member of:Observers of the Interdependence of Domestic Objects and Their Influence on Everyday Life

This group has been active for a long time and has already made some remarkable assertions which render life simpler from the practical point of view. For example, I move a pot of green color five centimeters to the right, I push in the thumbtack beside the comb and if Mr. A (another adherent like me) at this moment puts his volume about bee-keeping beside a pattern for cutting out vests, I am sure to meet on the sidewalk of the avenida Madero a woman who intrigues me and whose origin and address I never could have known...
--Remedios Varo

(Slideshow is of Artwork by Remedios Varo)
By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it. The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired.
--Franz Kafka

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Agia Eleni and the Blue Cat

Saint Helena and the Blue Cat
by Zoe Blue

When St. Helena (also Empress Helena) came upon Cyprus, it was in the midst of a serious drought.  It was 327 AD, and the Holy Monastery of St. Nicholas was being built, but people were fleeing the island and its deadly heat and poisonous snake infestation. She solved the problem by ordering a ship filled with cats from Egypt and Palestine delivered to the island, and the cats went to work, doing their significant part to make Cyprus the beautiful island it is now--full of strays that everyone feeds and who have no problem hopping up to the empty seat at your table in a restaurant to see if they might like some of what you’re eating. The monks kept the cats on at the monastery, using a bell to dispatch them to snake hunting and also to call them in for a house meal. The monastery is now known as the Holy Monastery of Saint Nicholas of the Cats, but it houses cats and nuns now. 
The flower she carries is Sedum Anacampseros, the Evergreen Orpine, which according to Curtis’ botanical magazine “grows spontaneously in rock crevices.” Here, St. Helena brings life back to the island, astride her blue cat. The building in the back is part of a medieval church destroyed when Turkey began its occupation of the northern half of the island in 1974.
This painting was by request, finished as a Christmas present (just in time, pant, pant). 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Challenge: Puppetry

Clive Hicks-Jenkin's puppets for the 2013 performance of The Mare's Tale by Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra

Clive Hicks-Jenkin's puppets for the 2013 performance of The Mare's Tale by Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra

Clive Hicks-Jenkin's Expressionist Stair-Set for the 2013 performance of The Mare's Tale by Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra

Inspired by the astonishing emotional complexity of the interactions between Clive's puppets, his screen animations of 2D maquettes, and human actors and musicians in the 2013 performance of The Mare's Tale by the Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra, there has been an outpouring of interest in all things puppetry moving around the blogosphere. The fantastic result is a new challenge over at Clive's blog, calling all available hands to get building.

Logo created by Peter Slight, curator of the Puppet Challenge. Click for Link.

In preparation for the challenge, to help with ideas and to underline the fact that there are many, very different styles and materials available to the new puppeteer, Clive has been posting (and will continue to do so) about great puppets both ancient and modern-- his site has become a veritable museum of delightful discoveries...

"The Chinese shadow-puppet tradition is said to date from the reign of the Emperor Wu in the Han Dynasty. When his favourite concubine died, he ordered his court officials to bring her back to life. An articulated ‘puppet’ in her likeness was made of donkey-skin, and the concubine was conjured for the Emperor by means of moving lamps projecting her puppet-shadow onto a screen." --Clive

"In the Javanese shadow-puppet tradition of Wayang Kulit, the word for the shadow-screen is Kelir, and just as the puppet-master is obscured from the audience by this fragile veil, it’s believed that the ‘mover of the world’, the Jagatkarana, is hidden from mortal sight by the screen that separates the planes of existence."--Clive

He tells us that though they would only ever perform as shadows on a screen, great attention was given to the colors and decorations that were considered a gift of thanks and reverence to the shadow puppet itself:

Such shadow puppets would be a logical next step for those of us who took to the lessons on maquette- building from Clive here, and took part in the previous challenge and exhibition here. (Don't miss parts II and III, following that.)
Mare Maquette created by Clive Hicks-Jenkins for On-Screen Animations during the Mare's Tale performance this year.
But, for a more three-dimensional approach, there is also the possibility of a glove puppet, like Clive's Ogre:
Ogre Glove Puppet by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
or like this Mr. Punch, by Julian Crouch:
Julian Crouch and his Mr. Punch

Then there are metal puppets, exemplified by the Theatre le Licorne's Spartacus set and crew:
Theatre le Licorne's Spartacus

Theatre le Licorne's Spartacus

Theatre le Licorne's Spartacus

And then there is always, for the bravest among us, the inspiration offered by the puppets (and their puppeteers) of 69˚S, created by Erik Sanko and Jessica Grindstaff of Phantom Limb:

As with all projects on Clive's site, this one introduces you to all kinds of inspiration, both from him and from the comments boxes below his posts, where I discovered a new artist, Jill Desborough, also a puppeteer, among other things...

Mrs. Thackery, by Jill Desborough

Mrs. Pincher, by Jill Desborough

The Crow by Jill Desborough

It caught my eye that she also had created an etching and aquatint Anatomical Alphabet, which was another challenge put together on Clive's site here.
A is for Articulated, by Jill Desborough

C is for Codpiece by Jill Desborough

I love the way she draws out the letter in unexpected details...
O is for Ornamented by Jill Desborough

E is for Eyes by Jill Desborough
And she also has this lovely Trojan Horse Statue:
Into the City by Jill Desborough

Into the City by Jill Desborough

As contributors sign up for the challenge, I am discovering a slew of new artists...

There's Rachel Larkins, who creates lovely automata:

Automaton by Rachel Larkins. The mirror shows the back side of the doll.

Design sheet and Automaton by Rachel Larkins in action:

There are the strange and miraculous creations of Hussam Elsherif:

by Hussam Elsherif

by Hussam Elsherif

by Hussam Elsherif

And there are the illuminations of Stuart Kolakovic:

Detail from the Death of King Arthur, by Stuart Kolakovic

Wenceslas, by Stuart Kolakovic 
Wenceslas, by Stuart Kolakovic

....and there are many other wondrous artists I have met before there--go and see, and take up the challenge!!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Don't Wait


In 1879, a postman in Southern France, Ferdinand Cheval, picked up a stone somewhere along his route and made a decision to build a castle. He had no training at all.

"I was walking very fast when my foot caught on something that sent me stumbling a few meters away, I wanted to know the cause. In a dream I had built a palace, a castle or caves, I cannot express it well... I told no one about it for fear of being ridiculed and I felt ridiculous myself. Then fifteen years later, when I had almost forgotten my dream, when I wasn't thinking of it at all, my foot reminded me of it. My foot tripped on a stone that almost made me fall. I wanted to know what it was... It was a stone of such a strange shape that I put it in my pocket to admire it at my ease. The next day, I went back to the same place. I found more stones, even more beautiful, I gathered them together on the spot and was overcome with delight... It's a sandstone shaped by water and hardened by the power of time. It becomes as hard as pebbles. It represents a sculpture so strange that it is impossible for man to imitate, it represents any kind of animal, any kind of caricature."
"I said to myself: since Nature is willing to do the sculpture, I will do the masonry and the architecture." ( Becker, Howard S. Art Worlds)

The non-offending first stone
He carried stones in his pockets, then began to use a wheelbarrow on his route, picking up whatever caught his eye.
The castle is 85 feet long and stretches from 26-32 feet high.
 "You start wondering," the facteur wrote, "if you have not been carried away into a fantastic dream with boundaries beyond the scope of imagination."" (New York Times, Mary Blume, May 3, 2007)

He ignored ridicule; he ignored the fact that he had no training. He dreamt of building a palace, and so he did. Stone by stone. It took him 33 years.


Via Wikipedia

Friday, November 1, 2013

Ewa Erzulie

Ewa and the Green Lion by zoe blue
Ewa and the Green Lion by zoe blue
18x24 acrylic on panel

One of the most striking aspects of the traditions surrounding the devotions to Erzulie is that they always end with her weeping. Erzulie is lovely, beautiful, and she has the adoration of all men, yet she does not strike hateful jealousy in the women, because of her child-like innocence. She induces wonder and care, she is like a child. And, though she begins all celebrations in her honor filled with giddiness and pleasure at the excess of beautiful and expensive things that are always lavished on her parties, she slowly grows sad, accusing the people of not honoring her enough, not giving her enough, not loving her enough. In Maya Deren's book The Divine Horsemen, she suggests that this is just another aspect of her child-like behavior (along with an "impatience with economies, with calculation, even with careful evaluation" 139), that you cannot give a child enough attention to satiate its need, and that those present at the devotions understand this and soothe her. I feel, however, that perhaps Erzulie is right. We do not devote enough of our attentions to child-like wonder, to endless and all-enveloping love--if we did, the world would be a much different place.
In Candomblé Ketu, Ewá represents the water element, and is the goddess of enchantment, beauty, and harmony. Like Erzulie, in the related Voodoo pantheon, she is universally loved and loving and "represents all that is fragile and sensitive." According to Morwyn, in Magic from Brazil, "Euá was so beautiful that men would fight to the death to possess her. In order to stop the carnage she changed herself into a puddle of water that evaporated to the sky, condensed into a cloud, and fell as rain. Thus she is known as the deity of transformation."
Here, I am fusing the two water divinities, hoping for a major transformation such as the one Erzulie begs for, one in which I no longer need to mess with stupidities like balancing my checkbook, for example...
The story of Erzulie, the story of Ewá, also reminds me of the Chinese bodhisattva Guan Yin, who also caused a massive transformation, defeating violence: during an unjust and forced visit to the Underworld, she was so overwhelmed with compassion for the souls which suffered untold tortures there, her very love transformed that hell into a paradise. She changed, simply by being full of compassion, the very order of things (something to think about the next time someone calls you a naive utopian). She is, like Ewá and Erzulie, the patroness of mothers and of sailors, and she can be called upon to bring rain.

detail of ewa and the green lion by zoe blue
detail of Ewa and the Green Lion

Alchemists, the precursors to our modern chemists, also strove for major transformation. The endless writings on the steps necessary to transmute base metals into gold are thought by some to have been mere code for a higher transmutation, an internal transmutation, in which the base form of the self becomes light, reaches higher consciousness. Alchemists sought to create an elixir of healing and eternal life, and one of the code names for that ultimate elixir was "the remedy of the green lion."

Here, Erzulie-Ewa is caught in mid-transformation at the base of Legba's tree, her hair feathering out into bird's wings and her torso spilling to the ground. The green lion frolics in the water.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Leonora Carrington: Liminal Spaces

Who art thou, White Face? by Leonora Carrington
image taken from Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art by Susan L Aberth
PRESS for larger image

“the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes” — marcel proust 

The paintings of Leonora Carrington are filled with odd creatures in the midst of ritualistic activities and unusual interactions. Their intense colors and inherent strangeness bring you to the mindset of a dream, and they offer a doorway outside of your own world, the usual time and space. She draws you into a liminal space: the in-between, the not-quite-real, but somehow almost recognizable. 

The Floor 4706th, by Leonora Carrington
In The Floor 4706thfour tall, white, yellow-eyed dogs, three with swords serving as pseudo-unicorn horns, stand at the threshold of a doorway. They appear to be trying to leave the wrong way, pressing towards the edge of the door instead of passing easily through it. But we can see, inside that edge, a ghostly horse and shadowy rider. Above them, a transparent, full moon hangs, and behind them, a small bath of water is receiving its blessing, the stars and sun just lining up to transform it into something more than water. Birds, also not completely incarnated in the dogs’ universe, sail by, somehow below the floor.  Two worlds are present here, overlapping. Will the dogs press through, cross the wormhole whose presence they have somehow divined? What will that mean for them? What does it mean for us? Who are the dogs?

Neighborly Advice, by Leonora Carrington

Memories can overlap in space like this; for example in Neighborly Advice,  a hall much like the one in the grand house Leonora grew up in shows (perhaps) a game of hide-and-seek. Behind it, upstairs, there are many more characters in the midst of games and activities, all ghosted in white: are these the memories of the house? Are they the memories of the young mother? Of her neighbor? The scene recalls a comment made by Marian Leatherby in the Hearing Trumpet
“You may not believe in magic but something very strange is happening at  this very moment. Your head has dissolved into thin air and I can see the rhododendrons through your stomach. It’s not that you are dead or anything dramatic like that, it is simply that you are fading away and I can’t even remember your name. I remember your white flannels better than I can remember you. I remember all the things I felt about the white flannels but whoever made them walk about has totally disappeared. So you remember me as a pink linen dress with no sleeves and my face is confused with dozens of other faces, I have no name either.” 
There, too, the thing remembered is overlaid onto the scene in front of her.

Another possibility as to what the dogs are sensing (and it’s important to notice that it’s dogs that are sensing it--they have different senses than we do, more on that later), of course, is what we call a haunting, where one activity from long ago or far into the future suddenly somehow becomes visible to us in our time--why? how? What were we doing at that moment that they were also doing, or feeling that they were also feeling? What parallel emotion or action linked us?  Maybe this is the thin skin dividing parallel universes which we could also define as worlds of alien entities--

Friday the 13th, by Leonora Carrington
taken from Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art by Susan L Aberth

In her Friday the 13th music is what brings about the overlap between two “worlds.” Here, the other world is portrayed as distinctly “alien,” with the associated symbolic vocabulary of a spaceship (though with Carrington’s very own design, it’s true...). The spaceship has landed before the performance of a small band of musicians, who continue to play as if perhaps this is just what happens when they get together. 
What if perception has a ‘key,’ a timbre, a resonating note? Carrington and Varo both studied the ideas of Gurdjieff, who apparently had a theory about musical octaves and reality (which I have not read yet); have these musicians tuned themselves to a frequency which allows two perceptual fields to resonate in unison, thus allowing one “world” to see another? Could it also have to do with ‘timing’-- beings from each world resonating at the same time, in rhythm, even, so that the same note is hit simultaneously? 
In Ikon, the same sense of liminality is expressed via shadows: you see the posed hand, the bald head, the head of the winged dog, all in solid colored form and all repeated once more--perhaps those are shadows, but perhaps instead they are patterns: the world expecting the act, or the act fitting into its space in the world. In that sense the title, Ikon, takes on extra significance.

II. What is the point of taking you into these liminal zones?

In Dreaming Yourself Awake, Alan Wallace explains the significance of working from within this liminal state in order to effect changes in the waking, ‘real’ world, by explaining the Buddhist philosophy that the waking world is actually just another level of dreaming, but one on which it is much harder to make physical alterations. He suggests that by focusing on how you can make alterations while lucidly dreaming, you can enact similarly-themed changes while awake. Your body learns its perceptive power. The idea of the powers of the mind to alter reality was very present in Leonora’s thinking; one excellent example is expressed in Down Below, a short autobiographical story she wrote detailing her flight from Saint-Martin, where she had experienced an idyllic life with Max Ernst before his internment in a concentration camp, and the flight’s sudden interruption by her incarceration in a madhouse in Spain:

“In Saint-Martin next morning, the school mistress gave me papers stamped by the town hall, which made it possible for us to depart. Catherine got the car ready. All my willpower strained towards that departure. I hurried my friends. I pushed Catherine toward the car; she took the wheel; I sat between her and Michel. The car started. I was confident in the success of the journey, but terribly anguished, fearing difficulties which I thought inevitable. We were riding normally when, twenty kilometres beyond Saint-Martin, the car stopped; the brakes had jammed. I heard Catherine say: “The brakes have jammed.” ‘Jammed!’ I, too, was jammed within, by forces foreign to my conscious will, which were also paralyzing the mechanism of the car. This was the first state of my identification with the external world. I was the car. The car had jammed on account of me, because I, too, was jammed between Saint-Martin and Spain. I was horrified by my own power. At that time, I was still limited to my own solar system, and was not aware of other people’s systems, the importance of which I realize now.” 167, House of Fear: Down Below. (Leonora Carrington)

As she begins to feel herself overwhelmed by the nightmare that is wrapping her and all that she knows into a suffocatingly small space with only one possible outcome, her nerves become so raw, her attention so sharp (link to Legba/Tesla), that she begins to pick up on how what happens inside her reverberates outside her. One might argue that such an assumption is a reflection of the mental break she is beginning to experience, but I would argue that it’s the rest of the world that is acting “insanely,” and her refusal to accept its logic as a sensible or reasonable parameter is hardly lunacy. She becomes lucid while awake: some part of her tries to point out that she could effect change from outside those parameters, and she sees it happening, but does not know what to do with it. 

Alan Wallace, whose book Dreaming Yourself Awake serves as a guide of sorts to knowing ‘what to do with that,’ states:

“You may have noticed that by anticipating something within a lucid dream, that event will take place. In my case, when I find myself in one of my “anxious traveler” dreams, become lucid, catch myself thinking, “I think I’ve missed my flight,” I’ll glance out the airport window and, sure enough, there goes my plane taking off from the runway. I may know that I am dreaming and that the airport is not real, but there goes my plane anyway. You can use anticipation consciously to maintain lucidity. If, for instance, you think, “I bet my best friend Carl is going to walk through the door now,” often that is precisely what will happen. Then you can link such self-fulfilling prophesies into sequences. “Now Carl is going to play an accordion. The accordion is going to turn into a vintage Ferrari, and we are going to drive the coast of the French Riviera. Perhaps there will be a sunset. . . . Oh look! There it is!,” and so on.”

Expectation alters what will happen next, even if it makes no sense in context--in fact, it is expectation that makes it seem to make sense. This is true of the waking world. 
While she’s imprisoned in the institution, Carrington begins to explore the implications of such lucidity. And when she gets out and begins painting again, that alchemy of changing expectations in order to change events, is the task to which she puts herself.

Grandmother Moorehead's Aromatic Kitchen, by Leonora Carrington

In the painting above, a supernatural event takes place in a completely domestic setting: the kitchen. All the women wear disguises, or ritualistic costume; and there is a magic circle, replete with symbols, magic garlic, a strange puff of funneling air that seems to startle everyone--even the giant white goose and her indescribable companion. An important component of the artist’s work within the liminal space is redefining the meanings of objects. Cooking, here, metamorphoses from miserable-drudgery-assigned-to-women, and a way to keep them chained to the domestic sphere to powerful, spiritual and alchemical, secret underground magic.
Carrington explored this theme often, and she and her close friend Varo were well-known for having friends over and subjecting them to all kinds of bizarre oddities presented as food. Varo also wrote out recipes--which included hats and bricks in the ingredients-- to call upon certain dreams, or avoid others; in The Hearing Trumpet, the main character, Marian Leatherby, puts forth the idea that “The person who controls the distribution of food has almost unlimited power in a society such as ours.”
Orenstein, in her analysis of the painting The Chrysopeia of Mary the Jewess, notes that “Both food, and art, enter the body--the eyes and the mouth, and then actually work to transform the being who has ingested them. In that sense they are similar to alchemy, for they both chemically transform the person who has prepared them. The Artist, the Alchemist, the Cook are all affected and changed, themselves, by the process involved in performing their arts.” 
A creative act changes the creator and the ‘audience,’ or the receiver. The cooking imagery is symbolic: the change that takes place inside you when you experience her painting is not a warm fuzzy feeling, it is not a mere brightening of your day. It is a chemical change, it is a change at the atomic level, and it affects the way those atoms that are a part of you now will act when they become a part of the person you just shook hands with, and when they become a part of his daughter, when he sings her to sleep at night. This is where Einstein’s ‘spooky action at a distance’ takes on mythic proportions: you see her painting, you enter her painting, you understand something new; for that gasp of realization, somewhere, there exists an instant, though distant, parallel response. The world outside also changes. In those moments where you stand before a painting and lose the rest of the world, something deep inside you changes. Somewhere, in your own memory palace (whether you have trained to become familiar with that palace or not), in that latent image that for you defines and arranges the universe and its possibilities, something has shifted. It has been cooked; it has changed from a liquid to a solid.

That call to change the symbolism and thus the mythology driving our society was something Leonora did share with the Surrealists. As many artists and writers of this movement met at the Villa Air-bel, hiding out as they struggled to obtain escape Visas by any means possible before capture by the Nazis, they also took on collective activities to redefine the universe in a way that made some space in it for them; one of those activities was the creation of a new Tarot deck:

“Breton was convinced that all the surrealists must defy the spirit of Fascism “by singing, playing, and laughing with the greatest joy.” He had a new plan to distract his friends from the bleakness that lay lodged in the heart like broken glass. At Air-Bel they were to undertake a collective work of art. They would invent a new deck of cards. They would need new suits to replace the diamonds, hearts, spades, and clubs of the old deck and new figures to replace the heraldic military figures of king, queen, and jack. André immediately went to the public library on the Place Carli in Marseille to research the origins and history of the game. To his deep satisfaction, he discovered that modifications to the game over the centuries had always taken place in times of great military reversals or defeats. The surrealists wanted a game relevant to their universe, and a deck reflecting their fascination with magic, alchemy, and psychic phenomenon. They settled on four suits: Love (a flame), Dream (a black star), Revolution (a bloody wheel), and Knowledge (a door lock). The genius, the siren, and the magus replaced the royal cards. The most daunting task was to pick the figures that would become the new face cards. These they drew from the surrealist pantheon: the genius, siren and magus of Love were Baudelaire, La Religieuse Portugaise (author of the Portuguese Letters), and the poet Novalis. The figures of Dream were: Lautréamont, Alice in Wonderland, and Freud. The genius of Revolution was the Marquis de Sade, with Lamiel, a character in a novel by Stendhal, as the siren, and Pancho Villa as the magus, while the hierarchy of Knowledge was represented by Hegel, the Swiss medium Hélène Smith, and the medieval alchemist, Paracelsus. The joker was the ultimate trickster, Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi.15”  Sullivan, Rosemary (2009-10-13). Villa Air-Bel (p. 322). 

La Maja del Tarot, 1965, Leonora Carrington; not from the Villa games

In the Hearing Trumpet, Carmella and Marian play a similar game, where from a mere name they not only create a physical person, but his tastes and habits and a likely future in which they will interact with him, all merely possibilities which they switch around and alter with ease: meaning and reality absolutely being created. The reasoning for the existence of others is clearly linked, in this moment, to who they are and their moods:

“‘Ever since I stole the Paris telephone directory from the consulate I have increased my output [of letters to random people]. You have no ideas of the beautiful names in Paris. This letter is addressed to Monsieur Belvedere Oise Noisis, rue de la Rechte Potin, Paris IIe. You could hardly invent anything more sonorous even if you tried. I see him as a rather frail old gentleman, still elegant, with a passion for tropical mushrooms which he grows in an Empire wardrobe. He wears embroidered waistcoats and travels with purple luggage.’‘You know Carmella I sometimes think that you might get a reply if you didn’t impose your imagination on people you have never seen. Monsieur Belvedere Oise Noisis is undoubtedly a very nice name, but suppose he is fat and collects wicker baskets? Suppose he never travels and has no luggage, suppose he is a young man with a nautical yearning? You must be more realistic I think.’You are sometimes very negative minded Marian, although I know you have a kind heart, that is no reason that poor Monsieur Belvedere Oise Noisis should do anything so trivial as collecting wicker baskets. He is fragile but intrepid, I intend to send him some mushroom spore to enrich the species which he had sent from the Himalayas.’ There was not more to be said so Carmella read the letter. She was pretending to be a famous Peruvian alpinist who had lost an arm trying to save the life of a grisly bear cub trapped on the edge of a precipice. The mother bear had unkindly bitten off her arm. She went on to give all sorts of information about high altitude fungus and offered to send samples. It seemed to me that she took too much for granted” (9).

But what if she did send the samples? Varo and Carrington did write letters to unknown recipients, and did treat those recipients in the letters as if they were on some common professional ground. What if Varo, or Carmella, sent the spores? What if Monsieur Belvedere Oise Noisis found them fascinating and looked up their provenance and their history and then delved into a study which took him on to travels he never otherwise would have taken? And if he there discovered the love of his life, or the cure for the common cold, or a way (yes, mushrooms can do this) to clean up giant oil spills naturally--when before he was simply a bank clerk--would that not be magic? 
And what if we were better able to change our own stories of ourselves so casually? It would be terribly difficult to feel trapped or overwhelmed or destroyed by events, then!

La Reina de los Mandriles, Leonora Carrington
III. The Real World

Andre Breton, “Father” of the Surrealists, had been a medical soldier in the first World War, where he saw first-hand the kind of strain such bizarre and horrible violence put on the human mind (not only his own). He was only nineteen years old at the time, and apart from his stretcher runs to the front lines to pick up the wounded, he was assigned to a neuropsychiatric hospital in northeastern France, to assist the director with victims of shell-shock, a brand new disease. He took particular interest in one of the patients that had been sent to them, yanked from the front because of excessive “recklessness”:

“During bombardments the soldier had stood exposed on the parapets reaching up for the grenades flying by and redirecting them with his fingers. He said the ‘make-believe’ shells could do him no harm. He believed the injuries on the bodies of his fellow soldiers were makeup and the corpses were made of wax. He believed the whole spectacle of World War I had been staged for his personal entertainment. Breton was aghast but also fascinated to watch the minds of his shell-shocked patients invent their own realities. It sparked his fascination with the phenomenon of psychic automatism. He began to read Freud and his French counterparts, and eventually took a post under Joseph Babinski, then famous as a clinical neurologist. Among his psychiatric patients, Breton found “the route-map for the great artistic journey of the coming century: the journey to the interior.” Sullivan, Rosemary (2009-10-13). Villa Air-Bel (p. 103). 

With horrors like that going on all around, you find yourself, as Victor Serge said in his memories of WWII, with nothing for it but to fight for an impossible escape. You have to create a non-existent path, in your mind. So how do you go from simply escaping into your mind--that is, going mad-- to bringing the escape you found inside your mind out into the world, and making it real? 

Some people have managed this transport. They are magicians. It seems to me that Carrington and Varo managed this. Leonora Carrington, in the midst of her flight from a collapsing France, in front of the police, went completely inside her mind. She threatened out loud to assassinate Hitler, she raged against the insanity of the world outside, and she was committed for it to an asylum, where she was subjected to chemically-induced seizures that were the medical equivalent of a soldier’s torture. At one point, a distant cousin who was a medical doctor in Spain came and got her removed from that asylum, and her family (her father was a very wealthy industrialist who believed that only criminals ‘such as’ the poor and the homosexual would pursue a career in art) responded by sending company representatives to escort her to a new asylum in Africa. Leonora managed to escape her escorts and their nefarious plans by slipping out the back of a cafe during a meal, fleeing to the Mexican embassy, and marrying her friend Renato Leduc in order to get passage to Mexico. 

But let’s not forget the thing that happened in her mind. Not just before the internment, but during it as well. She escaped internment, but still suffered its effects: tales abounded of her strange behavior, of showering fully clothed in someone else’s house and returning to his armchair dripping wet; of spreading mustard on her feet in the midst of a meal in a restaurant. She had suffered a serious break with a seriously distressing reality, and while she was still unwell, was subjected to torture. Leonora Carrington went somewhere far, far away in her own mind, but she made it back.
Susan Aberth relates that Pierre Mabille offered Leonora a copy of his own book on magical traditions in many societies, an act he felt had an impact on her struggles at the time. He said, 
“By reading many folk stories she found again the same symbolic images that had been part of her own experience of insanity. She also found planetary and numerological symbols with which things, even the most insignificant ones, transformed into symbols because she had the habit of seeing them more transcendently than utilitarian.” 
She found what Jung termed the collective unconscious; she discovered that, far from having disappeared off the deep end into somewhere no one had been before and no one could come back from, she had gone to a place connected to all of us, that those we call magicians come back from. She realized that what she had seen was a different layer of existence, a layer well underneath the one the world was so busily destroying, a layer that, if explored and made visible, might help to heal the minds of those around her by making visible “impossible” escapes. 

Sidhe, the White People of the Tuatha de Danaan: “My love for the soil, nature, the gods was given to me by my mother’s mother who was Irish from Westmeath, where there is a myth about men who lived underground inside the mountains, called the ‘little people’ who belong to the race of the ‘Sidhe’. My grandmother used to tell me we were descendants of that ancient race that magically started to live underground when their land was taken by invaders with different political and religious ideas. They preferred to retire underground where they are dedicated to magic and alchemy, knowing how to change gold. The stories my grandmother told me were fixed in my mind and they gave me mental pictures that I would later sketch on paper” (12, Susan Aberth quoting Leonora Carrington)

And so, though the acts and powers of Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco have been stopped, a child today looking at a painting of Carrington (or Varo) can still be utterly and completely changed. The power a dictator has, the power anything has over you is in the idea that inside that power lies the only possible path for you. The moment in which you realize that is not the case is momentous, that shimmering moment in which the senseless image before you vibrates with life and meaning and a door swings open on the other side of the world, to wait for you.

And, if you happen to be lucky enough to be anywhere near Dublin, Ireland, here is a treat for you: The Irish Museum of Modern Art is having a show of Leonora Carrington's works which will focus on the aspects of Celtic Lore that influenced her art. They are also producing a show catalogue that will include many unpublished writings of Carrington.  Go. 

Sculpture by Leonora Carrington, image taken from
Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art by Susan L Aberth

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Papa Legba

Papa Legba Maquette by zoe blue
Papa Legba is sometimes an old man, sometimes a young man, almost always with a top hat and cane. He has one foot in your habitual ways (the "real world"), and one foot in fresh possibility; the border he crosses is the liminal space in which you are offered or forced to accept an alteration in your perspective in order to survive--a wormhole. No voodoo ceremony can begin without him: he is the one who allows the worlds of loa and humans to meet.  This connection between worlds is frequently represented by a special tree, its roots reaching deep into the underworld, its trunk and branches thrusting into our reality and through to the heavens. He is syncretized with St. Peter, who holds the keys to the gates of heaven, waiting for our arrival. Papa Legba's key plants into the ground via his cane, to connect with those spirits underneath: for example, those we have lost, ancestors. The key grows into a support for him, and also a snake (dweller of the worlds below). His scarf, a bird, covers any calls to the over-world spirits, those in the heavens, that we aspire to, that we desire to live through us. The bird-soul transcends the old. Papa Legba changes from old to new, from human to not, from alive to dead and back again. And he’s looking at you.

Papa Legba Maquette by zoe blue
Maquettes in the style taught by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
What is this key? Papa Legba is the language loa, he translates your cry of pain into a question, your inability to express your needs and desires into a new universe, where those needs and desires are so natural, they are easily communicated.  Languages and stories (and symbols) are used in society to tie everyone together into a community, to a consensual reality, to the same (overall) patterns of understanding.  As long as we’re using the shared image-meanings, then we follow the same story of humanity. If we want a different story, what then? What can Legba do? He can give us a key--that is, access to other symbols, or other ways to see your own. He can give new meaning to what is already there before you, unlocking its other possible meanings, translating it, thereby changing the world.

Everyone has personal symbols. Even if we aren’t aware of them, they rear up in our dreams and they modify our behavior (sometimes in ways that directly clash with societal mores); they are there, underneath, as a part of who we are. We all begin as synaesthetes, in fact, combining our understanding of the world across pairings from various senses. Alexandra Horowitz talks about this in her book On Looking, Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes:

“What the infant sees, for instance, is something quite fuzzier and more dazzling than what the normal adult sees: babies are very nearsighted and they lack the clouded filters that take bright light down a notch. Even more critically, the world is not yet organized into discrete objects for these new eyes: It is all light and dark, shadow and brightness. To the newborn infant, there is no ‘crib,’ no ‘mama’ and ‘daddy,’ no floor no wall no window no sky. Much of this can be seen, but none can yet be made sense of. 

Information taken in by the eyes might be processed in any part of the brain--it could be the visual cortex, leading to an inchoate ‘seeing’; but it could also be the motor cortex, leading to a leg kicking; or the auditory cortex, in which case a nearby teddy bear may be experienced as a bang, or a ringing, or a whisper. There is good reason to believe that this kind of synesthesia is the normal experience for infants. Synesthesia--literally ‘joining of sensations’-- is a somewhat rare and highly improbable form of perception in adults[....]

While tasting sounds or smelling letters is viewed as aberrant (if conducive to creativity) among adults, those eminently creative infants may sense the world with crossed wires all the time. Heinz Werner, a German psychologist of the early twentieth century, called this the ‘sensorium commune’: a primordial way of experiencing the world, pre-knowledge and pre-categorization. Researchers have found remnants of this perceptual organization in adults: on being shown drawings of curly lines, adults tend to characterize the lines as ‘happy’; descending lines, ‘sad’; sharp lines, ‘angry.’ To feel a tone, as though one were inside a vibrating bell, is to see glimpses of your vestigial sensorium commune.

But mostly, we ignore that feeling; we do not label lines as being happy or vexed or gloomy. One theory of synesthesia holds that the synapses connecting neurons identifying shapes and those leading to the experience of taste get snipped sometime in the first few years of life. This may be the simple result of our lack of attention to the connection.”

Lack of attention. That’s precisely it. The important objects, experiences, and details--that is, the ones clearly marked by our parents, extended family, teachers, priests, politicians, etc as important--are granted our attention and they develop. But the other connections, the other details, are still there in your brain. They still exist as a part of you. And in some other universe, you are living according to those connections. If you can find them, from here, you can go there

If synesthesia is conducive, as Horowitz suggests, to creativity, why not seek out such connections? In fact, isn’t that exactly the Art of Memory, the Ars Memoria? Recall that the process is to break an idea down into images, sounds, smells--some kind of symbols--which help you to hold together the disparate parts of the idea. A woodchuck holding a crumbling, tart apple tart, enters the cafe and tries to find a friend. His crumbling tart, the couch where Freud sits, the woman in the red dress all come together in a way particular to you, meaningful to you, and this process of knitting together the symbols not only helps your recall of the information, but guides you to realize, accidentally, other previously unseen connections between things, which leads directly to creativity and invention. This is, I believe, the magic that the practitioners of Ars Memoria were suspected of: by shifting around seemingly symbolic objects in their minds--Varo’s pot of green paint, her stencil for cutting out vests--, they affected the outside world. 

In his book, Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla, Mark Seifer describes a moment of such odd connections in which Tesla went from nearly killing himself (through physical and mental exhaustion) in an effort to solve a problem to its sudden, clearly laid-out solution, via a gorgeous sunset and a Goethe poem. He was struggling to design a way to harness AC power without any ‘cumbersome’ intermediaries, and the struggle took every minute of his time, and he drove himself so hard that he suffered a nervous collapse, which took on the aspect of a severe attention to detail:

“I could hear the ticking of a watch…three rooms [away]. A fly alighting on a table…would cause a dull thud in my ear. A carriage passing at a distance…fairly shook my whole body…I had to support my bed on rubber cushions to get any rest at all…The sun’s rays, when periodically intercepted, would cause blows of such force on my brain that they would stun me…In the dark I had the sense of a bat and could detect the presence of an object…by a peculiar creepy sensation on the forehead.” A respected doctor “pronounced [his] malady unique and incurable.” Desperately clinging to life, Tesla was not expected to recover.”

His friend Szigeti took him out to the park to try to get him moving around. They went at sunset, and suddenly, the beauty of the scenery caused Tesla to burst into spontaneous recitation: 

‘See how the setting sun, with ruddy glow, 
The green-embosomed hamlet fires.
He sinks and fades, the day is lived and gone. 
He hastens forth new scenes of life to waken. 
O for a wing to lift and bear me on, 
And on to where his last rays beckon.’
(From Goethe’s Faust

“As I uttered these inspiring words,” Tesla declared, “the truth was (suddenly) revealed. I drew with a stick on the sand the diagrams shown six years later in my address before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers…Pygmalion seeing his statue come to life could not have been more deeply moved.”

The association between sunset, Faust, and successfully harnessing AC power is still lost on me, but the world has been changed as a result of his connection of those things: power floods our homes, lights our nights, keeps the stereo on and the clothes clean and me instantly connected to friends across the world. All of these things were once unimaginable. Impossible. 

Yet, here we are.

**Update: please follow the link in Niklas' comment, the essay is fantastic!!