I’ve been working to create a durational video using small stylised bird objects that are informed by my research into Finnish bird mythologies. I have 2 benches set up in my studio; one for wax-working and the other for drawing and latex mould-making. I have a rather ad-hoc jewellers peg attached to the bench which is a bit wobbly but does the job! The below pictures show some of the process for making bird-shaped moulds for later casting.
I’ve been looking into Suomi mythology around birds – they appear very prominently and I see a direct correlation with Maori mythology in some of the stories. Being a Celtic-descended Pakeha it’s a weird place to be because I don’t have ownership of either of these mythologies; I feel a great deal of kinship with the Maori mythology because I think of Aotearoa as my home and as I’ve worked directly with birds and bird conservation to the point I can identify the calls of even rare endemic species. The Suomalainen don’t really fit in with the other Scandinavian peoples of whom I also have ancestry (although Finland has been variously invaded by Swedes and Russians over much of it’s history). I’m moving carefully around cultural appropriation issues, I try to keep my work *informed* by but not *taking* from because I want to incorporate ideas from what I am learning and experiencing here.
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.”
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).
I’ve spent a couple of hours outside today despite the -20c temperature. The sun is out low on the horizon turning the world blue and yellow. There is a phenomena called ‘diamond dust’ that is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen; ice crystals hang in the air, catching the sun and sparking like glitter. Everything comes alive in a shimmering haze.
Ellery and I walked out onto the frozen lake as it clouded over a little and started to snow. The flakes that landed on our clothes were each perfect brittle stars. Our hair became crunchy with ice around the humidity of our faces.
The frozen lake is black beneath the snow and walking on it has a different timbre to the land. There were small animal tracks crossing the pristine surface and we wondered if they could be from a wolverine.
I tried to capture the diamond dust then the snow fall on video without much success. The camera seemed to be struggling with the low temperature and its ability to focus in video mode was compromised. When we came back to Arteles I went out to the forest to collect sticks for an idea I’m mulling over.
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″>"UR Musig" documentary about Swiss Folk Music Traditions. "Wilde Chlausen" from Urnäsch in Appenzeller Land.</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/marymacgregorreid”>Mary MacGregor-Reid</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>
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.
Last Friday I popped into Hopkinson Mossman gallery to enjoy the Mikala Dwyer solo show – I’m a big fan of her work but had never seen an entire gallery install. On entering the gallery there are three of her robe costumes on the lefthand side, with one of her hanging ‘necklaces’ on the right. On entering the main gallery space you encounter three large painted banners, a hanging mobile-type structure and a number of of her fetishistic ritual objects. There was no one else in the gallery which was quite nice because I could spend time with the works and get up close for a good look at the different objects.
The large draped banners immediately reminded me of sacred geometric designs, of mandalas and of the Tree of Life. They changed an became more three dimensional or more flat depending on the angle they were viewed from. The sculptural objects that sat on them seemed like chess pieces waiting to be moved activating the composition. i felt they had a potentiality about them in the sense that they could be performed – the costumes also have this but in a more obvious way because the viewer is quite aware that they could be worn. Perhaps the positioning of the robes and headwear at the entrance to the ain space signalled that an initiate could don the robes and activate the space?
Between 2 of the banners hangs a totemic mobile. It guards the space and the viewer feels that even though they could walk through to the other side, they probably shouldn’t if they know what’s good for them. Maybe donning the mask and robe would make it a safer journey? The feeling of a gateway or passage to another space is amplified by the use of semi-translucent material, translucent gauze and reflective mirror. The mirror does the trick of reflecting back the shapes and objects as well as the viewer and bouncing you around between the structures in the space.
Dwyer uses some wonderful objects in her assemblages. The weirdness and clashing nature of them activate the ritual totemic urgency in the work, creating a dialogue between the materials. In her large necklace piece I particularly enjoyed the lumpy clay weights that hung heavily from the ends of the chain. They served to make the other elements on the ‘decorative’ part of the necklace seem all the more special, magical and precious. On both the necklace and in the main room assemblages there are some of Dwyers trademark moulded pieces; some with other objects embedded in – or more accurately consumed by – the malleable substrate. The multi-hued metallic glaze she has used is like an oil slick over their lumpy surface.
Somehow the install manages to be both noisey and quiet at the same time. You could very well sit and meditate on the geometric constructs, but you have to be prepared to deal with the cacophony of bold colour and clashing objects.
Motoi Yamamoto’s work has jumped out and caught my eye a few times over the last year so I thought I should have a look a bit deeper and record my thinking for future reference. I suspect his work is very easy for me to enjoy. Words like beauty, skill, time, duration and immersion can be applied to it, and these are words that I distrust because I’m easily seduced by them as concepts. I have to be harder on myself when it comes to analysing the conceptual and contextual ‘whys’ around the work I’m drawn to.
So, beyond the appealing aesthetic nature of pattern, geometry and form, how is the work speaking to me? Reading about Motoi’s practice I can see parallels with my practice and his interest in the ritual trance state he enters when creating his salt labyrinth works. There is a sense that he passes into something of an otherworldly state where nothing exists but the creation of the work. I imagine the experience of time and duration all but disappearing as the experience of the process takes over. It reminds me of the mandalas created by buddhist monks as a moving meditation, a ritual of creation and destruction where the intricate works are painstakingly constructed them swept away.
There is also the symbolic nature of the material; salt plays a big part in Japanese Shinto ritual with blessing, cleansing and purifying – Motoi talks about the salt creating connections to his sister who he lost to illness and how the material relates to memory for him. Salt transcends cultural symbolism by having worldwide connotations around purity, the sea, sanctity, cleansing, protection which allows non-Japanese viewers easy access to the work. I feel that his work is deeply personal and emotional, while at the same time being very relatable and accessible to viewers. To me, that is very successful.