Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Burning Bridges and Dream States

D. Denenge Akpem
Performance and Installation Artist, Designer, Educator

The curatorial essay in the brochure for the exhibition at Columbia College Chicago's Leviton A+D Gallery, X-treme Studio considered the idea of genius and varied, changing definitions of "studio" over time.  As an undergraduate student, I took a class entitled "Portrait of the Artist" that focused primarily on musicians from the classical era to the present.  The class discussions centered around the concept of "genius" in reference to artists like Mozart who was revered as having a genius spark, an unknowable, unfathomable quality that enabled him to create glorious works that caused a passionate public response.   I do not believe that "genius" and “spiritual” should be confused as synonymous concepts within the realm of artistic works.  And certainly one can operate a studio as a spiritual arena where spirituality is the principle tool of creation, the very foundation.

At the curator’s request, I included sketches and images to reference my process in preparing my installation for X-Treme Studio.  One image depicts Tina Turner whose life and later artistic practice have been grounded in and transformed by her embrace of Buddhism.  The practice and discipline of Buddhism enabled her to rise up from one of the darkest periods of her life and to refocus to rebuild a new and improved life and career path.  The Buddhist tradition is rooted in part in the use of chant. Sun Ra delved into this concept of voice and sound vibration, and the revered jazz musician's work and philosophies have been instrumental to my own practice.

"In the Space of Art"
, the introduction to her recently published book Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, Mary Jane Jacob writes

This space of art is a mental space in which we see things as if for the first time. So the mind the artist possesses in the space of art-making is Suzuki’s “beginner’s mind,” where “there are many possibilities,” while “in the expert’s there are few.”5 In art, as in Buddhism, creative potential resides in that nothing place, that nowhere of emptiness: an open space without attachment to outcome, with an aim to guide the process but the goal (the answer) kept at bay...for as long as usefully possible.

In my piece in
X-Treme Studio, I set the stage with carefully, meditatively sculpted environments that were dictated by a dream I had specifically asked for after a series of painful and mystical events.  Through the chant, I posed the question of our ability to "alter destiny" (from Sun Ra's iconic film "Space is the Place": "I am the Alter Destiny.").  The gallery then becomes the test site.  What will the outcome be and will we know it if we see it?

And/So what is the value of art? What does art do? What happens in the experience of art?...The space of art and the space of life are different dimensions of the same space. The “imaginative vision” of artists is one of the things that allows us to see and experience reality fully. Buddhist practice is another. Sometimes, as in the work of the artists interviewed here, they are connected.*

Sun Ra was a philosopher-musician who understood and experimented in the mystic realm.  What he has given us musically touches us even today whether we know his name or not.  These are tools to effect transformation...perhaps on a cellular level?  (Then again, what transformation isn't cellular?)  This speaks to a world that is not as set as we would wish to imagine it where we are reminded of Chemistry 101 when we were first informed that the lab tables were not solid mass but rather comprised of very slow moving molecules.  We understand the fusing of metal with the tool of fire, but chemistry can also be used to explain how Jesus might have walked on water (apart from the idea that he had super powers).  Is it science or spirit or both?  How much power do we have to effect physical, environmental, global and universal transformation?  Can we induce the mystical and change fate?

At its core, Performance Art plays with these questions.  It distills them into poetic actions that are extreme, sometimes violent, taxing to the physical body, strange, simple, beautiful, elemental and sometimes a matter of life and death.

Recently, in a review of Marina Abramovic's retrospective, a critic referred to a period in the 1980s of her then-partner Ulay's work as "... suffering, growing ever more calculated and heavy with cultural-tourist baggage...Performances had started to smack of religious ritual and Orientalist theater..." My question is why the use of religious iconography and/or ritual is deemed a negative.  I would posit that this has more to do with conceptions about the parameters of art/artist and of the role of art/artist than it does with the work itself.  It is a key question that's been on my mind for some time and I'd like to consider this further.

Sun Ra believed in the power of sonic vibration ("teleport the whole planet through music"), and with a similar belief I have used the work, studio, and gallery performance-installation as a testing ground.  My life is an intentional laboratory.  It is not random or unconscious.  My artistic practice is my spiritual practice. My studio is my body and my home is any space in which I am actively creating is a spiritual arena.  They are so completely linked that I don't see where one ends and the other begins.  Even my commercial design and interior projects begin with an intention of altered destiny with the creation of spaces that are literal catalysts highlighting individual movement through color, sound and material placement for specific transformation.

Marina Abramovic conceived her "goodbye" walk of the Great Wall of China with Ulay in a dream. I asked for and received the gift of a dream as I was planning my contribution to this exhibition.  I took the premise seriously: the idea of the extreme and of the studio as a site of alchemy.  The alchemic arts are associated with the Yoruba god (orisa) Ogun, the tragic actor, the artist, the one who would traverse the chthonic realm to unite gods with humans, the fuser of metal-to-metal, agent of destruction and construction.

The collection of stories, The Big Book of Giants, tells tales of a smart, courageous boy who cured a giant's fears with a pair of extra large eyeglasses.  Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax entrusts the last truffala seed, and thus the last hope for the environment and humanity, to the hands of a small child. I see my artistic practice as a way of reframing perspectives, as a precious tool, a sacred gift.  As Fela Anikulapo Kuti once said in an interview:  “You curse God if you are given the gift of singing and you do not sing.”

The danger is that the artist becomes stuck in Ogun's chthonic realm.  The essential key of what ritual does, then, is to train the self/artist/practitioner to tap into these sources, move through the creative process, and come out the other side, leaving the final change or results or work to fate.  One must continue to be an empowered vessel--empowered vessel but vessel nonetheless. In the Performance Art tradition, I am the tool.  Stripped down even from my role as "artist", when in the installation, I as a physical entity, malleable matter, am in service of the work just as simply as any other piece of the puzzle.  I step out of the studio as alchemist and become earth/light/video/paper/pillow, sculpture come alive.  I am not performing per se nor is the focus to be on me, my personality, my self-hood.  Rather, I am a stand-in, a piece of the whole, a living object in a mystical diorama of sorts.  My installations function with and without this living object though differently in each case.  And in addition, the audience can also become this object; it is not "artist" specific.

*Excerpt from "In the Space of Art", introduction to Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, edited by Jacquelynn Baas and Mary Jane Jacob, featuring references from  Shunryu Suzuki Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind and Mark Epstein essay “Sip My Ocean: Emptiness as Inspiration."

The Narratives of Works from
X-Treme Studio

"Burning Bridges (Gift #1):  Exercise for Banishing Palpitations and Regaining Perspective" and "The Dream (Gift #2):  Meditation Metaphor, Illustrated"

These two works draw from indigenous traditions as in the preparation of the ground, the self/vessel, the environment, sacred objects. I offer my work as a vessel, a portal, to see what might emerge.  My sacred objects are my sculptures.  In the making of them as with the wood of the carver, the rubbing of my hands, the shaping of the earth, is a meditation, infusing the material with power, activating it, inserting a spirit.  The sculpture/sculptural installation used for/created for performance is "sleeping" when the performer is not present.  The sound/chant continues to activate it while I am not present (a counter to African ritual objects displayed "dormant" in white cube plexi-glassed museum spaces).

Performance ritual in sculpture or installation environments is an artistic practice to manifest or to consider the idea of transformation.  It's a test.  Can a sculpture and my performance within it actually alter destiny?  Can sound vibration effect actual change?  How would we know if we did, in fact, "alter destiny"?  Tina Turner was introduced to Buddhism and credits the chanting of the Lotus Sutra "nam myoho renge kyo" with taking her from the depths of destruction post-Ike to superstar heights.  But wasn't she a star before and didn't she have that talent before the chant?  I question even as I practice. It's the age-old question about fate.

nam: to devote oneself;

myoho: invisible mystic essence of life expressing itself in tangible form,
renge: lotus, karma;
kyo: sutra, voice/teaching of Buddha, sound, rhythm, vibration

In contrast to one characterization of a studio as spiritual arena as "laughable", my studio is an intensely spiritual place.  My work and studio investigate the nature of spirit, personally and as a coping mechanism, or tool.  In the modern dependency on virtual-ness and the absence of access to shamanistic ritual as everyday community practice, the studio becomes the site for ritual, for reenactment, for rejuvenation, for sustaining spiritual practice.  (Works such as "Virtual Exorcism" 2002, "Weight of Words" 2003, "Super Space Riff" 2006 have all responded to ritual in a virtual society, the connections between cuneiform and html code.)

At the core, I am interested in the role I believe all artists play as shamans within society, a part we have enacted throughout the history of time.  Our task is the path of the Yoruba orisa Ogun, to traverse the realm where no gods or humans can pass, to link the world of orun with our human world, aye.  Like Ogun, we are the brave alchemists, fusing metal with fire, willing to step in and say:  Take me, I'll go.  The process is demanding.  Being an artist is not an easy path to choose though some would argue that it is not a choice.  But one must choose how to handle it, whether to become lost or to learn ritualized ways of manifesting creativity, developing a practice that allows the energy to move like breath so that it sustains and flows through and out rather than become stuck in the bubbling chthonic realm.

"Burning Bridges" is an attempt to reframe, re-contextualize and establish my own perspective on a feeling (of burning bridges).  Rather than allowing that feeling to control me--doesn't it always feel so huge and overwhelming when you think you are burning bridges left and right?--I used a tip on perspective from Drawing 101 professor Miss Lantinga.  Making the bridge tiny, I took my power back and burned it myself.  That burning bridge is no longer huge and out of my control.  Now it is forever locked into a tiny repetition until it disappears like the original Terminator's last breath and glowing eye is extinguished.  And then the process starts again.

From The Book of Giant Stories wherein a witch casts a spell upon a giant:  "My spell will play tricks on his eyes/To make things look two times his size!"  After the gift of eyeglasses by a courageous little boy who spots the solution to the problem changes everything, "Birds looked no bigger than gnats/Trees looked no bigger than grass", and the boy and giant were friends forever. 

"The Dream (Gift #2)"

I asked for a message and was given the gift of a dream.  (I think of Marina Abramovic and Ulay's walk across the Great Wall of China and how this monumental "goodbye" act was conceived in her dream.)  I awoke in a room filled with soft grey light, sat up and ahead of me at the far wall was a square of earth with open spaces cut out, like puzzle pieces.  Above each floated a cloud of earth, shaped like the puzzle pieces.  I knew that I could move them back into place.  As I began with the first one, a flood of voices and negative thoughts from people and situations I was dealing with in waking life surrounded my head like a sonic wave of gnats.  My pulse raced, my heart sank and I was taken over.  The earth cloud stopped moving.  I realized that the only way to move the pieces was if I allowed absolutely no interference, no detractors, nothing but me in the calm, quiet room and the perfect meditation.  So mentally, I forced the mess away without forcing; it flowed away as soon as I focused and realized that all that mattered was being present in my bed to the scene before me.  And then I was able to start again, keeping my mind clear, and move each one back into place to complete the earthen rug.

The day before the night I had this dream, a priestess told me that I needed to make space to listen to my maternal great-grandmother.  My mother read us story after story every night before bed.  I loved witches with all of their mystical powers and their ability to do and be anything they wanted (even as I was sad for their necessary isolation and negative view of them by the public at large).  What I see now in my favorite books, The Book of Giant Stories and The Lorax, is the power given to the gentle, inquisitive and positive child in each tale. They see and manifest solutions. The children are not afraid.

(Thank you to Mom and to Great-grandmother...and to Ifa-Lola for the reminder...)

Akpem holds a BA from Smith College and MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is currently Adjunct Faculty in the Department of Humanities, History, and Social Sciences at Columbia College and with her interiors company is currently redesigning a 2500 square foot Chicago residence utilizing her "space sculpting" principles and the concept of personal space as the stage for the performance of life. Awards include 2010 and 2007 Illinois Arts Council Awards, 2010 NAP Grant, 2010 and 2007 CAAP Grant, and 2004 Anna Louise Raymond MFA Fellowship Award. Her multi-media performance/installation "Rapunzel Revisited: An Afri-sci-fi Space Sea Siren Tale" at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, was chosen as one of the top ten exhibitions for the Chicago Reader's "Best Of 2006" among other distinctions and press. Other selected venues for installations and performances have included: Hyde Park Art Center's inaugural "Takeover" exhibition, Chicago; Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago; and The Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts, Grand Rapids, MI.

Image Credits:  1) Super Space Riff: An Ode to Mae Jemison and Octavia Butler in VIII Stanzas; Still from video of lakefront performance, 2006; Photo courtesy the artist, 2)
Video by Jonathan Woods, 3) Emily Evans,

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