Thursday, 2 September 2010

The Ritual process in Art

My practice considers the relationship between theology and art. More specifically it aims to re-unite the religious and artistic languages that have become fragmented over the past century and to rebuild a conversation between these practices, thereby creating a visual and material language that explores ritual and liturgy, doctrine and spiritual experience. In other words I am trying to develop a visual theology; a sensory experience that incorporates site and touch, optic and haptic, ritual and performance.
This has led me to research the liturgical and ritual functions of art and the relationship between the material object and the spiritual realm that it symbolizes; to examine the relationship between the sacred and the profane, wounding and healing, sacrifice and restoration and the resultant establishment of community or congregation.

My research has lead me to investigate the theories around ritual and rites of passage. Victor Turners seminal text ‘The Ritual Process’ is an anthropological study of ritual and religion written in the 1960’s in which he makes observations of the function of ritual and the performance element that results in a collective understanding and identity being formed by the participants. Turner challenges the traditionally accepted rational ways of thinking about religion and ritual that often disregard 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 regards 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?

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, trying 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.
A common thread to most rituals is the role of the mimetic. The Greek word mimesis is the route of our words mimicry and to imitate. The contemporary French philosopher Rene Girard takes up this theme in his writings on mimetic desire, violence and the sacred suggesting that imitation is an aspect of behaviour that not only affects learning but also desire, and that imitated desire is often a cause of conflict. Walter Benjamin also writes on the ‘Mimetic faculty’ saying that the mimetic is our desire to become and behave like something else, this seems to form the basis of many religious rituals, for example the Eucharist; take eat, do this in remembrance of me, baptism- imitation of Christ, to be Christ like. Girard examines this theme in many literary works by Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Proust and many others. He suggests that desire is not just biological or instinctual like our need to eat or sleep or inquisitive mimicry, but that mimetic desire is fundamentally a human characteristic that leads to a violence arising from rivalry; humanity desires what the other has. Violence leads to more violence and he goes on to suggest that in order to break the cycle of violence, society finds a scapegoat to sacrifice, for the greater good of the community as a whole.

My practical art work is utilizing the notion of the red thread as signifying blood and protection or blessing used in many traditions and rituals; linked to the notion of sacrifice and the shedding of blood, the red thread acts as a signifier of the scapegoat, a metaphor observed in many myths, legends and religious narratives. I am exploring the use of performance as ritual within my work through the use of video, recording repetitive, rhythmical acts that act as a metaphor for the scapegoat, always aware of my need to refer to the everyday, beauty, violence and the sacred. I am trying to be reductive in my artistic language rather than purely narrative, offering fragments of discourse and aiming to create a phenomenological reading of my work.

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