Week 51: 2nd – 8th September
After the previous week thinking about tasseography and drawing in tea leaves, I finally felt that I was on the way to developing a body of work. As I’d spent most of the first year of my PhD reading and writing, this felt like a welcome change. I decided to leave the print work to one side for a little while and focus on thinking about the tea drawings.
I’ve often been interested in these kinds of ephemeral drawings, running workshops using diverse materials such as sugar and cotton, but never really incorporated it into my practice. The message in the workshops was always related to concepts of drawing as sculpture, and later when it came to photographing the work, documentation as art.
However, the same question was always asked: ‘How do we fix the work?’ Despite explaining the nature of the work and materials to groups, it seemed clear that there was an expectation of longevity. Even if the work would then be taken away and discarded, the anxiety of ‘destroying’ the finished piece was palpable. Thankfully, the projected images from photographs of the work showed them the benefits of their labour, but conceptually I was more interested in this feeling of unease.
Running workshops, it is difficult to appreciate this emotion, so when drawing my own work using tea leaves, it was surprising to experience this same anxiety upon realising that I would have to destroy the thing that I’d spent time making. Documenting the work relieved this feeling somewhat, but I started to think about if and how I could present the ‘object’.
These ideas were of particular interest to one of my supervisors and he directed me to look more at practices of sand painting. Such practices are widespread throughout indigenous populations, including the Navajo of the South Western United States, Tibetan Buddhist Monks and the Australian Aboriginals. Whilst each culture has its own unique customs and rituals, in every case the process of creating the art is the main goal of the work, being as each is destroyed upon completion. The art is often undertaken as part of a larger ritual which may last up to 9 days. Furthermore, each ritual drawing is created for the community with a healing or spiritual purpose in mind.
For example, the Navajo ritual is based around restoring balance through prevention of disease, healing or exorcism of a particular person. One of three ceremonies is chosen by a Shaman to be performed by a Chanter. The Chanter will then select and perform the songs, dances and paintings believed to best heal the patient. When the painting is finished, the affected person stands in the middle of it and the chanter rubs their skin with the sand. Having absorbed the illness, the painting is then destroyed and the sand returned back to the earth.
Other examples of sand painting include certain Aboriginal art practices which depict and share traditional cultural knowledge from a creation myth known as ‘Dreamtime’. Dreamtime is comprised of rituals which reinvent and maintain indigenous practices, which include stories, dance, songs, and sand painting, all of which explain how and why their traditions were created. However, although these rituals are part of traditions spanning hundreds of years, they are also practiced contemporaneously, and have no doubt developed in accordance with their changing infrastructures and environments.
In ‘A Material and Symbolic Interpretation of Dreamtime Stories and Ritual Performance in Aboriginal Australia’’, Jennifer McNiven addresses the kinds of rituals that connect the Aboriginal people with their environment, and how these are changing in line with globalisation: ‘Today Aboriginal art and performances are sold to white tourists as a way of profiting and supporting themselves in the modern world; it is how they negotiate the encroachment of Europeans on their land and traditions.’
Whilst reflecting on the differing conceptions of art and its functions, these practices also suggest the possibility of introducing a more performative element to my work. Although, this still raises questions around appropriation, it does begin to contextualise these working practices within a global art context.
Contemporary live sand painting: