Monday, September 28, 2009

Ritual and Ecology

This essay was written for an anthology on Performance & Ecology proposed by the Public Art Research Cluster at Carnegie Mellon University and Earth Matters on Stage (EMOS) at the University of Oregon, Eugene.

What the warming world needs now is art...”
--Bill McKibben, author of “The End of Nature”

“The artist as painter, sculptor, yes, but also healer and lover. The role of the artist is exactly the same as the role of the lover. If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don't see.”
--James Baldwin

“One of the most basic human experiences, one that is genuinely universal and unites---or more precisely, could unite---all of humanity, is the experience of transcendence in the broadest sense of the word.”
--Vaclav Havel, former president Czech Republic

“We need an art that transcends the distanced formality of aesthetics and dares to respond to the cries of the world.”
--Suzi Gablik, “The Reenchantment of Art”

When both earth and humanity are suffering so greatly, when our very future is in question, not only is art needed, but art is pivotal. As we face our own suffering and that of our planet, our hearts break open. ART is the voice of the heart. I know this from personal experience. My heart is what gave voice to my art.

At “Earth Matters on Stage – A Symposium on Theatre & Ecology,” my topic was “The Nature of Ritual.” The program consisted of "The Point of Tears," a ritual performance which creates a space for deep listening in the heart. The title for this work comes from Albert Camus: “ live to the point of tears...” I speak of tears of joy for the beauty of creation and tears of sorrow for the ills the Earth is suffering. At the symposium, the performance was followed by a discussion among the 25 participants. We sat in a circle on the floor of the Hope Theatre. In the center of our circle were remnants from the performance 'altar-ing' the space, a beaded globe, little children's shoes and candles. Participants gave voice to their experience of the ritual. “Your ritual marks the sacredness of life through artistic means” was one of the first comments made.

Ecology comes from the Greek eikos for house, household, housekeeping or living relations. It is the study of “the distribution and abundance of organisms and their interactions in the environment.” Deep Ecology, a more fitting territory for artists of my ilk, brings the human element into the picture. It is a way of thinking of ourselves in relationship to the natural world. As Fritjof Capra writes, “it is the study of the relationships that interlink all members of the Earth Household.”

Deep Ecology is a way of saying we are one web of life. It is a concept still central to indigenous people's philosophy and way of life. In our time of “great turning,” we need to cultivate the web of life, bringing it to our central consciousness.

I have noticed that ecology scholars and amateurs alike tend to choose different translations of the Greek root eikos, some use house, others household. They all work. As a deep ecologist I propose yet another interpretation, that this house is an inner house, one with four chambers - in other words, the heart! Ecology, whether deep or 'shallow' (the kind that analyses without including human beings,) relates to systems thinking, a new way of seeing the world, a science which, it turns out, very much parallels ancient spiritual wisdom - systems theory insists, as do the ancients, of seeing all things as an integral part of a larger whole.

Ecology recognizes inter-actions and inter-connections of living systems while ritual is based on the spiritual dimension of non-separation. Ritual's singularity is that it involves intention. Ecology is a science and ritual a tool for recognizing and re-membering our place within a larger whole. One in its mind way, the other in its heart way, they touch different parts of us. They make us see that everything is inter-connected. Eventually, each in its singular way, helps us re-discover the intrinsic richness and beauty of our world. Together they express a certain kind of “transcendence” that this “great turning” desperately needs.

By taking examples from my work as a ceremonial artist, I want to show how ritual and ecology corollate.

The words alter and altar comment on each other. But even more importantly our sentence syntax also changes. My mantra is “Life is Art/Art is Life.” Finding language that reflects these two integral levels of experience is difficult. The mantra demonstrates that art and life are actors. They are both subject and object simultaneously. As a human animal, I am part of the natural world. Thus, I could say that my performances are 'with' the river, or 'with' an animal, and not solely 'about.' My pieces may be about linking people like in “The Road of Meeting” and “Route 33: The Magic Road.” But they also link groups of people across national boundaries. In “Yitzak and Leila: The Romeo and Juliet of the Holy Land” and “The Hiroshima Peace Bell,” they touch on the need for healing between countries.

By nature ritual is participatory. My community-involving performances are about weaving the web. For example in my most recent work “60 Water Weaving Women,” I make the connection between rivers as threads of a great web enlivening the Earth and women as weavers of light. Two versions of this central idea were performed, one taking place in the Capitol of the State of New Mexico and the other by the Orilla Canal next to the Rio Grande in Albuquerque. The rituals in each place with different communities of women were the same in structure, but deeply different because the participants and the place fundamentally 'altared' the performances.

Shrines, processions and pilgrimages are terms I use to describe my work. “The purpose of pilgrimage is to generate energy that links men to the energy of the universe.” (Gita Mehta, The River Sutra.) “The Road of Meeting,” a one-month road trip in North Carolina, was a pilgrimage with a particular goal. The intention of my journey was to meet and honor environmentalists, an invitation to see one another as 'Earth colleagues,' a pilgrimage where meeting (listening) and finding commonality are sacred acts. (1993)

Life and art being one, I have created pieces connected to the priestess, the archetype I relate to the most. “Priestess of Generosity” was designed for the Festival of Giving, a public event held in a large park. To show the Earth's cornucopia, both the long green satin dress I was wearing and the basket I was carrying were adorned with fruit, flowers and leaves. The basket was filled with hundreds of little gift bundles. To ignite a more connected community spirit, my role of 'animateur' was to walk about the large park and engage park visitors while distributing the gifts. (2006) In “Kwan Yin's Priestess,” I was portraying Kwan Yin, the boddhitsattva of compassion, “the Perceiver of the Cries of the World” in the Buddhist tradition, an important theme in my life that I have visited three times in my art. (2007)

Spirit has many synonyms: oneness, interconnectedness, unity. Ritual, as a spiritual tool, aims at reaching dimensions beyond the self. With gestures (attention) and meaning (intention) a ritual sets up a structure and a container. In ritual, we can hear the sound of eternity that comes from afar... and also from within.

The sacred, another word for the spiritual, has been my life's path. Since 1979, my calling has been to find the spiritual in art, and my journey since has centered on uncovering the meaning of the word 'heartist'. The word came to me when I let myself feel the deepest sorrow for “the endangered planet...” With the sorrow came an unshakable resolution and a new inspiration to speak on its behalf. Poet/healer Deena Metzger's words, “Break your heart open, then come from love,” capture the path from sorrow to action.

It was by the Rio Grande river that I experienced a greater sorrow for the planet's environmental crisis than I ever had before. With it came not only the deep knowing that art would be my way of responding, but also that ritual would be my form of communication. Hence my first work, "The Great Cleansing of the Rio Grande," which I performed for seven years, from 1987 to 1994. Once a month, I walked the river's bed and banks, doing a literal but also symbolic cleansing, the deep-listening portion being as important as the collection of found objects. A journal “Riveries” chronicled my awe at the river's artistry and my song as a 'heartist'.

In “Listen, Listen... a Whale Ceremonial,” people from many different cultures and animals from different species 'walk' together in a procession celebrating the great Mother Blue Whale. In the installation, folks and animals, 'embodied' by hundreds of colorful, little figures, set on a spiral of land and sea, bring to life the concepts of interconnectedness put forth by the new sciences. (The New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford, Massachusetts, 2000)

In “Route 33: The Magic Road,” I am traveling to every corner of New Mexico as an art pilgrim knitting together all 33 countries in a great weaving of some yet unfinished pattern. I dialogue about the art of peace and offer my ceremonial gathering “The Point of Tears.” (2004-in progress)

Ritual is about evoking, in other words remembering. “The Hiroshima Peace Bell/Heiwa no Kane,” marked the 60th commemoration of the bombing of Hiroshima. Through the miracle of technology, we literally attended the yearly Hiroshima City's ceremony without leaving the museum hall. Here in Santa Fe, New Mexico, down the hill from where the bomb was built, citizens and artists connect with the symbol of that remembrance, the Hiroshima Peace Bell and join in by ringing their own bells. Individual bells along with church bells all consacrating such moments, are rung at the exact time on both sides of the world (8:15AM, August 2005 in Hiroshima, Japan, 5:15PM, August 5th, 2005, Santa Fe.)

Collaborations being another intrinsic aspect of 'weaving the web,' this kind of work leads into varied and necessary teamwork. In this project, which I refer to as a global performance, I worked with the Hiroshima Day Radio Project, RCC/Hiroshima's Public Radio/TV station, KSFR/Santa Fe's Public Radio Station, KUNM/Albuquerque's Public Radio Station, and numerous churches and places of worship, along with my steadfast collaborator artist/activist Shannyn Sollitt.

Upon mentioning a favorite work of mine, “Yitzhak and Leila, The Romeo and Juliet of the Holy Land,” a participant in the EMOS discussion, rightly asked why I would include it as a performance, “after all it was an installation.” When one's work deals as much in life (intention) as in art (attention), an installation is by nature a (ritual) performance, each gesture constellating both dimensions. In this piece, I spoke of the sorrow I feel for the two battling countries of Israel and Palestine and my hope that they will overcome their differences and join in peace. I did it by creating the tomb of two young symbolic lovers who like Romeo and Juliet died because their clans could not accept their love. (International Museum of Folk Art, Day of the Dead exhibition, November 2004)

Returning to the beginning, the voice of the heart has changed and will continue to change the way we speak and eventually the way we perceive. For example, when I use 'invoke' and 'evoke' as ritual terminology, my mind goes naturally to 'provoke!'

Whether the focus is micro or macro, however, we are still speaking of art. The British eco-artist, Professor David Haley says, ““Art, according to its root 'rta' means the dynamic process by which the sole cosmos continues to be created, virtuously.”

“We need an art that transcends the distanced formality of aesthetics and dares to respond to the cries of the world.”
---Suzi Gablik, “The Reenchantment of Art”


  1. Dominique, your clarity is inspiring. I share the pilgrimage with you!

    ~~~ Ann

  2. I found this in my email box and thought you'd like to see it.:

    A Global Ritual Marking the Beginning of the End of the Fossil Fuel Era

    ~ Following Hopenhagen, 2009 ~

    ~ A Piece of Non-Fiction, A Meme, A Beginning, An Ending... ~

    By, Anonymous

    ~ Translated into every language ~

    ~ Recieived by email by millions, having obscure origins -- sometimes retold by others and posted--and retold--all over the Web.
    . . . .

    They gathered in plazas and squares, in public places everywhere. In every city and town round the world, they came.

    They came to dance and sing and cry and laugh, and they came to acknowledge and to speak and be with others like them who knew it,
    who understood. Who understood that it is We who must become the change....

    They came in solidarity, with courage and tenderness. With joy and hope and generosity and vision they came.

    They made a central wood fire, not too large --approved by the fire department.

    They danced and sang and cried and they shared from their hearts.

    They made music. They knew the time had come to mark the moment.

    It was nighttime. It was winter. In other places it was summer.

    They dressed warmly. The dressed to stay cool. They held one another. They knew who We are.

    And then the clock-moment arrived. And in each town and city a uniquely devised ritual was performed. They were different rituals
    everywhere, but all performed at the same hour of that night -- as night rolled over the world heading toward day.

    It wasn't that they thought they could all stop the burning of fossil fuels in the morning. They weren't there to announce a cold
    turkey quit. Some of them even drove to the event--and drove home. Others walked, or rode bicycles. No one looked down at those who had
    to drive to get there. The point wasn't to end the fossil fuel era of a sudden, but to mark the beginning of the end.

    Everyone there knew it was time to mark the moment.

    I was only six years old at the time. This was twenty years ago! The idea had seemed silly to many, twenty years ago. But the whole world
    today remembers this as a great historical moment. Probably the most important event of the twenty-first century.

    And that's how it happened.
    And We thank you!