A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #6

Curator Veronica Sekules shares three Anthropocene objects that mark the movement from a visionary symbol of eternity, to the hubris of a transitory age and on to a time which will be witnessed by what endures after us.


approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes 


The challenge: the Anthropocene — the suggested Age of Human that our species has initiated — has a complex past, present and future, and there are many versions. What three objects evoke the unfolding of human-caused environmental and climate change for you? View other contributions at A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

***

Cosmic Man — among the elements

The first of my personal Anthropocene objects is Hildegard of Bingen’s image of Cosmic Man from her Book of Divine Works (1230 CE). It is a beautiful manuscript page, painted by her in reds, blues, white and gold, depicting a symbolic vision to convey some of the mysteries of Christian belief and devotion. It is full of complexity and for me equally prescient in the age of the Anthropocene as it was in the middle ages.

Anthropocene objects: The Cosmic Man - published in 'Liber Divinorum Operum', by Hildegard of Bingen (12th century)
The Cosmic Man – published in ‘Liber Divinorum Operum’, by Hildegard of Bingen (12th century) Source: ‘Medieval Art’, by Veronica Sekules (OUP 2001)

At the centre is a naked man with arms outstretched among the elements, both demonstrating strength and vulnerability. He represents humankind equally dominating and subservient to the world. Around him, the concentric circles of the universe, moon, clouds, water, animals and creatures, are ultimately surrounded by God, who forms an extended flamelike humanoid figure encircling all, his face (and Christ’s) presiding over everything. Hildegard herself is shown seated, adoring and studious beneath this universe.

This represents a vision which is both humble and hubristic about both the power and subservience of human agency, placing man and god united in ultimate supremacy over the world and the creatures within it. For me this epitomises a major aspect of the genesis of the Anthropocene, and of its problems. Humans are both progenitors and victims, witnesses to the majesty of the world and yet main actors in its fate, good or bad. Even to a Christian believer like Hildegard, God’s flamelike presence seems to be double-edged, both guarding the universe and warning it.

Massey Ferguson TE20 — pioneering machine

The second of my Anthropocene objects is a Massey Ferguson TE20 tractor, marketed in Britain and indeed around the world in the 1950s, as part of a ‘New Elizabethan age’ of innovation in farming. It had over 60 different attachments and was a pioneering machine in the burgeoning oil-fuelled, carbon-consuming history of mechanisation, which was seen then to lead to greater wealth, power, profits and plenty for all.

Massey Ferguson TE20 tractor Photograph: BJ Tractors
Massey Ferguson TE20 tractor Photograph: BJ Tractors © 2018 http://bjtractors.co.uk/html/fergusonT20TED.html

Very rapidly, the TE20 was superseded by ever more powerful and giant machines for land management, crop spraying and harvesting, but it was one of the first signs of all the panoply of tools and chemicals which changed post-war farming and have accelerated the devastating effects of climate change and been so dangerous for nature. Farming is still seen, even increasingly, as a global agribusiness in an intensely greedy and competitive way, and machines to manage greater stretches of hedgeless land are still seen as its future. The Massey Ferguson was an icon of its time and has now been consigned to history — or indeed heritage, making appearances at vintage tractor events, but it would be good if its oil-age descendants could join it. I still hope and believe that alternative, equally innovative, but less polluting farming futures are possible.

Loch Hourn stone — witness to change

My third object is a stone. It looks like a piece of complicated layer cake. Some years ago, we were on a family holiday in Scotland, playing games in a wonderful rich geological landscape. On one loch beach, we each competed to find the ugliest stone, the silliest stone, the most deformed stone, the most regular stone, the most beautiful stone.

Loch Hourn stone
Loch Hourn stone
Photograph: Veronica Sekules © 2018

My 10 year-old son Jack’s stone won the prize as the most beautiful. It was the one we wanted to keep. So we put it in a really obvious place ready for when we returned, while we went round the bay to continue our walk. On our return, could we find it? It took two hours of painstaking, detailed, careful scrutiny. For, distinctive as it was, it blended perfectly back into its landscape.

Finally, in triumph, we found it and once again it seemed so obviously the best of stones. Subsequently, it has become a metaphor for us, both for beauty, and for ordinariness, for how something distinctive can blend into the norm.

It is now removed from its natural habitat, so it has become more of a heritage phenomenon. But equally, as a piece of metamorphic igneous rock and originally from deep inside the earth, it is witness to enormous change, to heaving movement of the planet more than 2,000 million years ago. It has endured long before human history, and the cousins of this stone remaining in the environment will continue to do so, imperceptibly changing, long after we have gone. So for me, as an object of the Anthropocene, it is all about a world which will outlive us, no matter what damage we effect.


Find out more

The life and work of Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179), Benedictine abbess, visionary, preacher, writer, composer and Saint, is explored in this Wikipedia page, and there is an interesting article by Mary Sharratt on Huffington Post, 8 reasons why Hildegard of Bingen matters now.

If you‘d like to know more about the innovation of the Massey Ferguson TE20, Farm Machinery website has a short article celebrating the 70th anniversary of the tractor that changed the world of agriculture. And taking the longer view, an episode of the BBC World Service series 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy discusses the impact of the Plough.

Among the wealth of stone-related materials you can find on the web (and the real things, outside your front door, on the beach, in the hills, fields or woods, and in town and city), BBC Radio 3’s The Essay recently broadcast Cornerstones, a series of five meditations on different stones around the UK from artists and researchers; and environmental humanist Jeffery Jerome Cohen has written Stone: an Ecology of the Inhuman (2015, Minnesota University Press). An excerpt — Geophilia, or the Love of Stone –is available at Continent.

Your personal Anthropocene? Space for creative thinking...   

"What three objects illustrate a personal timeline for the Anthropocene for you? See the original 'guidelines' at ClimateCultures' A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, and share your objects and associations in your own post." 

At its heart, the Anthropocene idea seems simple (if staggering): that as a species (but far from equally as generations, countries or communities) humankind has become such a profligate consumer, reprocessor and trasher of planetary resources that we've now left (and will continue to leave) our mark on the ecological, hydrological and geological systems that other species and generations will have to live within. In reality though, the Anthropocene is a complex and highly contested concept. ClimateCultures will explore some of the ideas, tensions and possibilities that it involves - including the ways the idea resonates with (and maybe troubles) us, personally. 

Your objects could be anything, from the mundane to the mystical, 'manmade', 'natural', 'hybrid', physical or digital, real or imaginary. What matters are the emotional significance each object has for you - whether positive, negative or a troubling mix of colours along that spectrum - and the story it suggests or hints at, again for you. Whether your three 'past', 'present' and 'future' objects are identifiably connected in some way or float in apparent isolation from each other is another open question. 

Use the Contact Form to send your ideas, or if you're a Member contribute your objects as a post. 

A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #5

Writer Nick Hunt traces the years through present, future and past on a path that will not stay forever on any one course; and returns us to a longer view, honouring the power and beauty of natural forms.


approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes  


The challenge: the Anthropocene — the suggested Age of Human that our species has initiated — has a complex past, present and future, and there are many versions. What three objects evoke the unfolding of human-caused environmental and climate change for you? View other contributions at A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

***

The years: this seventh generation

On a grubby brick wall in Hackney Wick a small brown plaque bears the words: FIRST PLASTIC IN THE WORLD. It is bolted high on the wall, and few people passing by ever raise their eyes to see it.

A hundred and fifty years ago there would have been flat-capped workers on these streets, smoke billowing from chemical factories, the solvent stink of dyeworks. Now there are flat-capped hipsters, smoke drifting from narrowboats on the canal, the solvent stink of graffiti paint. This is the seventh generation of the Plastic Age.

Years: plaque to Alexander Parkes, Hackney, London
Plaque to Alexander Parkes, Hackney, London
Photograph: Plaques of London
www.plaquesoflondon.co.uk

In 1866 the empire had a problem. The efficiency of industrial slaughter had surpassed natural capital reserves, and resources once abundant were becoming scarce. Whale oil, used for everything from lighting to industrial lubrication, was in sharp decline due to collapsing whale stocks. It was peak whale oil. But new techniques for extracting rock oil boosted the petroleum trade, and drills took the place of harpoons on industrialisation’s frontline. 

Around the same time, ivory — used to make ornaments, cutlery handles, piano keys and billiard balls — was running out as well. It was peak elephant. A substitute was invented by a man called Alexander Parkes: a hard, smooth, synthetic plastic made from nitrocellulose, better known as Parkesine, the first manmade plastic in the world.

(It is one of the stranger ironies of industrialisation: that petroleum saved the whales and plastic saved the elephants. Or at least that was how it seemed, before the icecaps started melting and plastic clogged the seas. Now it appears the world’s largest mammals merely had a stay of execution.)

Parkesine was first produced in the Parkesine Works in Hackney Wick, a zone of London dominated by dyeworks and chemical factories. It was a commercial failure, and the company folded two years later. But other plastics swiftly followed: xylonite in 1869, celluloid in 1870, and in 1907 Bakelite paved the way for mass production, disposable culture and the consumer boom. In its ever-mutating variety — polystyrene, polyethylene, polypropylene, polytetrafluoroethylene — plastic would enter every home, replacing not only ivory but metal, glass, stone and wood, never decaying, never corroding, obsoleting organic matter. It would change the composition of the oceans, working its way up the food chain from bottom feeders to apex predators, and enter the geological record to become part of the planet itself. It’s hard to conceive of a more successful example of market penetration.

That small brown plaque says nothing of this, and most people don’t notice it’s there. But a carrier bag wafts on the breeze, and discarded plastic bottles litter the road underneath, like devotional offerings at the shrine of their creator.

Sun machines: the future for now

I moved out of Hackney Wick years ago and came to live in Bristol again, but inevitably London pulls me back. It means I spend too much time in the limboland between the two cities, going up and down the M4. The view through the smeared coach window is of transport infrastructure, road-signs, scrappy woodlands, fields. But over the course of the last few years this vision has started changing. 

The green fields are gradually vanishing from the flanks of the motorway, covered by a tide of grey: row upon row of darkly reflective panels angled to the south, ranks of mathematical squares in place of pastureland. Officially they are called solar farms, evoking bucolic rural scenes, but — as people who genuinely love the land have pointed out — more truthfully they are solar factories, electricity machines to fuel mankind’s expansion.

Sometimes flocks of nonplussed sheep are nibbling between the rows, competing with the machines for the energy of sunlight. 

Sometimes the angle of the sun turns the fields into a mirror, a blinding metallic glare that hurts the eyes to look at.

Solar 'farming'
Solar ‘farming’ Photographer: unknown

Of course I know the arguments: they are infinitely less worse than climate-changing power stations, more palatable than nuclear plants, less intrusive than wind turbines. And I know that the fields they’re replacing, monocropped and glyphosated, are hardly natural anyway but products of tens of thousands of years of human meddling and control, reaching back all the way beyond the Neolithic. But the solid fact remains: a shiny plasticated skin has been clamped upon the land. What was green is turning grey. As an environmentalist I am supposed to applaud the sight, but it fills me with despair.

This will not be the future forever, but it is the future for now. The culture that makes these things will pass, but its objects will remain. 

The long past of the Long Man

When traffic is bad, or an accident has closed too many lanes, the coach occasionally detours past the white horse on Cherhill Down, created by cutting turf away to reveal the gleaming chalk below. Only a few centuries old, this monument is by no means ancient — unlike the more stylised white horse at Uffington, which dates back over three thousand years — but the mindset it represents seems to me very, very old: an honouring of the power and beauty inherent in animal forms, an act of devotion, of attention, that reaches back to the horses sketched in charcoal on Paleolithic cave walls. From the window of a Megabus such a vision is absurdly romantic, but these interventions in the landscape were surely intended to have that effect: to lift our eyes from the road, away from our self-involved routines, into other ways of seeing, into other aeons.

Last summer my mother and I walked the South Downs Way, which runs for a hundred miles along the top of the chalk down, on which human feet have beaten tracks for at least eight thousand years. The colours are very simple there — the green of grass, the yellow of wheat, the white of chalk, the blue of sky — and the walking is simple too: you keep the sea to your right and keep going east. On one of our last evenings of walking, aching after eighteen miles, we dragged ourselves on a limping extension to see the Long Man of Wilmington, a chalk outline of a figure holding a staff in each hand, cut into the sloping turf of a Sussex hill. Nobody knows how old he is — he might have been made any time from the Iron Age to the sixteenth century — and nobody knows what the staffs represent. But they look like walking poles.

Years: the Long Man of Wilmington
The Long Man of Wilmington
Photograph: Cupcakekid 2003 Creative Commons (CC)
Source: Wikipedia (‘Long Man of Wilmington’)

We stood in silence at the Long Man’s feet and eventually turned for home. Maybe it was partly exhaustion, but both of us were strangely moved. Even though we had offered him nothing, we felt as if we had left something behind.


Find out more

As well as Wikipedia, of course, you can read more about the history of plastics in this BBC News brief guide and this interesting piece from Scientific American

The Union of Concerned Scientists has this brief overview of the environmental impacts of solar power.

Among the many sites discussing ancient land art such as the Long Man of Wilmington, Britain Explorer has this quick but interesting guide to ‘The Top Ten Geoglyphs in the UK and the World’.

ClimateCultures is pleased to share Nick’s own selection of five passages from his new book, Where the Wild Winds Are.

Your personal Anthropocene? Space for creative thinking...   

"What three objects illustrate a personal timeline for the Anthropocene for you? See the original 'guidelines' at ClimateCultures' A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, and share your objects and associations in your own post." 

At its heart, the Anthropocene idea seems simple (if staggering): that as a species (but far from equally as generations, countries or communities) humankind has become such a profligate consumer, reprocessor and trasher of planetary resources that we've now left (and will continue to leave) our mark on the ecological, hydrological and geological systems that other species and generations will have to live within. In reality though, the Anthropocene is a complex and highly contested concept. ClimateCultures will explore some of the ideas, tensions and possibilities that it involves - including the ways the idea resonates with (and maybe troubles) us, personally. 

Your objects could be anything, from the mundane to the mystical, 'manmade', 'natural', 'hybrid', physical or digital, real or imaginary. What matters are the emotional significance each object has for you - whether positive, negative or a troubling mix of colours along that spectrum - and the story it suggests or hints at, again for you. Whether your three 'past', 'present' and 'future' objects are identifiably connected in some way or float in apparent isolation from each other is another open question. 

Use the Contact Form to send your ideas, or if you're a Member contribute your objects as a post. 

 

Anticipatory History: Living With the Question

Environmental artist Linda Gordon responds to Anticipatory history with reflections on personal memories, intimations of change — ‘places and objects within them become part of our personal inner world’ — and a recent example of her ephemeral art. 


approximate Reading Time: 3 minutes 


You can read my original review of Anticipatory history here. And you can download the book’s introductory essay from the publisher’s link on that page.

***

Are we, as Anticipatory history suggests, largely not culturally equipped to respond thoughtfully to environmental change, or to imagine our own futures?

The trouble is that places and the objects within them (natural or manufactured) seep into our consciousness and become part of our personal inner world, complete with its private collection of received stories.

Looking at Mark’s reference from the book, “Many of these changes… will register as subtle (or not so subtle) alterations in familiar landscapes…”, I remembered that many years ago, when I was living in East Sussex, someone living a few miles inland from the Seven Sisters cliffs demolished a World War II pillbox (a concrete machine gun emplacement) that was sited in their garden, in order to make his garden more pleasant. This was followed by a vociferous outcry from local people, and at first, I thought: “It’s his garden, and he can do what he wants!” Then I realised those people probably saw his act as part of their world being destroyed, and therefore threatening their sense of identity.

Not far from where I live now, is one of my favourite trees. Nothing particularly outstanding about it — but it is special to me because I return to it again and again in times of trouble. If it keeled over tomorrow in a gale, and died — I would feel a few moments sadness, and then accept it as a natural part of life’s processes. But if someone deliberately and illegally killed it, say, in order to cram in an extra housing unit for pure profit, I should find it extremely difficult not to react with outrage!  

History and the present moment

It is my view that people’s wellbeing and felt experience should be respected and fully taken into account during times of change, and when planning ahead. (The same goes for other lifeforms too). However, I don’t currently believe that looking to history and story-telling, in itself, will do very much to help us to cope with “changing landscapes, and to changes in the wildlife and plant populations they support”. I tend to think it is more a matter of paying close attention to the present moment.

I like how the authors are taking an exploratory approach to this whole question, rather than attempting to formulate any rigid conclusions, and definitely think it is important to keep living with the question, and allow the intelligence of life itself to inform and guide our actions.

Time to let go

History and the present: 'Time to Let Go'. Photograph by Linda Gordon
‘Time to Let Go’ Photograph: Linda Gordon © 2017 www.lindagordon.org.uk

The photo is of an ephemeral work I made in Bucks Valley Woods, North Devon, at the end of September, at the time when all the sweet chestnut fruits were falling. The title is Time to Let Go.

Creative conversations for the Anthropocene

Want to share your response to my original review or to Linda's thoughts? Send in a mini-post of your own - and why not complement it with a piece of your own work or someone else's, as Linda has done? Or use the Contact Form to suggest a topic for ClimateCultures to explore as a conversation.

Of Fire, Ice and Earth

Filmmaker James Murray-White reviews Fire & Ice, an exhibition bringing together three artists who complement each others’ practice in a way that points the audience ‘to deeper connections with the base elements that underpin planetary life and consciousness’.


approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes 


GroundWork Gallery is dedicated to artwork directly focused on the environment. Previous exhibitions have looked at birdlife, trees, forests and the art of wood, and stone; and their first exhibition featured a specially commissioned piece using River Ouse mud by Richard Long, showing alongside work from his friend Roger Ackling, themed on sunlight and gravity.

It’s an art space that inspires and draws in, and I for one have become a huge fan of GroundWork and its ethos since I encountered it during that first show. Curator Veronica Sekules has created a unique space that brings environment-focused art to us all, from the ground up.

Fire and Ice continues the elemental theme and brings together a mother and daughter with a potter, using still and moving images juxtaposed with pottery to explore how energy is embodied in ice and fire and clay: what it means to humanity, as a thing of beauty and as an object of power, sometimes destructive.

Fire & Ice - 'Melted World'. Photograph by Gina Glover
‘Melted World’
Photograph: Gina Glover © 2017
www.ginaglover.com

Gina Glover’s still images take the viewer on an arc from the landscapes of Iceland, Greenland and Spitsbergen, showing wonderful glaciers framed as aesthetic, to a series titled Poisoned Water Runs Deep looking at fracking in the United States. The glacial images are in colour, and have an ethereal beauty, as art that we would wish to hang on our walls; and the fracking images — black and white, stark, cropped closely — dominate a whole wall. The controversy over fracking is well known — and we in the UK are seeing it come upon us right now. I’m hearing shocking stories of police and private security guards attacking protestors who are trying to prevent the fracking equipment being set up on land in Lancashire. A friend of mine has been hospitalised after peacefully protesting but being violently pulled and dragged from the public roadway.

Glover’s work makes the damage to the land and atmosphere clear, but it is also the future damage that reveals itself: as one example, fracking taking place on North Dakota farmland, with cows grazing nearby — the animals, the grazed land, the water, and the soil and sky all being irreversibly polluted. This is necessarily political work, and needs to be seen. At an event on using climate change imagery recently, run by the NGO Climate Outreach at the London Reuters Office, I saw a provocative presentation by Canadian photographer; Robert van Waarden has taken this investigation one step further and photographed and interviewed those living on the fracking line as it criss-crosses the US. His images show the human face of this issue: Glover’s work emphasises the environmental issues which this chaotic rush for energy produces.

Fire & Ice: 'Poisoned Water Runs Deep'. Photograph by Gina Glover
‘Poisoned Water Runs Deep’
Photograph: Gina Glover © 2017
www.ginaglover.com

The experience of these contrasting images close by on the ground floor gallery is stark. They are interspersed with Jessica Raynor’s work: her images and footage present energy in its active form, as tantalising to humans; perhaps like ‘fool’s gold’, ever elusive and drawing us further into its secret. I loved the dynamic dissection in 365 Faces of the Sun: 365 images of the sun flickering before us and drawing us in to its magic and power.

'365 Faces of the Sun. Art by Jessica Rayner
‘365 Faces of the Sun’
Art: Jessica Rayner © 2017
www.jessicarayner.com

Raynor’s work, she says, comes out of an inquisitive response, “reacting to nature through wonder.” I was also drawn in by her video work Conversion, which shows the burning of a bale of straw, looping backwards and forwards. It represents creation, blooming and death, and her work in total is reminiscent of the best of ideas shaped within the films of Stanley Kubrick

There’s a surprise on the way up to the upstairs gallery, where another of Rayner’s images hangs. The Wood-Pile is a graphite drawing of wood chips, used in the production of biomass. I love the reference to Robert Frost’s poem:

“I thought that only
Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks
Could so forget his handiwork on which
He spent himself, the labour of his ax,
And leave it there far from a useful fireplace
To warm the frozen swamp as best it could
With the slow smokeless burning of decay”

The Wood-Pile, Robert Frost

'The Wood-Pile'. Artist: Jessica Rayner
‘The Wood-Pile’
Artist: Jessica Rayner © 2017
www.jessicarayner.com

Upstairs, Hilary Mayo’s pottery dominates the room. As the son of a potter, I’m biased towards this art form, and usually have to be restrained from my inner instinct to reach out and caress clay, as my youth was spent playing with wet and dry and fired clay, the tools and wheels and assorted craft involved in making. I love the way that slip drips down the vessels, marking a lighter territory upon the darker hues seen as landscape through Mayo’s physical vocabulary.

'MEANDER I' (hand built stoneware). Art: Hilary May
‘MEANDER I’ (hand built stoneware)
Art: Hilary Mayo © 2017
www.hilarymayoceramics.com

Mayo’s work was made after a trip to Iceland, and follows the contours and colours of that land, encrusted and dipped upon pottery forms, made as vessels. The power of energy bubbling up underneath that land, spewing out in geyser form, spills out onto Mayo’s clay, and represents force and passion, light and dark entwined. Her large-scale piece, Deliquesce sits in the window of the ground floor gallery — or more accurately, squats, like a hewn tree root, powerful and watchful.

Mayo cites an important quote by Walter Benjamin as her influence: “History lies before the eyes of the observer as a petrified, primordial landscape.” 

Also upstairs, facing Hilary Mayo’s pottery, Gina Glover shows Melt, a series of 12 circular aerial images of the Greenland ice sheet. GPS references for each image are shown on each. Glover has made an almost perfect artistic record here of the fact of glacial melt, a crucial climatological indicator. Climatologists estimate that were all of this ice to melt, the world’s oceans would rise by approximately 23 feet. Groundworks Gallery, Kings Lynn, and most of East Anglia up to where I write this in Cambridge — the flat fens — would be under water.

The three artists complement each others’ practice within their unique disciplines, and have been brought together in Fire & Ice in a way that points an audience beyond the simple constraints of human understanding to deeper connections with the base elements that underpin planetary life and consciousness. These artworks ridicule human obsessions with energy creation, and connect us to the beauty and deeper power of the raw elements of this planet. 

'Volcanic Black Container' (stacking set) Artist: Hilary Mayo
‘Volcanic Black Container’ (stacking set)
Artist: Hilary Mayo © 2017
www.hilarymayoceramics.com

***

Note: James is an Artist-Associate at GroundWork Gallery. He filmed an event there on 28th October — facilitated by environmentalist Tom Burke OBE — at which the three artists gave presentations about their work. The film will be available on the GroundWork Gallery website soon — and you can see a promotional film James made for the gallery.


Find out more

You can see more of the exhibition Fire and Ice exhibition – which runs until 16th December 2017 – and the work of GroundWork Gallery at their website. GroundWork has recently won the highly prestigious Nick Reeves Award for Art & Environment, awarded by the Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management’s Arts and Environment Network. 

You can see work by the individual artists at their sites: Gina GloverJessica Rayner and Hilary Mayo. James mentions the work of Canadian photographer Robert Van Waarden.

You can read Robert Frost’s poem The Wood-Pile on The Poetry Foundation website (and I recommend the appropriately themed Fire and Ice).

Questioning power? Space for creative thinking...  

'A thing of beauty and an object of power' is how James refers to the embodiment of energy in ice and fire and clay on show here, and our connections through art to planet, culture to nature. How might human and more-than-human powers play out for you in a creative response to our energy concerns? 

Share your thoughts - use the Contact Form, visit the ClimateCultures Facebook page or write a response on your own blog and send a link!

Meinrad Craighead and the Animal Face of God

Illustrator and writer Mat Osmond explores shifting personifications of ‘animal mysteries’ in artist Meinrad Craighead’s powerful paintings to look for an understanding of how we might approach art practice and our apprehension of landscape in terms of prayer.


approximate Reading Time: 11 minutes  


“Oh what a catastrophe, what a maiming of love when it was made a personal, merely personal feeling, taken away from the rising and setting of the sun, and cut off from the magic connection of the solstice and equinox. This is what is the matter with us. We are bleeding at the roots, because we are cut off from the earth and sun and stars, and love is a fringing mockery, because, poor blossom, we plucked it from its stem on the tree of Life, and expected it to keep on blooming in our civilised vase on the table”.

– D. H. Lawrence: Apocalypse, 1929.

Whom do you pray to?

In her 2005 book Findings, the writer Kathleen Jamie muses on the nature of prayer whilst sharing fish and chips with a friend. For Jamie, her friend’s question, ‘Whom do you pray to?’, posed in relation to her partner’s life-threatening illness, elicits an unequivocal response. Jamie prays, she replies, to ‘No-one’: to ‘Absolutely nothing’. But, in place of the appalling ‘crush of hope’, of the futility of ‘haggling with God’, Jamie offers a notion of prayer as, more simply, a ‘paying heed’: as an immediate, moment-to-moment attention to ‘the care and maintenance of the web of our noticing’.

It’s a memorable passage. But it’s Jamie’s friend — specifically, his inarticulate, off-hand retort to his own question, when she turns it back on him, ‘Dunno, Great Mother, or something’ —  that has acted as the spur for this rumination. Jamie’s pared-back notion of prayer has stayed with me, in part, because it leaves me with a certain residue. I see that I’m not quite in step with her dismissal of a Who — or perhaps, of a shifting plurality of whos — on the other side, as it were, of prayer. So, in a spirit of ‘neither of the above’ to the options Jamie’s passage seems to imply, I want to look for another understanding of how we might approach art practice, on the one hand, and our apprehension of landscape, on the other, in terms of prayer.

Something in her waters

Before I could read, when words were only sounds, not yet ciphers in a book, when words arrived as melodies to my ears before my eyes could decipher them, I heard a word which forever made of word, water and God one round whole. Lying with my dog beneath blue hydrangeas in my grandmother’s garden, shaded against a hot Arkansas afternoon, what I heard within my little girl body was the sound of rushing water. And in the roar, ebbing and flowing as I listened, a word: Come. And I knew that the watery word was God.

I’m going to talk about Meinrad Craighead, an American painter whose career has included fourteen years living as a Benedictine nun at Stanbrook Abbey, England. I’m going to talk about Craighead’s intense religiosity — her sense of sustained encounter with a feminine presence that first flooded into her child mind during the experience she recounts above.

I’m going to talk about how what happened to Craighead that summer afternoon remained foundational to her understanding of herself as an artist: as she put it, ‘It was water that first told me I was an artist, and I believed the water’. I’m going to look at how whatever it was that this experience introduced her to, has run like a central current through her work, a current that’s been closely associated, at all times, with her experiences of landscape as ‘sacred place’.

The readings from Craighead’s memoirs that punctuate this talk span her lifetime: from that abrupt childhood awakening, to a year spent alone, aged 28, at the mountain shrine of the Black Madonna of Montserrat, to her eventual return from England, recalled from monastic life by a recurrent dream to what she considers her spiritual home: the desert landscape of New Mexico, watered by the Rio Grande. There she found, in the face of Crow Mother — a Hopi kachina spirit — that feminine presence who had shadowed her since childhood. 

And I’m going to talk, in particular, about how this mingled current of sacred presence and sacred landscape has presented itself within Craighead’s work as a mutating flux of animal or half-animal figures, shifting personifications of those ‘animal mysteries’ towards which she’s understood herself to be in lifelong pilgrimage.  

O Fountain Mouth, 1989, by Meinrad Craighead
O Fountain Mouth, 1989
Artist: Meinrad Craighead © 2017
http://www.meinradcraighead.com

Angels talking back                 

If a forest is a metaphor for the unknown, a drawing is the stroke-by-stroke journey through the unknown: a laying this in, a wiping that out, all the time watching for the image to take shape and lead you into its very specific story. The image begins to give itself to you; you follow it, you serve it. Hence the kinship of making and prayer manifests, with each evoking and shaping the other, creating images which walk right out of the emptiness which has contained them. 

First, though, a word about angels and creative practice. In his 2011 essay Angels Talking Back and New Organs of Perception, the Dutch anthropologist Jan Van Boekel offers a rough — and clearly, leaky — distinction ‘between two basic orientations in the way the natural environment is approached’ by artists working within an ecological paradigm.

On the one hand, Van Boekel observes practices that involve the cultivation of new organs of perception: that approach art as a process which ‘nourishes a state of receptivity’, with artists adopting an ‘observant, minimally interfering, and attentive’ attitude to their environment.

In bringing Craighead here, it’s the other of Van Boekel’s categories that I want to consider, that frames art practice as ‘an active engagement with the circumambient universe’, one that involves a ‘dynamic, open-ended immersion in a fundamentally improvisational undertaking’.

An assumption underlying Van Boekel’s distinction is that ‘artistic experiences improve one’s ability to see’: that, in one way or another, art helps us to know the world around us more authentically, more intimately. What I want to look at here, then, is the nature of the intimacy, the kind of seeing, to which Craighead’s figurative improvisations invite us.

But to name the kind of seeing I have in mind, I need to take a step back. Van Boekel’s framing of art as an emergent encounter with images that necessarily come ‘from behind one’s back’, and his labelling of this category of practice as angels talking back, are both informed by the work of the Jungian art therapist, Shaun McNiff, renowned for his clinical innovation of the ‘image dialogue’: literally, inviting patients to talk to, rather than about their images, and inviting their images to talk directly back to them.

Likewise, McNiff’s notion of art as a daemonic, transformative force, one capable of initiating a spontaneous process of recuperation in both maker and participant, flows directly from the work of the archetypal psychologist, James Hillman. So it’s to Hillman that I’m going to turn, here, for a way to approach the kind of seeing we find in Meinrad Craighead’s work.

Wolfmilk Nursing, 1992, by Meinrad Craighead
Wolfmilk Nursing, 1992
Artist: Meinrad Craighead © 2017
http://www.meinradcraighead.com

The captive heart

It was at Montserrat that I first understood Crow Mother’s fierce presence moving within a Black Madonna. Although I had been in Italy for some years, away from the land of New Mexico, I was never not there, for the spirits of that land clung to me in dreams, in memories, and in the animals sacred to the spirituality of its native peoples.

There in the semi-darkness, I stood before La Moreneta, the Little Black Virgin of Montserrat. This daily rhythm – walking up the mountain, walking down to my bell tower – shaped the solitude of those months, as if I were inhaling the silence and exhaling the potent darkness into the charcoal drawings. The double spiral of beginning-midpoint-ending imprinted each day as the phases of the moon imprinted the nights.

So how might Hillman read Craighead’s assertion of the ‘kinship of making and prayer’, and what connectivity might he observe between her overtly figurative improvisations, and her engagement with landscape? To answer that, I’m going to consider the way that imagination and prayer are approached in his seminal essay The Thought of the Heart, in which he reflects on the classical notion of the heart: of what the heart is, and of what the heart does.

Before he can get to this, Hillman has first to set out our prevailing stories about the heart: those accreted fantasies which have, he suggests, long ‘held the heart captive’ in Western culture. The most obvious of these stories is also the most recent – what he calls The Heart of Harvey: the heart of post-enlightenment scientism: a circulatory organ, a pump, and as such, an interchangeable spare part within what is, so the story goes, a complex organic machine.

But prior to this, and suffused throughout our everyday use of the word, Hillman observes The Heart of Augustine: a deep-rooted notion of the heart as the seat of our person, and as such, an organ of sentiment, an organ of feeling. In this story, what we know of the ‘secret chamber of the heart’ is that this inner core of our person is most authentically revealed through intimate confession, which is, by definition, a confession of personal feeling.

What would it mean, then, if we were to suggest of an artist like Craighead that ‘she works from the heart’? Especially if that phrase came parceled, as it often does, with ideas like ‘following her intuition’, or ‘working from her imagination’, it might invite a certain suspicion: of suggestibility, perhaps, or of sentimentality. A lack of hard-headed conceptual rigour.

If any of that sounds familiar, then I’d suggest that what we find at work here, for all our post-religious, secular criticality, may turn out to include a specifically Augustinian brand of Christianity, alive and well with its persistent interior person — a person who we take to be somehow or other set apart from Van Boekel’s ‘circumambient world’.

And there’s more: within the ‘contemporary cult of feeling’ spawned by this story – not least, within the confessional industries that it fuels – we’re also presented with the self-deceiving, distractive, and — so the story goes — ‘unconscious’ chimera of imagination. As Hillman puts it, ‘we have so long been told that the mind thinks and the heart feels and that imagination leads us astray from both’.

Himma

In dreams we go down, as if pushed down into our depths by the hands of God. Pushed down and planted in our own inner land, the roots suck, the bulb swells. In her depths everything grows in silence, grows up, breaking the horizon into light. We rise up as flowers to float on the line between the above and the below, creatures of both places. She who gives the dream ripens the seeds which fly in the air and float in the water.

Prior, then, to scientism’s motor part, prior to Augustine’s organ of sentiment, Hillman steers us back to the classical understanding of the heart, drawing his sources from Ancient Greece, from European Alchemy, and, through the work of the theologian Henry Corbin, from Islamic tradition. The central idea within Hillman’s essay is one that he takes directly from Corbin: what Islamic culture calls himma — a word which translates, roughly, as the thought of the heart, the intelligence of the heart, the action of the heart.

Here, crucially, the heart is not understood to be an organ of feeling, but an organ of sight. A way of seeing. And the mode of seeing peculiar to this classical notion of the heart, is that which arises through images: through the spontaneous movement of images within the mind. The kind of seeing which arises, in other words, through imagination. Hillman proposes Corbin’s studies on himma as the foundation stone for a renewed culture of imagination, whose first principles declare ‘that the thought of the heart is the thought of images, that the heart is the seat of imagination, that imagination is the authentic voice of the heart, so that if we speak from the heart we must speak imaginatively.’

Woman with Ravens, by Meinrad Craighead
Woman with Ravens, 2000
Artist: Meinrad Craighead © 2017
http://www.meinradcraighead.com

An animal mode of reflection

The movement towards pilgrimage begins as a hunch, perhaps a vague curiosity. We cannot anticipate these whispers, but we do hear them, and the numen aroused has teeth in it. Thus a quest is initiated, and we are compelled or shoved into the place of possible epiphanies. 

Of the many aspects of Hillman’s reading of himma that I find illuminating in respect of Meinrad’s Craighead’s work, perhaps foremost is his take on why this heart of imagination is shown, mythogically, as animal: within European tradition, as le coeur de lion, the lion in the heart. What this image remembers, Hillman muses, is that imagination constitutes ‘an animal mode of reflection’, an instinctive faculty prior to the ‘bending back’ of deductive reasoning, which, by contrast, arises after the perceptual event, and moves away from it.

In himma, then, we meet imagination as something continuous with the ‘sheen and lustre’ of the phenomenal world — as its own efflorescence, so to speak. In the self-presenting display of imagination, we see ‘the play of its lights rather than the light of the consciousness that [we] bring to it.’ And just as we might say of the animal heart that it ‘directly intends, senses, and responds as a unitary whole’, so this upwelling of imagination within the human mind presents us with a mode of ‘mental reflection foreshortened to animal reflex’.

And what of intimacy? What of the interiority of the personal, feeling heart? Hillman suggests that in returning the heart to its rightful place as the seat of imagination, we release intimacy ‘from confession into immediacy’. What the animal in the heart brings, he tells us, is ‘the courage of immediate intimacy, not merely with ourselves, but with the particular faces of the sensate world with which our heart is in rapport’. 

This is the species of imagination that I recognize in Meinread Craighead’s paintings. Not the ‘bending-back’ of ironic, critical reflection, nor any sophisticated interrogation of form and language. What I see in Craighead’s work, as she reaches out towards The Black Madonna, towards Crow Mother, forever stuck on the mutating face of her animal God, is something simpler than that. Its something more urgent – more needy, even – than the self-bracketing conceptual athletics that characterize so much of our visual arts. And to my eye, the gaze that Craighead’s work returns to us offers something altogether more interesting.

In both Craighead’s words and her images, what I read, above all, is a dogged, needful return to the slow work of recuperation — to that ‘recuperation of the lost soul’ which both Hillman and McNiff would propose as the central imperative of both depth psychology, and prayer.

We began with the notion of art as a mode of attention to the self-presenting world. Here in himma, in the heart’s ‘animal awareness to the face of things’, I find the way of seeing that Craighead’s work invites me to. And if her lifelong imaginal recuperation can be seen as a form of prayer, then I think that such prayer is also, like Jamie’s, an attentiveness — a paying heed. As Hillman says of the instinctive ‘decorum’ which himma restores to our wayward human behaviours: ‘in the blood of the animal is an archetypal mind, a mindfulness, a carefulness in regard to each particular thing.’


Find out more

You can explore Mat Osmond’s words and images at Strandline Books

You can see more of Meinrad Craighead’s art at meinradcraighead.com. The site also lists her out-of-print books – The Litany of the Great River (1991), The Mother’s Songs (1986), The Sign of the Tree (1979) and The Mother’s Birds (1976), but also a current retrospective of her art and essays: Meinrad Craighead: Crow Mother and the Dog God (2003) edited by Katie Burke.

James Hillman’s The Thought of the Heart (1981) and other works are available from Spring Publications.

Kathleen Jamie’s essay, Fever, appears in her prose collection, Findings (2005), published by Sort of Books.

Shaun McNiff’s Art as Medicine: Creating a Therapy of the Imagination (1992) is published by Shambhala.

Jan van Boeckel presented his paper, Angels Talking Back and new Organs of Perception: Art Making and Intentionality in nature experience, at the Shoreline International Symposium on Creativity, Place and Wellbeing, in Ayr Scotland in 2011. It is published by Intellect.

Questioning Prayer? Space for creative thinking...   

"This post is framed, in part, as a response to Kathleen Jamie's rhetorical question 'Whom do you pray to?'. What notion of prayer, if any, bears on your own approach to the predicament of the Anthropocene, the large-scale changes that human activity has set in motion? Does prayer have a place in articulating a response to anthropogenic calamities? And what bearing, if any, does all this have on your approach to creative practice?" 

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