Tag Archives: ritual

The essence of ritual

We had group tutorials with Shane yesterday, where we got to share our current progress and thoughts with others on the MADM programme. Interesting, but my overall feeling coming away is that most my group completely missed the point of what I am looking at – clearly I am not yet getting my description right yet, as well as there being too many different interpretations of the word ‘ritual’. Most people, including the tutor, immediately jumped to impressions of large formal social rituals with performance, drama, candles and flowers. Not what I had in mind at all.

I really need to work on my elevator pitch!

Afterwards, I decided it would be helpful to state here my own interpretations of ritual I am working with in my making. First the dictionary definition: “Ritual is a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects, performed in a sequestered place, and performed according to set sequence.” [MW]

I prefer this view: ritual is the transformation from one state to another by symbolic action.

There are many different forms of ritual present in society, associated with performance and symbolic action. Scholars have long debated their meaning and whether any universal characteristics are shared across the many types of ritual. Opinions differ widely; some think ritual is primarily all about the performance and public symbols displayed, whereas others focus on changes in behaviour and inner emotional states. It is this latter worldview which I am working to. The rituals I am thinking of are private activities seeking personal transformation, a change of emotional state.

Catherine Bell, a leading ritual theory scholar, extended the discussion to talk of the process of ritualisation itself [CB]. This is:
“a way of acting that is designed and orchestrated to distinguish and privilege what is being done in comparison to other, usually more quotidian, activities.”

My work is to design images and structures (and sounds??) to capture ordinary moments of extraordinary personal experience. I want to explore how using ritualisation as a way of design / making can add such expression to my work.

So, where to start? Well, I have some ideas on different ritualised making processes, starting with automatic writing. Automatic writing or drawing is a purposed to be a way to express your subconscious by moving your hand across the paper without consciously thinking. It was reportedly used by psychics and spirit mediums to channel ghosts or spirits. The surrealists took this on in Automatism (although without the otherworldly influences). I’ve been working with an idea based on this process, of writing and drawing swiftly with as little rational thought as I can manage – to try and express my feelings of “listening to the rain”.

I am working with ink and paper – my most natural medium where I can perhaps express myself the best.

Initial ‘doodle’

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Drawing #25

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Drawing #50

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And one using words

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My plan now is to look at what captures my feeling well in these images (and what not) and what materials can help further express these charaticstics.

MW – Merriam Webster dictionary
CB – Catherine Bell, Ritual Pratice, ritual theory, OUP 1997

The festival of winter’s end

One of my proposal strands is looking at the Ritual Year and the traditional crafts associated with marking it. Currently we sit in a bit of a calender void – far too long since Christmas but not yet in sight of Easter. In this void however, sits an old celebration of winter’s end and the traditional start of Spring on the 1 Feburary. This festival is known as Imbolc, and today its remnants are seen in part as the feast of St Brighid on 1 Feb (in Ireland and the UK’s Celtic fringes), and in the rest of the UK elements of the festival are also seen in the Christian Candlemas on 2 Feb.

Imbolc marks the end of winter and the opening of spring – which on the 1st Feb we still note ourselves as the start of spring. The tradition which UK weather forecasters have taken on in recent times to commence spring at the vernal equinox is actually an American import – and a bit out of step with our actual weather. For me in the south of England, the start of Feb is the time we do start noticing the days getting longer at last; snowdrops are out and although there may possibly be more snow ahead, you can see the green shoots of spring rising. Photo 24-01-2015 13 07 57

The start of spring is part of the journey of the Great Goddess venerated in many worldwide traditions. Imbolc is the Maiden’s return, when the dormancy of winter is overcome – echoing the rebirth seen across nature at this time, not just the ascending sun but plants flowering and new born animals returning to the land. The word Imbolc itself is thought to come from the Irish imbolg “in the belly”, referring to the pregnancy of ewes. It is the first of the spring fertility festivals, leading up to the pinnacle on May Day to mark the start of summer. “When the plough opens the earth, it makes a womb of the tomb”.**

Imbolc is otherwise known as the feast of Saint Brighid (or Brigit or Bride), an Irish Saint’s Day named after Saint Brighid – a curious figure with no historical evidence to support she ever existed.* There is however written evidence of a Pagan Goddess of the same name who was worshipped on the same day. Brighid was a Goddess of learning, healing and metal-working. Myths have her as the daughter of the Dagda – the legendary leader of the Tuatha de Dannan. Many of the surviving traditions associated with the Feast of St. Brighid are more pagan in style than they are Christian – perhaps because of the Goddess behind the Saint.

It is believed that the saint/Goddess will visit virtuous households on the eve of her feast and bless the inhabitants. One of the most well known Imbolc craft traditions is the weaving of a Brigit’s Cross (Criosog Bridghe) out of rushes or straw, placed above the door or a window as a sign of welcome to the Goddess. Others include making a corn dolly (biddy) which is dressed in woman’s clothes, then brought into the house by a young woman and placed into a specially made bed. RH notes that “the feast at the opening of spring has developed into a means of paying respect to womanhood”*.

So! This is the history and symbology I have been drawing upon for my current set of making experiments. For ease of categorisation I will put these in a separate post to this one. Keep your eyes peeled!

References:
*Stations of the Sun, by Ronald Hutton. Oxford University Press, 1997
** Ashleen O’Gaea

 

‘Ritual’ exhibition by World Wide Women

An exhibition on ‘Ritual’ from the creative collective of female photographers, World Wide Women, was held just before Christmas.  I was gutted to have missed it since coming back to my proposal topic on the same theme. However, as luck would have it, the exhibition is now showing at Grace, Belgravia, so I had a chance to pop in and take a look.

The exhibition theme: “Ritual: an homage to that which is lost but not forgotten, a prayer to that which is desired but not realised. Ritual promises to answer endless questions and offers escape from an unfulfilled reality. It is an act of veneration for the bird that has flown away, and for the hope of its return. The photographs, videos, and works on paper in this exhibition tell the story of a woman longing for that, which has gone, and craving that which has not yet arrived. A ritual requires physical imitation, but does not arise out of it. The infusion of pure emotion and true belief is what elevates the act to ritual. The action, in-and-of itself pure mimicry, is simply a part of the ritual as a whole. It is the combination of the conviction in the unknown and the intangible that makes it so. Ritual is arranged in a spectrum of colour and emotion, representing the different stages of a ritual: memory, sacrifice, reverence, and longing. The experience of viewing the show takes the observer through this journey, giving access to the wholly personal act of ritual as experienced by each of the artists: one in which the active body is not alone, but joined by an unnamed force.”

It was a fascinating collection of photographs looking at different aspects of ritual, and some more of the female experience. Considering I have been reading up on the rise of feminist performance art in the 1970’s, there are a lot of similarities even now. I wonder how others look at these pictures? What do different people see in them?

You are always going to like some works and not others, but I thought there were a few special ones felt very poignant and well done. If I had a few spare grand under the sofa I might have taken some home. I think it is the sense of spirit you get from them; distant, quiet, and in some cases a bit psychedelic. Others dark and intense. My favourites are below (photos taken from artists’ websites). Firstly, photographer Michaela Meadow:

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And a couple I really liked from Anouska Beckwith…
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A couple others which caught my attention: Edie Sunday, who “prefers the in-between state of dreaming and waking life”

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and Aëla Labbé, ritual dance.

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I think that it will be inescapable to look at some aspects of the female experience while looking at ritual. Even if I’m not seeking to make a feminist statement, it will be important to understand the context of where my work fits – the goddess movement, the sacred feminine – and not withstanding the fact that I am working in a craft practice very much associated with women. You never know, after all my claims to the contrary, I may even want to make a statement though my art in the end.

Fear of folk: Why folk art and ritual horrifies in Britain

Intriguing title….I came across this very interesting article in the Journal of Illustration, by Alexa Galea.

An introduction to the article in IQ magazine includes the following summary:

“It appears that for the last five hundred years or so, British folklore and folk art has been subject to rather bad press. Whether such practices are considered peculiar, entertaining or simply so far removed from today’s urbanised culture, there is a recurring theme that often associates Britain’s folk traditions with a darker side. In her article, Alexa Galea explores these traditions and attempts to uncover why such horrific connotations exist.

The popularity of British folk art hasn’t seemed to diminish in recent years. In fact, traditional art forms are flourishing in the contemporary consumer market. The British visual artist Rob Ryan’s paper-cut inspired products continue to generate great appeal whilst the original craft’s popularity seemed to have peaked back in the eighteenth century. Even the craft of corn dollies playfully popped up in Alexander McQueen’s spring/summer 2011 fashion show. However, British folk art has been forced to fight a continuous battle to retain a foothold in British culture….Despite the past popularity of such objects the undertones of these traditional crafts, and indeed many folk rituals, remain clouded. It is perhaps through the lack of understanding of the origins and meanings of these traditions that dark connotations are formed….there is an implicit assumption that the reader already thinks rural British life and folk tradition is old and weird…This is reflected in the common lack of knowledge in Britain regarding many British folk traditions…which continue to be little known and little celebrated, and are often at best greeted with bewilderment.

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The Wicker Man (1973) successfully looks through the original meanings of folk traditions by grasping hold of evident aspects of horror. As a result, by building upon existing prejudices, this major piece of popular culture has filtered its biases to influence societies perception of British folk. As Galea concludes:

My investigation into the dialogue between the conflicting images of British folk art and ritual as a picturesque and frivolous parade of craft and gesture; and one of an unpleasant, horrific and morally corrupting practice reveals a relationship of oppression and resistance; and a fundamental fear of the significance and meaning of folk artefacts and ceremonies. Folk art and ritual occupies a dual position within British culture, and although residual, is bound up with the dominant culture it permeates.”

The full article is a fascinating read. I find this a very interesting point of view, and as a Morris Dancer with a strong interest in old traditions have seen this myself first hand. Rude comments, odd looks, even the occasional profanity thrown at us while dancing in the streets. Even when Morris dancing was first seen across the country it was perceived as a subversive act, with communities in much fear of a widely misunderstood pagan past that they believed was being propagated through dancing. Not much has changed.

Our cultural anthropology has such a strong impact in how we interpret what we see. Folk art and ritual are an expression of deeply held beliefs and our connection with the world around us in its natural ever-turning cycles. This is something which is being lost as we become ever more urbanised as a society. Some argue that this is an inevitable fact of modernisation (who shows a vision of the future where we reap our own corn?). However, I among many others, don’t believe in inevitablity, and think that a future where we lose contact with our past, our environment and our balance, cannot be a good thing.

Citation: Galea, A. (2014), ‘Fear of folk: Why folk art and ritual horrifies in Britain’, Journal of Illustration 1: 1, pp. 77–100, doi: 10.1386/jill.1.1.77_1

A Wassail bowl, and an emerging idea

So here is the result of the experiment with making a wassail bowl. I wanted to see if I could create a woven object made using a mixture of basket weaving techniques and quilted materials. I really like the idea of making baskets, but finding access to natural woods and weavers in London is a challenge (without the risk of getting arrested for chopping down parts of Royal Parks!). So, is there an alternative way to make ‘wooden’ sticks? This was my first attempt as to whether the idea might have legs.

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Result: ok, better quality than my samples so far. The interfaced quilted pieces (side stems and top border) worked very well as they had enough rigidity, However, making long enough pieces of narrow strengthened fabric for the long weavers turned out to be more of a challenge, hence the use of the fabric strips. The colours were chosen to reflect the vibrancy of the apple trees and what they need to thrive: sunshine, water. Nice and cheesy, but not convinced this adds much. Also a question – this may be pretty but you can’t actually use it for drinking from; does the lack of functionality void its purpose?

Reflection: I have been unwell this week and in a lot of pain, and as you might expect not really on top form. I used making the bowl partly to get some work done, but also as a distraction from moping around the house. It is interesting therefore to notice that I think this comes across in the object. Not specifically the being in pain, but that the feeling and intent behind the object was shallow and a bit, well…, obvious.

So what to do differently?

Well a couple of things have sprung to mind. Firstly, that I think there may be something interesting in exploring the basketry using textiles thing, but making more of it materially as opposed to just substituting fabric for wood. Particularly if I can make best use of the texture of the material in the final form. Also if the material is stitchable, why not stitch something onto the weavers; build blessings into a blessing basket?

The second thing comes back to intent. Yesterday I had a nice chit-chat over a bowl of soup with my friend and co-MADM student Anita. I shared that I have been worrying about how to up the quality of my work while still exploring new things (since my last chat with Maiko in December). A couple of key things Anita said in response have resonated with what I had been thinking after my latest making experiment. This is my take-away from it:

  • Try to push the boundaries of what you do. Don’t put your skills in a box and label it “quilting”
  • Think about the materiality of things, it could be anything you look at which could be used and translated into an object
  • What do materials say to you, what do they make you think about?
  • Ignore the technique, think about what feelings you want in the object

Good learning (thanks Anita), I think this is going to be this term’s challenge, and a very important one to resolve to get real emotions into my practice. I have decided my way into doing this is going to be through ‘intent cards‘. This is a technique I’ve used in writing rituals, which now seems very applicable to translate over into my making. Each thing I make needs to have proper intent in making it. To ensure this, if I explicitly define this intent before I start making a new sample and then work to it during the making, there will be more chance of achieving it.

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Let’s see where this takes me!

Happy Friday xxx

Wassail! Wassail! All over the town!

As we welcome in the first of the January snows, this week is the time for the traditional custom of wassailing – a blessing ceremony to wake the trees (normally apple or plum trees) from their winter sleep, and encourage fertility for the upcoming spring.

The traditional date for the Wassail was twelfth night on the 5th Jan, but with the change of calendars over the centuries, this extended up into the first weeks of January. The practice is most prevalent in the cider growing counties: Devon, Somerset, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire. Since these are also our main Morris Dancing counties, this is unsurprisingly where I first encountered it directly.

Wassail comes from the Saxon greeting waes hael meaning ‘be healthy’, and this acts as the blessing for the ceremony. The word wassail is recorded as a greeting for toasting as early as the 8th century. First, the wassail begins with preparation of the wassail cup – either hot spiced ale, cider or some concoction containing one or t’other. Recipes survive for a wassail punch known as Lamb’s Wool, made of hot ale, spices, cream, eggs and pieces of roasted apple. The punch goes into a special dedicated wassail bowl, used for the tree blessing and for special social gatherings during the twelve days of Christmas where guests would drink to each other’s health and eat cake and mince pies. The first written records of this social custom go back to the 1300s, but it is thought to be much older.

Anyhow, back to the trees. The ritual itself is essentially an act of sympathetic magic. The wassail bowl is ceremonially processed into the orchards, with singing and music until you arrive at the oldest tree in the orchard. The tree is sprinkled with a libation from the wassail bowl while being praised of its harvest in the last year and with hope of big yields in the future. The remainder of the wassail cup is shared around the rest of trees in the orchard, and in my experience what is left is then normally “ritually drunk” by the participants.

These are pictures from the Lewes Wassail, that I attended for many years with my Morris side. The first photo is from Susie Brown.

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So, how to be inspired by this ritual? Well, my first thought went to the Wassail bowl. The wassail bowl was a special dish: ceramic, silver or turned wood as you could afford. Can I make a special wassail bowl, which capture something of the magic of the ceremony?

Well, an idea is now in development! This is a sneak preview of my work in progress.

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Let’s see how this turns out!

ANT xx

References
1. The Pagan Book of Days, Nigel Pennick
2. Article by Rowan, http://www.whitedragon.org.uk/articles/wassail.htm, accessed 13 Jan 2015
3. The Stations of the Sun, Roland Hutton
4. Cooking the wheel of the year, Angelique Talbot (unpublished)

Making as Ritual: MA Project proposal 1.5

So then. The biggest piece of progress I have made over the last 10 weeks study break is without doubt on getting some focus for my proposal. I am finally happy that I have a defined area which brings together all of the strands I have been grasping at. Clearly there is still much work to do to explore it, but that starts this week as term 2 begins.

Making as ritual

Research question: How do we find sacred space in the never-sleeping city?

Background:

Above all else, what fascinates me is the fundamental nature of our reality. Reality has many facets which intertwine together to make a unique set of experiences for each person’s life; we can never truly know if two people ever experience the same reality as they observe the world. The most interesting places are the boundaries between layers of reality: the threshold between the physical and the imagined, or the observed and the impression. “Edges are the fertile places”. Occasionally we inhabit these boundaries – in a moment of stillness or contemplation, or the dream just before waking. These are our sacred spaces.

Throughout human history, ritual has been used to create sacred space and access knowledge beyond conscious realities. From formal religious rituals to communicate with Gods & Goddesses, ceremonies to mark the turning of the year, to the rites of passage which mark our lives, or to the everyday, unseen rituals which get us through our days. Objects, and their making are often central to these rituals. The making itself being core to magic of the actions being undertaken.

For my MA project I will focus on Making as Ritual.

— What commonalities can we see in the processes and products of ritual making?
— What makes a profane object sacred, and how does the creation of a sacred object change how it is used?
— How many makers form their own rituals – in their own sacred space – in which to create their works? What does this mean for the user?
— What effects can making as part of a ritual activity have upon the maker, and subsequently on the user?

And a final, personal objective:
— How can I find balance between the silence and spirituality of the natural world around and within us, with the unrelenting disquiet and drive for progress which pervades our modern city lives?

Methodology:

I plan to look at a number of different ritual cycles concurrently to explore my proposal at different levels. My current thoughts are:

1. Making through the Ritual Year. Focussing on my own heritage, the folklore of the British Isles, bringing in comparisons with traditions from other parts of the world based on primary research wherever possible.

2. Daily rituals: since the 1 Jan 2015, I have begun a daily making activity to create a daily 5″ quilt square to express the way I am feeling each day. Over time, this act will become a ritual in itself which can be examined. The squares will be brought together at the end of each month, then over the course of the year as a record.

3. How makers make: looking at how others use their own rituals in making, whether conscious or subconscious. I need to explore this idea further, but am considering photography, video and interviews with other makers.