Monday, October 05, 2015

Rock Hard Bodies

Ten minute introduction to materiality and prehistoric art 




What do you see?

We might recognize a tiny woman, or a penis, testicles, breasts, a goddess, or the Woman of Willendorf. But if we were viewing her from a distance, or if we were holding her, she would first and foremost be a rock.  

And while contemporary, capitalistic societies generally perceive rocks as “minerals” - inert, lifeless, passive objects, or as commodities to be exploited for economic gain, pre-industrial societies took a different view. Stones were alive, could grow, tell stories, hold memory, draw people together, but also were understood not as “minerals” but as petrified blood, fat, and bones of the ancestors.

Some Amazonian villages consider quartz and other rock crystals to be concentrated semen. Likewise, in Japan the myth-histories say rice is hardened semen delivered to the people through the ancestral land, itself understood as self-hardening, “onogoro,” God ejaculate. The leaders of the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria claim they obtain their red clay from the vagina of the goddess Iya Mapo (and this sheds new light onto humans-from-clay creation myths like the Judeo-Christian one).

Links between food, clay, and flesh are in fact really common in the anthropological literature, as are associations between stone and bone. Tribes in California are recorded as referring to a white mineral used in healing and body painting as powdered human bone. The mineral is obtained from a hole where the rock giant Yayali is said to have thrown the bones of people he ate. Stone and bone are conceptually linked because they share physical properties of hardness and durability. Rice gruel looks and feels just like semen. Ochre is associated with blood because it is red, and when mixed with water looks like blood. In the film Rivers and Tides, we see Andy Goldsworthy make blood out of grinding up ochre and mixing it with water.

And remember that the Woman of Willendorf was covered in red ochre, and that archeologists found human bones in Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic burial sites covered in red ochre, and that we covered our bodies in red ochre, or as we understood it, the healing, petrified menstrual blood of some deity. 

So tonight I will review what the "female" figurines found at the beginning of history symbolically mean, in theory, adding that we should approach them as “surrealist objects” because of their polymorphic nature and because prehistoric people were probably tripping on psychedelics a lot of the time, but I want to emphasize that, in myth-histories around the world, stones can grow, and we have to keep that in mind when interpreting stone and mineral artifacts.  It turns out that most studies focus on symbolic meaning, and completely overlook the materiality, or rockiness, of the object. They forget that the medium is also the message.

An Animate Earth
And the medium, in this case, is alive and can grow. There are examples in Australia and New Zealand where stones grow, get pregnant, and have a gender. In Melanesian societies, ethnographers have recorded examples of stones believed to walk around, dance, light fires, transmit and cure diseases, speak, procreate and kill. In Japan, this ancient idea that stones grow is expressed in their national anthem (the shortest national anthem in the world) and arguably in their rock gardens! The Chumash people of coastal California describe certain stones as people who turned into stone, and who can sometimes return to their human form. 

And this idea, that a cultural hero can shift between human and stone forms, is key, according to ethnographers, to understanding why mountains, rocks and human modified stone constructions like the Woman of Willendorf, have held so much significance for indigenous people.

So imagine you are a prehistoric person, and you don't know where the strange object came from because it was made ten thousand years ago and you just now stumbled upon it within the ruins of a small clay city.  It could be a tiny fairy who turned to stone and may one day turn back! You better keep her around. Or, plant her in the ground! She may grow into a woman, The Magic Seed theory, as some of the clay figurines were planted in the ground.

It's interesting my parents are selling their house and the other day my mom’s best friend came over and brought a tiny Saint Joseph statue to bury upside-down in the front yard. Who knows about this Pagan, Catholic Voodoo ritual? Is it a cultural retrieval of animism? "Desperate times call for desperate measures." Is it related to beliefs about making blood offerings to the ground, to appease the spirits under the ground, which is, I might add, an invisible realm more inaccessible than the sky. The world beneath our feet is harder to gaze into than deep space. Remember just last year scientists found an entire ocean some 400 miles beneath North America. And it gets better: the hidden ocean is apparently locked inside a blue crystalline mineral called ringwoodite, and it holds three times as much water than exists in all the world's surface oceans! They say this discovery may help explain where Earth's water supply came from, and how subterranean water affects plate tectonics, and in a way it confirms the mythic origins of the oceans, Leviathan, the blue crystal coated water dragon sleeping and stirring inside the planet. There is a great version of the deluge myth from the Jewish Midrash where Yahweh hates people and wants to flood the earth so he takes the small white stone off of Leviathan's head he had placed there to keep her docile and lets her thrash around, causing water to burst forth from beneath the ground, a scene we saw so beautifully depicted in Daron Aronofsky’s film, Noah.

We read in Marilyn Stokstad and Rosemary Joyce that the water left inside many of the female figurines found at Dolni Vestanice made them explode in the kiln. Now why would people so skilled in making pottery—we know they made vessels and clay bricks— why would they purposefully put wet figurines into the kiln to explode? Stokstad gives no answer, but there are three theories, or projections, I like. One is that the artist hated women and wished them harm, treating the clay figurines like voodoo dolls. We can spot misogyny twenty millennia away! Another, and the one that is most popular,  is that the artist-shaman used the cracking of the sculpture like the Chinese shaman used the cracking of tortoise shells, or like the gypsy uses tealeaves—as a way to read the future or receive messages from the ancestors. And the third projection, which I like the best, is that the life of the object recapitulates the life of a person, and destruction is part of the life. The sculpture begins as a small bit of clay, then grows, gradually hardens, and then breaks apart and returns to the ground. This is like the terracotta horses in India.  Today, huge terracotta horses, some of the largest clay sculptures in the world, are built to slowly decay. They are created during rituals where they are believed to be infused with divine life, and then afterwards they are deposited in lakes, or left at the edge of villages to disintegrate in a process of clay recycling.

And yes, I think Indian clay horses, Chinese oracle bones, my mom’s St. Joseph statue, materiality, and the mysterious realm beneath our feet all help inform our interpretation of prehistoric art. As a visual artist, everything is source material, and I don't have to follow the rules of the historians or archaeologists when interpreting cultural artifacts. I believe that the imagination is an opening onto the collective unconscious, and maybe even onto the prehistoric body from which all human culture sprang. So I throw my net wide and I gather all I can disregarding the rules. By lining up stories in the imagination, patterns emerge, and we can receive a deeper, more poetic, more complex and therefore more accurate interpretation of these objects. 

Ok, so, let's begin!  


Selected Bibliography

Ballard, C. (1998) Fluid Ontologies: Myth, Ritual, and Philosophy in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Bergin and Garvey, Connecticut.

Ohnnki-Tierney, E.(1993). Rice As Self: Japanese Identities Through Time. Princeton University Press, New Jersey.

Boivin, Nichole and Owoc, Mary Ann. 2004. Soils, Stones and Symbols: Cultural Perceptions of the Mineral World. UCL Press.
Robert Graves and Raphael Patai, Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis (New York, McGraw-Hill, 1966).

Chamberlain, B. (1981). The Kojiki. Tuttle Publishing, Tokyo.






Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Birth of Sake

Here is a new article I wrote for Globalish on rice and material religion in Japan.

When two or three gather in my name, there I am.
– Matthew 18:20

Music, dance, food, drink, anything that brings us together, that re-binds us, is religious. Examining shared cultural foods, like bread and rice-wine, can interrogate our hard-won boundaries. We are not merely who we think we are — our bodies and minds are surprisingly porous, malleable, as fluids “inside” the self and “outside” the self transform into each other.

I feel unique and separate, but then at dinner I look up and see everyone eating from the same dish, and drinking from the same bottle. I see my people. Shared foods, like shared body fluids, become metaphors for kinship, unity, and sameness. This is because, with substances, individual parts can be separated from the whole without ever losing the essential quality of the whole. A spoonful of rice is the same as the entire cooker, as a drop of blood can be connected to a lineage way beyond an individual life-span. Commensality – eating and drinking together – materializes the soul. Therefore, we should approach substances like rice and its wine with caution.

Pearly, white rice is a staple food and religious substance in Japan, once named “1500-Autumns-of-Rice-Ears-Land.” Hard, soft, and liquid forms are offered at every ancestral shrine, in forests and in homes, at every graveyard and Buddhist temple, inside neighborhoods, in bowls, on plates, in kegs, jugs, jars, and in shot glasses (so, really, any young person can go out and get drunk at night for free). Wine bottles litter the entire landscape. Shinto shrines and sake manufacturers maintain a symbiotic relationship.

If we step way back and look at history from the perspective of deep time, human-centered agency is replaced by larger forces, and familiar roles reverse: we see rice grow and domesticate humans. Rice flows into national identity and fundamental cultural institutions. Most Japanese people do not know this, but the traditional role of the Emperor is not chief of the military (that’s the Shogun), but “protector of the rice-plants.” He must enact the Onamesai, a secret and erotic ritual that ensures the continual flow of divine rice into our realm. Not unlike Jacob in the TV series Lost, the unseen, private Emperor protects a hot, white liquid light living within the island. This ritual probably has something to do with semen, whose physical appearance coincidentally is exactly that of sticky rice-gruel (just watch the preview for The Birth of Sake below).

In winter, this spirit force retreats into the mountain, and in spring it comes out to bloom the plum and cherry trees before descending into neon green paddies where it congeals into rice, soul-seeds, the radiance of the skin, the superiority of the Japanese race, national pride, and ultimately, into precious body substances. Asian folk medical note: “Six bowls of rice replaces one drop of semen.” During Festival, neighborhoods parade portable shrines half naked while singing and drumming to recapitulate the Onamesai. The Emperor’s life-force returns to his body, and the rice god is captured and carried back into the mountain shrine by the neighborhood elders, where it waits alone again till next year. People on sake have semi-public sex in the dark, empty rice paddies; there is always rape and a spike in abortions reported after harvest festivals.

Sake is the essence of the seed, the distilled spirit, the wine, the cream, the semen of the rice. A bride and groom must sip it in front of everyone in order to consecrate the Shinto marriage: visualizing “two souls, one flesh.” The term “spirits” is used for the distilled essence of various seeds, probably on purpose. The spirit of the human is not just a “breath,”it’s a full body-mind wine – clear, potent, inherent yet maturing. The human soul’s journey to enlightened revelation is also sometimes described in terms of fermentation — an earthy process that depends on help from friends, on trillions of beings working together. It depends on breaking down boundaries, and ultimately, unfortunately, on breaking down the self. George Santayana: “The soul is but the last bubble of a long fermentation in the world.” Enlightenment really is what Trungpa said: the ego’s number one disappointment.

Fermented substances associate with primal magic and kinship stories in the West, too. Remember that Melchizedek, the first emperor-priest, arrived in time to break bread and to share wine. That’s all! And yet, this ordinary act instigates a binding new covenant between humans and God, humans and the Land, between “self” and “other.” In a sense, Melchizedek’s wine-ritual jump-started all the Abrahamic religions.

Likewise, as Tetsuo Hasuo of the Japan Sake Brewers Association notes, sake has always been “a way of bringing gods and people together… In some of this country’s oldest texts the word used for sake is miki, written with the characters for ‘god’ and ‘wine.’ People would go to a shrine festival and be given rice wine to drink, and they would feel happy and closer to the gods.” This is not just because god-wine is hallucinogenic; sake is fermented from a shared substance that both symbolizes and literally is the Japanese people and the Japanese landscape.

We are what we eat. Food archetypes are there for the reaping: they lead the imagination out of the separate self, and into another story. Rice is the Japanese soul. Watch The Birth of Sake, and you’re watching the production of this soul. Kampai! May commensality always put you in the spirit.


The Birth of Saké official trailer from erik shirai on Vimeo.

May all beings be Free and in Love.



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