Memory – Anish Kapoor. A review.

Benjamin Jiva Dasa Norris

Memory (2008 ) is the latest commissioned sculpture to be housed within the German Guggenheim gallery in Berlin. Its creator, Anish Kapoor, uses the stark, white space to accentuate the scale and confrontational aspects of his latest work to generate a lasting, stunning impact.

Memory consists of a twenty-four ton Cor-Ten steel tank; its outer shell an almost fragile looking rust-covered collection of tiles (the earthy, almost bloody pigment is perhaps the most immediate reminder that this is a Kapoor piece) seamlessly held together, creating delicate curves and leering bulges which almost glance the sides of the gallery walls and ceiling, and causing something of a disconcerting sense of the defiance of gravity in the room – it feels as though the tank should not be able to sit as still and sentinel-like as it does, as if the entire colossus could roll in somnambulance to one side at any moment.

To say that Memory is confrontational is perhaps an understatement. The piece literally looms in the viewers face, reminding us of our own relatively tiny scale, and of our positions within the gallery itself. Perhaps the most intriguing feature of the installation is its purposeful inaccessibility; we are forbidden to duck beneath the curving hulk of iron and see behind it, instead we must exit the gallery and re-enter with fresh eyes through another door, into a brighter, whiter space to observe the other side of the tank, the back of which has a more flattened, less familiar plane, made all the more unmovable and alien by the brief moment just spent between entrances on the busy street outside. Kapoor almost teases us with disorientation; we cannot help but want to view the sculpture as a whole, the very way our minds (but not our memories) work creates a sense of longing for a little distance, a little space to better apprehend the piece as a whole.

The next dimension of Memory is accessed through the gift shop of the Guggenheim. Again, a minute of familiarity, distraction; up a small set of stairs and down another, before we realise we are to one side of the sculpture, staring into its belly through an aperture in the wall it rests against. Kapoor has managed to create a true void; beyond a couple of inches of the rusty metal shell, we see nothing. Blackness. Depth incalculable, and volume incomprehensible. The meaning of the installation’s title starts to make sense as one looks into the darkness: By segmenting our viewpoints and taking full control of the ways in which we can see the sculpture, Kapoor forces the viewer to use their own memories to try, and fail, to construct an image of the whole in their own minds. This idea of ‘mental sculpture’ has less to do with the steel tank, and far more to do with the individuals movements around the tank: memory as a fleeting, unreachable creation made up of singular, mental images from different viewpoints. The void itself, a rectangle of black space, acts as an empty canvas (for the darkness is so complete from certain angles it looks as though it is a flat, two-dimensional plane, a black square mounted onto a white wall) for the mind to attempt to sketch the image onto.

By fracturing both physical and mental space, Kapoor creates a steel metaphor for the intimacy of the individual’s memories and the cognitive process. Like our own memories and dreams, Memory is viewed in a third person perspective – whether standing at the front, to the rear or looking within the sculpture, we cannot help but mentally place ourselves at the other points. From each perspective we must mentally take ourselves back through a set of doors, or up and down a small flight of stairs to attempt to comprehend the mass that fills the space we stand in. In this way, Memory is permanently situational, its true physical, tangible nature remaining nebulous. No matter how quickly we move through the doors and around the heaving curves of steel, no matter how firmly we hold images in our mind, each moment we place ourselves in and see as ‘present’ immediately disappears into the past with each and every movement of the self.


Mithras, A History I

When studying the history of Mithras, several problems and inconsistencies arise almost straight away. It seems that many of the religious scholars and anthropologists subscribe to the opinion that the Mithras of the Roman mystery sect was a deity in his own right, a deity without history and with a truncated connection to older solar gods. Quite how this widespread belief came about seems to me a mystery born from both shortsightedness and vested theological interests (for further reading on the reasons for this, please look to Webber’s ‘Tweedhoof’), as similar religions and their gods rarely manifest themselves from coincidence. By the time the Romans were worshipping the bull-slaying sun god of contracts in underground temples, the world had undergone radical changes and unprecedented developments in regards to communication, exploration and philosophical enhancement of man’s understanding of their own beliefs. The Romans were not a fundamentally religious people, they were perhaps the first to vocalise the existence of god as symbolic necessity, political tool and power structure. They understood that they needed gods in the same way they needed commerce, trade, an army. To suggest, therefore, that a brand new bout religious fervency sprung up amongst an elite class, an elite class who coincidentally decided to anoint a new deity with a name and symbolic accruements (which just so happened to bear far more than a passing resemblence to much, much older figures) seems churlish, almost suspicious.

We must, therefore, look to the source. Quite where this source can be found is, of course, lost in the earliest histories, but gods have a habit of leaving footprints. By studying the characteristics of the Roman Mithras, we can see how his previous incarnations (if that is even the correct term; perhaps avataras would be more fitting – a descending of the deity to a different time and place) were revered in some of the earliest recorded civilisations.  

 1. The Tauroctony

The ritual slaying of the bull is a key feature in the make up of the character of Mithras. However, the explanations and cosmological links to previous avatars has been explained eloquently by Webber in his ‘Bright Young Men II’, and I have little else to offer.   However, I would like to suggest a different hypothesis (which is unfortunately unprovable but will allow the reader to see an introduction to the field of study which I am more accustomed to discussing). The tauroctony is essentially a zodiacal legend, enforced by Greek symbology (borrowed from Zoroastrian astronomical prowess) symbolising the ending of the age of Taurus. However, if we move further east to Northern India, and look at bull imagery in pre-Vedic religions (and indeed, Vedic and contemporary ‘Hindu’ religions) the bull is the symbol of Siva, a consistent piece of associative iconography that has a potential history of over 10,000 years. The pre-Vedic worshippers of Mitra (who became assimilated with Varuna, the twin deities of day and night, and later Indra, a powerful sun god) were idealogically opposed to the Saivites; Saivism being worship on a more earthly mode, the worship of the lingum, of the beasts of the field; and the worshippers of Mitra following the cosmos. Perhaps The tauroctony is part of a series or a repeating motif involving solar gods defeating or suppressing the bovine, or beastly, or mundane. Whereas Saivism grew slowly and consistently over several millenia, sun worship (through Mitra or Indra, being essentially the same deity in different ages) fluctuated wildly in India, growing to a peak in the second age before being dramatically crushed by the miracle of Goverdhan Hill, in which the child Krsna humiliated the might of Indra and showed the impotence of the old gods. By this point, Mitra had moved west.  

2. Mithras as contract, binding, clause

Mithras is the Roman god of contracts. Mithras is a sun god. Where does this originate? The simplest answers can be found in the name itself, if, again, we look back to pre-Vedic etymology. Mitra is, in composite Sanskrit and Indo-Iranian, ‘contract’ or ‘that which binds’, and in later Sanskrit translates as ‘alliance’ or ‘allegiance’. Mitra’s associations with pacts and contracts are manyfold; some scholars claim that the earliest records involve a peace treaty between the Hittites and Hurrians in approx. 1400 b.c, where Mitra witnessed the signing of the end of war. I would argue, however, that the motif of contractual obligation of a deified duty can be traced back to time immemorial. The concept of a solar god primarily associated with winter equinox is one which fundamental involves contracts, bindings, promises. Almost every world civilisation had a solar deity who must be appeased each winter, to ensure the coming of spring and the end of the deathly period of frigidity and coldness. Sacrifices, feasts, singing… these equinox traditions continue to this day. Each year, a contract with the solar god/s are drawn up, and each year, the springtime comes, the obligation is fulfilled. The connection may seem tenuous, but I would argue that the simplicity of this example is one of the benchmarks for all early and primitive religions. The Vedas also demonstrate Mitra’s association with bindings and contracts. Mitra and his plenary expansion, Varuna, are the guardians of Rta; the ‘order of things’, the source of the concept of dharma. Dharma itself has been described by many as ‘contractual’, an agreement between our physical bodies and our souls in the material world. Mitra-Varuna is the auditor of this contract, their millions of unblinking eyes (the sun, the stars) oversee each moment of our lives, ensuring that humanity fulfils its obligation. What is perhaps surprising, given this, is the fact that Mitra is essentially a benevolent deity. The contract is a friendly one, and became one of the fundamental ideas behind the modern concept of reincarnation; basically, if we cannot fulfil the contract in this lifetime, we can try again next time… Some scholars have argued, however, that Mitra’s benevolence is due to his association with the contract of sovereignty and the sacred aspect of royalty. It is, therefore, a great convenience for the ruling classes to promote a god who is kind to the people, and yet supports their claims to rulership. We can see evidence of this is RgVeda verse CXXXVI “Bring adoration ample and most excellent…to the sweetest and bountiful Mitra, Sovereigns adored with streams of oil at every sacrifice, their high imperial might to never be assailed, as Mitra’s godhead shall never be questioned“. This monarchistic favourability is yet another motif that continued through Iran and Mesopotamia and Palestine, before finding itself in the extensive realm of Rome.

Next Time – Mitra The Soma Drinker

Please read Matthew Webber’s blog

The Consistent Iconography of a Truly Ancient God


Visual representations of Lord Siva began appearing in basic cave dwellings over 5,000 years ago, making the iconography of this deity unique in the fact that certain aspects and modes of his being have been consistent and progressively evolving for at least five millennia. Siva’s earliest depictions are pre-Vedic, that is, they belong to a form of worship that established itself before the Aryans and the inhabitants of the Indus valley had begun formalising their beliefs and deities into what we now come to recognise under the loose umbrella term of ‘Hinduism’. Fascinatingly, this vast period of time has shown the icon of Siva to maintain an almost miraculous (that is, highly improbable) unity and cohesion within the developing cults of India, something which continues to this day.

The famous Bhimbetka murals in Madya Pradesh date back to an astonishing 10,000 B.C and are thus some of the oldest cave paintings in existence. It is unlikely that the depictions of Siva in certain parts of the cave are anywhere near this old (being dated at approximately 3,000 B.C) but are remarkable for the fact that they exist in a seemingly unbroken artistic tradition and location that had already existed for 7,000 years before their supposed creation. These earliest depictions show the symbols still associated with Siva to this day; the bow and arrow and ever present bull, along with the distinctive hair from which some claim he takes his name (Siva can be translated to ‘matted hair’ and refers to the legend of him sat atop a mountain, taking the force of Ganga as she falls from the heavens to earth on his head, allowing her waters to weave through his hair). What is most striking about these images is the depiction of a dancing god, an image and concept which does not appear to exist anywhere else at this time.

Images from the Indus cults that emerged soon after began showing this dancing god as a yogi, surrounded by animals and possessing great horns, suggesting an animal/man composite deity. The notable consistencies of these images show a direct lineage to the icons in the Bhimbetka murals, and expand further on the presence of the humped bull. Scholars of Shaivism have identified this animal to be an expansion of Siva’s phallic form; indeed, the Indus terracotta images are some of the earliest examples of sivalinga; the anthropomorphising of god with male potency and the penis. The primary deity in the archaeological findings possesses an erect phallus as well as his horns, and was interestingly found surrounded with yoni; ringed stones which point to an early form of mother goddess worship in the area. Later findings see the phallic-backed bull reduced somewhat to its still current representation, something which is not an expansion of Siva, but merely his vehicle Nandi, with more emphasis being put on the deity as a dancer, a being who, through his movement, protects and maintains life.

The latter parts of the great age of Shaivism saw more and more complex, poetic and iconic symbols piled onto the ancient deity, firstly the blue throat caused by the drinking of an ocean of poison, the tiger skin and the draped serpents among others; each a testament to a separate legend associated with the god. The image of the cosmic dancer grew increasingly popular until the ninth century B.C, when we began to see the eight armed, five headed deities still aesthetically popular, although not necessarily revered as worshipful representation. The multiple limbs served the purpose of bestowing on Siva yet more properties, (the hands held a trident, sword, bell, goad, skull, human head, shield, drum, and one hand held in abhaya) perhaps seen as the Shaivites attempt to have Siva recognised as the supreme personality of Godhead, and not the demigod he was widely beginning to be viewed as with the popular re-emergence of Vaisnavism and the appreciation of more universal deity.

Siva, however, remains a highly popular deity to this day, but is seen as one who emerges from Visnu, literally, a plenary expansion of the one true god. The iconography generally remains consistent within his new role, however the mood and mode of his worship has focussed on a darker tone, an expansion on the Vaisnava belief that we are currently living in Kaliyuga; an age of darkness represented by Siva’s darkest incarnation. Anybody who has visited a Shaivite temple (particular in parts of Northern India) cannot help but be moved with an ambience of vague terror, something in direct opposition with the light and joyful, colourful and musical atmosphere of the Vaisnava places of worship. Shaivite temples are often dark, cold, altogether quite gruesome and possessing some of the most disturbing incarnations and depictions of god to be seen anywhere. One of the more popular and commonplace icons is that of Bhikshatana Siva – the ‘beggar’ god. Shaivite tradition, right since Indus days, realized in Shiva both the characteristics of the destroyer and the sustainer, that is, his ‘raudra-rupa’ and ‘saumya-rupa’. Bhikshatana Siva comes from the legend that Siva was angered by the unethical conduct of Brahma, who according to some legends was his own father. In rage, Shiva cut off one of Brahma’s five heads. For chastising him of his sin of ‘Brahmahatya’, the severed head converted into a begging bowl, rose from the ground, stuck to Shiva’s palm and forced him to go begging for expiating his sin. Therefore, the begging bowl and skull became yet another pair of icons in the armoury of the god, who is often depicted in Bhikshatana temples as being skeletal, emaciated and in pain. However, even in these very specific places of worship for a very specific type of contemporary person, we would no doubt find a statue of the same bull depicted on prehistoric cave walls, and there would most certainly be a large, smooth stone representing the Sivalinga first seen in the pre-Vedic temples of the Indus valley. We can see behind the bones and blood, and even the more sentimental ‘Holy Family’ icons, a god that would still most probably be recognised by the cave dwellers of five millennia past by the basic features of his iconography, physical features with metaphysical connotations that inspired and created one of the most fascinating and interesting deities the world has even witnessed, and history has maintained.

Spiritual America in a backward Britain


The recent censorship by the Metropolitan Police of the current exhibition of artist Richard Prince’s work, Spiritual America, presents a dilemma which is perhaps the natural conclusion of Tate Modern’s successful effort to cultivate a universal, ‘everyman’ appeal. The piece in question features a photograph of a photograph, an image which contains the posed, nude body of a heavily made-up, but prepubescent Brooke Shields, an image which was deemed to be ‘sexually provocative’ by the vice squad of the Met, and forcibly removed from the display.

The judgement of ‘sexually provocative’ is an interesting, and telling one indeed. Not only does this condemnation and subsequent action heavily patronise the audience of art enthusiasts and day-trippers alike, it refuses to acknowledge not only the meaning of its placement, but also the expertise of the curators and the confidence they have in the power of their house. Spiritual America has been exhibited elsewhere in Europe and also in New York for several month long full retrospectives of Prince’s work, where it was not the focus of the display and yet still succeeded in being recognised as a reflection, a demonstration of the commodification of youth and beauty, and a tool to put the viewer into a mode of moral unease. Prince is questioning the very nature of innocence by showing a bizarre absence of it, a void of youth in what is clearly a disturbing photograph. The image barely looks real, and the effect is a disjointed one – the knowledge we have of the later life and stardom of Brooke Shields puts a sinister spin on the notion of childhood in an era of lust not for physicality or fleshly things but for fame, a base sense desire for the intangible. Prince himself said of the image that it resembles “a body with two different sexes, maybe more, and a head that looks like it’s got a different birthday”. The image is basically sexless, androgynous in its natural abstraction. It is not pornography. The boundaries of pornography are notoriously difficult to determine, and the general (and in my mind, correct) consensus is that the creation of pornography occurs behind the eyes and in the mind of he or she that views it. A naked child, man, woman or animal is not in itself pornographic; the viewer must chose – through the connections made in their own mind, and the influence of their socialisation – to bestow an image or scene with such a tired label.

The Tate Modern is not, as far as I am aware, awash with paedophiles. Even if it was, the fact that it is an art gallery that chooses to display visual images as art should be reason enough to discredit any accusations of pornography being housed there, even when images that literally contain torn up photographs cut from pornographic magazines are exhibited, as has been the case several times over the past ten years. The gallery itself encourages the viewer into accepting a way of seeing, something which artists themselves are acutely aware of whilst the audience’s awareness of this is perhaps more subliminal, but existent nonetheless. Spiritual America may not have a concrete intended purpose as a work of art, but it is art, and there would be no excuse to view it as pornography or something sexually provocative. Even if this were to occur, the image (alongside literally millions of images that make Spiritual America pale in comparison) is available to view fully uncensored and with zoom-in options on the internet, where, in the recesses of one’s own home, the audience has free rein to see it however they choose. The Met’s statement was as infuriatingly patronising as it was embarrassing: “The officers…are keen to work with gallery management to ensure they do not cause offense to their viewers”. This statement shows such a lack of cultural awareness it is literally staggering, especially when put into context of the exhibition and particularly the work in question that, for the largest majority of those who viewed it, would have been seen as a comment on society sexualising children, not on children provoking sex. It is however understandable, although deeply disappointing, that Tate Modern complied instantly with the investigation and removal of the piece.

Searching for religiosity in Warhol is a futile exercise


The seasonal glut of Warholian scrutiny seems to take on a different angle each time a major collection or exhibition is unveiled. Last year it was foot fetishism, before that it was his supposed asexuality or oft confirmed homosexuality. The latest retrospective of pop greats at London’s Tate Modern gallery has brought with it a new angle on Warhol’s later works (certainly the most involving and intriguing material of his career) and art historians around the world have been clamouring over each other to claim that a hidden, devotional religiosity permeated and inspired the majority of his pieces and overall style. The ‘evidence’ for this faith runs through and examines Warhol’s cultural background, his family history, the relationship he had with his mother and supposed weekly mass and charitable work at a catholic church in New York. There is no doubt of the fact that Warhol was raised a catholic; he was of Czech-Byzantine descent, and his mother was indeed a devotedly religious woman. Galleries have for years compared the majority of his work with the stark and primary coloured Byzantine icons of saints and the holy trinity, but I feel as though these comparisons and claims are on one hand stating the obvious, and on the other, completely missing the point.

20th century art, as part of an ongoing lineage of visual culture, is and was without doubt directly linked to religious imagery. Of course it was. Every aspect of culture is in some way linked to religious imagery; our legal system, our medical system and all parts of contemporary life could arguably be shown to be connected to the Abrahamic faiths and their iconography. It also seems utterly pointless to repeatedly mention the sort of images Warhol grew up with as an influence on his creative output – this goes without saying for any artist, let alone one whose work focussed on reflecting the images the western world had firmly planted in the collective consciousness back at them in new, emphasised and enlarged ways.

Warhol’s work deals almost exclusively with icons, those images which take on a meaning of their own, that are burned into our retinae from a process of cultural socialisation that begins as soon as we can see. These icons came from a range of sources which themselves have undergone a transformation from their original purpose or meaning into something distinctly Warholian – think Campbell’s soup, and you think Warhol. Think Marilyn Monroe, and you see that image. Warhol’s fascination with the icon, and the power of the icon he bestowed and recreated made little or no distinction between the resonance of a Hollywood tragedy, or an electric chair, or Jesus Christ, or Chairman Mau, or indeed himself. The image and subject was not ever necessarily important, and certainly not unique. Each silkscreen depicted something we had seen before a million times, and Warhol did very little other than to enlarge the image and apply a few new colours, and show it back to us in a setting which granted the icon reverence, that of the art gallery. Warhol’s talent lay in the simultaneous power of repetition and re-examination, allowing the viewer to become at once desensitised and hyper aware of the image, and then allowing the audience to come to their own conclusion of what it means. Meaning seemed to have little weight on the artist himself, or his factory of producers. The meaning already existed, long ago when the icon was merely an image. Warhol simply moved it into a setting that invited us to project, to spout and scrutinise.

The material that so regularly gets used by those who want to demonstrate the religiosity of Warhol’s work is the ‘Last Supper’ canvasses that took up so much of the artist’s final days. Consisting of a section of Da Vinci’s seminal work, but with the background erased and the figure of Christ and the disciples accentuated with heavy, black lines and exaggerated to almost cartoonish qualities, or replicated faithfully, yet dulled by a heavy, single toned dark wash, the images are nothing more than typical Warhol; recreating something culturally familiar and consciously tangible and reclaiming it as his, and our own piece of iconography. To search for something religious in these images seems almost pointless, any semblance of the holy or divine is clearly not to be found in Warhol’s re-creation of the painting, especially the versions that show Christ alongside a huge ‘ESSO’ logo. Warhol was demonstrating that there is no difference between the icons of the renaissance and the icons of business, both ultimately serve the same purposes. Everything is for consumption, everything is at once familiar and yet arbitrary.

My final point is to examine the man himself. Warhol the artist and Warhol the man are clearly different people, who made every effort to very blatantly and publicly keep themselves apart, in every way. The artist was detached, monosyllabic, seeing life through a lens and nothing else. The vanity of the artist manifested itself in bizarre but obvious ways – alongside the Christ paintings came the hauntingly spectral ‘fright wig’ series; enormous and intense self portraits disguised under strong shadows and camouflage effects, and it would seem utterly, irretrievably out of character (and therefore in Warholian terms, outside of the art itself) to allow such personal, religious feelings into the canon of his own work. Warhol was the work, Warhol was the art. To discuss the man and the artist in the same way shows an unbalanced misunderstanding of the simplicity of the intentions and identity of the artist. To argue that a gold background on an image of Monroe points towards a reverential, Byzantine suggestion of immortality (as one recent critic wrote) seems to both confound and confirm what I have been saying here. Gold was certainly used in the background of religious icons. To claim this as proof of an underlying religiosity running through the entire work of an artist whose career focussed on creating new icons and connecting the visual consciousness of the populous seems utterly flaccid. Andy Warhol may have carried with him a religious faith from his childhood (which, if true, may well have caused him some considerable trauma when addressing his lifestyle), but his work displays its inherent detachment from meaning and recognised lineage that could be traced back to the face of Alexander the Great with a freshness that still effects our way of seeing, even today.

Jagannatha, self manifesting deities and an exploration of symbolic recognition.


I want to talk awhile about a particular avatar and established set of symbols that has captured my attention and imagination for quite some time. Jagannatha (trans. ‘Lord Of The Universe) is perhaps one of the most distinctive and recognisable visualised manifestations of god in the Vaisnava faith, and can be seen being pulled through the streets of most major world cities on the festival days of Ratha Yatra – the festival of the chariot – an auspicious event celebrating the annual pilgrimage taken to a temple in Puri by Krsna (in the form of universal king) alongside his two siblings. The purpose of the celebration itself is not unusual amongst world religions; the idea of a god or holy being passing through the mundane streets and giving benediction and blessings to everyone who should pass by (be they believers or not) can be found at some point in almost all spiritual texts, but the particular form that the god (Krsna) takes for this celebration is unique, and can perhaps offer a glimpse of something older, more distinctly human than divine.

Jagannatha is an icon, in the simplest sense of the word. His features are exaggerated, his skin is jet black (reinforcing the theory behind one of the many translations of the word Krsna – argued by some linguists to be derived from ‘black skinned’ or ‘to possess skin the colour of storm clouds’) and the face itself consists of little more than two wide eyes, a wide, blood red smile and some jewellery adorning the unseen nose of the icon. The deity is dressed, and stands, truncated and limbless, on a chariot next to a white equivalent (the brother, Balarama) and a smaller, yellow icon (the sister, Subhadra). The abstraction of the deity is worshipped as such; an abstraction, a collection of recognisable symbols and features that create something more than the sum of its parts. There are several stories that explain the reason for the abstraction of the images – one is that Krsna and his brother grew ecstatic with love for their sister as they eavesdropped on her speaking her devotion to the gopis of Vrindavan, and through the ecstasies overtaking their physical bodies, their eyes and smiles grew wide, their skin tingled and morphed into a new shape. A more peculiar (and seemingly contradictory) explanation concerns Krsna himself instructing an architect to carve a new deity from a log he was told he would find washed up on the shore on a particular day, and the disappearance of said architect before its completion. According to the story, a great sage called Narada (possibly another extension of god and certainly a regular ‘helpful’ figure in the Srimad Bhagavatam) proclaimed the unfinished, limbless deity to be a legitimate and worshipful image of god – it is the devotion, not the physicality that matters in deity worship. However, this story does not satisfy when one considers the particular iconography of the deity. Perhaps the most satisfactory explanation is also, in some ways, the least conceivable: That the deity and icon of Jagannatha was self-formed, that the icon was ‘created’ by the earth itself. This idea is hinted at in both other ‘explanations’ – Krsna asking the architect to collect a log donated by the sea, and Krsna and Balarama undergoing an organic transformation through the power of natural and divine love.

The concept of self-formed deities in contemporary religion is not a hugely common, even when one is studying the religions of the Indus basin (please forgive me for my hesitancy to use the term ‘Hinduism’), but not unheard of, and I myself have come across temples, and even a whole town that has grown around the discovery of a self formed deity – the now popular seaside resort of Ganpatipule is one such example, where the sea apparently sacrificed a fully formed (although of course, heavily abstracted) worshipful deity of Ganapati, a derivation of the popular demigod Ganesha. Like Jagannatha, Ganapati is truncated, little more than a round and wide eyed ball, adorned with several decorations. The idea of the earth forming images of god is indeed a curious, poetic and powerful one, and one which I feel involves the very basics of religion and its shape within the human mind. There are clues, even in the deities themselves, as to the meanings behind their significance. Jagannatha is literally recognised to be an abstraction of god; he cannot be bestowed with any earthly significance or stories of his own because his physical form is cumbersome, limbless and lacking in grace or even the basics of dexterity which are some of the main features of many of his hundreds of other forms: the young Krsna (who is celebrated for his flute playing, dancing and amorous activities), or Govinda (Protector of the Cattle) or Bhagavan (the philosopher, poet and wartime advisor of the Bhagavad Gita). So Jagannatha, the abstract, becomes universal, exo-terrestrial. The role of Lord of the Universe is by its very nature one which is outside the comprehension of the human mind, and so, perhaps ironically, through his iconography and abstraction he comes to symbolise the connections made within the human mind between basic symbolisms (you can use the word semiotics, if you wish) and the endless, universal power granted to said symbols by the faithful within the very minds that recognise them. In a similar fashion, the features of Ganapati created a deity who is worshipped for his unmoving nature, his guardianship and the very fact that he is self formed, and not the other way around. The deity created the god, the god did not create the deity. This is something which may have been and most likely was prevalent in the oldest religions and forms of worship, but which is practically non existent now except for the perhaps unique example of the manifestation at Ganpatipule. Such examples point towards the attractive idea that the human mind and the power that people have to bestow the simplest forms and shapes with absolute power and the most poetic, beautiful or terrible characteristics is recognised as worshipful in itself.

We only have to look to the simplest examples of symbolic association in art and culture to make some easy and relevant comparisons. The phallic symbol is worshipped around the world in many different forms. Indeed, the only other examples of self manifested deities I can find are the Shivalingum of Himalayan India, literally, phallic stones which are said to possess the potency of the penis of god. What fascinates me, though, is the moment when the supposed self manifested deities were discovered, and the characteristically human response of seeing something mundane and bestowing upon it not only symbolisms galore, but power, potency, magic. There is something peculiar to the human mind that utilises symbols, shapes and patterns. Several experiments and tests have been carried out to prove the fact that the brain actively seeks out the familiar in the abstract, and is capable of recognising both the mundane and the abstract at the same time. I have no doubt that we all have some experience of this occurring, often very regularly. Perhaps the most cliché example is cloud watching – an activity in which we consciously allow our brain to look for familiar objects and shapes in the nebulae. We see faces everywhere; in tree trunks and the front end of cars, in gravel and television static. I believe that this phenomenon is in some way connected to the formation of religion itself, and through popular and contemporary deities such as Lord Jagannatha, we can see a link to something far more primal and much older than even the Vaisnava religion. It doesn’t take a huge stretch of the imagination to visualise a more basic and primal human experiencing the same sensation when watching fire, or clouds, or indeed finding an interestingly shaped log on the river bed and seeing something powerful or magical in its formation. The fact that Jagannatha and the worship of this deity almost invites us to address the idea of abstraction and the existence of god simultaneously within the human mind and as a universal being (whilst at the same time being a human passing through a street on a chariot) is perhaps the unifying feature between primal and sophisticated forms of religion.

As I write this, I discover that scientists have very recently reconstructed a set of recognisable images and symbols through an MRI scan of a test subject’s brain. The scan allowed the scientists to build a readable image of some of the thoughts of the subject when showed a special grid designed to encourage the brain to seek out patterns in something abstract. The strongest images that were recalled by the experiment were letters and numbers (interesting in itself) but one wonders what will be found once this technology advances and the image quality improves to a more sharply, readable level? Will we find the basics of the formation of religion in the recesses of more primitive areas of human consciousness? I’ll let you know if this develops in the near future.

Watch the sun. Keep looking.

Something new on which to chew

This blog will be a collection of writings dealing primarily with iconography, iconoclasty and the iconic sign.

I shall primarily be writing about art and religion. Again, for those of you who know me or my other blog, this will come as no surprise. I invite you to read, to comment, and to suggest or donate articles of your own. This blog hasbeen requested into existence by a magazine, Italy, and by the ever supportive Berlin Art Wurst.