Alchemical Symbolism and the Language of Dreams

 

I’ve been reading about alchemy again and it’s started creeping into my dreams with some pretty fantastical symbolism. There have been 2 dreams in a row featuring talking animals; the first a conversational peahen and the second a white fox who said “Goodbye”. Nice dreams when you can get them eh?

The alchemical symbolism of animals tends to be a little different and rather more interesting than your standard dream interpretation. Ask the internet about foxes and peacocks and you’ll get the usual hodgepodge of ‘foxes are crafty’ and ‘peacocks are proud’

The peacock’s tail appears in alchemy near the completion of the ‘work’ whether by an oily residue on the surface of the final liquid (the ‘wet path’) or as a colourful oxidation on metals (the ‘dry path’). The peacock itself denotes nobility, glory and holiness – a path to attaining the Great Work.

Foxes are always closely aligned with the trickster archetype. Alchemically they are linked to the sun along with lions, although I’m not sure what white foxes would relate to? Maybe an alchemical transformation related to the moon or maybe the albedo process. They were also believed that they are the keepers of Elixir of Life and that they assume human form at night to visit the sick.

My main research lately has been around the symbolism associated with the Nigredo process, that of burning, putrefaction, death and resurrection. The symbolism of the Black Madonna is associated with nigedo, the Prima Materia, the black earth (Kemi) and also with Isis, and she is another character that has popped up briefly in my sleep. The photo above is one I took of the Virgin of Montserrat “La Moreneta”. She is housed in the Benedictine Montserrat Abbey in the hills above Barcelona. She has become a site of pilgrimage for Catholics and the pilgrim is able to obtain her blessing by touching her exposed hand which is holding a globe representing the universe. She sit’s in a pose known as the Throne of Wisdom with the baby Christ making a traditional sign of benediction.

When I had the chance to visit the Abbey the weather was bad and the whole mountain was covered in mist. There was no view either up or down the mountains which meant that the tourist numbers were very low – lucky for me! I wasn’t fussed about the views and was most interested in seeing the monastery. The mist was so dense that it was impossible to see more than 50m ahead and the grottoes filled with votive candles flickered all around. Going into the buildings meant that the mist swirled with you into the dark interiors and getting photos was very hard. La Moreneta usually has a long queue of pilgrims waiting to see her and if that had been the case I would have kept away and let them have their time with her. But there was no one else there! I was able to walk up to her and touch her hand, which was incredibly smooth and seemed to have a static charge from the thousands of hands before me.

“Rosa d’abril, Morena de la serra…” (April rose, dark-skinned lady of the mountain…)
– el Virolai, Hymn to the Virgin of Montserrat

I enjoy my research popping up in my dreams as sometimes it will make certain aspects that I can use for future work stand out more clearly. I hadn’t thought about La Moreneta for a while and I can’t think of the last time I even considered white foxes!

 

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Saya Woolfalk and Psychedelic Shamanism

I came across Saya Woolfalk last year when I was looking at an article on the Artsy site about shamanism and contemporary art. I’ve thought about her work quite a bit since then and how to express my reaction to it, because that reaction is also deeply connected to how I feel about my own work. As different to hers as it is visually, there is an underlying similarity in intent I think and also in medium and execution.

I was initially drawn to a video loop on the header of the article showing a triple-blue-faced creature with multiple arms and white felt feathers floating through some kind of alien dreamscape.

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It brought up a lot of feelings and sensations for me – things I associate with the early 90s and attending the Goa-trance parties that were popular at the time. The quasi-shamanic costuming and facepaint, the ‘trippy’ computer graphic landscapes, the allusions to futuristic shamanic practices and the unabashed psychedelia. These dance parties were full of people painted with fluorescent paint, in wild costumes and immersive environments often created and elaborated on by the attendees themselves.

Saya Woolfolk describes much of her work as being woman-centric – She has created a virtual world inhabited by the Empathics, a race of hybrid futuristic women who are able to fuse with their environment. This also reminds me of these dance parties where people tended to ‘get in touch with their higher selves’ and men were able to express a more feminine aspect. She works with many people to create collaborative pieces: dancers, videographers, animators, and it appears that she allows them the freedom to add their own expression to the work rather than it being solely directed by the artist. Much of her work is multimedia multidimensional in not just the sense that she is exploring other dimensions but also in the sense that she works within multiple dimensions in the ‘material world’ too, allowing viewers to experience a fully immersive environment.

 

 

Saya Woolfalk, An Empathic Preparing to Paint Images from the Book Empathetic Plant Alchemy (Jillian), 2011. Copyright Saya Woolfalk, courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York.

Installation view of Saya Woolfalk, ChimaTEK Life Products Virtual Chimeric Space (Detail View), 2015, in Seattle Art Museum: “Disguise: Masks and Global African Art.” Photo by Nathaniel Wilson. Copyright Saya Woolfalk, courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York.

I wondered how Woolfalk examines cultural appropriation in her work in relation to the cultural shamanic cues she is using and their usage within the work of a Japanese-born New Yorker? She speaks of ‘cultural hybridity’ which I think is an interesting flip side to cultural appropriation; the coming together of cultures and creation of new culture rather than one taking from another. I know I personally get paralysed sometimes in my own work with worrying about the privilege of being a middle-class European in a developed country and whether I am appropriating culture that is not mine. Sometimes I stop making because I start to overthink the materials I’m using and the form it is taking. It’s probably more useful for me to just make the things THEN analyse how they fit within the cultural landscape rather than not making them at all!

In relation to my own work I’m also fascinated with what Woolfalk can ‘get away with’ when it comes to the otherworldly – probably not the best phrasing, but this is in relation to me and my practice rather than a critique of her work, as I’m really impressed with the passion and the gusto with which she executes her practice. Another learning from Woolfalk’s practice for me; it’s much more constructive to unapologetically embrace the work you want to make and look for it’s place within the current contemporary art landscape than to quash is out of nervousness of negative critique.

As ever when dealing with subject matter that is emotional, spiritual, non-ironic there is a line to be walked – fall too far in one direction and the work can become mawkish and kitsch. But if you don’t step over the line, then you don’t know where it is, so I think it’s perfectly ok to go there and then draw yourself back – as I have done on a number of occasions. There is a lot to learn from overstepping the mark and finding out where the boundaries are.

This brings me back to those Goa trance parties I used to go to. I think at their best these parties were living works of art; beautiful, full of life and raw creativity. At their most banal, they were the desperate posturing of modern kids wanting to take drugs and have some sort of empty spiritual epiphany. Art is at risk of being like that too.

(Top image: ChimaTEK Virtual Chimeric Space Seattle Art Museum)