Containing the Water of Life
"Perhaps what I wanted most to do is not to do what I most wanted to do"
Container n 1
one who or that which contains 2 a receptacle or flexible covering for the packing or shipment of goods
Contain vt 1
to keep within limits; hold back or down 2 to have within; hold 3 to be divisible by, usu without a remainder
This blog began with musing on the word "container" which has been lapping in my mind and seemed to want attention. But it has developed (via some spontaneous art making) into thinking about the necessity and problem of keeping a creative tap root to the unconscious. Necessity - because spontaneous imagery surprises and invigorates, it is somehow both deeply connected to me whilst opening onto a mythic plane of non me: like tapping into some vital water of life. Problem - because I can't often get into the state of mind to make images in this way and when I do they sometimes take a form that embarrasses or disappoints me. How do I find the route down? When it feels so precious why don't I try harder to find or make the necessary portal. How do I square crude or garish private makings with my professional artist self? And how do I reconcile my different selves all of whom seem to need expression? My thoughts are seasoned with the writings of Clarissa Pinkola Estes, and two Marions: Milner and Woodman.
Most of my art objects have a quality of container, they take the form of vessels or skins, made from patterns carefully drawn and tweaked to fit exactly. I hand sew to make seams strong and defined. Shapes tend to be feminine: accentuated waists and swell at hip or belly... The Goddess is an empty vessel, pierced, hollow. The sand filled dolls are full skins, straining. They are literally containers as well metaphorical ones.
The word container suggests solidity, rigidity and implies its opposite, some internal substance that is fluid or in bits. Solid vs liquid, form vs matter; something finished and finite vs something inchoate and potential. I have an old sketchbook in which I wrote “hyle and eidos” (matter and form in Greek), and have kept as if really important but without knowing why. Matter – mater – mother. The earth inside the elemental dolls. The shifting sand in other dolls. This all seems to connect with a third binary pair: conscious vs unconscious.
Does the labour of execution involved in making making my sculptures prevent a more spontaneous way of creating that I also want? Not instead, but also, that is important. It is something related to gesture, risk, vulnerability; something about being in the moment. If I endlessly make containers to contain myself, am I deferring or denying an aspect that could be described as “the contained”. Do I spend so long building the stage I forget what I want to perform on it?
Containers can fall apart: smash, collapse. Liquids can flood, seep; they can change state too – freeze evaporate, condense (become solid).
Primary human containers are body, home, clothing, skin.
Containing is a big deal in therapy - the room, the 50 minutes, the fixed time slot. In art therapy there are also materials – offerings of raw matter from which images can be made. Images or objects that contain aspects of oneself and are kept safe by the therapist; that may be talked about, talked to, interpreted, or not. Images or objects whose genesis is witnessed and remembered: the processes and energies of creation.
Psychoanalytically the language and concept “container/contained” comes from Wilfred Bion. Bion's container is a process: the analyst contains the painful thoughts of the analysand and helps process them. It takes two to think. Mother and child/Therapist and client. The contained are those bits of memory, feeling, dream that cannot be made coherent without help. For Bion there is a reciprocity between container/contained: as the capacity of the former increases and becomes refined, so does the content (the contained). More dreams and reveries are remembered and available for processing. As the container evolves (stretching, complexifying) one is able consider life experiences from different viewpoints, to play with possibilities, to connect and re-connect. When the container fails the raw material is returned unmodified and is experienced as "nameless dread" - terrifying and terminally fragmented. But stimulating and powerful as this is, it isn’t quite what I mean.
My writing is a container, this was an empty Word document into which I threw ingredients (phrases, quotes, experiences, half ideas) and as I connected them found ideas emerging. Some ingredients have evaporated or are discarded but their flavour remains. The whole thing is simmered and seasoned, until something resonant remains: firm nuggets, soupy surrounds, aftertastes, signposts... there is something alchemical in the process. As ideas connect they become identity. The books I read contain me…. I change in relation them - my emotional vocabulary extended. And in harder academic texts emotional images/creative inspirations often emerge in response to the abstract concept that I am grappling with – some fertile slippage between right and left brain? Needing both.
Social media is a container of sorts. Presenting the image is a creative act, selecting it, positioning it with title and hash tag. It feels good to be seen, reflected in the gaze of others. But stashes of “likes” don’t really nourish. I feel like a specimen in a vitrine; gambling that a contagion of sharing will bring that one powerful gaze as well as myriad enthusiasts.
This year I have ripened to the “conscious femininity” ideas of the Jungian therapist Marion Woodman which places great attention on containment. And in November I attended a workshop that brought her "body/soul" focus on the story of La Loba (the wolf woman from the first chapter of Women Who Run with the Wolves).
La Loba collects and reassembles the bones of dead creatures; then sings the unique song that will resurrect each one. La Loba can revive what has died, but she is ruthlessness too, prepared to kill in order to make way for new life. I have read the story before but it seemed synchronistic that it reappeared in the year when I was preoccupied by Fitcher's Bird – with its theme of gathering bones and resurrection. It was this workshop that gave birth to the two spontaneous images that inspired this blog: the portal to the source.
In the session we connected with the story through cycles of individual processing (visualization/art making), dyadic work (talking or dancing) and as a whole group. The story is set in a desert but my in the trance of my visualization a subterranean water source appeared, and words from Hildegard Von Bingen – “wet and moist and green and juicy”, a quotation that has been under my skin recently.
Breaking into pairs to discuss our images I found myself associating the moist green idea with a fear of leaking – especially bloody leaks: menstruation and the shaming leak of the flush. Apparently moist is most hated word in English: deeply connected to a revulsion towards bodily functions and perhaps particularly female ones (although in relation to femininity dryness can be equally pejorative). When I told a friend about our culture's moist-phobia she countered that it is a wonderfully fertile word: neither flooded nor parched: a “good enough” word.
We were invited to take our visualization images into an artwork. I felt like a child, greedily selecting from an abundance of art materials and crafty bits. I took wool, raffia, tissue paper, card and a box of oil pastels still in cellophane (and felt defiantly guilty when I broke them with energetic crayoning). My image was crude and swiftly executed: very different from my “art” but with a quality of energy I love. The magic ingredients seemed to be the materials (chosen intuitively), the time limit, and the presence of others: feeling peripherally seen/loosely contained. Do I need a certain sort of social containment in order to get to these kind of images? 3 dimensionality is important too: I rarely get that deep dreamlike sense of finding myself when I work in two dimensions – there is a rush of surprise when contingent materials join and a burgeoning feeling of connectivity with something that is inside and outside.
My picture represents a hirsute Mary of Egypt figure (or lycanthropic woman) bounded by a shadow and a mermaid. There is an underground river, from which emerges a woman with a green heart – running off the edge of the page. Running away, running towards, and refusing to be contained by picture plane or boundary edge. In contrast, on the bottom left a small woman in warrior pose stands her ground, and in the top right, a La Loba crone; static silhouette in her cave, under a ferocious toothy constellation of rocks. All female - no males in sight. There is a burning bush in the centre, and various words: “you are not alone”, “pat pat”, and “wet and moist and green and juicy”. The factitiousness of the drawing expanded my reverie.
The next cycle of the workshop involved dance. I made a scrunched green paper heart - a talisman to be symbolically ingested before the dance. Fuelled by the energy of this heart object I danced with extravagant gestures of sluicing, sloshing, spilling; recklessly, vigorously, emptying buckets that miraculously refilled, making large movements and taking up space. This work was done in pairs, each taking it in turns to witness and mirror our partner, which gave an intense experience of being held.
After the dance we returned to journals and art making. Above is my second image. It is vulvic, frontal, symmetrical:” obvious” – I don't like it as much as the first one, in fact I am embarrassed by it. It is heraldic rather than narrative. it is kind of yin yangy. Are those the tips of mermaid's tails protruding from waves? There is a odd shape like a stain or bloody bone at the bottom. In the centre of the picture sprouts a green shoot. Years ago I went to a dance-movement workshop; where petrified by self-consciousness and furious at my own inadequacy I curled into a child’s pose “like a stone” and stayed angrily inert while others danced. The image I made subsequently was a lanky green shoot emerging from a grey stone: a supple vital fuse emerging from stony latency and sourced by rage. I discarded that image but its form reverberates in the inert sand filled bodies of the yellow flower women (and a new blue version in progress). Shoot: a word full of directional energy.
Do I need to move to get to this spontaneous gestural making that I crave? Body-Soul work includes dance – a very powerful aspect of the process in between visualizations and art making – gesture. When I sew I am very still, only the periphery of my left arm moving… Walking and sewing, dancing and sewing?
I took the pictures to a peer group thinking I wanted to share the abstract unexpectedness and my exhilaration at their difference from my professional makings, but was surprised the tremble in my voice when I presented them. Maybe the fluidity, the contained, that thing threatening to escape and tamped down (“pat, pat”), is emotion? I physically squirmed as I looked at the pictures in the presence of others. Squirming and trembling: verbs of fluidity.
Why is it so hard to do what you most want to do?
The workshop was held around Samhain – the pagan end-of-autumn festival when the veil between worlds of life and death are thin, the time of All Saints and All Souls days, and Halloween. We were invited to relate this point of the seasonal cycle to our inner world: to ask: Where am I descending? When is time for life and when is time for death? Where am I moving closer to the wellsprings at the source? And perhaps, what part of me might i need to be let go of, to die, in this cycle? The workshop leader asked: what is your way of singing over the bones, do you practice it, if not why, what stops you (introjected critic or getting sidetracked?)
I found myself thinking about the last time I had a particular consciousness of being rapturously happy: it was 18 months ago, around midsummer. I had spent the day alone, in the garden, vigorously digging, weeding, planting. I was physically spent, ingrained and encrusted with dirt (to be filthy seemed integral to the happiness!) and around me plants and shrubs were differentiated islands in the dug over flower beds instead of the blended riot of the morning.
It doesn’t seem co-incidence that I started this blog writing about visiting a garden and reading a novel about a woman’s escape to solitary self-sufficiency in the country!
Woodman says that when an artwork was brought to analysis – she would ask where is the energy in the image? Is it blocked? Where does it want to go? She urges against interpretation – letting meaning unfold itself… I don't want to delve too much here into my associations but the images are powerful therapeutic containers for me. Should I include them on my "artist" website – perhaps they erode my professionalism? Are there any other kinds of images which offset my professional identiy?
Weeding and harvesting
Coming at this from a very different angle I recently tidied up my computer files, which had become an impenetrable thicket of impetuous storage and duplication. As I sorted and systematized (weeding, discarding, preserving) I noticed recurrent themes; many relating to liquidity. I was particularly intrigued by images documenting forgotten moments of creativity; made with a throw-away attitude, a bit off the side: not thinking of them being "the thing".
This is from a sand play course i attended: a glass of water buried in a box of sand. I titled it The Water Navel of Life.
Leaks are motion. This is a film I made in the studio. A pleasurable but out of control excrescence. Better viewed full screen:
I found that the theme of hermaphrodite kept coming up, in a plastercine sketch, a fabric doll, various drawings. I thought the doll was unfinished but in one sense it is complete already in the photographs: suspended in liquid, in time. How embryonic the white one is. And the pink one semi-submerged in an amniotic bath… Their essence is liquidity and temporality – none exist now as physical objects, they have been altered or discarded.
In alchemy the hermaphrodite stage appears after the separating stages of putrefaction and purification. In the divine hermaphrodite the opposites come back together: spirit and matter are reconciled in this creature amalgamating male and female parts.
From the Rosarium Philosophorum, an 18thC Alchemical Manuscript:
Mastery of the Lunar element - the hermaphrodite upon the crescent moon.
My sorting also unearthed many holiday photos pertaining to water and greenness. I found endless details of plants, waterfalls, caves - they clearly held a greater fascination for me than the tourist landmarks I now remember the holidays by.
Mossy stone fountain - Les Jardins d’Annevoie, Belgium, 2012
When I started writing this I was re-reading Marion Milner who never fails to nourish - I feel I understand her in a deep and essential place but find her ideas difficult to reiterate and consequently my writing about her gets muddled. But I will accept the humiliation of revealing my confusion because it feels so important. P L Travers defined "understanding" as "standing under": being in a state of unknowing and letting meaning rain down upon her.
Milner's second book, An Experiment in Leisure began as an investigation of the way she spent her leisure time. It was written in the thirties, when escalated emotional responses were developing into extremist politics (not so different to now). Rather than respond to this by suggesting an increase in rational thought Milner stressed the importance of going even deeper into personal (subjective/irrational) imagery. She plumbs diaries to examine her love of nature (beautiful and savage); recalls resonant poems, myths and biblical stories - things which have for her an inexplicable obsessive fascination: what she calls a haunting quality. She writes about "the psychological necessity to find your own pantheon of vital images, a mythology of one's own, not the reach me down mass produced mythology of Hollywood, of the newspaper, or the propaganda of dictators". 233
Milner's commitment to to her vital symbols (including those which are aggressive/destrucive) supports me in accepting my own disparate and perhaps unfashionable threads.
For Milner these "key" personal symbols have a Janus quality: they look back and forward. Back - because safely contain ideas that can't be consciously comprehended or tolerated, forward - because by staying with them they can open out into new unexpected possibilities. An image making response automatically expands through contingencies of materials and sensory choices. I am thinking about my Triple Goddess sculpture who contains retrospective and current feelings of woundedness and mutedness but has also pointed me away from and into myself in the direction of the Sacred Feminine - a signpost I wouldn't have found without the great body of that art object.
Spontaneous art making - free drawing - was a key aspect of Milner's processing: "hovering, brooding, with expectant stillness – over the memory of an experience."p153 She emphasized that her whole body, not just her head must be involved: "taking notice of those feelings and images that seemed to be in my blood and bones rather than my head, i found myself able to behave, not less reasonably but more so"p227. By which she means a reduced tendency to torture herself with impossible goals or project frustration onto others. In such a way she is able to remain "alert to the changing seasons of inner need" .
I love Milner's commitment to the subjective empirical:
"there seemed to be an emptiness in all abstraction that reminded me of the masks of evil dancers"
Marion Woodman writes a lot about not becoming identified with archetypes: the surrendered container which stretches to accommodate archetypal/divine inspiration but then contracts back down to human form. There seems to be a parallel with Marion Milner who is ever alert the danger of confusing her inner world with reality, or using her images in a grandiose way. "is it possible that the difference between Blake's "imagination" and the lunatics is the difference between the person who has learnt to make the sacrifice of his desire to be enough unto himself, to be emperor, and the person who has not"p127
Milner has a practice of mental surrender - a ritual utterance:
"I am nothing, I have nothing, I want nothing"p40/228 She developed a habit of using this phrase ("a gesture of poverty") when overcome by feelings of inferiority; discovering that by embracing the shame and emptiness she was so afraid of, her anxiety and self-consciousness dissipated. In A Life of One's Own the gesture of poverty, or becoming empty, is an essential part in her achieving that rich "wider" mode of perception.
There is a visceral mysticism and religiosity here which goes beyond mere self help:
"what if this instinct for self abasement was perhaps a primitive undeveloped form of something else? What if the self inflicted inferiorities and pains and self destroyings were merely the result of failure to understand the real meaning of an impulse whose proper expression was something quite different"p44
Milner writes about the difference between animal and vegetable sacrifice – how when one surrenders it can’t be an intellectual gesture - it has to be felt in her blood. She links this to God spurning Cain’s vegetable sacrifice but accepting Abel’s slaughtered lamb. Something has to be literally killed or prepared to be killed (Isaac and Jacob).
Does this link to the elemental dolls? I feel they are participating in this blog in some way but am not sure how. Something to do with seasons, with sacrifice… They are containers and bodies.
Wet and Moist and Green and Juicy
The Hildegard von Bingen quote came from a book about pilgrimage by Jean Shinoda Bolen. Greenness is associated with innocence: the Buddhist “beginners mind” or the simple third son in a fairy tale blundering his way to the prize. Shinoda Bolen writes about the moistness in fertility, sexual arousal, the sweat of hard labour, the salivating response of an awakened appetite, the sorrow purged in tears. She contrasts this with the wasteland – arid and barren - presided over by the wounded king
Psyche finds and brings back the water from the River Styx, Gilgamesh finds the elixir of life in his underworld quest but fails to bring it back.
Creativity dries up because daily communication with the creative matrix is gone, ideas are no longer exciting . The style which was once the right container is dull. Archetypes have become stereotypes. The resulting depression, if it is not masked by pills or addictive behaviour, takes them into the death of the old to make room for the birth of the new” p153 Conscious Femininity
I don’t want to be in thrall to an unheroic story of myself where I am always on the wrong track but it is interesting to keep checking; what actually is it that I want to do? How do I recognise when it is a genuine impulse or if I am in the throes of a tedious good-girl work ethic? Although creative drudgery is part of the process; making the obvious; doggedly entering the cul de sac: the failures manure the ground from which surprising gems emerge – there is no way around it. What prevents me from making more of the spontaneous images like those above? A question to take into the next year.
I write this now having decided to move out of my studio. The landlords proposed a big rent increase and have agreed to a lesser one, but there are unexpected “service charges” and preposterously large “electricity” bills. My creative container feels unreliable; energy ebbs through holes pierced by financial anxiety. I took it on to finish the goddess and it has been wonderful to have it, but often recently I have felt I was going there to get my money’s worth, when actually I would rather be doing something else or working in a different way. Now I am obsessing about "container" very literally: trying to find affordable storage in London turns out to be as challenging as for any other habitation.
Having made the decision to "let die" this phase of studio occupation two selves seem to be walking side by side into 2019. One is depressed and anxious but the other is excited and hopeful. Different ways of working; changing seasons of inner need.
Water from the most sacred well or fast flowing stream stagnates or leaks away. Dowsing begins again. The container must endlessly be rebuilt. Joy and fear.