As winter sets in and the days grow darker I am reminded of the time in ancient Greece when caves symbolized the entrance to the classical underworld. A person entered the cave to seek wisdom in the darkness not the light. A place where the opposites meet and where there is room to confront and make meaning of our anxieties, whether fear, shame, helplessness and now for some artists to sort out a collective angst; to peel away the veils and make meaning and form.
Many artists are attracted to the subconscious realm where one travels in the shadows, where the boundaries between reality and imagination are occluded; much as they are for children who are unabashedly drawn to the dark side through fairy tales and gothic stories.
As a child I had two made-up friends who were so real to me that that even now I can picture them. The boundary between imagination and reality was merged. As adults the daytime world makes demands that can disrupt our focus and independence. Sometimes we need a guide.
Hermes was the the guide to the underworld and also the god of the unplanned journey, taking serpentine paths where discoveries happen. This would be familiar terrain to those artists whose work changes constantly with unforeseen results. This way of working is to give yourself up to that which is not readily explainable, to try out forms and inventions and to trust the process.
Baudelaire refers to the north wrapped in mists. The Northern painters, although aware of Italian artists who idealized human forms and perfected perspective in their work, chose a different path following their gothic heritage. Durer’s use of agitated line and his momenti mori prints reference the transitory nature of life on earth. The Isenheim altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald portrays the graphic pain and suffering of Christ and the torments visited on St. Anthony. Hieronymus Bosch vividly shows us fires, demons, and horrors of all kinds.
One is reminded of the lines from Paradise Lost, “One great furnace flamed but from these flames no light but rather darkness visible.” Darkness made visible can also refer to inner psyche which can be shaped in the outer world. This tradition of the grotesque is now evident in the work of the Quay brothers. They exemplify the same dark vision in their videos of detritus and puppets, based on the work of Bruno Schulz and other eastern European writers.
For a long time I have been interested in puppets and bats. Bats which weave the night sky and shape shift the spaces between them in their chaotic flight could be seen as symbols of continuing change as in Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Their flight evokes a metaphor for the process of making. In the imagination of a child, puppets can burst into life connecting reason and intuition. In my installation at UNE of hanging puppets and other sculptural elements, the puppets were mirrored in a dark pool of water below them. At first one saw figures in flight, but they were also reflected in an endless descent.
Dante’s descent to the nine circles of purgatorio, with Virgil as guide, was to seek a path (from the dark wood) and to gather wisdom. The intersection between searching and mark making can happen in the fertile terrain when we travel below the surface and come face to face with the darker sides of our nature, which is washed away in the daylight.
“Must the morning ever return?
Is the thralldom of the earth unending
Unhallowed activity swallowed up
The heavenly visitation of the night”