David Best's 'Temple'

In March 2015 the skies of Derry-Londonderry were lit by leaping flames, not from the annual tradition of sectarian bonfires, but from Temple, an artwork designed to be burnt, by the American artist, David Best. His Temples like the pavilions outside the Serpentine Gallery operate in a cross-disciplinary intersection between sculpture and architecture. Unlike the pavilions however, Best’s works are temporal public monuments open for the public to view, enter and spend time in, for a few days or weeks, before being set alight.

David Best’s work is well-known through the Burning Man Festival in Nevada. Best has made eight temple structures at Burning Man, each dedicated to a specific intention, and each set alight during the Festival. The first structure, The Temple of the Mind, 2000, came to be seen as a memorial to those lost through suicide. In the words of David Best the process of burning acts as a cathartic experience giving ‘the freedom to release the demons that we have.’

For curator, Helen Marriage, of Artichoke, who described Temple as ‘a platform to say the things that are inexpressible,’ the idea of putting David Best’s work in Derry-Londonderry, grew from her experience working there during the city’s time as the UK’s first City of Culture in 2013. ‘I was struck by the community as progressive and interested in conversation,’ she revealed.

Traditionally bonfires in Northern Ireland are intensely political. In July 2012 Helen experienced the annual Eleventh Night bonfires, lit by Protestant Unionist communities to mark the 1689 landing of William of Orange in Ireland, as part of his overthrow of the Roman Catholic James II. Not to be outdone, these are followed in August by Roman Catholic, Nationalist bonfires, to mark the anniversary of the introduction in 1971 of internment without trial. This much criticised measure (out of 350 initial detainees none were Protestant) led to a particularly violent period of ‘The Troubles’ between Unionist and Nationalist political groups.

‘Part community event and part hostile,’ Helen Marriage saw the possibility of undermining the rival political bonfire tradition with an alternative bonfire project that the whole community could share in, and focus on ‘letting go and reconciliation.’ Although Best works in America, he has a house in Ireland, and both an interest in, and sensitivity to, the troubled history of the community. Helen realised that Best’s work ‘was the right thing, at the right time.’

As Helen went about approaching community organisers, she was not surprised by the overwhelmingly positive reactions. Artichoke’s previous work in 2013 helped, and with this new initiative Helen found ‘we could freely access both Protestant and Roman Catholic territories.’ Funding was secured from various sources, ‘mostly public funding, some corporate, Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Department of Culture, public bodies, social housing projects, and a Kickstarter campaign.’

Finding the right location for Best’s Temple was critical. ‘Derry is 76% Roman Catholic, with Protestant areas by the river and in Fountain. In the end we built the Temple in a Roman Catholic area surrounded by Protestant communities.’ The site they found is known as Bards Hill, in the Top of the Hill area, which commands spectacular views over the city, including the two cathedrals across the River Foyle. As it went up Temple’s 22m high structure began to dominate the skyline. 

Temple took six weeks to build, in spite of the terrible February weather, after a lengthy planning process of two years. Best designs his temples with a view to creating an impressive blaze out of sustainably sourced wood, but mainly as a building of beauty: ‘If you are engineering a building that’s going to take the worst possible thing that can happen … it has to be delicate and gentle, and it also has to be strong.’ In style the structures are not specific, although Best acknowledges the influence of Balinese temples, they could also be seen as variously reminiscent of work from Hindu, Chinese, Nordic, Celtic and Arabic traditions. 

Helen stresses the importance of involving as many people as possible from the local community. In total over 100 locals participated in different aspects of the design, panel making, carpentry, building and security. David Best and Artichoke worked with community groups, including the homeless and unemployed, providing training in Computer Aided Design and the skills necessary to cut the many panels. Impressed at the dedication and commitment shown, Helen told us that ‘David Best was delighted with the work,; he hadn’t seen such great quality before.’ 

Participants and school children were invited to design parts of the frieze, and recounted their poignant personal stories in video diaries, now on a websitededicated to the project. One lady is almost overwhelmed by tears as she talks about David Best inviting the volunteers to write private messages on the spire before a crane lifts it on to the temple. A young man describes how ‘an event like this comes and flips your whole mental perspective on life, on the town, on everything you ever thought you knew, it just flips it all on its head and makes you think twice, it’s a very emotional thing.’ 

Temple was open for a week after the build was completed, and people were invited to visit the site, a no-go area for some parts of the community, ‘to leave a memory behind, let go of the past and look to the future.’ Helen Marriage describes seeing ‘ex-IRA men and commissioned policemen all in the temple at the same time.’ Nearly 60,000 people visited the site, wrote personal messages directly onto the walls and pillars, and left pictures and mementos inside. The total population of Derry-Londonderry is around 85,000.

For Artichoke projects ‘the starting point is the audience in the broadest possible sense, in a context that makes sense, to use art as a disruption of everyday life.’ The overall intention is ‘to change the way people think, to create the possibility of change, and use art to do it. Helen recalls the burning as an extraordinary moment. 15,000 people had gathered on the hill, the artist and organisers conscious of the need to keep the crowd safe, and eight of those who had volunteered on the build were nominated to come forward to light the fire. ‘The burning was very quiet at first. There was a sense of loss and a sense of significance. The spire falling over was the first collective moan which grew into a cheer,’ Helen remembered.

One of the children involved was excited, ‘the temple is a big thingamajig made out of wood from bins – they’re going to burn it.’ When asked what he thought about the burning he responded, ‘it is weird, and pointless, and fun to look at – all the time and effort to nothing, just you will see it burn to a crisp.’ A middle-aged woman is clear about Temple’s purpose: ‘My mother died very , very quickly … we hadn’t really time to talk to her and to say our goodbyes properly. She wanted to be cremated but when her ashes were being buried I just couldn’t bear putting them all away so I kept a small jar that I’ve been wondering what to do with, and I think the time is right, the time is right now for me just to say ok Mum, you’re in here but I’m going to let you go.’ The tiny cask of ashes had a note attached to it: ‘enjoy a last flight in the flames.’ 

The legacy of Temple is still unfolding, but it has had an effect on the community, most in evidence from the increased use of the Bards Hill site. ‘More people go now and walk in the area, it could become the city’s great park, it is on its way,’ Helen told us with a measured optimism. There are plans for the site to become a major parkland with a community centre, playgrounds, football pitches, games area and social housing, run by the City Council and backed by councillors from all political parties.

‘Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful!’ is how a resident of County Mayo remembered Temple, with great enthusiasm, to a group of slightly bewildered Londoners. It is hard to understand the complexities of life in Derry-Londonderry without direct experience, and it will be interesting to see how the city moves forward with the burning Temple as part of its collective memory.

David Best is creating a new Burning Man in San Francisco, 30 August -7 September 2015.

Main Image: David Best, Temple, 2015, produced by Artichoke in Derry-Londonderry (photo: © Matthew Andrews 2015)

David Best, Temple, 14-21 March 2015, Derry-Londonderry

Aurora Corio