The Crawick Multiverse: sandpit becomes land art

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There are several ways to build a universe. One is to find a deity with a six-day window in his diary. Another is to throw together a few laws of physics and a high-energy false vacuum, then stand back and enjoy your Big Bang.

Or you can combine a rich duke, a cosmologically minded garden designer and an abandoned coal mine, and see what results. This method too requires exotic ingredients, but they have come together near the small southern Scottish town of Sanquhar, where a huge and ambitious piece of land art, the Crawick Multiverse, opens to the public next month.

The duke is Richard Scott, 10th Duke of Buccleuch and possessor of the largest private landholding in the UK, with some 240,000 acres. The garden designer is Charles Jencks, who became famous in the 1980s as an architectural critic and theorist of Postmodernism, and latterly has devoted a lot of his time to the creation of bold, scientifically minded landforms.

William Blake wrote of seeing a heaven in a wild flower; Jencks saw one in a derelict opencast pit on Scott’s land in Dumfries and Galloway. Bankrolled by the duke to the tune of £1m (via a charitable trust, which will administer the land), he has transformed it over the past four years into a representation of some of the wilder reaches of modern physics — notably the multiverse, the extravagant but increasingly respectable thesis that there are vast numbers of universes besides our own — as well as of more homely astronomical phenomena such as comets and galaxies.

There are several motives at work. One is to deal with what Scott calls a “hideous scar in the landscape”; although the mining company that made it was not his, there was growing pressure from local people to do something about the site. Another is to help revive the local economy, hit hard by the demise of the mining industry and by the fact that the region is, in tourism terms, a backwater: the Crawick Multiverse could be a much-needed draw. And beyond the noblesse oblige, there is also surely an awareness that such philanthropy is a riposte to a Scottish government keen to reform the country’s concentrated landholding structure.

So they have built it, but will anyone come? Somewhere within the multiverse’s infinity of sub-universes, the visiting traffic will surely be backed up to Glasgow; elsewhere, there won’t have been a visitor for months. Where this universe’s Crawick falls within that spectrum of outcomes is anyone’s guess. What is certain is that it is a magnificently odd creation.

Charles Jencks (far left) with the Duke of Buccleuch

Amid the cattle-strewn meadows and high hills of Upper Nithsdale, a clutch of strange forms has emerged: two 20-metre-high grassy mounds, capped with standing stones and ringed with spiral paths; a kind of Neolithic wedding cake defined by concentric circles of flat rocks standing on end and capped by a high-backed throne; a long avenue edged with standing stones that stretches to the boundary of the site and bisects a low amphitheatre; and, towering above all of this, a steep-sided ridge, formed from compacted pit-spoil and topped with stones oriented north-south. Other arrangements of stones dot the site, along with pools of murky water. The effect is like a child’s sandcastle complex scaled up to giant size.

These forms are not capricious, however, but have a solidly representational purpose. The twin mounds are our own Milky Way galaxy and the Andromeda galaxy, which are forecast to collide in 4bn years’ time (no need to hide behind the sofa yet). The wedding cake is the multiverse: some of its slabs are inscribed with lines representing the fates of universes whose physical constants differ from those in our own, while the back of the throne bears a complex diagram featuring an eye and the abbreviation “PIC”. This refers to the Principle of Increasing Complexity, which underlies the emergence of life and consciousness.

The site is of a piece with Jencks’s other landscape projects, many of which attempt to transmute the current scientific Weltanschauung into somewhere you could go for a picnic. The most fully realised is the Garden of Cosmic Speculation, which Jencks and his late wife Maggie Keswick began decades ago at their home, Portrack House (which, like Scott’s family seat of Drumlanrig Castle, lies near Crawick). A sinuous bridge evokes a comet’s tail; a tiled area shrinks to a point as it is drawn into a black hole’s all-consuming gravity; even the greenhouse roof ridge bears the fundamental equations of physics in sheet metal.

Dumfries and Galloway, abounding in standing stones and early Christian remains, is an ideal setting for Jencks’s earthworks, preoccupied as they are with cosmic fundamentals. Yet I wonder if there is something too didactic about Jencks’s vision. For me, the most successful feature at Crawick is the one least encumbered with cutting-edge physics. The great avenue, pointing towards a nearby viaduct and more distant hills, has the cryptic simplicity of a Neolithic alignment. Shouldn’t art gesture beyond what can be rendered down into an equation? Perhaps all that’s needed is time: the site is still rough around the edges, and stone circles and ruined chapels encoded equally confident orthodoxies back in their day.

An omphalos and distant galaxies

The proof of public art, though, is in the using. What became clear during the Crawick Multiverse’s launch event last weekend was what an enjoyable site it is. Exploration is irresistible. On Friday it was thronged with locals, to a soundtrack of pipe bands; schoolchildren swarmed over Andromeda and the Milky Way, giddy at their liberation from the classroom. “Shona’s scared of heights!” announced a schoolgirl at the summit of Andromeda, gleefully indifferent to her classmate’s plight.

The next day brought more sedate company. Scott had invited some of the leading theoreticians of the multiverse to view the site: the scientists picked their way among the slopes and rocks as Jencks — tall, rangy, with fluttering scarf and gnarled walking stick — strode about like some patrician prophet, interpreting his landscape in his New England accent to the people whose ideas underlie it. Later they expounded their state-of-the-art creation stories to an invited audience in Drumlanrig’s great drawing room. It was heady stuff, given a twist of incongruity by the family portraits — Restoration beauties and periwigged power-brokers — looking at PowerPoint slides of Higgs bosons and eternal inflation.

The finale came on Sunday — the solstice, as it happened, and Jencks’s 76th birthday — with a series of performances by a theatre/art/music collective called Oceanallover. White-faced figures in gaudy costumes processed slowly around the landforms; electronics boomed and chugged; a woman with a ringing voice sang Blakean lyrics to a mournful brass version of “Delilah”. It was all very incomprehensible; it was also undeniably intriguing and delivered with impressive conviction. There are no end of universes out there, it seems. But this one has promise.

The Crawick Multiverse opens to the public on July 10,

‘Cosmic Landscapes: The Land Art of Charles Jencks’, an exhibition of drawings, models and papers, is at the Garden Museum, London, until August 31,

Photographs: Charles Jencks; David Cheskin

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