The Landscape & Art Network's gathering to discuss the possibility of a 'sacred aesthetic' proved to be profoundly lacking in substantial content, and neither speaker - John Smith of the Sacred Land Project, and Richard Prime of Arts and Sacred Places - seemed keen to reveal many details about their activities.
The Sacred Land Project defines itself as an 'environmental group', which is project-managing 150 faith-led and environmental projects in the uk, including one in Northern Ireland. Smith defines its remit as being to 'help faith communities conserve sacred spaces', a process which he says is often about 'recognising what people have' already.
Two important aspects of the way it works, which beg the question of how it ever achieves anything, are its refusal to define the meaning of 'sacred', and its resistance to seeking consensus within a group.
Smith provided no case studies of his own to reveal the implications of these principles in reality, but he did point out that one of the defining characteristics of a 'sacred site' is very often its role as a focal point for conflict - as, for example, the sacred Serbian sites in Kosovo. One might also mention the Ayodhya temple in India, site of some of the most horrifying religious clashes.
All in all, sacred sites can become highly problematic from a planning point of view. This is not simply because their significance is difficult to define in the rational, quantifiable terms of planning codes, but also because of their magnetic attraction for crowds and trouble-makers.
The concept of the sacred site serves to highlight the fact that most of the landscape is contested, and when spiritual values come into play it can be very difficult to negotiate the competing rights and claims of different groups on an objective footing. But this does not deter the Sacred Land Project from forging on with its mission to create more sacred sites across the country, from the new Buddhist Centre in a redundant high-security courthouse in Lambeth, south London, to a whole series of new 'sacred gardens' in schools.
India has itself exerted a magnetic attraction for many people with an interest in spiritual nourishment and identity, despite its history of religious violence, and both Smith and Prime are working there with different groups.
Prime was invited to write a book on Hinduism and ecology. This took him on a pilgrimage to the birthplace of Krishna on the Jumna River to photograph sacred trees and 'organic' architecture in the monsoon.
His project highlights the way in which the concept of the 'spiritual land' has essentially acquired an enhanced meaning to a western audience through the ecological agenda. John Smith and Richard Prime were addressing the Landscape Art Network on the sacred aesthetic, at The Gallery in London's Smithfield.