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Hello my name is Alondra Ruiz-Hernandez I am a cross-disciplinary artist and I am grateful to be sharing this time with you to talk about the death and rebirth process as the name of my port talk implies, as well as my artistic process and how my latest  artwork began to focus on transformation. 

All the images I am presenting are part of my own body of artwork. In some sections I will be talking about the artistic process and the materials, while other times I will focus on the concepts and the ideas driving my present work. So the way I have organized this talk there will be moments where the  words will support the artwork and sometimes my images will support the words.

 

At this present moment, death is in the foreground for much of humanity. Usually, it lurks in the depths of our psyches, but during the current covid-19 pandmeic, it can no longer hide. Memento Mori (a Latin phrase meaning ‘remember you must die’) is a tradition of paintings popularized in the seventeenth century. These Memento Mori paintings usually consisted of skulls, decaying fruits, flowers, hour glasses all depicting the fragility of life. These were made during a deeply religious time. Now my Memento Mori is a contemporary interpretation as I believe all human beings go through the process of many different types of deaths.

 

My Memento Mori is originally a self-portrait photograph, which is intensely photoshopped adding wrinkles, fruits, gray hairs, and dramatic lighting. I aged my skin, tinting, and staining every corner carefully. Life is not the opposite of death, birth is. But along the pathway to death, we create our own stories and personalities. Personality comes from the Greek word persona, meaning it is some sort of mask. 

 

Death doesn’t just consist of the destruction of the physical body; one we all know, but also of deconstruction of the mythological and psychological selves. These are deaths and rebirths that occurs within an individual’s psyche. As the Jungian analyst Robert A. Johnson puts it, “Often, when new growth occurs, the most dreadful things seem to happen, but then we see that they were exactly what was required [...] It is easy to be optimistic after the fact but it is devilishly painful while it is happening. There is a sort of inner chaotic evolutionary warfare” (Johnson, 6-7). This warfare is rooted in that old part of our brain, which is desperately trying to survive. One must symbolically let this part of ourselves die so that we can live in new ways. This new form of existence may even revitalise our emotions. The poet David Whyte wrote, “Our faces would fall away until we, growing younger toward death every day, growing younger toward death every day, would gather all our flaws in celebration, would gather all our flaws in celebration” (David Whyte). Transformation almost always occurs from outside our comfort zone. 

 

The myth of Psyche and Eros sheds light on the psychological processes that may occur when one is confronted with change, mourning, leading to the death or letting go of the process and finally rebirth. Robert A Johnson explains in his novels that the words “legend” and “myth” are “almost synonymous with falsehood or illusion. This is because of the misguided idea that myths were the childish way ancient [humans] had of explaining natural phenomena that science explains so much better. But certain psychologists and anthropologists [have helped us understand that] […] mythology reflects the underlying psychological and spiritual process is taking place in the human psyche” [Johnson, 1].  Furthermore, “myths are rich sources of psychological insight. Great literature, like all great art, records, and portrays the human condition with indelible accuracy. Myths are a special kind of literature not written or created by a single individual, but produced by the imagination and experiences of an entire age and culture and can be seen as the distillation of the dreams and experiences of a whole culture” (Johnson, X).   

 So stepping away from the myth for a moment I have been extremely fortunate in my life to have found a brilliant mentor and guide. Actually a former Goodenough member and really one of the most intelligent human beings I have ever met, Bea Gonzalez, who in her group Sophia Cycles introduced me to the rich world of archetypal myths but also taught me about philosophy, psychology, and ideas from Carl Jung. I am also extremely fortunate to have a supportive family and mother who has introduced me to a world of psychology and spirituality,  and a father political inspired me so in this talk I am drawing knowledge from individuals far wiser than I. One thing I've learnt is that if an individual is not willinging to dig deep into their own psychology and confront what is needed to be confronted, they will often unconsciously find other people or circumstances which force them to do so.

 

For those who may be unfamiliar with the myth Psyche and Eros, Psyche was said to be such a beautiful young girl her beauty was comparable to the Goddess Aphrodite. The Goddess, upset with this comparison to a mere mortal condemns Psyche to be destined to marry death. Aphrodite sends her son Eros (or how is more commonly known as cupid) to pierce Psyche when she meets the God of death; however, Eros accidentally pricks himself upon seeing her and immediately falls in love. In an attempt to hide his love from his mother he takes Psyche to a secret paradise garden. Eros tells Psyche to always wear a blindfold when he is around, so she will never know who he is. It’s important to know that myths contain archetypes, rather than real people or scenarios, which catalyze change and growth.  Every character presented in this story could be understood and analyzed as different parts that make up one individual’s psychology. Here, I understand this stage of the myth as an individual in the process of change but who isn’t fully conscious. A part of Psyche’s own psychology is still hidden from her conscious awareness. She keeps this symbolic blindfold to something she isn’t quite ready to see and integrate into her life. 

 

Psyche’s sisters visit her in her new home. Upon discovering the secret Psyche is keeping they urge her to uncover her husband's identity. After all she could be married to a monster. So, these sister’s that come to visit Psyche could very well be her inner doubts, but they can also be other individuals that enter her life and propel change. I think this is a very healthy way to think of individuals or situations that  bring personal difficulties while at the same time stimulate transformation. We can pause for a moment, step back and look at these tough strenuous moment of life we are all living in.  Reflecting on the journey through the pandemic, can you ask yourself where you have expanded and transformed?. “It is paradoxical, but you can feel both gratitude and resentment toward the person who forces you to begin down your own path of growth” (Robert A Johnson). 

 

Psyche begins her journey moving through the fog into deeper clarity. As her husband sleeps she takes her lanter and knife to uncover his identity. Although she discovers something beautiful, no monster at all, she is in shock, and drops of oil from her lanter fall onto Eros arm waking him up. I think this moment in our myth points to reality, what change is, even when it's good, it can still be overwhelming. Sometimes, a part of us despite knowing that whatever development is occurring would in fact be a positive one, can hold a tremendous amount of fear. Fear, because it means stepping outside of the world and tendencies you’ve always known. As the blindfolded agreement between Eros and Psyche is broken, Psyche is suddenly sent back to earth after being in paradise. Perhaps here is another insight into growth, Psyche confronts that aspect of her psychology she has been long hiding from herself and immediately returns back to earth. Isn’t that how growth happens for so many of us? It isn’t really this linear thing, but rather a circular movement where we take few steps into a deeper consciousness, finally understand what it is your meant to seen, get a little freaked out, to then return to your old habits, to what you know and what is safe, and then when you are ready take a few more steps forward. During Psyche’s time on earth, being completely overwhelmed from the  knowledge she just unveiled, immediately wants to drown herself in a river. As Johnson highlights ”Does this not point toward a kind of self-sacrifice, the relinquishing of one level of consciousness for another? [quite often} in human experience the urge toward suicide signals an edge of a new level of consciousness. If you can kill the right thing—the old way of adaptation—and not injure yourself, a new energy-filled era will begin” (Johnson, 63).  

 

Any path we choose in life will inevitably lead to some form of heartbreak. However, heartbreak is a symbol of genuine care. The poet David Whyte explains “So many visions of the future are adultescent hopes of escape from the present, especially from the heartbreak of the present. Really you only have a future when you come into the heartbreak and ground of this life” (Whyte). In the midst of Psyche’s pain she is visited by the God Pan- the God Pan is where we derive the word panic-and get’s the understanding that she must go to Aphrodite to move beyond the suffering. This is frustrating because it was Aphrodite who condemned her to marry Death to begin with, butr as Johnson points out “it is almost always the case that whatever has wounded you will also be instrumental to your healing” (Johnson, 52) Allthough it might be natural to run away, distract ourselves and place the metaphorical blindfold when we encounter difficulties it doesn’t resolve the pain or truly allow you to move forward. Avoidance only causes the pain to live and be active  somewhere in the back of our mind.

 

As the writer Thomas Hubl explains; “If we don’t look at the past, the past will look through us... This notion of personal freedom is an illusion. We have personal freedom and choice only when we are conscious of what we are choosing. If my pattern runs me then I don’t have a choice… if there are unconscious drivers in my experience that I am not aware of then those unconscious mechanisms will run me… unconscious trauma of our past is our destiny. Conscious energy brings in a choice.” (Thomas Hübl)

 

The rest of our myth consists of Aphrodite giving Psyche a series of tasks that will propel her to transform. 

 

 For the past few years my practice has been focused on trauma, specifically a sense of global trauma which I will revisit later on. First I want to dive into what trauma actually is. Psychotherapist and pioneer in Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, Pat Ogden explains that “psychological trauma is the unique individual experience of an event, a series of events, or a set of enduring conditions, in which the individual’s ability to integrate his or her emotional experience is overwhelmed” (Ogden). 

 

Trauma specialist Bessel van der Kolk explains that “our sense of aliveness is based on our body’s sensation” (van der Kolk, trauma summit) and when trauma occurs, the individual has a heartbreaking and gut-wrenching sensation that leads “to [the] shutdown [of] your own body, and to ignore, to push away those feelings that are very much in the insula and the parietal brain […leads] you [to] start feeling dead, your life has no longer meaning, and you have no self-compassion, and you certainly have no compassion for other people.” (van der Kolk, trauma summit). The sensation of death seems to be inseparable from trauma, either as a by-product of the event itself or when the individual attempts to feel more aware and less dissociated. This sensation occurs because you are actively fighting the brain circuits that are wired to protect you from being vulnerable again (although this protective defense may not always manifest itself in the most logical ways). 

 

Even if you do not feel you have experienced a traumatic event, western society “place[s] higher value on thoughts than on feelings […] The result is a cortico-centric orientation in which there is a top-down bias emphasizing mental processes and minimizing the bottom-up feeling emanating from our body” (Stephen W. Porges, 34). This leads to that same dead sensation. We need to deconstruct the colonial thoughts, preferences and values that form a sort of allegiance to the rational mind. I do not intend to dismiss the rational nor the incredible discoveries which the rational mind allows for and nurtures. However, this allegiance materializes a divided mind where the rational is held in far greater importance over the emotional. If we neglect emotional wellbeing, it leads not only to difficult unnecessary suffering for individuals but for those individuals to further traumatize future generations. As Van der Kolk explains, “To overcome trauma you need to wake your body again. Where you can really take pleasure in the small things of life” (van der Kolk, trauma summit). Perhaps, part of being fully alive is to simultaneously hold the world’s agony and ecstasy. In valuing this essential aspect of life we can reconnect to our own wellbeing and empathize and care for the wellbeing of others. We have to embrace our connectivity with all sentient beings. This will permit for a connection between the inner and outer worlds.  

 

Vulnerability comes from the Latin word vulnus, or wound. The poet David Whyte urges his readers to cultivate vulnerability, which he says is not a weakness but rather a vehicle for compassion. Whyte explains the notion of the wound as a symbol of being “open to the world whether you like it or not” (Whyte).

 

These paintings belong to a body of work named Collective Trauma. They attempt to visually manifest trauma through the notion of the rupture. The pieces exhibit different expressions of punctures through either illusionary form (the oil and digitally painted) or in analog form (the physical burnt tear). Each piece retains patterning and vibrant myriad colours in the midst of the ruptures symbolizing the beauty of hope which lies beneath the trauma.This is a triptych of paintings portraying the brain’s defense mechanisms Fight. Flight and Freeze. 

 

‘Fight’ exhibits the most chaotic manifestations within the paintings. The intricate designs overlap and leave no room for your eyes to rest, echoing the restlessness in fight responses.  Fight shows the emotional panic that leads to a state of hypervigilance, defensiveness, and preparedness, where everything is perceived as dangerous.

 

‘Flight’ exhibits physical analog, painted, and digital spaces. During the process I took an image, ripped that image, scanned the cut, printed and attached the images to the canvas to then painted on top of that. So for example if you look at the right upper corner the fold is a painted illusionary effect whereas the left upper corner is a physical fold of the printed paper. The main tear is also a visual effect. so the idea was to play here with the illusion of space and how our perception can be distorted. In this painting the more vibrant design lies behind the rupture and sits in a more hidden position. This is because the defense mechanism of Flight is the mind’s attempt to escape the overwhelming situation.

 

While ‘Flight’ presents an illusionary digital tear, ‘Freeze’ presents a physical burnt puncture. So here I actually ripped and burnt the canvas. The act of burning the canvas physically traumatized the material itself. Freeze happens when fight or flight is not possible. The overwhelming white of the canvas is a flat, motionless, achromatic, lifeless environment that reflects the extremely low energy and submission that prevails during states of hypoarousal.

 

Like the Fight, Flight, Freeze triptych this painting “Collective Psyche” also expresses these defence mechanisms through illusionary and physical punctures. In the painting Collective Psyche these defence stages overlap moving through the body of the canvas and exposing the skeletal structure underneath. I built a composite canvas by attaching multiple frames together displaying a fragmented piece mimicking what Trauma expert Janina FIsher explains; “When more than one trauma happens, the right brain-dominant Traumatized Part of the Self becomes more compartmentalized: separate parts evolve, each offering different survival strategies needed in a dangerous world. They fear normal life as dangerous and fight to survive in all their old ways.” (Janina Fisher). 

Can we draw parallels between an individual traumatized brain and our collective traumatized psyche?

 

In the 1960s, the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan described the world as a global village that would continue to shrink as technological development evolved. The global village is a notion “of transnationalism—interactions, interests, and loyalties beyond the tribe and nation that encompass the globe. The distinctive character of the global village is that it is based on communication and assumes that global information creates global consciousness” (Alison Brysk, Encyclopedia of Global Studies). McLuhan compared interconnected communication networks to a ‘global nervous system’. Extending this analogy, it can be concluded that, like any other consciousness, this system can also experience trauma and react accordingly. Can our current socio-political context – specifically the Covid-19 pandemic and the migrant and climate crises – be considered as by-products and/or exacerbations of this global trauma? Are we living in a traumatized society?

In my view, my responsibility as an artist and citizen of the global village is to be a voice that brings awareness to the collective human trauma inherent in the climate, migrant, and health crises. How can I, as an artist, contribute and support an equitable, collaborative, and diverse World? How do we relate to this global consciousness? How can we heal from the trauma it is suffering?

I would argue we are in a liminal stage where humans can either work together to build a fierce reverence for life or be condemned to follow a suicidal path to catastrophe. Historically, we are situated in a unique pivotal and uncertain place. Covid-19 has drastically changed our lives but has also allowed  people to reflect – barring extreme cases, where individuals are in complete survival mode.  We no longer need to just contemplate and address our own struggles and mortality, but due to the climate crises, that of our entire planet. The painter Andy Patton writes, “I know that I too will die. But to contemplate the worsening climate crisis, ringed with denial and inaction, is to realize that our whole cultural world will die” (Andy Patton).  He reminds readers of not only our mortality but of the death of culture if we continue to deplete our resources... That is the death of everything we know and love. But perhaps this potential death could lead to the birth of a greater transformation?  Summarizing the philosopher Brad evans power courses across borders, so the issues we face in the 21st century are by definition global. As the philosopher and sociologist Zigmunt Bauman puts it, “There are no 20th-century solutions to 21st-century problems” (Bauman). Will these predicaments catalyze sufficient transformation in enough individuals to create significant and meaningful change?

  Regardless of our individual or cultural understandings of morality, all humans share a desire for meaning and purpose. In my artistic practice l want to investigate questions of meaning, purpose, and community in a world that is in constant flux. How can societies offer solace, coping mechanisms, and healing to satisfy the psychic need for something certain and solid?  How do we deal with a crisis of meaning and isolation from the rest of the community? Have we formed an overly individualistic, anthropocentric model of reality? What is the price of human hubris?

This 1-minute film is named Fragmentation. The audio is mainly composed of my breath. Each time you exhale, you have to let go. Relinquish your life source before you can take another breath in. In some way, each exhalation is a preparation for death. Breathing brings balance to the central nervous system. The inhalation activates the sympathetic nervous system, bringing energy; while exhalations activate the parasympathetic nervous system, bringing relaxation. The breath out, the relinquishing, is what brings us to our deepest relaxation. A heartbeat serves as a consistent drum. The heartbeat expresses the human internal drum that drives us, sustains us, and is ultimately inseparable from our identity.

Fragmentation explores these questions. How do we relate to our surroundings? How does ancestral history shape and form those relations and our identity? 

The animated images in the film are from my previous photographic series named Body as the Frame, in which I wear textiles I created from my own paintings. Creating a textile dissolves the restrictions of a canvas stretcher and allows me to create a  mutable visual fabric. This fabric reacts to the natural forces of the wind and my body. In a sense, the body becomes its own landscape.

 

 This sound piece, Lacrimosa, was part of a collective online exhibition with the intention of holding a virtualized ritual mourning for the Pandemic. I digitally manipulated the melody. The voices convey suffering and moaning but are also reminiscent of a choir-like song. There is a sort of shared pain in the collective realities we’ve all endured during this pandemic, albeit at varying levels with some suffering more than others. the psychotherapist, writer, and soul activist Francis Weller said, “This is not my sorrow, this is our sorrow, our communal cup of sorrow that we are sharing. Every one of us knows grief, every one of us knows loss. None of us have been spared that reality [...] It helps break us out of that fiction of individualism. This is a shared reality, a mutually entangled experience. Not only of sorrow but compassion.” Furthermore, Weller argued, “If you care at all about the world your heart is breaking and it should be [....]  it’s the broken heart that can fall back in love with the world” (Francis Weller). 

 The visualisation of the Lacrimosa serves to emphasize the eerie quandary of the sound piece. Its circular pattern represents the unending organic pulses within a rectangular structured frame. The frame creates a sense of structure, which may be needed when diving into your subconscious. As the subconscious can be a deep and unregulated space structure allows for a tool to not get completely lost in this spatio-temporal realm. Lacrimosa is an invitation to that realm.

Lacrimosa means “Our Lady of Sorrows”, “weeping”, “mournful”, “tearful”. The Sound piece that I just played  is inspired by the requiem (mass of the dead) pieces composed by Verdi and Mozart. Since COVID-19 has caused an estimated 2.7 million deaths, a sort of “mass of the dead” – and mourning and grief – feel essential. As Weller says, “When we shun grief, the heart begins to freeze, and grief is a profound solvent. It can soften the most hardened places in our lives” (Weller). Philosopher Brad Evans notes that COVID-19 has brought out a mutually shared vulnerability, which in turn has put a spotlight on the truly vulnerable in our societies such as those who faced economic and food insecurity long before the virus affected our world. He argues that the crisis has revealed what is already broken in our society. The idea of a mourning ritual for our collective focuses on mutual experience rather than the individual one. As Evans explains, “the idea that politics begins with security is a complete misnomer. Politics begins with our concern for our loved ones, for our families, for our friends. So, before we give any sense of meaning to security, we need to know what love means, we need to know what compassion means, we need to know what empathy means, because that’s what brings security really into focus for us” (Brad Evans). 

The gothic mourning of Verdi’s Lacrimosa captivates me as it expressively juxtaposes the terrifying with the angelic. My Lacrimosa attempts to emulate the paradox of simultaneously holding the grotesque and sublime.

 The piece also contains moments from the Mexican folk song La Llorona, a Mexican legend about a weeping woman who wanders looking for her lost children. My Lacrimosa embodies the mourning and wailing of La Llorona, and particularly the line “Llorona, llévame al río” (which comes from the famous Mexican song, and means “Llorona, take me down to the river”). The place where she looks for her children who have drowned. In The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Carl Jung writes that “water is the commonest symbol for the unconscious” (Jung 19). The river is not only a symbol of death in this Mexican legend but also in Shakespeare’s character Ophelia. It is also where Psyche from myth previously discussed goes to commit suicide before meeting the God Pan. The river is an unfixed, uncontrollable, fluid substance much like our unconscious, especially when meeting new parts of ourselves for the first time. Perhaps, when in deep pain, we all retreat to the rivers of our unconscious.

 Writer and director Kristi Nelson explains how we can be deadened to beauty and joy as much as we can also be deadened to suffering and injustice. Sometimes we fail to see and to be an embodied witness. She urges readers to “keep death always before your eyes […] [as it may be] the pathway to the deepest joy” (Kristi Nelson).

At this moment there is a few quotes from brilliant thinkers I would like to read:

 

“Death does not have to be treated as an enemy for you to delight in life. Keeping death present in your consciousness as one of the greatest mysteries and as one of the moments of incredible transformation imbues this moment with added richness and energy that is otherwise used up in denial. Death is not an error, it is not a failure, It is taking off a tight shoe” (Ram Dass)

 

 “Feeling our grief is a reminder of our love and our profound interrelationship with everything. Even if we go extinct being conscious of that... honouring reality in this process. As well as assisting trees, building topsoil, ensuring that our nuclear power plants don’t melt down, there are many things that we can do that even if we go extinct limits the harm that continues for more millions of years.” (Michael Down)

 

 “There is an [climate] urgency… [that] might induce the feeling that we don’t have time to take care of trauma... We need the urgency for the habits [to change them] but we need to slow down to digest the past. We need both and it's a paradox… {if you don’t deal with the trauma] it will slow you down anyways. If you don’t slow down voluntarily then you will be slowed down by all kinds of events… skilful intervention knows when to speed up and when to slow down. Just running is not the best solution. We need both. We need intelligent running and intelligent slowing down”  

 

“in the deepening of my understanding of life […] death and birth are the same moment […] What is the meaning of death and birth not being a second apart?” (Thomas Hubl).

 

In my view it is a myth that the future is forthcoming; That the changes of our future begin at a different time. We can only dream of a better future when we fully embody the present and confront the contradictions of our past. Is it possible to allow injustices when we remember what it is to look into the eyes of another and see the human, see the same essence that creates and sustains our own bodies? So how can we justify why some bodies experience poverty, racism, unequal pay, neglect, while others do not? We cannot accept that this is the only way of the world. This is the way of the world because humans have made it so. We must choose not to submit, not to relinquish to old systematic ideologies because of convenience. I hope after hearing this talk we can reflect. Think how can I, a member of the global village, make this dream a reality? How do I take personal responsibility and take even the smallest step today?

 

The world has changed through the COVID-19 pandemic; the economic, ecological and health crisis confronts us with a new reality, never before faced by humanity. This forces us to consider a possible world, a better, freer, more egalitarian world and face our contradictions. If we are capable of truly accepting and understanding our past then we will have a new world. 

 

During the pandemic we have taken informed conscious steps realizing that keeping our distance, covering our mouths, washing our hands, and the use of mass vaccination we can control the Covid Virus. Imagine if we used the mass global mobilization we have seen during this pandemic to focus on solving the climate crisis, excessive land exploitation, inequality, poverty, racism.

 

I know this sounds idealistic but dream with me for a moment.

 

Let's imagine that with sustainable production we manage to stop and reverse the deterioration of the land. 

 

That every human being benefits, that there is no more ecological destruction and elimination of thousands of species, but that there is a change towards the preservation and conservation of species.

 

Imagine a world without ecological and economic problems, of growth, peace and harmony.

 

This world is only possible when we face our past, embody the present, and make conscious change for our future.

 

This is a world where human problems and their contradictions do not have to be resolved through war but rather through dialogue. Where we learn to actively listen to each-other. No need to loot, steal, appropriate, enslave.

 

Great changes await humanity. These changes will not occur overnight but we can begin to integrate these values and strive to make changes everyday. We are all in this fight for change, but it is young people who are most affected by the hope for a better world.

 

I believe we are in a transformative moment in which we can choose to allow the old systems that no longer function for us to die, mourn this loss, and strive for the rebirth for a new world that is more sustainable, peaceful, and egalitarian.