The Finnish Sauna

Saunatonttu – the spirit of the sauna

Last night I had my first opportunity to use the sauna at Arteles. It is a traditional  Finnish sauna with a wood-burning heater and water boiler. The sauna is a central part of Suomi life:

“After centuries of temporal use, the sauna acquired spiritual significance. The sanctity of the sauna was supported by ritual and strict propriety. “These stubborn people,” wrote an astonished Swedish economist in 1776, “even connect the sauna with their theology and think the sauna building is some kind of shrine.” An old saying, still heard in Finland today, says, Jokaisen on kayttaydyttava saunaaa samalla tavalla kuin kirkossa.” (“In the sauna one must conduct himself as one would in church.”) This strict reverence protected the Finnish sauna from the corruption that befell most other bathing institutions in Europe.”
(http://www.cyberbohemia.com/Pages/historyofnordic.htm)

The sauna provides an egalitarian venue for unencumbered discussion. It is a place to be yourself amongst others and to discuss deeper matters that might not be broached on a day to day basis.

The traditional wood-burning sauna at Arteles is a small wooden building off to one side at the edge of the forest. It is comprised of three rooms: the first is not heated and so is freezing in winter! This is where you undress and leave your clothes. The second room is the washing room which has a wood-burning boiler and basins to mix the hot and cold water to your tastes for bathing. You can use ladles to pour the water over your head and body before entering the sauna. You can also come out of the sauna into this room to cool off and re-wash, which is very refreshing.

The third room is the sauna itself and consists of several benches at various heights seating 4-5 people dependent on the heat that you can handle. The sauna is generally heated to 90-100c but can be intensified by ladles of water being poured over the rocks on the top of the stove to increase the heat and humidity, this steam is known as löyly.

Last night we spent around an hour in the sauna and in coming out to re-wash or stand in the snow. On our final round we came out into the snow and rolled around! It was amazing to me to see what the body can withstand when it is warmed up enough – last night was -22˚C and I was having trouble dealing with the cold even wrapped up in my snow clothes, but somehow the sauna allowed me to come out into the cold winter night completely naked and lie in the snow. The body has such a capacity for dealing with situations and adjusting it’s functions to cope. The sauna makes you feel somewhat superhuman in it’s ability to allow a human to withstand such extremes without pain or physical repercussions (eg shock or frostbite).

Arteles Creative Residency, Finland

I am staying in Finland for a month at the Arteles Creative Residency near Tampere. It’s a beautiful place, quite magical in the snow. Today there is a clear sky and sun. Sometimes there is a slight breeze which causes a flurry of snow to fall from the trees in cascading waves. It hangs in the air catching the light of the sun in a shower of glitter. I think it is perhaps one of the most delicately beautiful things I have ever seen. So far my attempts to capture in on video have been unsuccessful, but I suspect it’s the kind of phenomena that is too hard to get on film.

From Cyrill Schlepper’s “UR Musig” documentary about Swiss Folk Music Traditions. “Wilde Chlausen” from Urnäsch in Appenzeller Land.

Stay tuned for a lot more images of traditional ritual costume that I have been researching over the last few weeks!


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/181855510″>&quot;UR Musig&quot; documentary about Swiss Folk Music Traditions. &quot;Wilde Chlausen&quot; from Urn&auml;sch in Appenzeller Land.</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/marymacgregorreid”>Mary MacGregor-Reid</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

 

“Why are creative women dismissed as ‘quirky’?” – Eva Wiseman

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/feb/08/killer-word-quirky-eva-wiseman

That’s a very good question. My work has been called quirky on any number of occasions and every time I hear it I cringe internally and have to hold back from rolling my eyes. There is something very lazy and dismissive about the word which Eva Wiseman manages to articulate well in her article.

“When a creative man divides the critics he is called ‘surreal’ … while a woman is denigrated with the label ‘quirky’ – and that kicks the legs out from under us.”

I would feel a lot happier if my work was described as ‘surreal’. Surreal indicates that some thought has gone into it, that the artist is aiming for something, that if you look a bit harder there is going to be something interesting to see. ‘Quirky’ relegates the work to the realm of weird tics and 17 year old girls in stripey socks, with blue hair, who play the accordion.

“…in being named, you’re being rendered safe. She’s quirky, she’s harmless. Water is poured on your potential to shock.

Never has this been better articulated than with the term Manic Pixie Dreamgirl the supporting character of so many films, used to further the storyline of the male hero. She is the flighty muse whose quirkiness renders her charming but impotent. She’s not a woman (she doesn’t want a career, family, or anything scary) – she’s a girl.”

With all this in mind I also have to examine why the work is being tarred with the epithet ‘quirky’. What am I doing that is causing this word to be used as a descriptor? Is there something I can do that would steer the work away from quirkiness? Is that what I want to do? Am I even able to affect that change or are the descriptive terms used by some viewers outside my ability to influence? I want to take this opportunity to pull the work apart and examine what parts of it lends itself to this description. In the end, does it matter?

  • Thank you to Sam Dollimore for the article link. 

Performing to camera/Performing for camera

There is a new exhibition on currently at the Tate Modern called “Performing for the Camera”. I had a look through the works on display and it got me thinking again about some of the ideas I’d grappled with last year when making my first performative videos, as well as my dabble in live performance.

In my mind, the statements ‘performing to camera’ and ‘performing for camera’ are two very different propositions. The first denotes a connection with the camera (and therefore the audience behind the camera) that is likely to be realised through direct dialogue in some form; not necessarily speech or eye contact, but an obvious angling of the performance to the viewer. All actions are performed ‘to’ the camera – the audience is the camera. The second suggests the performer has an awareness of the presence of the camera and, therefore, of a potential audience. But the performance might not include any direct dialogue with the camera in the form of gaze, gesture or speech. A performer could quite well perform in the distance with their back to the camera and still be performing ‘for’ the camera. When creating my pieces last year I made the decision that the performances would be ‘to’ the camera. In Hive Oracle (2015), Sublimation (2015) and Albedo (2016) there is direct eye contact from most of the performers. Some performers in Albedo do not make eye contact with, or address the camera, but their pose and gesture is angled to the camera’s presence.

Working with performers I found many differences in the way still photography and moving image recognises tone and gesture. An expression that might be captivating in a still image becomes overwrought and overacted as soon as the image is moving. This is equally noticeable in my barely-moving tableaus which straddle the line between image and moving image. It was imperative for the work that I did not end up with performers who looked like they were Performing (capital P). I’ve seen this happen before with performers who, no matter what role they are taking on, are always, intrinsically themselves. In certain circumstances this is a strength, but it’s not what I needed for this work. Then the other side of the coin is hoping to work with inexperienced performers to find a naturalness in the work, but they can be too anxious to relax. Luckily I was able to work with some great performers who were able to relax into the roles and give an understated, natural performance.

There is a set of new work by artist Amalia Ulman showing in this exhibition that interests me particularly. Her Excellences & Perfections series appeared on instagram as what at first glance seemed to be the heavily curated selfies of a preening millennial. It was infact a scripted and well-planned performance of three consecutive tropes of young female internet celebrity existence.

“It’s more than a satire,” she explains. “I wanted to prove that femininity is a construction, and not something biological or inherent to any woman. Women understood the performance much faster than men. They were like, ‘We get it – and it’s very funny.’ ” What was the joke? “The joke was admitting how much work goes into being a woman and how being a woman is not a natural thing. It’s something you learn.”
Ulsan, A. quoted in Sooke, A. (2016) Is this the first Instagram Masterpiece? Sourced from http://www.telegraph.co.uk

There are layers of performance going on within this work: the performance of Ulman as the women in the work, the performance of Ulman as a woman in everyday life, the performance of Ulman in the art world as a young artist, the performance of Ulman as the artist performing the art; it just goes on and on, bending back upon itself. Very interesting. I was wondering how much of Ulman herself exists as parts of the tropes she was performing? How often is she knowingly or unknowingly drawn into playing those roles?

With my next filing session I have some ideas around testing the performance of the actors to camera and around how much of themselves becomes present/not present. Hopefully there will be some curious outcomes.

Photo credit: Amalia Ulman Excellences & Perfections (Instagram Update, 8th July 2014), (#itsjustdifferent) 2015 © Courtesy Arcadia Missa and The Artist​

Aleister Crowley and 4th Dimensional Space in the novel ‘Moonchild’ (1917)

“The first impression of the savage about the universe is of a great mysterious jumble of things which come upon him without rime or reason, usually to smite him down.

Long later, man developed the idea of connecting phenomena, at least a few at a time. Centuries elapse; he begins to perceive law, at first operating only in a very few matters.

More centuries; some bold thinker invents a single cause for all these diverse effects, and calls it God. This hypothesis leads to interminable disputes about the nature of God; in fact, they have never been settled. The problem of the origin of evil, alone, has quite baffled theology.

Science advances; we now find that all things are subject to law. There is no need of any mysterious creator, in the old sense; we look for causes in the same order of nature as the effects they produce. We no lounger propitiate ghosts to keep our fires alight. Now, at last, I and a few others are asking whether the whole universe be not illusion, in exactly the same way as a true surface is an illusion.

Perhaps the universe is a four-dimensional object, or collection of objects, quite sane, and simple, and intelligible, manifesting itself in diversity, regular or irregular, just as the cone did to the water…

….It’s perfectly simple. I, the fourth-dimensional reality, am going about my business in a perfectly legitimate way. I find myself pushing through to my surface, or let us say, I become conscious of my surface, the material universe, much as the cone did as it went through the water. I make my appearance with a yell. I grow. I die. There are the same phenomena of change which we all perceive around us. My three-dimensional mind thinks all this ‘real,’ a history; where at most it is a geography, a partial set of infinite aspects…”

Crowley, A. (1917) Moonchild, York beach: USA, Samuel Weiser, Reprint 1991, P61

Earlier this year I created a diagram to examine the performative from the point of view of the artist. I had the challenge of creating a second diagram from the perspective of the viewer/participant. I might need to do a bit more work on this so any feedback is welcome! Here is where I have got to so far; the top diagram is my original, the bottom diagram is my new viewer’s perspective.

Performance Diagram

Is Not

These are the things the work is not:

everyday, ordinary, kitsch, ironic, sardonic, mocking, irreverent, quirky, cute, dry, safe, political (although everything has a politic), polemic, didactic, formalist, minimalist, comfortable, homely, nostalgic, witchy, new age, religious, technological, sensible, restrained.

Art historical context – a brief overview

I’ve been looking back at art historical references over the last few weeks. There is an obvious nod in my video work towards religious iconography, baroque painting (particularly the Italian Baroque) and to symbolist artists. In my last series viewers noted the references to classical beauty ideals; high foreheads, white faces, wrapped head coverings and the fact that the figures appear austere and devout like an ‘abbess’ or a ‘monk’ (those words were put forward as descriptions).

I have taken a look at different areas of art history that are referenced in my work and tried to pick apart a little of why this is the case and how I can work with it more fully to consciously use these references rather than them being somewhat unconscious decisions on my part. This isn’t an in-depth analysis of these works, but more of an overview of some of the stylistic influences that I have been exploring and that have been expressed in my work.

Starting off with painters from the Baroque period who use a similar tenebroso technique. This is an extreme form of chiaroscuro where there is a violent contrast between light and dark, with the darkness being a dominating feature of the image. These dark shadows and deep foreground colours have come through in my video pieces “Hive Oracle” and the “Sublimation” series. Figures emerge out of the darkness with no fixed setting. The figures often have intense or unusual expressions and the action in the paintings has a viscerality that was not present in works from the Renaissance. Women have action and agency that was previously absent from most artwork.

IMG_7460 large retouch small An outtake from my Hive Oracle (2015) series where the figure emerges out of a formless, dominating blackness.

103 Caravaggio, Saint John the Baptist in the WildernessMichelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1604) St John the Baptist
St John emerges out of a black background into stark contrast where his skin takes on an almost deathly pallor.

judith-beheading-holofernes-1598Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1598 – 1599) Judith Beheading Holofernes

Looking at Caravaggio’s “Judith” the pose and gesture are quite awkward, the image focusses more on getting everyone in shot and making sure the composition is pleasing than of the realities of actually cutting someone’s throat in this way. Judith isn’t exerting much force, so even though the image is visceral, it misses the violence of how a scene like this would play out in reality. Skip forward a few years and we see an artist I love, Artemisia Gentileschi, taking on the story in a much more believable way. The beauty of the gesture and composition is sacrificed to realism and violence, the women are powerful, determined and dominant.

judith-beheading-holofernes-1620Artemisia Gentileschi (1614-1620) Judith Slaying Holofernes
The figures are foreshortened and stacked behind each other – very different from the ideal composition at the time. I like examining this painting in contrast to the Caravaggio so wanted to include it here.

This links to another aspect of my video work I have discussed with faculty and peers; the subject of gesture. I use a certain amount of posed and unusual gesture in my work that reflects the gestural tone of classical painting and sculpture. Often the gesture and pose in these works is expressive rather than natural, they are poses you could make but probably wouldn’t. The gestures create a theatricality in the work, an elegant exaggeration of reality.

bernini_st_teresa_avilaGian Lorenzo Bernini (1447-1652) Ecstasy of St Teresa
In this flowing marble work St Teresa swoons in ecstasy as her heart is pierced by a beatific angel.

Susanna_and_the_Elders_(1610),_Artemisia_GentileschiArtemisia Gentileschi (1610) Susanna and the Elders
A very early work by Gentileschi that has not yet adopted the intense chiaroscuro of her later paintings. The figures make exaggerated, theatrical gestures.

doublewhitePose and gesture in my own work Sublimation Fig. 3 (2015) The austere appearance of my central figures draws on ideals of the sacred, of dedication and otherworldliness.

jan_van_eyck_21_ghent_altarpieceJan van Eyck (1430-1432) Ghent Altarpiece (Interior) One of the most famous examples of the the altarpiece with christian iconography. The imagery covers both the interior and exterior of the tri-fold screen.

I spent a bit of time revising the stylistic conceits of religious icons and altarpieces. The set’s of 1 or 3 central figures and the ability for a narrative to be told across a presentation that can be viewed all at once have some parallels to what I have been working with in video. The central figures are often realistically imagined (in line with the stylisation of the era) but with ornamentation behind them in gold and this is something that I have also observed in my more modern influences.

2753371959_e3f5cd2bc8_oWilliam-Adolphe Bouguereau (1875) Virgin of Consolation
A more modern approach to the religious icon and one of a series of paintings of the Virgin Mary by Bouguereau. She displays the exaggerated gesture, the ornamentation in gold behind the central figure and the central, vertical composition seen in earlier icons.

QueenofWax TriptychMary MacGregor-Reid (2015) Hive Oracle (still shot)

maitreya_altarpiece63717dab48b2e7941b95Maitreya Altarpiece  5th year of the Zhengguang era, dated 524; Northern Wei dynasty (386–534)
Hebei Province, China. Gilt bronze; H. 30 1/4 in. (76.9 cm)

White-Tara-(fine-art-)-faceTibetan White Tara thanka (section) Date and artist unknown.
Bhuddist iconography in sculpture and painting for comparison. Elegant symbolic gesture, ornamentation and central placement of figure.

This use of ornamentation and gesture appears to have influenced some of the Symbolist artists and unsurprisingly they are a movement that I have always enjoyed. My favourite painter, right back from when I was still in school, is French Symbolist Gustave Moreau. I had the chance to see some of his work in the flesh, so-to-speak, a few years ago and was entranced by his use of colour and brushwork. Works that I thought were probably quite tight and formal in their painting style were actually wildly expressive and loose. Many of them utilise the stylistic elements I have picked up on in this post – the use of chiaroscuro, the prominent central figure, the mix of realism and stylised ornamentation, the expressive gesture. He painted Salome many times, 2 variations are below:


moreau_apparitionGustave Moreau (1875) L’apparition

800px-Gustave_Moreau_Salomé_1876Gustave Moreau (1876) Salomé
I’ve been fascinated by the use of overlaid ornamentation in this work for a long time. It’s so unusual and it creates a a film or screen over the subject that sets them apart from us – definitely ‘otherworldly’. Moreau’s women tend to be voluptuous and bejewelled rather than austere.

Another artist from this era that has been useful for me to revisit is Gustav Klimt. His work has unfortunately been aped by a lot of contemporary decorative artists and so it almost looks cliched, but observing the real Klimt it becomes obvious that the imitators can’t come close.

Gustav Klimt Judith I, 1901 Öl auf Leinwand 84 x 42 cm

Gustav Klimt (1901) Judith and the Head of Holofernes
Oh look, it’s Judith and Holofernes again! The symbolist artists loved depicting the strong, passionate women with a touch of darkness about her. Here Klimt is riffing off the stylistic elements of icons with the rich, gold, flattened ornamentation setting off painterly naturalistic figures.

Gustav_Klimt_046 Gustav Klimt (1907) Adele Bloch-Bauer
The patterned ornamentation also calls to mind Japanese kimono design and woodblock images. I love the juxtaposition of flat pattern with 3 dimensional flesh.

Recently I have been considering my use of black backgrounds in video and wondering how the work might fair with other colours or tones. The use of white on white appeals to me because it retains the otherworldly strangeness but loses the usually dark connotations that go with magic and the occult. Looking back on all my work over the last 2 years there is a funny switching from dark to light to dark to light, in that my work both stylistically and literally switches black and white! I enjoyed working with the white and gold/yellow of the first honey/wax works and the live performance ritual so would like to explore that further. I’m intending on shooting the same sequences on different backgrounds to see how the change from the black tenebroso effect to the white on white effect plays out.

cess-tilda-swinton-tim-walker-las-pozas-05-lTim Walker (2011) Tilda Swinton, W Magazine