Response to 3.6 (Deborah Barlow)


Taney’s question asks about how form might actively engage in the “religio-spiritual-ethical dimension.” Her question sounds rational and reasonable. But in my experience it is anything but.

I don’t want this to veer too far into the personal, but this is as close to home as it gets. Like someone born with six toes that are carefully hidden from public view in a good pair of shoes, I have had another conversation going on right from the start. “Mystic” and “spiritual intuitive” are outsider terms and aspersive, but there really isn’t a proper name for what this is. When you realize early on it isn’t normal, you find a sturdy pair of shoes and hope you can pass.

Maybe it is just the process of getting older that makes passing less interesting. And certainly there is more space regarding these issues these days, just as Daniel pointed out on Day 2:

“Re: mystic: This is a word I struggle with as it carries much baggage. The lure of the unknown- this fiery, passionate desire to understand that has driven us through the millennia holds a sense of mystery implicit. This is essential. I agree with you and yes, it is a difficult position to defend. Both (word and position) need to be expressed in a way that science can understand or contribute. Otherwise, it is too easily dismissed. However, I think we live at a fortunate time as interesting things are happening in neuroscience and consciousness studies for example. The near future may yield common ground atop which we may build.”

Aligning with science is not necessarily my primary goal. And this symposium has been full of reminders that knowing/being/consciousness exist outside the scope of current science practice, one that is still highly determined by the limitations of its current instrumentation.

Aside from winning science over, let me concentrate on what I do know: how an art practice comes into being by relying on an undefined array of influences, inspirations, guidance systems and visions. And given that I have been trying to articulate this for about 50 years—and feel I have been unsuccessful at making my point comprehensible—I will use the words of others to suggest some of the dimensions of the landscape Taney identified. These insights are more lucid than my own efforts would be.

“Given the vague, and sometimes trivializing, uses of the term in recent decades, I appreciate the artist Richard Tuttle’s comment to me on this matter: “What I want more than anything is a definition of spirituality that is trustworthy.” Indeed—and to be so it must necessarily extend beyond a focus on the self to a sense of our embeddedness in the larger context: the exquisitely dynamic interrelatedness of existence, the vibratory flux of the subtle realms of the material world, and the ultimate creativity of the universe. The cosmos is infused with an unfolding dynamic of becoming and a unitive dimension of being. Spirituality is the awareness of and engagement with that unity and those dynamics.”

--Charlene Spretnak, The Spiritual Dynamic in Modern Art


“Intuition is a feeling that comes out of total freedom, being one with cosmic energy. It’s knowledge before knowledge. It’s understanding before understanding…Intuition gives us new ideas and doesn’t always tell us where those ideas come from.”

--Axel Vervoordt (co curator, Intuition, Museo Fortuny)

“The artist lives this indescribable feeling that is inaccessible to words as a reflection of all that has been present, of what will be present, from the beginning and forever. Freed from the need to depict the visible world, the artist becomes the receptor through whom the echoes and reflections of an irrational elsewhere flow freely and take form.”

--Daniela Ferretti (co curator, Intuition, Museo Fortuny)

When I’m drawing I feel a little closer to the way birds navigate when flying, or to hares finding shelter if pursued, or to fish knowing where to spawn, or trees finding a way to the light, or bees constructing their cells…


Drawing is a form of probing. And the first generic impulse to draw derives from the human need to search, to plot points, to place things and to place oneself…


We who draw do so not only to make something observed visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination.”


--John Berger, Bento’s Sketchbook


“This is an exhibition about the intimate and the infinite: about the tiniest fruits of the earth and the stars above; about a single stitch, and the great web of creation; about the simple passage of a brush across canvas, and the unfolding eternity of being…it is the most human of urges to look to the heavens and contemplate our place in the universe, to try to find a connection between our earthly selves and the boundless expanse of the stars. Each work in this exhibition is an attempt to bridge this divide: to provide an intimate encounter with an ‘ancient endless infinity.’

If this sounds a little mystical, I would like to suggest that on the contrary, it is both profoundly human and insistently contemporary. The world in which we live is more connected than ever before…it is no surprise that ‘webs’ and ‘nets’ have become such fertile tropes for contemporary artists… for these are the operative metaphors of our age.”

--Henry Skerritt, curator of Marking the Infinite: Contemporary Women Artists from Aboriginal Australia 


“The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical. It is the power of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness.”

--Albert Einstein

“The closer and more carefully we probe, the more [the universe] seethes with what looks like life—runaway processes driven by positive feedback loops, emergent patterns, violent attractions, quantum leaps, and always, as far ahead as we can see, more surprises. There may be no invisible creaturely “beings” afoot, either symbionts, parasites, or predators. But there are uncountable algorithms at work in the physical world, writhing and reaching, pulling matter and energy into their schemes, acting out of what almost seems to be an unquenchable playfulness.”

--Barbara Ehrenreich, Living with a Wild God



“We scientists are taught from an early age of our apprenticeship not to waste time on questions that do not have clear and definite answers. But artists…often don’t care what the answer is because definite answers don’t exist to all interesting and important questions…for many, the question is more important than the answer.

There are things we believe in that do not submit to the methods and reductions of science. Furthermore, faith and the passion for the transcendent that often goes with it have been the impulse for so many exquisite creations of humankind…The strong sense of the infinite, the belief in an unseen order in the world, the feeling of being in the presence of something divine are all personal.”

--Alan Lightman, theoretical physicist and author of The Accidental Universe


“A signal does not necessarily mean that you want to be located or described. It can mean that you want to be known as Unlocatable and Hidden…


Weakness, fluidity, concealment, and solitude assume their place in a kind of dream world, where the sleeping witness finally feels safe to lie down in mystery.”


--Fanny Howe, poet



Jon Sakata said...

Deborah, this is my kind of running gleefully in the rain wanting to soak in every drop! Have a feeling we will be coming back to this post over and over and over again...

Taney Roniger said...

Wow, Deborah, what a wonderful compilation of quotes. Thanks so much for this, and I agree with Jon that we'll be returning to it quite a bit. But now I wonder: Since part of what we're addressing here is aesthetic form (and I agree with Charles Eisenstein that "aesthetic" carries an implicit and unwanted binary, so let's now just say "form"), I think we can dive further into your post and ask how *form* can draw us into the mystical experience. The John
Berger quote here reminded me of something I rarely say but do feel, which is that abstract form seems to me the most powerful vehicle of transportation into the spiritual experience. I'm sure I'm wrong on this - I'm just not sure exactly how. I wonder how others feel about this; I would love to be corrected by way of specific examples.

Deborah Barlow said...

Taney, in my experience transcendence is universal and also deeply personal. Some achieve it through devotion to a disciplined path or though the use of entheogens. Others find it outside the programmatic, predictable or determined. I became an artist because it is, as you have stated, a "vehicle of transportation into the spiritual experience." It is elemental to the making but also to the looking. I caught my breath the first time I saw your work, and I still do.

Karen Fitzgerald said...

First, many thanks for everyone's inspired energy to speak to so many thingly things.

In response to both Deborah and Taney, wondering about how form is perceived, and often used as a gateway to spirituality, "how it draws us into the mystical experience":

A spiritual experience is not some grand thing that has sunbeams flooding out from it, trumpets blaring, etc. It's not an "other" kind of experience. It's a daily kind of thing. And I don't think it's a happenstance: form triggers connectivity across a broad spectrum of granular thinglyness that is constantly present..
We know we are having a spiritual experience when there is a coherent quality to connectivity within our own perceptual system. I can't get inside someone else's system, and I'm not a scientist studying perceptual systems. What I can say about my own experience is that this alignment includes most everything that enters my conscious awareness: unconscious urges, intuitive understandings, concepts I've been puzzling over: all housed in some encompassing emotion. All this stuff lines up. It all lines up together, and understanding flashes along the spectrum. It leaves a distinct taste of connectivity. Sometimes on a grand scale. I think spiritual experiences are like stairs: they help the spirals of thinking and imagining we are each engaged with jump up a bit by gradually mixing in understanding. Without form there is no thingly affinity, just like without alcohol there is no physical drunkenness.

I like the idea of consciousness being embedded in all matter; that it does not arise after some magic moment of evolutionary complexity in the brain cells. Think of all the eons of thoughts nestled inside of rocks.

Deborah Barlow said...

Karen, I know you know Simic's poem, but it seems too apropos to not share the last stanza:

I have seen sparks fly out
When two stones are rubbed,
So perhaps it is not dark inside after all;
Perhaps there is a moon shining
From somewhere, as though behind a hill—
Just enough light to make out
The strange writings, the star-charts
On the inner walls.

Thank you for your words. They are resonant with my think/feel in this rich and mysterious zone.