Shiva Linga Paintingsby Craig Olson
The Healing Instruments of the Gentle Wind Project/Family Systems Research Group
Feature Inc. September 27 – October 27, 2007
An insistently repeated image, as in advertising, creates a nullifying emptiness through the manufacture of desire. This is no new rag. However, remove commodification and mechanical reproduction from the equation, and we find ourselves caught in a limbo between want and need.
The seventy-one Shiva linga paintings recently on view at Feature, Inc., were a rare example of just such a situation. Anonymously painted on pieces of found paper, these particular Shiva linga images all contain the same basic form: a rounded lozenge shape, usually monochrome, densely painted at the center of each sheet, yet with each painting also featuring its own set of distinct markings.
These paintings are culled from the collection of Franck André Jamme, who also showed a selection of Indian Tantra drawings in an exhibition at the Drawing Room in 2004-2005. A few key elements can be gleaned from reading Jamme’s accompanying text. The images are Hindu meditation aids in which each of the symbols has a fixed meaning. A spiral represents energy; blue, consciousness; an inverted black triangle, the goddess Kali, one of the avatars of Shakti, Shiva’s companion. According to Jamme, these Shiva linga are only one of many designs in the abstract tantric vocabulary of Rajasthan, the largest state in India.
The purpose of the paintings is visualization. They function on the premise that emptiness is full. When you wake up in the morning, you stand in front of the painting for several minutes, allowing it to fill your mind completely and cancel out everything else. Then you return to the world and go about your life, the difference being that at any moment you can summon the image to mind, along with its constellation of meanings and atmospheres—what it has been and what it has now become. As Jamme explains, “…in short all that it first precisely signified augmented by what it has produced, given rise to, released in us, as crystalline and operative as in the morning.”
When viewed in succession, the visual drone the images create is akin to a pool of mental reverb—a warm, enveloping silence. It’s a state in which unforeseen intangibles manifest themselves, reflecting repeatedly off our mind’s eye. Radiant blotches sprout nodules inside the inky linga. A disembodied face looms and dissipates. Darkness plays across the stained, splattered, torn and scarred surfaces—the anomalies of found material respected and utilized by anonymous artists. A tactile darkness that echoes the burning edge, the scorched splotch on a paper bag that’s been dipped in denatured alcohol and burnt, or shoe polish strained through white bread to emerge clear and liquid–a sick and fumigant state of affairs breathing an emptying-out of consciousness. It’s not a continual heaving of desire, but an indeterminate state whose characteristics evaporate in the fumes, an irrelevance.
It’s an irrelevance because the boundaries between entities that are necessary for desire have been closed, like the red corona surrounding the powder blue linga or the edge of the paper that holds them. Where neither are sovereign, but each are dependent on the contingencies of their circumstance. It is a dependency born in mental vacancy, one that is distorted by its emptiness, opening onto boundless interiority. Not an escape but an engagement with what we do not know, where control is waylaid. Engagement, however brief it may be, made possible through intense observation.
What we have is an example of an art that is lived with and engaged consciously on a daily level. Unlike the endless repetition of a mechanically reproduced image, tied as it is to the manipulation of desire, this repeated form offers a space outside the territories of established cultural categories. To be sure, the modern, post-modern, political, and personal are there, performing their morality plays like pantomimes in the brain. Their deliberately diffuse discourse, however, retreats into the mist to be replaced by an uncluttered, resonant emptiness. It’s an emptiness transformed by recall into clarity. Not clarity with claims to truth, but more like the sky after a storm—changed.
Running concurrently with the Siva linga paintings at Feature were the healing instruments of the Gentle Wind Project/Family Systems Research Group. They are an odd and interesting group of objects that look like they could be, but aren’t really, art. They are tools of medical technology, healing instruments, science. Founded in 1983 by John and Mary Miller (former clinical social workers and educators) as an international healing organization, the Gentle Wind Project, or GWP, creates objects designed to alleviate mental and emotional suffering. The founders claim that the information used to create these objects is received telepathically in the form of engineering blueprints. Although it is ultimately not possible for us to know where these blueprints come from, as Mary Miller states, it is GWP’s understanding that they derive from the “non-physical, spirit world from a place outside of this earth and its astral system.”
Whether we believe these claims or not doesn’t matter. What is interesting is that once these objects are placed in the context of art, certain questions arise. If you’re willing to move beyond the surface aesthetics of these objects, which are fascinating, you can’t help but view them as surrogates for those things we would and do call art. What, then, is art and where does the compulsion to make it come from? In other words, what is the use of art? Is the answer to these questions fixed or malleable? Are there places outside the dominant cultural and academic discourses of the political or the semiotics of simulation?
Would we call that other space religion or therapy? Is it a space where many mediums can operate effectively and simultaneously?
In a 1994 essay titled “Take as Needed: Therapeutic Art & Images in Context” David Levi-Strauss asks if it’s possible to see and experience art as a homeopathic agent of change. Not a healing that is a return to normalcy or stasis, but one that is, “transformative, recognizing the cycle of illness and healing, and living and dying as an active process…” It’s what Joseph Beuys called “healthy chaos, which makes possible future forms.” Maybe we can’t know the answers to these questions because we’re so willing to fix our positions ready-made for easy consumption. Maybe there are some things about the intersection of art and life we’ll never know, no matter how many computers we hook up to it.