Thursday, 20 November 2014

Dancing with a brush

A lovely piece by my friend and colleague Karen Strang in the local paper this week...

Artists' Quarter

Dancing with a brush. 

I'm fortunate not only in having a studio at Marcelle House, Alloa, but that I share this hub of creativity with so many artists, all of whom have a unique style of expression. Every studio reveals a different imaginative space. For my first arts feature I'll focus on the work of fellow resident Tamsin Haggis. Tamsin grew up in Scotland and studied art at St Martins School of Art in London. A few days ago she was host to an inspiring talk by Karen Haggis on Nepalese textiles, and her room was adorned with a colourful display of woven nettle, embroidered cotton and silk. Not every painting studio could happily accommodate these beautiful exotic fabrics without them detracting from the wall works yet in this instance they complemented the original artworks. Anyone stepping into Tamsin's studio is immediately struck by the large colourful free form drawings that hang all around. Add to that a mix of eclectic surround sound and a floor area which entices dance and movement practice and you get the picture... or rather an all round myriad of material connected to all the senses which celebrate being alive.
It is  a dynamic environment, which reflects the Indian philosophy of life energy which Tamsin has studied, both in her degree in Indian Art and Philosophy, and as an Artist living and working in North India. Her recent return to South India to study temple sculptures reaffirmed for her the connection between dance and life energy, not only in her personal practice, but also in her subject matter. We see exuberant figures in her paintings, which represent symbolically the movement of energy within ourselves and in the wider sphere of the earth. In keeping with ancient traditions of Indian painting, Tamsin's dancers are deliberately not anatomically correct: arms and legs stretch beyond what is physically possible in order to express the inner sense of unbounded movement that dancing provides and which uplifts our spirits. In other words they are a joy just to look at. In order to produce these energetic characters Tamsin has to dance them onto the paper with her brush or charcoal. Creating art this very physical way means that her work extends into other connecting areas of expression.
Music is an important factor in enriching the visual work. As part of her practice she improvises on violin, viola, mandolin and piano, and she also works in collaboration with others. The airy Georgian drawing room at Marcelle House has been completely transformed into an exotic multi sensory space where anything might happen... The bright earthy warm hues that fill her studio contrast with the cool muted urban tones outside and from her window you can see the edge of the industrialized Forth and the glass works - a neat coincidence then that some of Tamsin’s work also utilises that fundamental material, sand.
Many of the abstract images on display in her studio evoke the patterns found in nature. Her sand paintings are actual records of the physical qualities of sand. You might just remember these patterns from your school days as Fibonacci's sequence. In my time the engineers to be, some of whom went on to work at United Glass, would have understood the applied mathematics behind these patterns, but for me, this is way more inspiring than my maths lesson ever was. In Tamsin's work the creative element adds to the natural mathematical principles, providing even more evolving patterns. The process of producing her sand paintings is fascinating to watch. Tamsin takes a large sheet of paper and scatters and runs sand onto the paper using various instruments. After creating an image, she then suddenly agitates the paper, in an instant destroying the beauty of the forms she has created. As she shakes the paper the sand shifts and creates various moving patterns, some of which she captures on camera. Finally she sweeps up the sand and everything is gone.  This process neatly illustrates the idea that everything in nature has an energy, even unliving objects such as paper and silica. We can all agree in that looking at a painting, which is an inanimate object, we can 'see' the movement the artist used in making the mark. Only in this case it is the process that Tamsin values at least as much as the finished product. She is making a philosophical point with this work about dynamic process of change, destruction and renewal. It is impossible not to experience a sense of vitality in Tamsin's studio and to take in the whole atmosphere. It is a unique creative space where East and West meet for a metaphorical cup of tea and it's here in Alloa!
Marcelle House artists can be visited by appointment, or on one of the regular open days and every first Sunday of the month 12-4 pm.

Alloa Advertiser, November, 2014

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Saturday, 8 November 2014

what is erotic?

I recently posted this image on my facebook painting page, and someone said that it was erotic. Erotic is a complicated notion in relation to the dancers, who are using my pen, but who are visiting from the Indian classical tradition.

The textual/classical Indian tradition had a completely different starting point to the Christian West when it came to the worldly  realities of wealth, possessions and pleasure. Although India has a reputation for being 'spiritual' and other-worldly, in reality it is perhaps one of the most grounded, material, body-celebrating cultures in the world.

William Dalrymple wrote a piece recently about different cultural attitudes to erotic portrayal of the body 'The Sacred and the Sensuous Indian Art' (reproduced below, sorry about the way the text has come out...).

Paintings and carvings in ancient Indian temples challenge Western ideas of the relationship between spirituality and sexuality, says writer and historian William Dalrymple.
In the early summer of 1819, a British hunting party, lost in the arid mountains of the Western Ghats, made a remarkable chance discovery.
Following a tiger into a remote and narrow river valley, the hunters stumbled onto what was soon recognised as one of the great wonders of India - the painted caves of Ajanta.
On the walls of a line of 31 caves dug into an amphitheatre of solid rock, lie the most ancient and beautiful paintings in Buddhist art, the oldest of which date from the 2nd Century BC—an otherwise lost golden age of Indian painting. Along with the frescoes of Pompeii, Ajanta represents the greatest picture gallery to survive from the ancient world and the most comprehensive depiction of civilised classical life that we have.

The Ajanta murals tell the Jataka stories of the lives of the Buddha in images of supreme elegance and grace. The artists produced images that subtly explore a wide variety of human situations, from ascetic renunciation through portraits of compassionate Bodhisattvas of otherworldly beauty swaying on the threshold of Enlightenment, through to more earthy scenes of courtly dalliance in long lost ancient Indian pleasure gardens.
Although the images were presumably intended for a monastic audience, the Buddha tends invariably to be shown not in his monastic milieu, after his Enlightenment, but in the courtly environment in which he grew up. Here among handsome princes and nobles, dark-skinned princesses languish love-lorn, while heavy-breasted dancing girls and courtesans are shown nude but for their jewels and girdles, draped temptingly amid palace gardens and court buildings. These women conform closely to the ideas of feminine beauty propagated by the great 5th Century playwright Kalidasa, who writes of men pining over portraits of their lovers, while straining to find the correct metaphors to describe them: "I recognise your body in liana; your expression in the eyes of a frightened gazelle; the beauty of your face in that of the moon, your tresses in the plumage of peacocks... alas! Timid friend- no one object compares to you." As the great Indian art historian Vidya Dehejia puts it, "the idea that such sensual images might generate irreverent thoughts did not seem to arise; rather the established associations appear to have been with accentuated growth, prosperity and auspiciousness." That is why the monasteries of Ajanta were filled with images of beautiful women - because in the eyes of the monks this was completely appropriate decoration.
Ajanta muralMurals in the temple at Ajanta
When I first saw these caves at the age of 18, it was this that gave me pause for thought. Why, I wondered, would a monastery built for celibate Buddhist monks be decorated with images of beautiful, bare-breasted palace women? Returning last week after a gap of 30 years, I was again struck by the same thought. In the Christian world, this was the middle of Lent, the season of self-discipline and self-deprivation, but here I was in the middle of a celibate monastic community which had voluntarily chosen to live the austere ascetic path in small rock-cut cells, and yet was making a deliberate decision to cover the walls of its religious buildings with images of attractively voluptuous women.

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The figures of Gods and Goddesses are shown in such obscene Postures, that it would puzzle the Covent Garden nymphs to imitate them”
18th Century European traveller in India
I am hardly alone in being surprised by this. Westerners coming to India have always been baffled to encounter a very different set of attitudes to the sensuous and its relationship to the sacred. Here it is considered completely appropriate to cover the exterior walls of a religious building with graphically copulating couples.
Christianity, in contrast, has always seen the human body as essentially sinful, lustful and shameful, the tainted vehicle of the perishable soul, something which has to be tamed and disciplined - a fleshy obstacle to salvation. A decade ago I remember spending another Lent in the austere desert monasteries of Coptic Egypt. It was here, in the dying days of the Roman empire, that Christian doctrines about the inherent sinfulness of the human body were first formulated. In opposition to the classical Roman love of sensuality, the early Christian monks set out to mortify their bodies and fight off all the temptations of the flesh. It is only by defying your urges and casting off the body, the Coptic monks maintained, that you can attain perfection. We are dust and to dust we shall return. These attitudes have never entirely left the Western Christian tradition.
Ajanta cavesInside the caves of Ajanta
For the colonial British, Indian art's obsession with the sensual body always provided a block to the appreciation of Indian art. Indian sculpture was deemed immoral and contact with it was believed to infect the moral sensibility. As early as the 17th Century, European travellers were railing about temples filled with "much immodest, heathen-style fornication and other abominations…. [and] so full of lascivious figures of Monsters, that one cannot enter them without horror". Even in the libertine 18th Century one gentleman complained that "the figures of Gods and Goddesses are shown in such obscene Postures, that it would puzzle the Covent Garden nymphs to imitate them".
But to pre-colonial Indians there was no association of women with sin, and in all the voluminous Indian scriptures there is no Eve, taking the fall for the Fall. Women were associated not with temptation but instead with fertility, abundance and prosperity, and there is an open embrace of sexuality as one route to the divine. "In the embrace of his beloved, a man forgets the whole world, everything both within and without," states the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. "In the very same way, he who embraces the Self knows neither within nor without."
For this reason throughout their long history, the arts of India - both visual and literary - have consistently celebrated the beauty of the human body. Indeed the whole tradition of yoga was aimed at perfecting and transforming the body, with a view, among the higher adepts, to making it transcendent, omniscient, even god-like. The body, in other words, is not some tainted appendage to be whipped into submission, but potentially the vehicle of divinity. In this tradition, the sensuous and the sacred are not opposed. They are one, and the sensuous is seen as an integral part of the sacred. The gods were always depicted as superhumanly beautiful, for if the image was not beautiful then the deities could not be persuaded to inhabit the statue.
This obsession with the beauty of the human body survived waves of invasions, and the arrival of Islam in South Asia. Indeed by the early 18th Century we see explicit images of the Emperor Muhammad Shah "Rangila" or Colourful, making love with his mistress. It was not, therefore, the Islamic period that brought the dramatic break with India's sensual traditions. Instead, that break happened during the colonial period, with the arrival of Christian missionaries in the 19th Century. In reaction to British diatribes about "Hindoo immorality" a new generation of British-educated Hindu reformers began critically to re-examine their own traditions. A movement arose urging Hindu women to cover themselves up, and chastity and modesty were elevated as the ideal attributes of Hindu womanhood.
Gay protester in Mumbai, December 2013A protester in Mumbai against the criminalisation of gay sex
Today, there is much embarrassment and denial about the role of erotic in pre-modern India. When asked to come up with a response to the growing Indian Aids crisis a few years ago, the then health minister proclaimed that India's native traditions of chastity and fidelity were more effective than the use of condoms. More recently, last December, the Indian Supreme Court upheld a law which criminalised gay sex, maintaining, again, it was against Indian tradition. The minister and the judge had apparently never heard of the Kama Sutra or visited the erotic temples of Khajaraho - or indeed delved into the rich courtly tradition of Rajasthani lesbian love poetry.
To me this interesting clash of perceptions holds many lessons. We are all culturally programmed, perhaps especially so in matters of sex and sensuality. We assume that many of our values are universal when they are in fact highly subjective and personal.
It also shows how easily we reflect present day moral values onto the past. We assume Buddhist monks would disapprove of and avoid sensual images, but the blatant sensuality of the art of early Buddhism in Ajanta and other early Buddhist sites across India, is overwhelming. If history and art history have any value beyond entertainment and offering us lessons and examples from the past, it is perhaps, like travel, to free us from the tyranny of our own cultural values and make us aware of how contingent and bound by time, culture and geography so many of our preconceptions actually are.
A Point of View is broadcast on Friday on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated on Sunday at 08:50 BST. Catch up on BBC iPlayer