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.
Marina Abramovic is a Serbian born, revolutionary performance artist, who studied at The Academy of Fine Arts in Belgrade and Zagreb and is now based in New York.
Abramovic has been performing since the earlier seventies up until the present day. Her work explores the boundaries of the human body – pushing herself to the limit in terms of endurance, physical and emotional pain and even relinquishing all control of her self.
Her childhood and upbringing in Serbia also relate to her pieces – particularly with regard to control, willpower and sacrifice. Her parents were part of the Communist Party and her grandparents were members of the Orthodox Church – her grandmother having a particular hatred for communism. Of her upbringing, Abramovic recently stated during a 2010 interview:
everything in my childhood is about total sacrifice, whether to religion or to communism. This is what is engraved on me. This is why I have this insane willpower. My body is now beginning to be falling apart, but I will do it to the end. I don’t care. With me it is about whatever it takes (O’Hagan, 2010).
With these ideas of sacrifice and religion, Abramovic’s performance art can be seen as ritualistic practices with elements of purification, repetition, duration, suffering and spirituality.Two examples of ritual as performance can be seen in Rhythm 5, 1974 and Freeing the Mind, 1976.Rhythm 5 was part of a series of four performances held in 1973-74. During the performance Abramovic set fire to a five point star, created from petrol soaked woodchips, referencing the Communist star. The fire and smoke evokes ideas of ritual – where fire is often used to cleanse the spirit. She then proceeded to cut her nails and hair and throw them into the flames. These small pieces of self were sacrificed into the political fires as a form of purification. However, this was not enough for Abramovic, who then leapt into the centre of the burning star. On landing, she fell unconscious due to the lack of oxygen and had to be saved – almost making the ultimate sacrifice for art. Freeing of the Memory, 1976 was part of three performances (Freeing of the Body, 1976 and Freeing of the Voice, 1976). In Freeing of the Memory, Abramovic spoke individual words out loud – without repetition until her mind was exhausted of words after one and a half hours. The piece presented the limitations of the artist’s mental endurance and brought to mind ideas of meditation – an emptying of the mind and spiritual unconsciousness.There are many more examples of Abramovic’s work which I could reference with regard to ritual and may look into these further at a later date. Furthermore, during my research of the artist I have found some useful points and inspirational quotes which could prove beneficial, especially if I wish to develop further in performance art – particularly with regard to confidence, presentation and the physical and spiritual elements:
Performance art is one of the most difficult art forms. The performance is really about presence. If you escape presence your performance is gone. It is always you, the mind and the body. You have to be in the here and now, one hundred percent. If you’re not the public are like a dog, they sense the insecurity. Then they just leave (Biesenbach, p211, 2010).
Following my research into Mircea Eliade’s studies on ritual and my investigation into female performance art, I feel it would be important to develop my ideas on how/where my ritual performance would take place.
As mentioned previously, I wish to create a performance piece based on the expectations women face as they get older – where media focuses on youth and beauty and age is seen negatively – what with so many different “anti-aging” or “age-defying” products.
Images of Anti-Aging Product Displays, 2013
I wish to create something which would represent the female, as well as being of a sacred and spiritual nature. I feel after looking into female performance artists such as Hannah Wilke, as well as the ideas of objectification of the female body and articles relating to feminism – that nudity could perhaps be misconstrued (i.e. Hannah Wilke) and could distract from whatever statement I wish to make. I do not wish the naked form to be the focus of the performance and really, feminism should be about freedom of choice of how I wish to present myself.
Following my readings of Mirea Eliade’s Rites and Symbols of Initiation (1958), there was mention of youths dancing in triangular shaped sacred areas. Furthermore, during puberty rites, girls were segregated from the community and retreated to the symbolic womb.
With this is mind, I feel that I could instead represent the feminine by using symbols to suggest ideas of the female presence. I feel that symbols can subtly communicate ideas without the use of words and symbols can also be seen as a more universal language – often having the same meaning for a wider audience.
These writings reminded me of the Yoni symbol which represents the sacred feminine:
From earliest times, humanity has found visual expression for the cosmic forces of creation, birth, and passion in artistic representations of human genitalia. Fertility cults centered on phallic worship are well documented, but older and even more pervasive are Goddess images of the vulva-known in the East since ancient times as the yoni. Yoni symbolism is a part of spiritual traditions in every part of the globe-from naturally occuring rock formations revered by North American Native peoples to the shakta-pithas of Hindu temples, and from early Celtic sheela-na-gig carvings to the Japanese kagura ritual. The Yoni traces this primal motif in Australian Aboriginal folk tales, in alchemy, in Tantric practices, and in contemporary art by painters such as Georgia O’Keefe and Judy Chicago (Camphausen, 1996).
There are many variations of the Yoni symbol but I feel the simplest and perhaps more recognised would be the downward-pointing triangle which is also representational of the womb.
The downward-pointing triangle is a female symbol corresponding to the yoni (Walker, 2013)
Therefore the downward-pointing triangle could also relate to the sacred place, as per the place of death and rebirth discussed in Eliade’s writings with regard to female rituals.
Furthermore, the downward-pointing triangle is also the alchemical symbol of earth and water “traditionally seen as…receptive and feminine” (Ardinger, 2011).
With this in mind, I feel this is a relevant point because of the relation to ritual – particularly in Pagan terms with regard to the worship of nature. As mentioned previously, rituals are practically non-existent in the Western world, however the rituals or festivities that do exist i.e. Easter and Christmas, although thought of as Christian festivities, there is some belief that these are pagan based i.e. Easter – the Anglo-Saxon pagan spring festival for the fertility goddess Eostre and Christmas – the ancient festival for the solstice feast of Mithras, the Roman god of light.
With all of the above points in mind, I feel that the use of the Yoni symbol could be an excellent method of demonstrating the presence of the feminine in my work, as well as the link to the natural elements which are a strong factor in ancient ritual based practices.
This would also work well in demonstrating the negativity toward the aging process as per the artificial products and superficial pressures to stay young, as opposed to the reverence and conservation of nature.
Ardinger, B. (2011) Practicing the Presence of the Goddess: Everyday Rituals to Transform Your World. California: New World Library.
Camphausen, R. C. (1996) Yoni: Sacred Symbol of Female Creative Power. India: Replika Press Pvt. Ltd.
Eliade, M. (2012) Rites & Symbols of Initiation – The Mysteries of Birth & Rebirth. New York: Spring Publications, Inc.
Heilbronner, E. (1998) Philatelic Ramble Through Chemistry. Germany: John Wiley & Sons
Walker, B. (2013) The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. UK: Harper Collins
Mendieta was a Cuban-born American artist who blended performance, ritual and sculpture in her work which was often of an autobiographical nature – in terms of identity and cultural origin.
Her work was often influenced by her ancestral heritage including the religious beliefs of Santeria – a Cuban religion which is a blend of the Afro-Caribbean religion Yoruba and Roman Catholicism. The religion heavily incorporates ritual, ceremony and sacrifice – allowing believers to become close to their gods. Santeria is primarily a nature based religion – whereby all natural elements have a sacred and spiritual elements.
An example of Mendieta’s work and connection to the spiritual can be seen in The Tree of Life, 1976 part of her Siluetas series. In the piece Mendieta can be seen covered in mud and grass, standing in front of a tree. Mendieta almost disappears, as her covered body camouflages her against the tree and she becomes embodied by the tree.
As mentioned above, nature plays an important part of the Santeria religion and “the tree of life symbol is popular in classic Mexican iconography” (Clar, 2006). Therefore, Mendieta personifies the spirituality of the tree within this piece by becoming as one with the tree.
There are also feminist elements to the work with Mendieta’s stance comparable to the “goddess pose” with her arms held up with palms facing outwards – giving a sense of “empowerment”. Also, there is an idea of presenting the female body in a way that challenges the idealization of the female nude but also strengthens the idea of female strength and the feminine being as the source of life.
I feel this is a useful and successful example of ritual based work – where the artist has used her culture and beliefs to connect herself with her ancestral heritage. However, the piece could be interpreted in several ways , which leaves an ambiguity to the work. Although there are some literal meanings in the work, unless one was to be informed of the spiritual elements of the work – they may not immediately be aware of this and see the work merely as a feminist piece – whereas this is possibly not what Mendieta had intended. Having said this, because of the natural elements of the piece and the fact that Mendieta is almost disguised in the piece – becoming part of the sacred (the tree), there is an obvious hint toward the spiritual.
I feel that perhaps, my ideas are too literal and that I need to think outside the box, instead of thinking about the obvious and easy option. If my work is too literal then the concept may become too transparent with no room for alternative interpretation. There is also the fear that the work could become laughable which I am particularly concerned about with performance art.
Although, Mendieta’s work is of a personal nature, her pieces can be read universally and this is an important factor in performance work. With this is mind, I do not want my work to be only relevant to myself.
In performance art – particularly in female artists’ work, it seems nudity has played a vital part in the statements they wish to make – usually with regard to feminism.
As I wish to perform a ritual of death and rebirth – it may seem the obvious option to perform the piece naked – in terms of being at one with nature, leaving the old self behind and being reborn. However, I do not want the focus to be on the naked form, particularly as the subject I have chosen to “sacrifice” (so to speak) is the expectations women face in today’s society. Therefore I do not wish to be judged by my naked appearance or for the piece to become sexualized – as this would be in conflict with the statement I would want to make about not bowing to expectations. Furthermore, I feel if I were to appear naked then this would perhaps just be for a sensationalist reaction and a cheap way of drawing attention to my work.
One female artist who was criticized for her nudity by some feminists in the 1970s, was performance artist Hannah Wilke. In her work S.O.S. Starification Object Series (1974-82) Wilke asked audience members to chew gum and return it to her, after which she formed the pieces of chewing gum into vulvas and stuck them on her face and naked body She then went on to pose for performative photographs – topless and donning poses which would not be out of place in glossy magazines – therefore starifying herself – presenting herself as a scarred or wounded star.
The chewing gum “scars” brought to mind the African tribal rituals of scarification which are used in initiations of puberty, marriage or to show a willingness to be a mother (scarring to abdomen – showing the woman can withhold such pain and therefore is ready for childbirth).
Wilke used chewing gum because ‘it’s the perfect metaphor for the American woman – chew her up, get what you want out of her, throw her out and pop in a new piece’ (Mancester, 2008).
Wilke used the motif of the vagina in much of her work – as did many women’s artistic movements during the seventies, but “for Wilke, the art historical and psychoanalytic associations of the vagina as wound made it the ideal image to speak of forms of prejudice inherent to visual language” (Manchester, 2008).
The “scarification” was used to challenge how the feminine is perceived and what is considered beautiful – “the artist [transformed] her body into a grotesque, satirical statement on feminine beauty” (Nastasi, 2012).
However, critics considered Wilke’s art – particularly in it’s use of nudity, as narcissistic and even reinforcing the idea of objectifying the female body, with feminist Lucy Lippard accusing Wilke “of flaunting her body and confusing her role as a beautiful woman with that of an artist resulting in ‘politically ambiguous manifestations’” (Manchester, 2008).
Therefore, with this example in mind, I feel that if I am interested in ridding myself of the expectations set upon me in terms of being a woman and the pressure of how I should appear to the outside world, then:
a) to be naked would be to present myself as an object to be judged which would be the opposite of what I wished to achieve. However;
b) if I were to be naked without the superficial additions of e.g. make-up, fake tan, age-defying cream, hair perfectly coiffured, attractive clothing etc would this make more of a statement about accepting oneself without these additions and being free from the superficial expectations and pressures to conform?