23 August 2007 Scotland on Sunday

A land that time will never forget

NVA preview.

ON the top of an outcrop in the centre of a flat plain near the Mid-Argyll coast, there's a rock carving in the shape of a footprint. It's a baking hot summer's day and Angus Farquhar has discarded his sandals to climb this hill to what was once the fort of Dunadd, capital of the kingdom of Dalraidia. When he gets to the rock, he places a bare foot in the indentation. As legend has it, this is what leaders of the Scotti tribe, Scotland's earliest kings, would do as part of their crowning ceremonies some time between the 5th and. 8th centuries AD.

Looking across the landscape in 2007, to the twin peaks of the Paps of Jura in the west, to Ben Cruachan in the north, to the whirlpool of Corryvreckan in the south and to more than a dozen ancient hill forts all around, Farquhar is lord of all he surveys. At least, that's what he is artistically speaking. As director of NVA, he is in Kilmartin Glen to mount one of his famous environmental art events. Even more than The Path, an illuminated ramble through Glen Lyon in 2000, and The Storr, a midnight hike up a mountain in Skye in 2005, Half Life defies easy categorisation. It is an event that will take place across a 150-square miles of Scotland's most archeologically rich terrain and will require two or more days to do properly.

You could, if you choose, simply turn up for the evening performance, a collaboration with the National Theatre of Scotland staged in a purpose-built amphitheatre cut out of the forest. But that's only part of the story. By day, Farquhar wants audiences to explore the area's rich heritage of Neolithic sites, six of which will be "enhanced" by his team of sound and land artists. Many more sites will remain untouched, their existence drawn to the audience's attention and described with the latest archaeological knowledge. There are over 350 ancient monuments within six miles of the village of Kilmartin, 150 of them prehistoric, and Half Life, which comes complete with an explanatory Day Guide, offers a way for spectators to engage with them. Some routes might take 15 minutes, others up to three hours. At the end, you can take home a Half Life book for further study.

Is there a word for this amalgam of archaeology, tourism, art and theatre? The press officer suggests calling it "destination theatre", which gets close – certainly in terms of the numbers who have travelled from afar to previous shows – but it doesn't quite encapsulate the boundary-breaking NVA experience. Back in Glasgow, Farquhar is not inclined to come up with definitions. Half Life is what it is and he's had enough experience putting on similar genre-defying events to know audiences tend to go with the flow. "I would much rather people made their own discoveries, had their own experience of the work and create their own narrative," he says. "Nearly eight years after doing The Path, I sometimes stand next to someone talking about it and it's like they made the work themselves. It's wonderful. They tell it as a story, the memories are so intense. It's a level of ownership you very rarely get."

When pressed for a sound bite, he does have an answer. Half Life, he proposes, is a "dialogue with the dead", a description that points to Kilmartin Glen's role as a burial complex from 4000BC to 500BC and also to our own uncertain relationship with death. "We talk in a very detached way about death," says Farquhar who was 16 when his father died, fuelling his adolescent sense of alienation on the Edinburgh punk scene before he joined the anarcho-percussion group Test Dept. "The culture we've inherited is all about coping, putting the lid back on the emotions and getting over death. It can reach a point where you pretend that death doesn't really exist. But in Argyle, they carried on a dialogue with the dead over generations, manipulating body parts, decapitating and taking the heads away, leaving the bodies to be ripped apart by birds and animals, mixing bones with bones of previous family members, moving them in and out of burial cairns until, maybe after 70 years, it was deemed that the person was finally at rest."

The theme of death lives on in the landscape which is littered with mysterious rock carvings, henge monuments, standing stones and burial cairns from prehistoric and early Christian times. Nowhere else in Britain is there such a concentration of cup and ring marked rocks. There is much we don't know about the meanings of such artefacts – indeed, it is likely the meanings changed from one prehistoric generation to the next – but it is clear that the memory of the dead was present among the living.

These ideas are there for the spectators to discover for themselves as they explore the various sites. Sometimes they will come across artistic interventions in the landscape, such as a line of trees made to look as if they’ve been ravaged by a wild storm. Other times they will walk into range of sound installations by Lee Patterson, who amplifies the tiniest noises he discovers in puddles of water or made by insects, and Toshiya Tsunoda, who converts microscopic vibrations into audible sound. At other times still, there will be no artistic additions, just the chance to engage with the landscape as people have done for millions of years.

"What it makes you think about is how the ancient monument, the rocky outcrop or the bronze age dun are placed within the landscape," says Farquhar. "These interventions get you thinking about why they are where they are. Some of the work is monumental, some of it is intimate. And through the interventions we make, you might see and hear other things which are just there anyway."

The themes that grow out of all this will find their most explicit expression in the evening performance, a play written by the Edinburgh-based American novelist Thomas Legendre, whose debut novel The Burning was widely acclaimed on its publication last year. Performed outdoors on a spectacular double henge stage created from hundreds of felled logs, it is the story of an archaeologist obsessed by the Kilmartin landscape and his wife who is less so.

"It's a combination of strong physical work and intense dialogue," says Farquhar who is co-directing with former choreographer Mark Murphy. "We're making reference to the earliest images of the world: the tripartite cosmology of the heavens, the mundane world and the underworld, which is part of the story. Hopefully it will give people a much keener eye and deeper understanding of what they're seeing in Kilmartin."

The play is at the heart of a project that's on a mind-boggling scale and it couldn't have happened in the same way without the support of the Forestry Commission. "What is exciting about Argyle is that out of all the public bodies we've worked with over the last 20 years, it's the first time we've been pushing at an open door," he says. "They want people to be on that land. They want things to happen and they're interested in interesting ideas. I've not encountered that once with any other public body. We're able to manipulate those forests on a vast scale, to create new entrances and portals to the prehistoric art in a way that mimics the way that the people who created the work in the first place might have approached those areas: the portals into the theatre of death, the portals into Kilmartin Glen as this great ritual centre for transforming the dead. There is enormous freedom to create work on a real scale."

Half Life, Kilmartin Glen, Argyll, September 4-16

© Mark Fisher

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