At a conference on Friday I met a woman called Paivi Seppala who had been involved in an arts project in North Kent called Hei People. I hadn’t heard the story she told, but it was a great one. Hei People was originaly created by Finnish artist Reijo Kela. The idea is simple; a crowd of scarecrows suddenly appear in a field somewhere, dressed in off-cast clothes, all seeming to stare in one direction. Their heads are made of clods of earth from which sprout grass. There is no pre-publicity, or explanation for their existence; they simply appear – a throng of figures, all seemingly staring in the same direction, clothes flapping in the breeze.
Having previously installed the Hei People in two locations, Seppala moved them to a third location in the summer of 2007 on the Isle of Sheppey. It’s a deprived area; a bleak piece of bog sticking out into the Thames Estuary. Locals call themselves “Swampies”. It houses three prisons. London Mayor Boris Johnson recently proposed turning it into an airport.
In other locations, the Hei People had suffered small-scale vandalism, but when they reached Sheppey, catastrophe struck. The Friday night after they were errectd, the entire installation of 400 figures was destroyed. Not a single figure remained upright. Seppala was distraught. The installation was supposed to be there for weeks. It had been wrecked within a couple of days. She felt she had no option but to reinstall it, though funds were limited, and replacing 400 figures would be a labour-intensive task.
And then, on the following Sunday morning, just as she was about to make the journey back there to Sheppey to start the work she got a phone call from the farmer who had donated the land for the installation: “Well done for getting them back up so quickly,” he said.
Seppala was baffled. What? She travelled up there and indeed all 400 figures were standing again – a little broken and muddied, maybe, but standing nonetheless. Over the next few days the story emerged in dribs and drabs. The people of Sheppey are tired of their reputation as ne’er do wells. When they heard that the Hei People had been trashed, they were distraught. This act of vandalism would only confirm outsiders’ assumptions that the people of Sheppey were no good.
People started to put one or two back upright. Seeing them, others joined in in the task of rebuilding the Hei People. Within a day, all the figures, which had originally taken days to install, were back up again in an odd act of spontaneous, anonymous barn-raising. It’s an extraordinary example of the potentially potent relationship between art and community.
Like any other activity which drains the public purse, art must be expected to justify its existence. This is a case of how difficult that can be for the arts. On the one hand this is an exemplary project, a relatively cheap piece of work which drew in a community, took on a meaning for it and left it with something to be extremely proud of. On the other hand none of what happened to the Hei People on Sheppey was either predictable or even remotely planned for. It happened simply because it was a good piece of work that Seppala and others had faith in.