Victor and his magical garden
Since he saw Dresden being bombed as a boy, Victor Langheld wanted to know 'why these things happen'. So at 25 he went to India to try to find the answer. The result is a unique sculpture park in Co Wicklow. Alison Bourke reports
In a field, behind a raggedy hedge near Roundwood in Co Wicklow, live six giant granite Indian elephants, a fasting Buddha, and a huge forefinger.
Set a little behind these, a ferryman claws his way out of a small pond, a maze leads towards enlightenment, and a 'bell of forgetfulness' stands waiting to be pulled. Set in front of the humble Irish countryside, each piece looks about as at home as if it had been beamed down by an alien spaceship.
This strange place is the creation of Victor, a man who, after receiving a sizeable sum from his father and being told to "do something with his life", went to India, became inspired, and decided to bring a sculpture and philosophy park back to Ireland and the Irish people. He calls the park Victoria's Way.
"What my father did was give me that crucial thing in life," says Victor, "the capacity for total independence. Because in a sensitive job like spirituality you've got to be free. If you have to sing for your dinner you're going to start lying. And once you start lying as a mystic you're on a slippery slope. So what my father provided was the financial backing to allow me to be absolutely free and not have to dance for my dinner."
I came across Victor - a small man with snappy blue eyes, wearing a light blue Aran jumper and an enigmatic smile - at the end of a journey across his enchanted land. To get to him, we had to pull the bell at the gate, enter his domain, shower the first sculpture of an Indian elephant with a hose, tap the book the elephant was reading until it sounded like a bell, and traverse the row of dancing and playing elephants (Ganeshas).
Then we had to cross the pond in whose depths the granite ferryman drowns, find our way out of the philosophy maze, circle the forefinger sculpture, and swing on a seat big enough for two, before finding the little hut. It was as we found our way in, feeling like the victorious contestants of The Crystal Maze, that Victor appeared, demanding "So, what do you think of my place?"
We thought it was a magical place - a little oasis of green, water and sky inhabited by beautiful granite characters and little painted signs posing philosophical questions. And it's a place that Victor has been working toward ever since he gained the financial means to bring it about.
"Unfortunately in Ireland we don't have any serious philanthropy," Victor says. "Most of our great artists and writers emigrated because there was no money. The problem is, because there is no philanthropy, nobody can have a go at great art because they're totally dependent. They have to eat. And once they need the money, they're gone. I had that unique financial freedom. And I thought 'What an awful waste to get a job and make more money when I have that one shot in eternity which so few people have: to do my thing without regard to anybody'."
Since the age of five Victor has, he says, been burning with two desires: the desire to create something for which he will be remembered and the desire to find out 'How does it work?' "When I was five I was in Dresden when it was bombed," he says. "That was Ash Wednesday 1945 - that night the city was cremated and I with it. And ever since I've thought 'Why do these things happen?' and 'How does it work?' And, of course, 'How does it work?' is the fundamental drive to knowledge. I came to Ireland and as I grew up I felt that there was more to life than living in a semi-detached with a wife, two kids and a job in a bank. So when I was 25 I took off to India and became a holy man, a monk. I became a knowledge seeker."
Far from accepting the knowledge of the Buddhist monks there, however, Victor instead sampled it, took what made sense to him and moved on. "I was a wondering monk," he explains, "a sort of friar. I did not stay in any place very long. I sort of floated around, tested my knowledge against what the Indians and gurus had to say, and gradually made up my own mind. Basically I was a trouble-maker."
Victor likens his learning of 'How does it work?' to a college student's learning of a lesson. "There are two types of student," he claims, "one who wants to learn what the teacher has to teach, the other who wants to figure out where the teacher is making a mistake. In other words, what the teacher can't teach. The one who learns what the teacher has to teach gets a nice job as an accountant. The one who is looking for the holes in the system becomes the research scientist who gets the Nobel Prize. Fundamentally I am a counter puncher. I am a negative thinker. I'm looking in behind to see what the guy is trying to cover up."
But can you apply this kind of reason to spirituality? Can you create a spiritual sculpture garden that asks faith to reason itself out? "Yes," replies Victor, "and that is what I have managed to do because I'm interested in the background detail of spirituality as opposed to the nice happy foreground image."
And could it have been this way of thinking that got him kicked out of many of the monasteries he visited? "Perhaps," replies Victor. "I've been kicked out of a lot of places but that's not necessarily a bad thing. In my line of business, where you are going after truth, you have to ask nasty questions. And if you persist, then you can be chucked out."
Yet despite all of this, Victor "was not disillusioned by Buddhism. The Buddha is basically a rudimentary scientist. He was a questioner, he was an analytical thinker, he had all the qualities that would make a good scientist".
The sculpture park, made up of pieces that Victor designed, Indian workers crafted and Victor brought home to a field in Co Wicklow, is, "another story". He says: "That's a mid-life crisis! This park is for people who, at around age 30, are beginning to wake up. Oscar Wilde said that 'Youth is wasted on the young'. It's the same idea. At 30 people begin to realise 'Hey, there's more to life than pubs and booze' and they go through a crisis.
"Jesus was 30, the Buddha was 30; all these guys were around that and in order to become themselves truly they had to break themselves up, start over again. And that brings huge internal psychological problems with it. And these sculptures show some of these stages."
The stages portrayed by the seven main sculptures of Victoria's Way are: Birth (waking up), Separation (letting go of the given), Crash (return to start-up), Focusing (selecting the problem), Enlightenment (problem solving), Creation (solution application) and Death (sustaining a redundant solution).
So what then would Victor have us take from this sculpture park when we leave? "That's quite simple," he replies. "I want visitors to go away and say to themselves: 'Well, if that eejit can produce something wonderful, so can I.' This place is encouragement for individuals to do their own thing. And if they do it 100%, they'll find the happiness. What content they fill that with is their problem - somebody wants to climb Mount Everest, another wants to collect match boxes, another one wants to open a bordello - all the same."
On the day that we visited, Victor asked us all what 'our thing' was. "Well," replied one, "I'd like to make a chair."
"Well, this chair should be the greatest in the world," replied Victor. "You should be able to go and visit it behind a rope in the Museum of Modern Art! Otherwise, why bother?" A good starting point, Victor advised my friend, "is to go to a village square, sit on the curb, and think 'What would I have to do to have them erect a monument in my honour?' The whole point is you only exist by virtue of the difference you produce."
So has he quenched his burning desire to produce difference? "Of course," he says. "Have you seen my park? I have done my bit. Now whether people see it or not depends on context. It could very well be that everything I have done is rubbish - a risk for an artist. It could also be that I'm way ahead of my time. My job is to produce the best of what I can, put it into the public domain and leave it there. The rest is not up to me."
Victoria's Way Sculpture Park, Roundwood, Co Wicklow, is open every day (12.30 to 6pm) from May 1 to September 5. For more information, log on to homepage.tinet.ie/~victoriasway/index.htm