Garden of delights
Publication Date: Friday May 24, 1996

Garden of delights

Stanford's Papua New Guinea Sculpture Garden officially opens with a week of singing, dancing, drumming and feasting. And the artists are returning for the festivities

by Monica Hayde

In the Sepik River region of Papua New Guinea, there live 11 artists who tell exotic tales of a journey they once made to a faraway land. There, they visited a city called Reno, where millions of flashing lights illuminated the desert night. They sat naked in something called a "hot tub" in a region called Big Sur. They sampled a culinary delight called a Whopper.

And between these fascinating journeys, they created 40 works of art for a sculpture garden at Stanford University.

From May through September of 1994, the 11 Papua New Guinea artists were veritable celebrities here as they carved their intricate designs and faces on wood they'd had shipped over from Papua New Guinea. Surrounded day and night by curious admirers and hospitable members of the Palo Alto-Stanford community, they taught the locals about their culture and art.

They were the center of attention at free Friday night barbecues in the oak and cedar grove that would become the sculpture garden. They painted people's faces. They visited local schools.

When they finished their carvings, they sadly bid farewell and headed back to their home in the southwest Pacific.

Now, almost two years later, the 40 carvings they left on the ground have been installed and illuminated with an underground lighting system. Explanatory signs have also been put up.

The Papua New Guinea Sculpture Garden is officially complete, and it's time for the 11 artists to return to celebrate.

Project director Jim Mason, who had to inform the artists in Papua New Guinea by shortwave radio that it was time to come back to Stanford, says he can't wait to see his old friends.

When the five-day-long celebration is over on the morning of June 2, Mason says he will be "feeling every emotion possible."

To fund the project, Mason, 29, raised about $500,000 over the last two years, mostly from private donors. The former graduate student in anthropology was seized by the idea for the Stanford sculpture garden while doing field work in Papua New Guinea in 1989.

"The first impulse was really pretty personal," Mason says. "I'd had the opportunity to travel and spend time in their world, and I wanted to bring my friends over here to see my world."

The sculpture garden, located between the Roble dorm and the Terman Engineering Center, is the first non-Western outdoor art installation at Stanford.

"I think one of the most interesting aspects of this project has been the community that formed around these people when they were here," says Mason. "People just came out of the woodwork and overwhelmed the artists with trips, food and friendship. All their meals were provided by local restaurants and people for the four months they were here."

Needless to say, Mason continues, they can't wait to come back. And what a party Mason has planned for them.

A week of opening celebration events, free and open to the public, begins on Tuesday, May 28, with an experimental electronic music concert by the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. The festivities culminate on June 2 with an all-night drum and dance ceremony, with the artists playing their drums and sacred flutes until the morning sun comes over the grove. (For the complete schedule, please see accompanying list.)

"What I think is particularly important about this project is that art has created a place for people to gather, a place to come and participate in life with other human beings," Mason says. "That's what this week of events is all about--to take advantage of some of the artistic disciplines we have in a variety of creative departments at Stanford. Many of these groups have created works site-specific to the garden."

Unfortunately, not everyone who has gathered at the in-progress garden over the past two years has been there to celebrate "life with other human beings."

Not long after the artists finished their work and the installation process was begun, two of the massive sculptures were stolen.

Mason is happy to report that he was able to get both sculptures back. But he can't give any indication as to who the culprit(s) might have been.

"That was part of the deal," he says. "They were promised immunity if they gave them back."

Most of the exotic, intricate works in the landscaped sculpture garden are representations of carvings that would appear on or inside a Papua New Guinean spirit house, a large social and ceremonial center. The free-standing poles in the sculpture garden are like the poles that support the spirit houses. And many of the faces and figures carved into the wood represent characters from creation stories.

"Some are clan designs," Mason explains. "Certain designs are owned by certain clans, and you can only carve things owned by your clan."

The artists also did two reinterpretations of Rodin sculptures from the university's other sculpture garden. (In fact, Mason says, when one of the artists first saw photographs of the Rodin garden, he said, "This is nothing. We can do better than that.")

Their version of "The Thinker" relates Rodin's piece to the Papua New Guinean story of an ancestor sitting alongside the hole from which he emerged into the world, thinking about how he can create fellow humans out of clay. "The Gates of Hell" relates the story of a flood which destroys the ancestral world after a man tricks his older brother into killing his wife.

All sculptures were created with handmade iron adzes (similar to an ax), hardened chisels, knives and the occasional chain saw.

During their residency, the master carvers also experimented with nontraditional materials and forms, and completed 10 works in pumice stone brought in from near Mono Lake.

Two of the artists, who range in age from 27 to 74, had been to Australia to work on a similar sculpture project. But for the rest, the 1994 trip to Stanford was the first time they'd been abroad.

There is little question that Mason will be traveling back to Papua New Guinea, he says.

"For all of us who were involved in this, it was a completely unique experience," he says. "It was unlike anything we'd ever done. These artists and I went through an event together in a way we really can't really communicate to anyone else. I have very significant connections and responsibilities to them. I am in their cycle and their system." 

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