Long before The Mud, long before earthbag houses and composting toilets, when I was teaching in the Turkish city of Antalya and spending absurd amounts on Penne all’Arrabbiatta and chocolate souffle, a friend invited me over to watch a Lars von Trier movie. I buckled up and braced myself for two hours of marginally pretentious wallow into the dark side of the human spirit. But I was in for a surprise. Not necessarily about the pretentiousness, but because the film profoundly changed the way I view creativity. OK, all well and good, but what’s all this got to do with the mountain blog and earthbag houses, and alternative living? Well, because if there’s one film you should watch before embarking on a building project, I’d say 5 Obstructions is it.
5 obstructions is a documentary starring von Trier’s mentor, filmmaker Jørgen Leth. To summarize the film very briefly, Von Trier sets Leth the task of making five short remakes of Leth’s 1967 film The Perfect Human. The snag is, each time he issues the suffering filmmaker with an obstruction. One obstruction is that Leth has to remake the film in Cuba and with a maximum shot-length of 12 frames, another is that the film should be a cartoon. It quickly emerges just how crucial the obstruction is to stimulating and guiding Leth’s creativity. When, as a punishment for failing to complete an obstruction properly, von Trier tells filmmaker Leth to redo the movie with no obstruction at all. Leth all but throws a fit, blurting something along the lines of ‘you can’t do that! That’s the cruellest thing to do to an artist, give them absolute freedom.’
In the years that followed, I pondered many an hour on Leth’s outburst. Because we so often hear the opposite, that artists need to be unfettered in order to create. I, for one, had long entertained the notion that to write, paint or make things, I required a vast open landscape devoid of
boundaries and impediments. There were to be no financial limitations, no side job to sequester large portions of my attention, ample time, endless resources, and an ever-supportive, all-positive audience. I thought those were the factors necessary for cultivating the most original ideas. Without obstructions, inspiration could float in like an exotic, vibrant-winged butterfly and then manifest on the page, or the canvas, or in The Mud. But I was wrong. That's not how it works at all. Time has shown me over and over again that it is the obstruction that pushes the creativity gas pedal, not freedom.
So, to return to The Mud. When I first moved onto my beloved 2000 metres square of land back in 2011, it looked just like the undefiled canvas I had coveted. Everything was in abundance: earth, rocks, daylight hours. The sky stretched open and blue like a cloudless door to the God of Great Ideas. The view rolled on and away from me in an unobstructed green tumble. The mountains were so ridiculously steep and bold, they seemed to laugh at the mere suggestion of limitation. I wondered whether it was unethical to lay down rules in such a happy circle of unconstraint. But I loved my spot deeply, and I wanted to protect it. So I made Mud Laws or Mud Obstructions.
The 5 Obstructions of The Mud.
1. No concrete is permitted anywhere on the land.
2. No smoking within the borders
3. No squares and straight lines.
4. No killing of animals.
5. No major expense.
I’m not going to spend time defending the whys and wherefores of each obstruction. None of them exist as moral condemnations. They are my preferences. And the beauty of owning your own land is that you’re entitled to a little caprice. What is more exciting is the creativity each obstruction has fostered. Not being able to use concrete, for example, generated a wealth of bright ideas regarding mortar, mosaic grouting and house foundations. The banning of corners, though not always successfully obeyed (I’m eons from the architect Hundertwasser) resulted in a house that makes me sing when I sit in it, and simultaneously strong enough to withstand earthquakes. My budget was instrumental in producing some of the most inspired parts of the home, as either the natural resources on my land or other people’s rubbish became my materials. Broken tiles, grass, bottles, branches, reeds, thrown-away cupboards, broken windows, cracked crockery and reject furniture all turned into an enchanting game of ‘now what can we make out of that’. Banning smoking (and in a country like Turkey an outdoor smoking ban is none too easy to implement) changed the entire dynamic of the land. It affected something beyond the physical, and my space became a place of creation or peaceful contemplation, rather than busy socialisation.
I write all this because normally, when problems and limitations arise, we are so apt to feel stymied. In fact, one of the attractions of writing over building is that ideas can remain just that; perfect bubbles of non-matter, before they are subject to the humiliating degradations of the physical world.
But Gaia (and von Trier come to mention it) have changed my perspective on the art of creation. In construction, time, money, available materials, energy and the weather are the big 5 obstructions everyone has to face. Sometimes rain calls off play. Other times it’s just too hot to lift a rock. Sometimes you simply can’t find the power to bang in another nail. It gets dark and you haven’t managed to finish the plastering. The roof beams cost three times more than you’d hoped. These are all construction classics and so often result in frustration. But I now look at those obstructions as my friends rather than my enemies. Who knows? Perhaps God stuck them onto the canvas of the Earth just to prod our otherwise lethargic imaginations. And perhaps von Trier has a right to a little pretention, as well.
Atulya K Bingham
Sick of the screen?
You can now get a beautiful, illustrated paperback edition of Mud Mountain.
"Beautifully written and inspiring." The Owner Builder Magazine.
The Mud Home is expensive to maintain and a full time to job to run. If you are inspired by it or finding it useful do consider becoming a patron so that it can continue.
If I can build a house, anyone can. Here's how I did it.
Be sure to catch the next installment by joining The Mud Circle.