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Animated Edition - Summer 2005
Labyrinthine designs
British artist Jim Buchanan roams the world inviting others into his cunning pathways
I am a land artist with a basic, root interest in motion. The common thread connecting my projects is movement - the gesture of the hand in drawing, the repetitive raking of the landform, the trodden path.

As a child growing up on the West Coast of Ireland, the boundary of my daily movement was how far I could walk before returning home when hunger kicked in. Set within this natural landscape were beaches, caves, lakes, woodlands and streams. Each day revealed a rhythm that was both of nature and human nature.

My childhood memory of the annual 'an toras' pilgrimage in Glencholumbkille is particularly strong. During this event hundreds of Catholic pilgrims navigated the adjacent hillside to sites important in the life of Saint Columba. Their activity maintained an idea, dating back to the medieval Christian period, of a journey to several holy sites, burial chambers, wells and shrines set within the earth. Physically it was a landscape-wide drawing summoning of energy, life and celebration.

During this time in Glencholumbkille I was introduced to the labyrinth motif through my parents' work in ceramics. It was not long before I was drawing my own labyrinths on the beach: scratched sand designs, and others with constructed walls to resist the incoming sea. The physical act of drawing and then making a work that engages with nature's constant flux had irreversibly captured my imagination.

Movement has encouraged further changes in my professional life. Although I trained as a landscape architect and worked in a range of design practises, too often I found the creative process static. Designs were worked out over the wooden confines of the drawing board and details added through the computer. I began to envy the contractors who were outdoors in fresh air, moving, building and orchestrating the movement of the site materials. Ultimately I had to move on and begin undertaking my own projects from start to finish, finding the right balance between the planning and the making.

For the past fifteen years my work has focused on the labyrinth form. With it I strive to create a cohesive relationship between three fundamental elements: material, nature and participant. Recent projects in Argentina, the United States, Holland and the UK have explored the delicate balance between these elements, uniquely redefined and unified in each new installation.

In 2003 the UK presenters' consortium Guardians of Doubt awarded me a bursary to explore the connection between art and dance. I proposed to undertake a walking pilgrimage from Edinburgh to St.Ninian's Cave, Whithorn. I would follow the 160-mile route of Scotland's most devoted pilgrim king, James IV, which he undertook each year from 1491 until 1507. My walk was documented through drawing, digital video, found objects and sound recording, materials which later acted as catalysts for Spring (v.) Chronicle. This was an exploration of the relationship between movement, created by my collaborators, the dancer/choreographers Beth Cassani and Lucy Suggett, and the landscape.

The common ground between them and my pilgrimage experience was the idea that 'how you move effects how you feel and how you experience your surroundings.' We stayed within the studio space working on different labyrinth designs drawn on the floor. Historical research on the remorseful nature of James IV's pilgrimage yielded the idea of walking with a burden - chain and lead slippers, for example. Landscape materials were introduced onto the floor, including water.

To conclude my research on this project I created a temporary indoor installation at Glasgow's Tramway gallery. The darkened space contained a light projection of a labyrinth, fourteen metres in diameter. This subtle illumination produced a focused, reverential atmosphere. The audience walked the labyrinth barefoot on a floor flooded by two inches of water. The show of reflections, ripples and shadows formed an interplay between the walkers that suggested the effect we have on each other through life's journey. It also reflected the contact I'd had with people during my pilgrimage, some of whom clarified my purpose and direction while others distracted me.

Whilst the water in Spring (v.) Chronicle was not deep, I hoped the impact would be profound. Water and light are associated with ideas about the life force and baptism. Light holds a powerful symbolism suggesting revelation and the divine, the notion of 'walking in the light' and implied references to stars, celestial bodies, haloes and angels. To me combining the elements of water and light in an installation, and introducing the interaction of an audience, creates a real possibility for magic.

The next step was obvious: I should make the water deeper. This led to the Dance 4/Lakeside Arts/Guardians of Doubt commission Immersion, presented at the Nottingham University swimming pool as part of the NOW festival in January 2004. To invite the audience to enter a swimming pool with an unknown water depth asks from them a lot of confidence in the work. They literally leave dry land behind, and immerse themselves bodily in the experience. This extends the scope of my work, pushing the boundary of material interaction (person in water) within the development of how the labyrinth design responds to its location.

It's particularly true with my projects involving projections of light that the work does not exist until activated by people entering the space. The audience is a performing body, not just individually but en masse. It activates the work by walking, floating in or swimming the labyrinthine route and filling the space it occupies with a sense of breathing. I hope that an audience will register the analogy between the labyrinth and daily life. There is also an interplay between people who either watch others exploring a labyrinth or those who are themselves 'performing' as the walkers. But even the watching can be mesmerising, and similar to meditating if you travel the route yourself. I suggest that for a full experience people should take time to do both.

Although often mentioned in the same sentence, mazes and labyrinths are polar opposites in terms of the emotions engaged whilst walking their physical form. A maze has a hidden route which can call up feelings of excitement, disorientation, frustration and puzzlement. It may also involve a lot of retracing of footsteps. The labyrinth is predominantly a single pathway laid out in a circular design with no walls. You can see the centrepoint destination, but to get there you have to give yourself over to the journey of following the path. The one major decision to be made is that of accepting the challenge of staying on the path until you reach the heart, then retracing the route out again. By settling one's mind it can, as I indicated above, be a very meditative experience.

Historically the labyrinth used in the Christian church during the Middle Ages was a symbolic journey to the Holy Land, a sacred walk of redemption and penance. In the UK labyrinths are now being reintroduced in church and faith-group settings as a tool for spiritual health and well-being.

This is all part of the continuing revival of labyrinths (and mazes) have enjoyed since the 1970s. The major Labyrinth Society, formed in 1998, has over a thousand members. Although the majority are based in the USA, there are numerous global enthusiasts. A subject that appears with greater frequency at the Society's annual gathering is the developing relationship between labyrinths and traditional medicine.

For three decades Herbert Benson, founding president and associate professor of medicine at the Mind/Body Medical Institute, Harvard Medical School, has championed the physiological benefits of meditation. He calls it the 'relaxation response.' Benson's studies show that meditation slows breathing, heart and metabolic rates, and lowers elevated blood pressure more effectively than drugs. As a form of walking meditation, the labyrinth produces the same verifiable results.

More stateside hospitals, clinics and medical centres are adding labyrinth installations. Numbering over seventy at present, these are permanent configurations usually made of coloured concrete, stone or brick. At a healthcare design conference in December 2003 Mark Scott, former CEO of Mid-Columbia Medical Center in Oregon, described in detail the construction and operation of its Celilo Cancer Center. Outside the facility is a labyrinth used for walking meditation, family support activity (walking together with the patient) and stress reduction (used by many staff members). Scott underlined how well it complements the use of chemotherapy and radiation in cancer treatment. Walking the labyrinth can give a sense of confidence and control over one's feelings about treatment. The attitude attached to this process of inner healing has been shown to be a significant factor in the efficacy of treatment, or outer healing. And for those patients and staff unable to walk the outdoor installation, there are small hand-held labyrinth relief models. These work through the technique of 'taking your finger for a walk', visualising the journey and, after some practise, being able to remember the rhythm of walking the labyrinth.

Within my work there are several areas to continue developing. Each labyrinth design has its own unique cadence experienced through walking. Combined with choreographed movement, the labyrinth can create a powerful physical, emotional and spiritual resonance within participants. Add to this an element such as light, water or sound, and there is a real chance of enchantment. But as with all such alchemy, care and responsibility are required.

It's a real joy to undertake such work, both for my own exploration of the world and the chance to share the discoveries with so many people. Plans are afoot to prepare a labyrinth design for a Glasgow-based medical facility which will draw together all my experience to date. For more information contact call 01387 770 400 or visit

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Animated: Summer 2005