Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Exploring the past to know the present

horses on Chauvet Cave wall

I have been keeping myself busy in my studio making needle felted sculptures for the Madison County Historical Society Craft Days in September and for FaerieCon in November, so the blog has been quieter than I like.  However, last night, during a bought of insomnia, I used my time to consider the role myth plays in my art and decided to share some preliminary thoughts on the subject here.  I believe, as I explore this subject further, that I'll have much more to share.  Here's the start...

On my birthday I saw the film Cave of Forgotten dreams, a documentary by Werner Herzog. The director was where he was granted limited access to Chauvet Cave in France that holds in it the oldest cave art ever found, some work dating back 30,000 years! The film was absolutely amazing and really got my mind spinning and creative juices flowing.

Much of my art is inspired by ancient myth, as well as nature. The artwork in the caves were spectacular examples of nature mythified. There was great power in the representations of charging horses and cave lions circling a chamber where a bison-woman drawn on a stalactite suspended in the center of the space. Even in the medium of film, I could sense the intense sacredness and power of such a place.  The artwork was created over thousands of years, early man used the cave and it was used several thousand years later by later humans.  The span of time involved is dizzying to comprehend.  In the midst of the artwork was evidence of the cave being used by cave bear, wolves and other animals, which, to me, united the connection of the artwork to the natural world.

pride of lions on Chauvet Cave wall
When I explore myth through my art, I am always searching for where it intersects with nature. I ask, how can I explore ancient myths in a way that makes them relevant to us now? I could follow the stories as they have been told and retold over centuries, but this doesn't interest me. It has been done and I doubt we truly can know the truths that gave rise to the myths.  Most everything is speculation now, because our lives are so vastly different to those who lived with the myths. Our world has changed since then, our relationships to nature has changed. While the psychological processes may still be relevant, how we can tap into those processes may be different now.

However, after watching this documentary, I suspect the change has not been too tremendous. I can look at the cave art and feel an inner transformation struggling to take place. This art wants to take you somewhere, it wants to help the viewer transcend. The question might be to what? The early humans might have wanted one to transform to a hunter, or unite with nature in some way.  Or, maybe it is a completely different kind of transformation that we have yet to consider.  It may seem like some kind of hocus pocus, fantasy thinking, but in the film, it is clear that even the scientists who studied the cave felt this. One scientist found his whole life change as a result of this time in the cave, redirecting his life to one that incorporated more stillness and involvement with nature.  That is quite a transformation!

Joseph Campbell has said that modern living myth can only be created by the artists and writers of today. We are living in a very soulless time, for we have no living myths to build our lives around. We, as a society, have no sacred rituals that guide us through life's transitions. We are just thrust unto the world and with a pat on the back (if we're lucky), we are left to fend for ourselves. "May the best man or woman win!" seems to be the prevailing attitude.  It may seem that some fare better than others, but I think we all suffer together as a result of the lack of the sacred and of ritual.

How does one make modern myth? I am not sure, honestly.  Our world is changing so fast now that having any kind of perspective is nearly impossible. Campbell looked to outer space as our new frontier, the new dark forest that hides our fears and our potential. However, access to space seems ever more difficult to reach with the ending of the shuttle program. We are left to stare upward through lenses and computers and speculate ever more.

For me, looking back to ancient myth is a starting point. Ancient Irish myths have always fascinated me with their Neolithic structures and symbols. They too looked to space for guidance, what they gleaned from their observations is unclear, but what is clear is that they were very aware of the patterns and cycles of the heavens. So few of us even pay attention to the stars above, and those that do, must gaze through a haze of pollution that blocks out most of what the ancients saw.

Now, the paleolithic is calling to me, pulling me further back in time, where even less is known. What truths can I discover that might inform our lives today and into tomorrow? The stories are lost to us, yet somehow the energy remains. Might I find a way to channel truths this way? Or will what I "discover" just be my own stories superimposed. Can truth be channeled through energy patterns, like digital information is sent over the wireless airwaves?

This is what I am exploring through my art now.  Ancient truths, explored in a modern context.  Perhaps it is good that I cannot really know the actual stories from the ancient myths, perhaps it will allow me to be open to what the universe can teach (whether that universe is the cosmos or the inner worlds).  Will my art contribute to the future of a living mythic tradition?  I am not sure I have the hubris to allow myself to think so, but perhaps it will become part of the fabric, a thread, of a much larger and greater mythic structure that is yet to evolve.  Time will tell...

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