I’m Digging Up Dirt in 193 Countries. Here’s Why.

(Photo: Gary Simpson)

(Photo: Gary Simpson)

I was in North Korea on a mission to collect a soil sample.

My guides had taken me to see the USS Pueblo, the U.S. surveillance vessel that the North Korean authorities seized on January 23, 1968, killing one crewmember and injuring several more. It was a sad sight to walk aboard a boat scarred by numerous bullet holes. Now a museum, the Pueblo serves as a reminder of this dismal time in history.

I’d come to collect soil for my art project Commonground 191. As I toured the Pueblo, I again wondered if humans are hard-wired to end disputes with violence.

On the bright side, however, I was allowed to visit North Korea for the specific purpose of completing my collection of soil from the 193 UN member states. The approval process for this one collection took over three years and required a license from the Treasury Department and permits from the U.S. Department of Agriculture — and, of course, the North Korean authorities.

It was the culmination of nearly a decade of work.

In North Korea

Supported by a generous gift, my weeklong trip to North Korea took place in late August 2011.

The flight from Los Angeles took an arduous 11 hours to Beijing, connecting via Seoul. After two nights, I was on North Korea’s Air Koryo to Pyongyang.

At 6’3″ I truly stood out from the other passengers, who were an eclectic mix of nationalities. Once through customs, my guides (minders) Pang Hyon Su and Pak Gyong Hui gathered me up for the trip to my hotel. Normally visitors come as a touring group, but I came as a single guest, all arranged by URI Tours. With two minders, a driver, and a small bus, I felt rather important — and just to collect some dirt.

During the drive to the Yanggakdo International Hotel, I tried to develop a rapport with my minders, both quite competent in English. The streets of Pyongyang were as quiet as I’d been led to expect. Only a few buses appeared, packed with people. Once at the hotel, we sat down at an empty bar to discuss the sites I wanted to visit. The beer was very cold and very good.

We visited the Kumsusan Memorial Palace to view Kim Il Sung lying in state. His son Kim Jong Il died a few months after I left the country and has joined his father in the same position, embalmed under glass. After a good lunch we moved on to the USS Pueblo.

In search of two cups of soil, we went to Moranbong Hill in the very center of Pyongyang. The hill is the site where President Kim Il Sung gave a speech on his return from exile in the Soviet Union. There are several monuments and a mural also on this site. The North Korean authorities had chosen this specific soil collection site for me.

On my final day, we drove to the DHL office and presented the soil for shipment to the U.S. Department of Agriculture office in Los Angeles, which involved a lot more paperwork than you’d expect.

Common Ground

Soon after the tragedy of 9/11, I came up with the idea to gather the soils of 191 countries and put them in a micro-cement blend: a concrete mix with sand and acrylics as a binder.

I wanted to create something big, around 50 feet by 50 feet. I used a little math to come up with a 14 x 14 paneled matrix, with a total of 196 squares. That squared number was the closest to the 191 countries at the time. Since then, with the creation of South Sudan and the separation of Serbia and Montenegro, the UN count has grown to 193. Maybe we’ll see more by the time I begin actual production.

People new to my project think that I travelled to all these countries. But the first to collect soil for the project were friends and acquaintances. I also reached out to many organizations like Sister Cities, Couch Surfers, and UNICEF. U.S. embassies became the best source of soil. The State Department didn’t officially recognize or endorse the project, but many employees supported my efforts, even networking with colleagues to help.

In appreciation, I sent these helpers a small amount of the entire soil mix in a small bottle necklace. A number of notable people around the world — including Secretary of State John Kerry, the Dalai Lama, and former President Jimmy Carter — have also received the soil mix, which comes in wood boxes containing a bottle within a clear plastic cube. Kim Jong Un accepted this gift as well, and it’s now on display at North Korea’s International Friendship Exhibition — along with a basketball signed by Michael Jordan, a gift from Madeleine Albright.

The soil sample from North Korea might be one of the more controversial selections, but many others deserve mention as well.

The Uzbek sample comes from an area in Tashkent where people were executed for the “crime” of being anti-Soviet. South Sudan is today mired in a desperate conflict, but my soil sample comes from a time four years ago when the country was celebrating its independence in July 2011. The soil from South Africa comes from Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was held captive for years. I like to think that he may have walked on this dirt.

The first attempt to get some dirt from Kazakhstan in 2006 ended when police seized the sample. During the second try, it got lost in a maze of bureaucracy. Members of the Sister City organization finally succeeded in 2008.

Putting It All Together

Since my return, I’ve entered production planning for phase two of the project.

My medium is mixed, with cement as the main ingredient. The first part of production will introduce the master blend with all the soils on the 196 panels so they all contain the same overlay. Every panel contains the soil of all nations, none more unique than another. The blend will be of multiple pigments manipulated. I’ll then use acids, sanding, burning, and polishing to “work” the material. In style, the final product will resemble abstract expressionism.

In the end, it will be a work of conceptual art in which the idea is as significant as the visual placement of the material. The concept is the placement of all the soils of 193 nations in peaceful coexistence in the same place. Can viewers close their eyes and understand the idea of these soils at peace? Here, in this work of art, yes — and maybe tomorrow somewhere else.

This may be a naïve proposition, of course, but at least it’s the start of a conversation.

After an article appeared about my project in The Los Angeles Times, a woman wrote me a note: “Art can go where no amount of words can go,” she said. “I know that art has expressed my spirit far more than all the journaling, talking and reading could ever do.”

Gary Simpson is a California artist who has exhibited widely. His website is commonground191.com.