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, March 28, 2013

St. Fevronia II: Sea Gypsies

Acrylic and Silver-leaf on Panel, by Zoe Blue

I’ve been exploring the curse of Borges’ Yellow Emperor and the mirror world of automata for a while, most recently formulating the details of their foreshadowed escape, heralded by the brief glint of the scales of a fish before the mirror glass comes tumbling down. 

I imagine that as we--the ones trapped behind the glass, eternally parroting and puppeting-- release ourselves from repetition and the automatic acceptance of the rules of existence we have always known, even our body images will change. If it’s true that none of the atoms making up my form now were part of my self definition 7 years ago, then what, other than a projected self-image, keeps me looking the same? To break free from the mirror world, then, would include freedom from the so-far unquestioned but simply projected body-image defined as human. While developing a character combining Borges’ signal fish scales and the fierce, untamable power of a horse, I discovered the story of St. Fevronia and her role in moving the besieged city of Kitezh to a more secure, underwater location before the very eyes of its assailants. The idea that without resorting to violence, one could keep oneself healthy and safe through purity has always had its appeal for humanity, but rarely has the idea survived to see the end of the tale--saints usually die miserable deaths. St. Fevronia entered the new, unreachable-but-to-the-pure-of-heart lair with her brethren and continues there today. Maybe it was mass hypnosis that stymied the Mongol warriors, keeping them “at bay” as the palace-city subjects, also finding their consciousness directed to a new level by the focused purity of the saint’s attentions, discovered their new ability to breathe and move underwater. 

So, here St. Fevronia bursts from the mirror, rote existence too tight an enclosure to hold her. 

An icon is for meditation, for self-hypnosis with a focus on the attributes of a particular saint, on internalizing those attributes, on possessing yourself with them. To aid in that process, this icon again contains moonlit hellebores, the hellebores I recently learned were to be placed in a bowl in a room which has suffered arguments, to clear the room of their sense and impact, to recreate a more conducive atmosphere. They have also been used throughout history in a vaguely hallucinogenic vein. All the better for self-hypnosis and possession. 

While working on this painting, I learned of the existence of a nomadic people living around the islands off the west coast of Thailand who provided me with a further example of how we often mistake the automatic for the limits of the possible. They are a water tribe, spending almost all their lives off the soil, able to lower their heart rates at will to dive further and longer than the rest of us-- who imagine ourselves not to be fish. And:

“...what distinguishes these children, for our purposes, is that they can see clearly at these great depths, without goggles. Most human beings cannot see clearly under water because as sunlight passes through water, it is bent, or “refracted,” so that light doesn’t land where it should on the retina. Anna Gislén, a Swedish researcher, studied the Sea Gypsies’ ability to read placards under water and found that they were more than twice as skillful as European children. The Gypsies learned to control the shape of their lenses and, more significantly, to control the size of their pupils, constricting them 22 percent. This is a remarkable finding, because human pupils reflexively get larger under water, and pupil adjustment has been thought to be a fixed, innate reflex, controlled by the brain and nervous system. This ability of the Sea Gypsies to see under water isn’t the product of a unique genetic endowment. Gislén has since taught Swedish children to constrict their pupils to see under water—one more instance of the brain and nervous system showing unexpected training that alter what was thought to be a hardwired, unchangeable circuit.” Doidge, Norman (2007-03-15). The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science (p. 289). Penguin Books. Kindle Edition. Emphasis mine. 

Their “hardwired” brain is hardwired differently from the brains of those of us who keep our feet on land. So it must be that our brains are not really so hardwired. What’s more, that ability to see differently is not just good for reading underwater. When the 2004 tsunami hit, Sea Gypsies had already headed for deeper waters or for hills, and they managed to survive. With all of modern technology, modern humans did not see the wave coming until it was already there. But the Sea Gypsies saw something off. They noticed their surroundings. Masterminds, they were paying attention, and they responded accordingly.
“Indeed, Burmese boatmen were also at sea when these preternatural events were occurring, but they did not survive. A Sea Gypsy was asked how it was that the Burmese, who also knew the sea, all perished. He replied, “They were looking at squid. They were not looking at anything. They saw nothing, they looked at nothing. They don’t know how to look.””

Who knows? Maybe you, too, have a fishtail. Look again.


  1. un bleu magnifiquement décliné ..une belle composition et une sainte superbe :))
    bonnes pâques

  2. Oh, this is so inspiring! How wonderful to have created a specific, perfect icon to help focus you like this. Your old post about meditating on painted cave walls by lamplight really stuck with me, so it is just amazing to see you building on it like this!
    I love the blue and silver palette and am thrilled by the use of silver leaf in the background. I am always wanting to make something with a gold leaf background (no doubt as a result of having spent too much time spellbound in museums with lovely medieval collections) but the silver leaf is new and wonderful to me. It is perfect for your purposes here in this beyond the looking-glass world.

    I loved learning about the underwater life of these nomads you wrote about too. And all this as your last post is still swirling around in my head full of interesting lines of thought!

  3. merci, elfi :)))) your words make me very happy :)

  4. jodi--the lamplit cave paintings! i had not been thinking of them, but it seems almost as if gold-leaf (and silver) iconography would have to have come from the same idea, a glow around the image to focus your eyes on a separate plane? i love that thought...
    thank you :) i'm super-happy that you like it :)

  5. Me gustan mucho tus ultimas pinturas con fondos mas oscuros.
    Pero en esta me encanta el abanico de suaves azules y como los difuminas y los mezclas. Es como si hubieras echado un velo transparente blanquecino encima de la pintura.
    ¿Como has hecho eso? Me gusta!

    1. muchisimas gracias, migue, me encanta tu comento, me hace sentir como un mago :))
      you are a saint :D

  6. I recall seeing a tv show about those sea gypsies and as I was reading along I thought they must be the product of long threads of family genetics which had created such unique eyes - so I'm quite amazed to hear about the swedish children - so much "modern" world has lost the ability of knowing and I can't help think how modern technology is making some people rely on being told what to do by issued warnings -
    for instance last sunday we had a fairly violent storm come through quite quickly - if people had been paying attention they would have seen the sky change colour and the wind pick up at the very least - but the next day people in some areas were bemoaning that the tv warnings had flashed on after the storm had gone through ... wonder what the sea gypsies would make of them!

    Your painting is full of intrigue as the figures tumble out from their mirror world and leaves me wondering if they too will have to learn from new like those "made girls" in your previous post*!*

    1. wasn't it a shock that the ability wasn't genetic? and what if genetics turns out to be nothing more than nuggets of communal/family knowledge "passed on" in some coded format? which we could choose to *ignore* when unhealthy? how fantastic would that be?

  7. amazing stories and possibilities and the most surprising discovery..I have a fishtail:)
    your painting is brilliant zoe, the reflections in the mirror are great
    and I love the symbolism in the painting

    1. *you*, i am 100% certain, have a fishtail :D
      i have seen it, in my peripheral vision, only briefly, but i am certain.... :))
      this is why you can do so many impossible things!
      i am so happy that you like it :) hvala puno, lepotice, tvoje reči su toliko važni!

  8. Hi Zoe,

    very inspiring blog-post, as are so many others (I was previously blown away by the fine-crafted essay on Litherland, Tesla and eidetic imagery)!

    "To break free from the mirror world, then, would include freedom from the so-far unquestioned but simply projected body-image defined as human."

    Yes, today the distinction between subject and object often is deemed to be a relatively late trait of human thinking. And as you´ve shown continually in the writings on this blog, there´s plenty of scientific basis for speculating about the relativity of the body-image form and even the possibility of magic transmutions being "more real" than we imagine. To me Oliver Sacks books seem to point in that direction, in that they provide a wide range of examples of how far from the norm human neurology can maintain a "perceptual constancy" as his term is. In view of this it also seems curious that so few seem to ponder on the specifics of what a non-autonomous diagram between humans and other beings could imply. Musings and art such as yours though can truly be seen as a systematic mythopoietic exploration in that regard! I´m also thinking of Rudolf Steiner, who came to similar conclusions -- world = neurosignature -- from another angle. If you´re not familliar with his philosophy, briefly put, he had a theory of world evolution, where he put the emphasis on the objectiveness of thought-forms rather than on the mechanics of biology in relation to environment as is common in darwinism. Humans to him once "contained" the animals as archetypes, since to think about something is to merge with it, but later "evacuated" them due to developed changes in the overall structure of consciousness. Remnants of this primordial thinking may then be seen in late paleolithic cave art, in shamanistic shape-shifting practices, in mythic beings like the centaur as well as in our presently remaining ability to reconnect...

    Interestingly, in connection to your wonderful painting here, Steiner specifically mentions the horse as emblematic for imaginative thinking. If you want a fuller summary of his thoughts about this subject check out this thoughtful essay about the horse archetype, Steiner in relation to a poem by Sylvia Plath:

    / Niklas

  9. I really appreciate your comments--I read your article on the archetype of the horse, which is fascinating and has led me down all sorts of paths all afternoon...

    The idea of thought-permeability especially interests me, where you said:
    "We only know the world through human thinking and this thinking is permeable and can be entered by other thought beings. Any object or animal that we can think about is united with us in the very act of cognition. My thoughts about a horse are an attribute of the horse and part of the horse as much as its hooves and tail."

    Also, I wonder if, as we separate ourselves from the thought-about creature in our thought processes--ie, thinking of the horse as other, instead of, for the moments of thought, allowing ourselves to be possessed by the horse--we limit our own possible gain in abilities from the thought?

    For example, using the fish-part instead, if you were in some sort of dire straits that were water-related, like a capsized ship, and you called on (as opposed to wishing for, or weeping for lack of) some water-spirit: a dolphin, for example, or Erzulie from Voodoo, or St. Gertrude, or let's say St. Fevronia. You call on her, think "with" her, allow her to possess you--would you be the sea gypsy who walks away from the tsunami? would you be the one survivor of the capsized ship? would you then realize you had somehow held your breath for an absurd amount of time, or swum an absurd distance, or--there was a model who did this--hung on to a tree despite a bunch of broken limbs until the storm was over and you survived? Whereas the person who despairs, saying only: i am a human, and humans don't live long floating on a stick in the ocean, and i can't breathe and i can't swim and this is a really, really bad situation...

    i see in your quotes where Steiner's saying we've evolved higher by separating ourselves from those animals, but also where he seems to say that future evolution will involve some type of re-joining--perhaps controlled possession, for example the way it happens in a voodoo ceremony where one is ridden by a loa.

    and I had no idea he was behind the development of the Waldorf schools or organic farming...At any rate, i am fascinated, and have gotten ahold of his "Outline of Occult Science," and will look for others of his work.

    But I so appreciate the million other things in your comment to look into! Especially that of the horse and imaginative thinking, how excellent! Thanks!

  10. To clarify: I´m not the author of the article about the horse archetype. I just recently stumbled upon the moonchalice site while searching for info on Steiner and his view on imagination. Glad you found the article useful, as I did myself. : ) The author is obviously well read both in poetics and in anthroposophy.

    About possible gains and pitfalls of thought-permeability. To me those complications indicate that the shamanic trance craft, for one example, must have been totally immersed in a worldview -- or neuro-signature, or sensus communis -- where concepts that today are seen as thought-forms could then have been percieved as real. AND vice versa: matter appeared as instances of form rather than physical objects. My guess is that in our present world the risks involved in shape-shifting would not be worthwhile to archaic shamans, since physical and symbolical aspects of reality have separated so radically. To bridge these realms we now draw on imagination, which is defined by its limited reach into the physical domain. Or maybe we should say that the physical has grown beyond the reach of a standstill yet-to-be-developed imagination? So that for now, as you suggest, only catastrophic situations may momentarily cancel the physical risk-calculating inhibitions, which, to follow Steiner, are not "ours" to begin with, but rather part of the malleable world-thought fabric...

    Anyway, you´re in for a ride reading Steiner! I´ve read his pre-occultisic or "dry philosophical" work, Philosophy of freedom, where he adresses these cognitive issues with much care and no wild speculation. Another fantastic book on the subject is The Body of Myth: Mythology, Shamanic Trance, and the Sacred Geography of the Body, by J. Nigro Sansonese.

    / Niklas (used to comment on flickr as zapatil.)

  11. zapatil! i am so happy to see you again, and am now enjoying your blog. :)
    it's silly that i clicked on the one link in your comment and not the other (your name) any rate, i am finding steiner fascinating; i picked up the philosophy of freedom (i got the translation philosophy of spiritual awareness?) as well, and am excited about digging in.

    i hope that it is the "standstill yet-to-be-developed imagination" only. we have spent a lot of time arguing for and convincing ourselves of the solidity and inescapable-ness of what's around us, of its "objectivity". but the further science goes, the more we discover is in the world but beyond our sight-and-hearing abilities to perceive (what will the "next generation" of microscope/mri--type technology show us is out there?).

    and voodoo practitioners still undergo possessions unlike anything i ever would have imagined--in the midst of the drumming taking on the personality, abilities, and body-type of a completely different being--though not, it's true, animals. still, it seems just as possible?

    i meant to say last time that oliver sacks is a *wonderful* source for examples in neuro-studies of what could be possible, i was reading his book "hallucinations" and he gave the example of a woman who had spent her life thinking she had some odd connection to the spirit world, and it had terrified her and she had said nothing to anyone, and now she was finding out that it was a type of migraine "only" and she told sacks that she felt almost bereft--that she had lost a whole aspect of the world that had once seemed so real to her. but i thought--just because we call it migraine, or epilepsy, and we can point to the neurons in the brain where a thing is occurring, does that mean we know what it is? i mean to say, so a particular area of van gogh's brain lit up when he heard the words of god, and we call that temporal lobe epilepsy--what if that's just what happens when god talks to you? what if that's just what an mri shows is happening in your brain when you shift reality streams, temporarily stepping out of this existence to visit another one, coming back when the seizure's over? i mean, we still really don't *know* anything!
    i will also look up the body of myth, thank you!!

  12. Beautiful work Zoe, both your painting and the writing it accompanies.

    I love the way you fill your compositions these days, with the figures filling all of the space. Wonderful. A marvellous, complex image.

    1. i'm pleased to no end that you like it, clive. of course the composition comes directly from the use of the maquettes, it's astonishing the way they impact the use of space... :)

  13. Thanks for the welcome back greeting. Agreeing on voodoo. Jean Rouch´s film Les Maitres fous is possibly the most baffling

    docu I´ve seen in that regard -- you can find it on youtube if you haven´t seen it or if your mind hasn´t already been sufficiently blown by knowledge gatherered on the subject from other sources. : ) As for the epilepsy and Van Gogh associations, I feel it´s intriguing to no end to contemplate possible connections to pre-scientific mind-cartographies. For example, what if the spiritual "waters of life" in the NT, and the separation of upper and lower waters in Genesis, actually refer to the specific mental states that nowadays are measured by MRI:s as electro-magnetic fluctuations in the water molecules in the body? Makes some sense, since EM phenomena are percievable as one shifts into meditative states (samadhi) and such passages may subjectively be likened to an amphibian-like movement between elements. Fish-tail indeed. : )

    1. it had never occurred to me to associate the spiritual waters with electro-magnetic fluctuations in the body's water molecules, what a fascinating opening that creates!
      ha! i knew there was a fish tail involved, somehow! :D
      i will now be looking for the documentary, as i have not seen it and as long as my mind is still my own, it can always use more explosions :)
      you have certainly created a pile of reading over here! thank you!!