Friday, April 24, 2015

The Transformative Arts - Green Egg Article from 1999

I've been going through my archives lately, finding articles and work that I quite forgot about.  Here I decided to re-publish an article I wrote for the late, great  Green Egg Journal.  Ah, those were the days.


"We are the great work of art in progress.  We, ourselves.
  Our art is the dream of the awake state,
 and our dream is the art of the sleep state." 

  Rafael Montanez Ortiz

Masks, ritual drama and dance are primal ways people have petitioned the gods, enacted rites of passage, and achieved ecstasy since time immemorial.  And humans, everywhere, make masks.  

Yaqui Mask
Art historians may view tribal masks as "art objects", but their original use was as "power objects".    They were meant to be threshold tools that literally "brought the gods to earth".  Sacred masks were never made lightly - there were important procedures to be followed, including choosing the right materials from the right place at the right time, asking ancestral spirits what kind of mask they required for specific ceremonies, and consecrating the finished work. 

A great deal of psychic preparation was necessary, and the masks were activated and de-activated with great respect.  In Bali, I saw dancers carefully anointed with holy water before, and after, each performance.

"Everything was once made for the greater meaning and use of the tribe.  A spoon was more than a spoon, and a sacred pot was also used to store grain in - because they understood there had to be a weaving between the material world and the other worlds in order to live right and well.  An artist was one of those who did the weaving.  Except they didn't think of themselves as artists in the way that we do."
Sarah Mertz

Songhai ceremonial plank mask
Petroglyphs were touchstones,  magic for the hunt, or records of places that are sacred. Tibetan sand paintings, like sand paintings by Navajo medicine people, are prayers for healing, and invocations to the Gods -  offerings finally destroyed and released to the elements to do their work.    In Bali   sacred masks are tools to renew their contact with the gods and goddesses, to tell the stories of their Hindu religion.  

"Within these participatory traditions" performance artist Rafael Ortiz wrote, "there was no passive audience.  That’s a recent idea.   Ancient art process was a transformative process.  It wasn’t a show, it wasn’t entertainment." 
An artist I know once told me of an African mask at the Museum of Art in Milwaukee that, legend had it, sweated.  She said she went to view it over a number of days, and sure enough, there it was, if carefully observed, sweating away.  How is it possible something like that can occur in a glass case before hundreds of people unnoticed?  Magic is literally on display.

Among native peoples of central Mexico, masks used for corn and rain dances were destroyed after a number of years, because they believed that they accrued too much power over time, and could become dangerous as the spirit of the deity increasingly inhabited the mask.  This same sensibility is found in Noh Theatre.  Noh masks are created according to traditions that go back many generations, and represent stories that have firmly become animated by the mask.  Actors will often sit for days with a mask, creating fusion with the character.  In Bali, they are kept in the Temple, and are purified before performances. 

Yaqui Deer Dancer

"The primary function of the mask is to unite the indwelling wearer (and the observer) with a mythic being, or as Jung would say, 'an archetypal power'.  The mask, as we have found in our own work, becomes a transformer of energy, a medium of exchange between ego and archetype.  Thus in traditional societies one finds the taboos surrounding the mask, its recognition as a power object."
          Stephen Larsen,  The Mythic Imagination

The creative process is seamless, intimately personal and equally transpersonal.  I believe when we are in "flow", we find ourselves within a network of invisible collaborators. Some people call it synchronicity, some synergy, for me, it's a grand conversation any creative person is privileged to join.

The mask I made for Kali in 1997  is such a story.  Approaching 50, and recently divorced, I knew I needed to find a new life, to release old, self-destructive ways of being, no matter how painful.  I made a mask for Kali to symbolize this desire, as a kind of personal invocation.  And I wanted to create a dance for the mask.  I visualized the mask dancing with fire at her very fingertips, but had no idea of how this could be accomplished.  So my ideas remained in my sketchbook. 

A year later, I moved to California and opened a gallery.  I hung my Kali mask in the opening show, and noticed a young woman standing rapt before it.  As we talked, I learned she was a professional dancer. Would I be interested in doing something with her, she asked?  She showed me a tattoo of Kali on her midriff, and told me specialized in fire dancing.   And so, a month later, Serene danced my mask at our next opening, flames bursting from all her fingers. 

Drissana Devananda also danced the mask of Kali in ceremonial events, celebrating the Great Mother with her dance.  She commented that,
"When we create rituals we're really praying.  It's a way to remember. She dwells within us all the time. Not just when we wear a mask, or are in a workshop. We're physical emanations of the Goddesses, extensions of them. Not bodies seeking the spirit, but spirits seeking bodily experiences. Sacred dance is about re-membering that we function from our whole bodies, the "body mind".  That is the place we find the Goddess within ourselves."                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         
Ritual dance and drama  experienced  thus is  about em-bodying what is personally sacred.  We open a temple within ourselves, and bring that temple to the floor.  And within that context, we can touch an often inexplicable timelessness.   "When I travel with a role", actress Barbara Jasperson says, "I often find that I become familiar with something I previously thought I knew nothing about.  It's as if it was always there within me, waiting to be known, waiting to introduce herself."  What happens when we invite the Goddesses and Gods, the archetypal powers, into our magic circle?  The answer is often, "If you build it, They will come." There is a magnetic field the dance engage.   "When you create within a sacred paradigm" Elizabeth Fuller continued, "you find a strange thing.  You are communicating with, and being fed by, sources you know are within you, but have a much greater reflection somewhere else.  You've touched something timeless." 


If you wish to explore mask work on your own, experiment with some simple masks.  They don't need to be perfect; your interpretation of what they are will have a lot to do with their effectiveness. You can find out what they have to say by making and embellishing them, and then moving with them.  Do some stretching.  Stand in front of a mirror.  Imagine how the rest of your costume might look, and see if you can sense the whole persona you're stepping into.  What sounds, what gestures, might it have to express?

Working with others generates intensity, so get together with some kindred souls and call it your improv theatre, your "place between the worlds".  Experiment with music, and enact some very simple scenarios.  Don't be afraid to make a fool of yourself - let yourself pass through that absurdly uncomfortable threshold to the spontaneity we once had when we were children.  After all, there's a mask on your face.  Let the music, the stories and feelings that arise, carry you into the mask. While you're there, explore polarities the mask may hold:  move between light and shadow, sad and joyful.  Is there a benign and dark side to each persona?  Then get together and talk about it.   You may find surprising things.  If you haven't done theatre, or used masks before, you may be shocked to discover that you are "possessed". You have been tapping your own interior council of masks, expressing the archetypal intelligences that inhabit you.

Some of these may be stifled and inarticulate, and hence, imploding with locked in energies.  Giving expression, within the safe arena of improvisation, to disenfranchised personae can release a great deal of emotion.  Each mask has its reserve of energy, its story, to be found not as an abstraction of the mind, but as an authentic experience to be had within our spontaneous, creative imaginations, and in the sensory, visionary immediacy of our bodies.  

"I wore the Sacred Clown mask for a ritual.  Now I have a rubber nose, and a chicken hat - I guess it took!"  participant Michael Stewart  told me.  "The Clown represents the element of chaos, bridging the mundane world and the world of the divine, the one who walks on the periphery.  Locating that is a source of continuing vitality.  It  reminded me that we are always bridging the worlds, and also, not to take myself so seriously, not to buy the idea that I'm so self-important."

I believe that we become more empathic beings when we free up a more integral, and mysterious, sense of "who we are".  We are all multiple personalities, and mask work can help to celebrate the  "circle of self" -  from the mundane to the divine, the angelic and the daemonic, the profound and the absurd. 

Lauren Raine
from Green Egg Magazine (2000)


Jerry E Beuterbaugh said...

Surely this is a site well worth seeing.

Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

Wow, your work is extraordinary. And I love the article!