A Walking Labyrinth in Lawrence

Field station manager Sheena Parsons leading a tour in the labyrinth in fall 2022 (image by Ryan Waggoner, © Spencer Museum of Art, the University of Kansas)

Eminent American artist Janine Antoni’s “here-ing” labyrinth at the KU Field Station aims to foster listening, wholeness and healing of the body and the land

Referring to an artist’s work as “trailblazing” may be a familiar figure of speech.

But the term can also be surprisingly tangible, as when an artist literally blazes an ornate trail in the natural world, all the while hopefully anticipating the collective footfalls that will ultimately determine the work’s sustainability and importance.

Taking on such mantles of meaning is Bahamian-born American artist and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Janine Antoni.

Since March 2022, Antoni has led the process of creating “here-ing,” a walking labyrinth in Lawrence, Kansas, that will span three interconnected fields with respective paths replicating the anatomies of the outer, middle and inner human ear.

“We all hear all the time,” Antoni said from New York. “But if I asked you how you hear, you probably couldn’t tell me. We’ve been listening our whole lives, but we don’t quite know how our ears work, right? It’s as much wilderness to us as the woods is. That’s fascinating to me.

“It’s clear to me that we need to be better listeners in all ways. I’m using the ear for the labyrinth, but we need to listen with our whole body. It’s a way to locate yourself. And with that sense of locating yourself in space, there’s a sense of belonging. When you have that belonging, you start to care where you belong to.” 

The word “labyrinth” is also the medical name given to a sensitive structure in the inner ear, although that was news to Antoni: “I’m literally in the bathtub and looking at those videos for kids about how your ear works, and I hear there’s a membranous labyrinth next to the cochlea. So then I was like, that’s weird. Because I’d already had the idea of the labyrinth.”

Located adjacent to the Roth Trailhead on E. 1600 Road at the University of Kansas Field Station, the “here-ing” labyrinth is a collaboration between the Spencer Museum of Art, which commissioned Antoni for the project, the Kansas Biological Survey and Center for Ecological Research; and the Designbuild Studio in the School of Architecture & Design at the University of Kansas.

Regardless of the variety of artistic mediums inventively employed by Antoni through the years — including sculpture, photography, performance art and installation art — her efforts have reflected an abiding interest in the body and embodiment.

“I’ve been working on it for 20 years, not only in my work, but in my life,” Antoni said. “What does it mean to work from an embodied place? My feeling is the culture in general is disembodied, that their body is just a vehicle to move around this thinking mind, which is full of ideas and concepts and desires and goals. And we’re basically just exploiting our body for the sake of those desires. And if we’re willing to do that as a culture — exploit our bodies — then it’s not a leap to exploit other bodies and certainly not a leap to exploit the environment.

“The point of the piece, really, is to come into relationship with the land and one’s own body. I think that’s what we want and need, so that we heal, and the land heals.”

The Viewer’s Role

This past March, Antoni returned to the “here-ing” site for a further round of restorative field-burning that was overseen by the Kansas Biological Survey. Other labyrinth-readying events on the ground have included cultural ceremonies and guided tours with ecologists, researchers and storytellers, who explained the history of the land, what lives on it and its ability to recover from hard times, including the effects of farming and invasive plants.

This spring, the outer and inner ear labyrinths are walkable, if at different stages of development. Antoni plans to return in the fall to install the middle ear labyrinth, which should also be walkable by the end of the year.

The fire as it moves over the outer ear, during a burn this past March, the latest in a series of gentle efforts to create a healthier grassland. (Dan Hughes)
Above: (Left) Sketch of the labyrinth showing the ear design. (Right) As people walk the trail, they draw the ear into the land with their steps. (image by Keith van de Riet, © Spencer Museum of Art, the University of Kansas)

“I can’t do it by myself,” Antoni said. “The piece is made by the people who go to the piece. When you walk the labyrinth, you allow for others to walk the labyrinth, because you are creating the path. And that’s very exciting to me. You are compacting the soil. And the more that the soil is compacted, the more that the path will remain. So I’m dependent on viewers of my artwork for my artwork to exist.”

To provide a bird’s-eye view of the expansive labyrinth — as well as to provide a service to visitors to the site who are unable to travel the path or choose not to — Antoni plans to install an interactive finger labyrinth.

“I haven’t decided yet whether it should be limestone, which is from the area, or quartzite,” she said. “I’m going to carve the anatomy as a finger-size drawing into the stone. And I’m going to place it right at the beginning of the labyrinth. So you’ll get that overview. It’ll be your touch that makes you trace the path of your own anatomy. And then you have to keep that in your memory as you walk through the fields.”

Just keep in mind that it’s a labyrinth, not a maze, Antoni said.

“It’s important to know the difference,” she said. “In a maze, you’re trying to decide which direction to go. It’s more of a game or a puzzle.

“But a labyrinth is one path that comes in and comes out. And the path is very circuitous, so there’s a point when you give up. You think you’re getting to the middle and then you’re on the outside again and you’re back in again. So it’s really about surrendering to the path and being in the moment. And when you’re in the moment like that, you come into a kind of wholeness. And that’s the goal of the labyrinth. It’s a kind of pilgrimage to the self and, in this case, through your intimacy with the land.” 

Okay, let’s get intimate: The shock absorbers on this writer’s car got a heck of a workout on some uneven gravel roads getting to and from the labyrinth. Although, theoretically, I was already on the labyrinth, said Joey Orr, curator of “here-ing” and director of the Integrated Arts Research Initiative at the Spencer Museum of Art.

“Even on your way to the work, you’re inhabiting a path,” Orr said. “And what the (ear) labyrinth is trying to do is make you aware of your journey and your context and your surroundings. You’re already on the labyrinth. We’re just making you conscious of it.”

“He’s right,” said Antoni. “I don’t know how to accomplish it, but it is something that I would like to make you feel — that you are always in the labyrinth, and when you leave (the ear labyrinth), you’re still in the labyrinth. If the labyrinth could just continue on either side that would really make me happy.”

For more information, www.spencerart.ku.edu.

Brian McTavish

Brian McTavish is a freelance writer specializing in the arts and pop culture. He was an arts and entertainment writer for more than 20 years at The Kansas City Star. He regularly shared his “Weekend To-Do List” at KCUR-FM (89.3)/kcur.org.

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