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Art as Technology: Oregon Desert Sri Yantra
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Art as Technology:
Oregon Desert Sri Yantra

Accepted for publication by Roger F. Malina. This text is an extract of a much longer article that originally appeared in Leonardo Electronic Almanac, Vol. 12, No. 6 ( June 2004) <lea.mit.edu>.

This article chronicles a series of experiences and observations that have emerged from several years of exploratory art projects. Necessarily, they are personal. The experiences resulted from events that were intuitively directed or were the response to some environmental stimulus. Because of this, things often were done without preconceived intellectual rationale. Often I had questions and was seeking answers, but at other times I did not know the questions and seemed to be engaged in activities that were following some barely perceivable thread. It was often months or even years before I "understood" the reasons and purposes of the projects and the way they arranged themselves. And, even with a feeling of understanding, it has often been difficult to verbally explain or place actions in the context of a commonly acceptable model of how the world works.

In this chronicle, I have attempted to relate some of the facts and simple observations that accompanied this project without attempting to describe the delight of the exploratory process.

The Sri Yantra

The Sri Yantra is a traditional design from India that is thought of as an instance or occurrence (rather than a symbol) of the deepest laws and forces of Mother Nature or Mother Divine. I spent a few months doing extensive library research on the Sri Yantra and also spoke with people who had experienced its use in India as part of the spiritual tradition of Sri Vidya. Then I decided to make one from gold leaf and transparent pigments, as I felt this was consistent with its traditional use.

The process of research, and especially the construction of the gold leaf Sri Yantra, produced a powerful influence on me. It restructured my awareness and perception. My sensory experience and understanding of deep laws and forces of Nature began to rapidly unfold.


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Fig. 1.

Bill Witherspoon, Desert Sri Yantra from 9,000 feet, Mickey Basin, Oregon, 1990.

© Bill Witherspoon

1990: Oregon Desert Sri Yantra

In the summer of 1990, a group of friends, one of my sons and I went to a remote alkali lake bed in the high desert of southeast Oregon to inscribe a large Sri Yantra in the earth. It was to contain a central point large enough to live in. The site was chosen because of its beauty and remoteness. Almost no one, except a few ranchers, ever went there. Inscribing lines in the alkali surface would not disturb any vegetation and it would be a transitory event, eventually disappearing back into the surface through the natural action of wind and the occasional water that floods the lake bed every few years.

The design was made without machines or modern tools except binoculars and a simple hand plow. We used only ancient principles of geometry and long wires and sharpened poles as tools. When completed, the Sri Yantra was ¼ of a mile across, covered over 40 acres and contained over 13 miles of lines (Fig. 1 and Color Plate A No. 1). The lines, plowed with an old-fashioned garden cultivator pulled by three crew members and steered by the fourth, were about four inches deep, with the hard alkali-crusted dirt cast to both sides of the furrow.

During construction, we were careful to minimize the disturbances to the land. We chose to walk several miles daily from camp to the site rather than use vehicles, and we refrained from using other motorized devices such as a tiller. We did not want to leave tracks or other marks, not to preserve anonymity but out of respect for the purity of the process.

The Sri Yantra took 10 days to complete. As soon as the last line of the design was plowed, heavy clouds began to collect in the south. Within an hour, our valley was filled with high winds, intense lightning strikes and about half an inch of rain. The result of this storm was that...