During our second year studies, artist Abigail Reynolds was a visiting lecturer in 2013. Reynolds is a London based artist who uses old books and images in her collage and sculptural pieces. Many of the images that she re-uses to create new work, are of the British landscape at different periods in history. By re-presenting these images she seems to create a dialogue and reconnect the audience to how they perceive their visual culture (Artsy, 2014).
In this respect, I feel that her work would be fitting with my idea with regard to sacred places following the archeologist and historian Neil Oliver’s comments (in the BBC series Sacred Wonders of Britain, 2013) of how our ancestors were concerned with how they could connect with the landscape around them.
I am particularly interested with her work for The British Countryside in Britain, 2011 exhibition at Seventeen Gallery, London. In the exhibition Reynolds uses glass, books and images of historical moments and cultural landscapes of Britain including nature and urban environments to create assemblages. The gallery notes that the books format and printing also hold a “cultural meaning and belonging” (Seventeen Gallery, 2011). Furthermore, the pieces also focus on “idealized or nostalgic notions of Britain” which I feel would be relevant to the idea of what society views as sacred or of value (Ibid).
The two pieces from this exhibition which I am interested in for the open call would be Magic Mountain, 2011 and Black Rock, 2011. I feel that the composition of the glass over parts of the images and wall space draw attention to the pictures and seems to elevate their importance to the viewer. There is also something of a shrine-like quality to the work.
In one of my earlier posts, I had mentioned that the downward-pointing triangle carved from the tree (during my experimentation), also acted as an eye. To explain further, the tree’s ‘eye’ acted as a witness to my subsequent actions of burning the removed bark – symbolizing an offering up of the tree’s life-force or immortality. This could be construed as a rather torturous and cruel procedure – if one was to consider the tree as a living being. However, as I was alone during the performance (referencing the idea of female segregation during initiation and rites of passage), the tree was my only witness.
This reminded me of the symbol of the Eye of Providence or all seeing eye – particularly the eye within an upward-pointing triangle, used by early Christians to not only symbolize the eye of God but to represent the trinity:
Although the symbol of the eye predated Christ, as well as relating to other religions and fraternities including the Masons and Mormons, I felt that the triangular symbol had particular relevance to my own project.
The all seeing eye with regard to Christianity, symbolizes the all seeing eye of God i.e. “The eyes of the Lord are in every place beholding the evil and the good – Proverbs 15:3” (Barber, 2006, p24).
With this in mind, similarly to St Peter’s cross which is the upside down crucifx which has been adopted by anti-Christian movements, the downward pointing triangle used in my performance, could be seen as a direct rebellion against “God”, particularly as the ritualistic symbology of the performance also leans toward Paganism. Therefore, the performance could not only be seen as an act against nature, but also an act against “God” – taking vengeance against these ‘higher powers’, for all that women have suffered throughout history and perhaps – if one were to believe – tracing this back to the original sin and punishment of Eve:
Genesis – Unto the woman God said, ‘I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and desire shall be to thy husband and he shall rule over thee’ (Berger, chapter 1, 1972)
In John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, the woman’s position is further highlighted by the “striking fact that the woman is blamed and punished by being made subservient to the man” (Berger, chapter 1, 1972).
On reading Ways of Seeing, one can see through Berger’s commentary on art, how women have been portrayed throughout history – being objects of pleasure to the spectator, being perceived as inferior to men, taking the blame for being spectated i.e. acknowledging one’s own beauty – ideas of vanity – leaving the spectator blameless and the idea of women surveying themselves and judging themselves by surveying others.
These writings are extremely relevant to my project, as they link Eve’s sin and punishment, right through to how women are perceived today and the expectations placed upon them to behave and present themselves in a certain way.
Although this should not be the case – especially considering the rise of feminism in the 1970s and equal rights to women and men, unfortunately, the media continues to put pressure on women to attain and maintain youthful looks and beauty.
Barber, A. H. (2006) Celestial Symbols. USA: Horizon Publishers
Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin.
As mentioned in earlier posts, the experiments including the carving from a tree, were to demonstrate a symbolic taking of the trees life-force – it’s immortality i.e. by taking the bark – the tree’s protection, the tree became vulnerable.
Furthermore, it also occurred to me, that the reason why I was not just merely taking a random piece of bark from the tree but rather, carving out a downward pointing triangle, referencing the Yoni sacred feminine symbol, that by doing so, I was branding or stigmatizing the tree.
The tradition of human branding dates back to ancient Egypt and Rome, relating to ownership of slaves and livestock. Interestingly, in ancient Greece, slaves were branded with “a Delta for doulos or slave” (DeMello, p45, 2007) which is the shape of the triangle: Δ
I feel that the delta triangle used as a sign of slavery or ownership is a fortunate coincidence with regard to my own work and although the upward and downward pointing triangle have different meanings, the idea of branding and ownership are extremely relevant in my concept.
As mentioned above and in previous posts, by removing the bark from the tree, I was taking something that was not mine to take, but by doing so, it could be said that I was taking ownership of the tree’s life.
Furthermore, branding in Europe “was used to mark criminals, combining physical punishment, as burns are very painful, with public humiliation (which is greatest if marked on a visible part of the body), and the permanent marking of criminal status” (DeMello, p45, 2007).
In my earlier post, I had highlighted the idea of the “retribution of Eve” – the taking back of immortality that was lost through the Original Sin. In this respect, there is a sense of visible punishment inflicted upon the tree and the “wound” which was left on the tree, did indeed look fairly brutal:
This also brings to mind the ritual of scarification, where the skin is cut or branded with a hot iron to produce raised scars:
Scarification has been widely used by many West African tribes to mark milestone stages in both men and women’s lives, such as puberty and marriage. It is also used to transmit complex messages about identity, such as social, political, and religious roles (Boundless Learning, 2013, online).
In West Africa, scarification is also used to make a women more appealing to men:
Facial scarification in West Africa is used for identification of ethnic groups, families, individuals, but also to express personal beauty. It is also performed on girls to mark stages of the life process, such as puberty, marriage etc. They can assist in making them more attractive to men, as the scars are regarded as appealing to touch as well as to look at, but also as testimony that women will be able to withstand the pain of childbirth (Coleman, 2002, online).
Again, there is this idea of a woman having to make herself “more attractive” which could link to the idea of women having to undergo some kind of suffering to be accepted – which in turn could link to the story of Eve in the garden of Eden and subsequently, the perception of women over the centuries right through to the present day.
These “stages” or rites of passage, remind me of my initial research of Mircea Eliade’s book Rites and Symbols of Initiation, which discusses the initiation rituals of primitive religions.
However, scarification has also become popular in some Western societies – not only as a body adornment but, as with with indigenous tribal rituals, members of groups – such as gangs and fraternities use scarification in initiations to demonstrate they’re part of a particular group. This again brings to mind my earlier research with regard to the lack of rituals in the West:
Underlying the surface structures of schools, fraternities, sororities, maternity groups, military organizations, street gangs, rap bands, crack houses, meditation centers, and prisons lie the bones and sinews of initiatory rites and symbols (Eliade, p9, 2012).
To summarize, the idea of branding and scarification not only relates to my research and proposal of experimenting with ritual and ceremony in performance art, but also to ownership and modification. Indeed, the ritual of scarification could perhaps be likened to today’s obsession with beauty and the extremes people will go to, just to be accepted within society – submitting under pressure to be part of the gang!
Boundless Learning (2013) The Rite of Passage [online] Boston: Boundless Learning Inc. Available from: https://www.boundless.com/art-history/africa-in-the-modern-period/traditional-and-contemporary-african-culture-a-comparison/the-rite-of-passage/ (accessed on 02/12/2013)
Coleman, M. (2002) Scarification [online] Durham: Artworld: WorldArt. Available from: http://artworld.uea.ac.uk/home/introduction (accessed on 02/12/2013)
DeMello, M. (2007) Encyclopedia of Body Adornment. USA: Greenwood Press
Eliade, M. (2012: Revised Printing) Rites & Symbols of Initiation – The Mysteries of Birth & Rebirth. New York: Spring Publications, Inc.
After my last experimentation, I decided there were a few things I wished to change and incorporate in my next performance.
In the previous piece, there was a lack of ‘beginning’ and therefore felt that I could use the Yoni gesture I had developed in my next performance – to indicate the start and end of the ritual. The use of this ‘symbolic’ gesture would mark a sense of respect for what I was about to do and had done and also demonstrate a reverence for the feminine and to show that I was blessing myself in the ritual and therefore wishing to embody the tree’s life-force. Again, there is a sense of narcissism and elevating oneself, in taking something that does not belong to me – similar to the story of Eve in the Garden of Eden. However, I am suggesting that I am taking back the immortality that was lost by taking from the tree – in a sense, it is a ‘profane (as opposed to divine) retribution’ of Eve.
I mentioned previously that I would be fully clothed in my performances because I felt it was unnecessary and perhaps too obvious to be naked. Again, in line with the story of the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve saw their nakedness after eating from the tree, became ashamed and covered themselves. Therefore, I do not feel it necessary to my concept to be naked, as I not only have freedom of choice but do not wish to present my body as an object to be judged.
However, I did decide to be barefoot in my performance, not only because I felt my footwear was distracting but because I wanted to have a physical connection to nature as this is an important factor in the performance.
I wore black in my performance, simply because it is the colour of ‘mourning’ in the Western world and I was suggesting the loss of the tree’s immortality.
The result was as follows:
After taking photographs and watching the footage back, I did feel a sense of guilt at damaging the tree for my own selfish desires. Furthermore, this was emphasized more, when looking at the photographs of the damaged bark, that looked like barbaric wounds – similar to flesh wounds. From this I could sense the life of the tree and a sense of pain.
This further highlighted the religious and spiritual feeling that the performance had evoked within me. After experiencing the guilt of taking something that was not mine to take, I decided that I would not carry out the performance again.
These feelings emphasized to me how damaging the empty quest for youth can be on one’s inner self and well being. The aging process is inevitable and is impossible to reverse no matter how many products or how much surgery one has – these things are unimportant and only superficial.
After considering my research in the symbolic meaning of the tree, I decided to develop my ideas from my findings.
In the book of Genesis, Eve is tempted by the serpent (the Devil) into eating from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, even though God forbid doing so. In Christian theology, by eating from the tree, Eve and subsequently Adam, lost their immortality, became imperfect, sinful and began to grow old.
I feel I could use this idea of taking from the tree and notions of immortality in my performance. I could take something from the tree to represent the idea of taking it’s life-source for myself. In this respect, I would be giving in to the pressures to remain youthful and taking something which is not mine to take – much like Eve in the Garden of Eden. Similarly, it would therefore be a selfish, narcissistic act.
With this is mind, I thought about what I could take from a tree which would symbolise its life-force. I felt that the significant thing would be the tree’s bark because the bark of the tree protects the inner phloem layer – the tree’s living tissue which carries nutrients throughout the tree and acts much like a skin on the tree. Without bark, the tree would die – lose it’s immortality, so to speak.
I decided that I would take a very small section of surface bark from a tree, as to not cause permanent injury to the tree and would cut deep into the bark, as I would not want to damage the cambium which is “responsible for the healing of the tree” (Evans, 2013, online).
To represent the female element of my performance, I decided that I would take a downward pointing triangle shape from the tree’s bark to symbolize the Yoni.
Following my last experimentation with burning the beauty products, I thought it would create a more symbolic presence, to burn the bark which I had removed. This would demonstrate a sacrifice of the tree’s immortality and my embodiment of it’s life-force.
I obviously, did not want to do this performance a large number of times, as I did not want to cause damage to several trees, so, unfortunately, there were some things I would change in the original film:
After watching the film back, I was slightly annoyed that the camera wasn’t focussed very well and also because the bark and ground was damp, the bark would not light (even with the addition of a small amount of lighter fluid.
I also felt that it perhaps needed more of a ‘beginning’ to the ritual, as opposed to cutting into the tree straight away. Perhaps, I should consider using the Yoni gesture I had developed as a way of beginning and ending the performance.
Furthermore, I was disappointed that I did not have the film finishing with just an image of the carved tree – so that there would be some similar comparison from beginning and end i.e. te film starts with just the tree and would have worked better to finish with just the tree.
Following my initial experimentation, I felt that perhaps, it was too literal to use beauty products in my work.
I again thought about the idea of nature being preserved and valued as it ages, whereas the aging woman in today’s youth obsessed culture, is disregarded – particularly in the media, where aging is seen as a negative occurrence.
With this in mind, I considered my own religious Christian upbringing and the significance of the tree – particularly in the book of Genesis with the story of the Tree of Knowledge, which Adam and Eve were not permitted to eat from.
Furthermore, it called to mind Anna Mendieta’s work and Mircea Eliade’s writings about girls (during their puberty rites) retreating to a dark place that represented the womb of rebirth – this could be a cave, a hut or a hollow tree.
Thinking about the tree, as it ages, it is seen as a symbol of wisdom and strength, as well as playing ‘an important cultural, spiritual and recreational role in many societies. In some cases, they are integral to the very definition and survival of indigenous and traditional cultures’ (UNEP, 2013 online).
Trees are also seen as a symbol of immortality (e.g. the Tree of Life described in Genesis 3:21-24) and fertility (e.g the ancient Canaanite Goddess Asherah, the Egyptian Goddesses Hathor and Isis have been depicted as trees and symbolize fertility) (Lanfer, 2012 p36).
Although some of these ideas may seem examples of ‘ancient’ beliefs – today, trees are preserved, respected and valued as they age, as well as playing an important factor in human existence.
With these points in mind, I felt that the use of a tree in my performance would be extremely relevant to the following ideas:
the tree is a symbol of immortality: whereas growing older is a sign of mortality: according to the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve lost their immortality when eating from the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil;
the tree can symbolize fertility: a young woman is the epitome of fertility, whereas an older woman is seen as becoming less and less fertile as she ages;
an aging tree suggests strength and wisdom, and is valued and respected; in today’s media driven society, youth is suggested as being more valuable – beauty advertisements focus on the superficial – promising youthful results to women.
I feel these ideas could strengthen and support my concept and performance development further.
Lanfer, P.T. (2012) Remembering Eden:The Reception History of Genesis 3: 22-24. New York: Oxford University Press
For my performance, I tried to think of ways to incorporate the idea of letting things go or leaving things behind – in terms of embracing the aging process, instead if trying to hold onto youth.
I thought about the beauty products I had accumulated over the years and the fact that although they were anti-aging products, they all were labelled with expiration dates i.e. expires “12M” – 12 months.
With this in mind, I decided to try to develop some kind of burial or cremation ceremony for the products and by doing so, I would be alluding to the idea of ending my quest for remaining youthful and therefore moving forward in life.
In my earlier post, I had described my development of a Yoni symbolic gesture, where I would mark out the basic Yoni symbol on my upper chest and shoulders.
I had also considered whether or not to use a mantra while making the gesture. I decided that I would try using a mantra, to see if I felt it would work or not. After researching poems and prayers, I decided not to make up my own mantra but to use a Stanislaw Jerzy Lec quote. Jerzy Lec was a Polish Post World War II influential poet and aphorist. I chose the quote because not only did it mention ‘age’ in a positive light but also was relevant to my other ideas relating to ‘youth’ and ‘nature’:
Youth is a gift of nature, but age is a work of art (Eyers, 2012, p31).
I chose the quote because not only did it mention ‘age’ in a positive light but also was relevant to my other ideas relating to ‘youth’ and ‘nature’.
I then considered the beauty products again and thought about the lengths people go to, to remain youthful – even though they could be potentially damaging. I researched the ingredients of anti-aging products to see if they were safe or toxic and potentially dangerous. Following my research, I found that there were several ingredients which – if exposed to at high levels, were linked to cancer, liver failure and paralysis etc (Hubpages, 2011, online). I felt that I could incorporate this into my performance and relate it to the expiration of the products – the word ‘expiration’ linked to death.
I decided that burying the products would perhaps be too literal, so decided to throw the products into an open fire. I waited until evening, as I felt that the fire against the darkness of night, would create a more sombre ritualistic atmosphere, with the products burning up in sacrificial smoke.
After several attempts the result was as follows:
Although I feel the piece has a ceremonial nature, I still think that perhaps it is too literal and that I could be potentially scaremongering unnecessarily. I think I need to consider other ways of developing my concept, to give it deeper meaning and create a more thought provoking piece. Furthermore, I am unsure on whether vocalizing a mantra is necessary – I felt that it may come across too forced and factitious.
Eyers, K. et al (2012) Managing Depression: Growing Older. Hove: Routledge
Hubpages (2011) Common toxic ingredients in skincare and cosmetics to avoid. San Francisco: Hubpages, Inc. Available from: http://treechange.hubpages.com/hub/COMMON-TOXIC-INGREDIENTS-IN-SKIN-CARE-AND-COSMETICS-TO-AVOID (accessed on 24/11/2013)
BA (Hon) Fine Art, Critical & Curatorial Practices