Soil as art: Common Ground 191

Feb. 18, 2013 -- North Korea proved to be the most difficult sample to obtain, so Gary Simpson had to go there and get the soil himself. He was chaperoned by a North Korean guide, who actually collected the soil sample as Simpson looked on. But that was okay with the artist, who had finally completed his collection of soil samples from each of the 193 countries that make up the United Nations. It only took him 10 years.

Alfons Codina Pujol collects a soil sample near
Engolasters Lake, Andorra.

A lifelong resident of Orange County, California, Simpson has been creating art using cement and silica sand since 1986. He says he’s always found his artistic inspiration from the Earth, and has been exhibiting colorful abstract pieces throughout California for more than 20 years. His current project, titled Common Ground 191, is his most ambitious yet and contains soil samples from around the world.

Simpson’s vision for the project includes 196 square panels layered with a mixture of cement and soil arranged in a 50 by 50 foot grid. Each cement panel will contain soil from every UN nation, and Simpson says the piece will incorporate themes like evolution, tectonic plates, world peace, and gross domestic product and life expectancy by country. When the project began in 2002, there were 191 UN member states, hence the name of the project. Today, there are 193, all of which will be represented in the piece.

The inspiration for the project came to the artist after the events of 9/11. “Watching the Twin Towers come down was quite profound,” he says. “The events that day were a strong pronouncement of our differences, but I wanted to spark a conversation about our similarities.” So he turned to the Earth itself. We all share the same soil.

He began collecting soil samples from every UN member state, relying on volunteers to fill jars of soil and send them back to the United States. Simpson worked with a network of U.S. embassy employees, the Peace Corps, and Sister Cities International to complete his collection. Anyone interested in contributing to the project could contact Simpson through his website, and he would send volunteers a prepaid shipping box with a jar for the soil sample and the USDA soil identification permit. The soil was then sent to a USDA lab in Los Angeles and sterilized at 500 degrees for 45 minutes. When the process was complete, Simpson picked up the soil from the lab and crossed another country off his list.

Simpson said one of the biggest challenges of the project so far has been obtaining the necessary licenses from the Office of Foreign Asset Control. OFAC enforces trade sanctions based on U.S. foreign policy, and Simpson needed help from his congressman to get permission to import soil from embargoed countries like Cuba, Iran, and North Korea. “It’s quite a statement that we can’t even move soil around without a license,” Simpson says.

After devoting nearly 10 years and over $200,000 to this project, Simpson had received soil samples from 192 UN member states. The only country missing from his collection was North Korea, so Simpson decided he would travel there himself to collect the soil. But he struggled to find a way into the country, where independent tourist travel isn’t permitted.

In the summer of 2011, the artist met with a travel agent from URI Tours who took an interest in the project and had business connections in Pyongyang, the nation’s capital. The agent persuaded government officials to give Simpson a permit to take a soil sample from the country, and he was on his way across the Pacific to collect the soil. Simpson says once he arrived in North Korea, a guide accompanied him everywhere he went. Together, they collected soil from Moranbong Park in Pyongyang, the nation’s capital, and sent it off to Los Angeles to be processed. It took him a decade, but his collection was finally complete. Today, all of the samples sit on a shelf in Simpson’s studio, each jar labeled with the respective country’s flag.

A rendering of Simpson's vision for the project.
The piece will include 196 tiles arranged in a 50 by 50 foot square. He plans to start construction on the piece this summer.

Throughout the course of this project, Simpson has received hundreds of soil samples. But he’s not just collecting jars of dirt. He’s asked volunteers to share why their soil samples are important to them. Alfons Codina Pujol sent Simpson soil from Andorra, a principality in Southwestern Europe. He collected his sample near Engolasters Lake, and included the following message with the soil:

“There’s a legend that says in ancient times, a lot of witches went to this lake to dance and swim without dresses. The young guys of the neighborhood went to spy them. If the witches saw one of these guys, they converted them into black cats. The day after, the witches had disappeared and the guys didn’t remember a thing.”

Simpson says stories like this are what make the project so unique. Another interesting sample came from the White House grounds on the day of President Obama’s inauguration in 2009. “Someone on the security force, a local law enforcement officer, gathered that for me. That was really cool.” Other notable sample locations include Tahrir Square in Egypt, Saddam Hussein’s palace grounds in Iraq, and the site of Auschwitz in Poland.

Now that his UN soil collection is complete, Simpson plans to start construction on the project this summer and finish it by September. He is currently working with local organizations to set up an exhibition site for the project once it's complete. If you’d like to have soil featured in the piece, it’s not too late. The artist is still accepting submissions. Volunteer forms can be filled out here. Simpson urges volunteers to include a paragraph explaining why their soil samples are important to them.

There’s no denying that world peace isn’t on the immediate horizon. Every day, global conflict serves as a reminder of our glaring differences. But if there’s one thing that Simpson’s project can show us, it’s that regardless of our differences, we can all find a little common ground in the soil we stand on. “I feel fortunate that the concept of this art project has traveled with the soil collection volunteers,” he says.

Article Courtesy of Soil Science Society of America