts and experiential Aesthetics that includes site specific performance and translations in later installations.

“The ordinary man looking at a mountain is like an illiterate person confronted with a Greek manuscript.”
– Aleister Crowley.

The mountain as a pilgrim destination is not specific to any one region; it is an archetypal metaphor that transcends location and time. Think of Olympus, Ararat, Zion, Sinai, the temple at Delphi, the Tower of Babylon, Ziggurats, Pyramids, Manchu Piccu, Temples on Mounts, Mounds, Tells and so many other upward looking locations where we are inspired to consider if not engage in intense communication. We have real mountains where real gods reside, and man-made mountains where we see the achievements of civilizations. This holds true for the Americas, Africa, Australia and of course Asia. It is the mountains in Asia where my search began. It’s the small temples perched on hilltops, the monuments of Borobudur and Angkor Wat, and the gaze of the regions religions up to Mount Meru, Mount Sumeru, and Mount Kailas as well as the 5 peaks of Taoist China that make up the body of Pangu, the first living being and the creator of all in Chinese mythology

“Mountains are cosmological symbols of the divine human meeting, as well as the point of creation of community as well as cosmos. Depending upon the era, culture, and text, the cosmological emphasis on the mountain might be one or more of the following: the assembly place of the gods, the connection between heaven and earth, the center/navel of the earth (and thus the locus of creation), the locus of revelation.”
– Donaldson, Terence L., Jesus on the Mountain. A
Study in Matthean Theology.

In the last four years I have climbed with video, cameras and gps, Mt. Taishan and Hushan in China, as well as the nearly erupting Merapi in Java, and manmade structures that represent Mt Meru and Mt Sumeru of the Buddhist and Hindu cosmologies, at Angkor Wat and Borobodur. Most recently I joined in the annual ceremony in Bali to Mt Batur and Mt. Agung, At each site, I reacted to the location by performing site specific performance walks, circumambulating structures, interacting with the flow of pilgrims or performing within the pilgrimage space. All of the walks have been documented with GPS and photography and often video.
Nearly all have been translated into print pieces that have been published and exhibited internationally. But I am drawn to the challenge of communicating on a more experiential and participatory level.

I exhibited my work of Taishan and Hushan in a three floor installation in Singapore. Drawing inspiration from participatory art and the book, What We Want is Free, I tried to create an experience for my audience that physically drew them into the concept of a pilgrimage, both the subjectivity of the experience and also with a taste of my own experience. I was fortunate to collaborate with video artist Kal Almkhlaafy as well as sound artist Darren Moore , both from LaSalle College of the arts in Singapore, in creating a more immersive environment. My success was less through media art, more through traditional exhibition. I had words everywhere and messages about mountains, pilgrimages and quests. The installation used three flight of stairs leading up to the gallery, making the journey up a mirror of climbing a mini mountain. Participants walked up the flights, holding handfuls of red sand which spilled through their fingers and painted the stairs red, again mirroring my own experience at Taishan, where I walked in red and ‘painted’ the mountain red by my walk. At the top floor, the participants added their sand to a mountain of natural sand that was already there. This mound was then painted red by those coming into the space. The most successful element was a wall of quotations that were velcroed in a grid. This was where people could take away meaning that resonated. The GPS tracts were displayed as soldered Plexiglas wall hangings, making the ephemeral nature of the walks made of a lasting material.

"Baudelaire writes: In certain almost supernatural inner states, the depth of life is entirely revealed in the spectacle, however ordinary, that we have before our eyes, and which becomes the symbol of it." Here we have a passage that designates the phenomenological direction I myself pursue. The exterior spectacle helps intimate grandeur unfold."
– Gaston Bachelard

When we seek a mountain, or enlightenment, and the Chinese equate the two, we seek our own center. The pilgrim goes physically on a quest to a location that represents the center of a universe, the universe as a whole, but also the center of the pilgrim. By moving outward we also move inward. By seeking we see ourselves from a new perspective, and in many of the instances that have been explored, that perspective is one of centering the pilgrim at the heart of the mandala. The axis mundi within.

And then how is this communicated? It must be documented well enough for clarity shared open enough for subjective interpretation

References and Notes: 

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, (Beacon Press; First Edition edition, April 1, 1994)

Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, (Schocken; First Edition edition January 13, 1969)

Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, (University of California Press; 2 edition, December 2, 2002)

Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, (Black & Red, June 1, 2000)

Terence L. Donaldson, Jesus on the Mountain: A Study in Matthean Theology, Journal for the Study of the New Testament. Supplement Series, 8, (Almond Press, December 1985)

Ted Purves, What We Want Is Free: Generosity And Exchange In Recent Art, S U N Y Series in Postmodern Culture, (State University of New York Press, December 16, 2004)

Mirjam Schaub, Janet Cardiff: The Walk Book, (Walther Konig, Koln, June 15, 2005)

Yi-Fu and Steven Hoelscher Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, (Univ Of Minnesota Press, February 8, 2001)