Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Material religion

This has been a month of reflection and theoretical study; I felt misunderstood after my recent Group Crit and have felt the need to reflect on what I am trying to say in my work and how that is being read and understood by the viewer. The four embroideries I presented were read as timid explanations for a campaign against FGM, rather than a narrative around the traditions and rituals held within a culture group. The work was not well received as the issues it attempted to explore were too political and took over any aesthetic reading of the work. Having spent some time discussing my ideas I was encouraged to continue working within the framework of ritual and the sacred and to re-look at the ideas from last year around the sacraments. I also visited ‘The Sacred Made Real’ at the National Gallery and found it to be exceptionally moving and inspiring. Firstly as a religious experience the works ‘shocked my senses and stirred my soul’; the dark lighting and silence created a space in which I encountered a deeper understanding of the reality of the violence that accompanies the sacred. Secondly it confirmed the importance of the role that material and visual culture play in the spiritual journey and thereby increased my resolve to continue to explore this theme in my own practice.

My research has lead me to investigate the theories around ritual and rites of passage by firstly reading Victor Turners seminal text ‘The Ritual Process’ and his anthropological study of ritual and religion, his observations of the function of ritual and the performance element that results in a collective understanding and identity being formed by the participants. Turner challenged the traditionally accepted rational ways of thinking about religion and ritual that often disregarded the imagination or emotions such as L H Morgans view that ‘Religion deals so largely with the imaginative and emotional nature, and consequently with such uncertain elements of knowledge, that all primitive religions are grotesque and to some extent unintelligible.’ (Ancient Society 1877 p5) Turner regarded ritual as a form of non-verbal language, suggesting that rituals are spaces of meaningful symbols through which information is revealed; these symbols not only reveal religious and social values but evoke a transformation in human behavior, that those involved in the performance of a ritual are changed, transformed through their experience; the ritual performance acting as a threshold to renewed experience either in a religious or social context.
In this way Turner offers a post modern reading of ritual and religion, recognizing the importance of symbols and signs as language and encouraging a reading of the subject that is more open to experience, performance and ontological pluralism. Also Freud’s development of clinical depth-psychology has brought about a new respect for the imaginative and emotional nature of man. Understanding religious beliefs and ritual expressions are seen as important ways to understand how people and societies think and feel about relationships with one another, with a divine being, and the natural and social environments in which they function.

These ideas are feeding into my practical work; Turner suggests that ritual brings forth the unconscious into the conscious world of material thought, enabling the unknown to be understood. This is an exciting way to view the artistic act, as making visible the invisible thought.

I am beginning to ask a number of questions that will affect the outcome of my practice in relation to ritual, materiality and the sacred. For example: Do material objects hold memories or become signifiers or carriers of spiritual presence? Why are religious objects so venerated within the Catholic Church whilst denounced within Protestantism? Should we be creating new signifiers and carriers of spiritual truths or should we just replicate the old? Can video and new media replace some of these material objects? (I.e. Bill Viola, Anish Kapoor) How do we allow new media to become something special or significant within the world of material religion?
How does the material object become a signifier of the unseen world of spirit and faith ie the relic, the holy sacraments etc?

Having moved away from the Somali embroideries I want my work to be more about the ritual, the rhythm, the repetition and the belonging, I need to own up to the viewers reading of my work and readdress my subject.

I have decided to concentrate on the themes of piercing, shedding of blood, sacrifice, repetition, and the use of the red thread in ritual and rites of passage. I want to try working in video – referencing textiles in ritual practices (see work of Ann Wilson, Clio Padovani) and to think of ways of guiding the viewer to experience a sense of contemplation.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

After hearing the artist Paddy Hartley speak about Project Fa├žade using personal stories as the basis of his textile works, I decided to utilize some of the stories I had researched in the Stories of Cloth project, particularly that of some Somali women who taught me how to embroider wedding hats for their men folk using white cloth, thread and acacia thorns as needles. Whilst sewing they shared of their experiences of Female Genital Mutilation, and how the same acacia thorns had been used to pierce and stitch flesh in this painful ritual.
I have begun to explore ways of visually sharing this story, by contrasting the beauty of the hand embroidered wedding hats and the pain and blood loss of the female circumcision; both acts a preparation for the ritual of marriage within the Somali culture. I have been looking at the work of Judy Chicago who combines the notion of sacramental tradition and the intimacy of the feminine in her work the Dinner Party, a ceremonial banqueting table laid out for 39 female guests, each place setting comprising of an embroidered runner and a porcelain plate depicting a butterfly like image symbolic of a vaginal central core. I have borrowed this symbolism and embroidered in various different styles and formats images taken from Chicago’s work and then embedded them into the Somali prayer hats using off whites and reds as my statement colours representing purity and blood. I have struggled to create works that combine a sense of violence and beauty within one work, something that the artist Cathy de Moncheaux achieves; her sculptural textiles juxtapose the soft warmth of textiles, silks and velvets with strongly sexual overtones against the harsher materials of metal, lead and spiky objects creating work that is both threatening and sensual.
I have created a series of four embroidered panels using soft, off white silks and linens, splitting the fabric to reveal a wound of pleated red silk accompanied by fish hooks and nails; these are abstract stitched drawings of the wounds inflicted on these young girls as part of their cultural ritual of cleansing. Although aesthetically pleasing these sketches do not adequately portray the violence experienced in these ritual acts and so my quest continues.

I have become deeply interested in material culture, religious ritual and rites of passage; I am constantly challenged by the role that art, imagination and materiality plays in helping us to develop our understanding of the nature of God. I am a great believer in kinesthetic learning and feel that both individual and collective memory is induced through the senses, particularly touch and sight. This was the experience of many through the cloth project, as the women held their various pieces of 'special' cloth a connection was made to past memory, to a deeper understanding of the unseen world and a strong connection and sense of belonging to tribe, family, culture or religion.

A visit to York

To end our summer holiday last year I went to York to see the deconsecrated church of St Marys that is now used as an art installation space and has had both Caroline Broadhead and Susie MacMurray exhibit there before. I was not disappointed; the space was beautiful, a very old chapel full of the atmosphere of the prayers of previous generations. It felt to me like walking into sacred space, even though it had been deconsecrated. I spent about half an hour in the church and I spoke to the invigilators who told me that they had catalogues for all the previous installations so I bought them all and have been reading them eagerly. I felt so excited at the way this sacred space had been used. I have for so long been trying to encourage the use of contemporary art within churches and within our free church tradition it is either frowned upon or done in such a way as to be naff and unprofessional. Here was something different and for me it ticked all the boxes. This has now become a dream and a goal of mine, to exhibit a contemporary installation within a sacred space. I suppose it links back to one of my earlier works called Confession Box (2002) that was part of the Brighton festival; the work was sited in a catholic church. But this installation filled the space, it echoed with beauty and meaning and I feel excited at the prospect of working in this way.
We also visited York Cathedral and saw how amazing the traditional art work and architecture was here. I am so disappointed that today we often just use school halls or community centres for worship and feel it is an indulgence to spend any money on creating and designing beautiful buildings for worship.