Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Rural (Magical) Symbolism in Kathy Ruttenberg's Pieces (in Stux Gallery)

In The Golden Bough, James Frazer writes about what religion was like in pre-urban/non-urban societies. 

Indeed, Christianity was an almost perfect religion for the city, but an utterly useless religion for the countryside.  Christianity was a religion that offered a moral code and promoted values like toleration, forgiveness of strangers, justice and equality between social classes etc.  It's no coincidence that the first Christian missionaries headed out for the big cities (starting with Ephesus) and left the countryside alone.

And, of course, the biggest battle that the Catholic Church waged was against the religion of the countryside, which they termed "paganism."  A 'pagan' was literally a person who lived outside of a city.  It is no coincidence that "Satan," in the Middle Ages, began to be depicted to look a lot like the ancient Greek god Pan - an ancient rural deity. 

In the Middle Ages the church waged a war against 'witchcraft,' which was basically a magical, pagan practice that was often effectively used to aid in childbirth and fight disease through magical rituals involving quite potent herbal remedies.  One of the dirty secrets of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance was that the women who used the  magical pagan herbs were hanged and burned by the church as witches and agents of Satan, but the herbs and practices were adopted by early (male) "doctors" as the backbone of the science of medicine.

Basically men stole witchcraft from women, fixed it up a bit, and called it science.

But, more specifically, what were the characteristics of this pre-urban type of religion?  As Frazier shows, a belief in magic was the centerpiece of this religion.  The rural 'pagans' were keen observers of nature and its yearly changes and believed that certain rituals could facilitate a beneficial relationship between their communities and the forces of nature.  The pagans were interested in a 'religion' that would be good at helping women give birth, ensuring rain, ensuring the fertility of their land, protecting their society from diseases, making their crops grow etc.  These were very worldly and community concerns.  In small villages there was no great need for an elaborate moral system, since everybody knew everyone else and individual socialization techniques worked to ensure a smoothly run society.

Here's an image of the Celtic nature god Cernunnos:

Common to this tradition are "green men" or sculptures of humans turning into trees or types of vegetation:

I think that if we look at Kathy Ruttenberg's work, we can see a lot of these pre-urban or pagan symbols. 

Here is a piece called "Gifts of This World"

Indeed, a lot of Ruttenberg's work involves people morphing into trees.

Frazier believed that trees were essential in pagan worship but I tend to disagree with his interpretation of what a tree meant.  Basically a tree grows its roots deep into the earth and its trunk and branches reach up into the sky.  To me the tree is a symbolic bridge between the earth and the sky, or between our animal nature and spiritual nature, or between the lower and the higher.

For a person, obviously, to morph into a sacred aspect of nature is very "pagan" and we see this metamorphosis all over the place in Celtic and other cultures.

Here's a piece I really liked from her last show at Stux:

A person's body has been deliberately severed in several places and a tree is growing through the disembodied corpse.  Of course, in the ancient world, human sacrifice was commonly practiced. This was, of course, severely condemned by Christian missionaries, but it seems (from evidence obtained from so-called 'bog-people') that the victims were often elite members of their society and went to their deaths willingly for the community. 

Of course, in the 'pagan' religions there was no belief in a heaven and hell.  Rural dwellers were too connected to the earth.  They saw bodies decompose, they saw the process of life generating life and for the most part believed in a type of reincarnation.

Basically it looks as if "pagan" religion was a religion dealing with the relationship between people and nature, whereas the Christian religion was a religion focusing on the relationship of people with people.

Here's a piece Ruttenberg called "Heat"

In Judeo-Christian mythology the snake is a type of thief - it steals immortality.  In pagan cultures the snake embraced immortality.  Here a person has morphed into a cat, an animal of the night, and like Cernunnos, it holds a snake as if it is holding a trophy.

Here's an image called Tree Hugger

So what is Ruttenberg saying by embracing a type of outlook that predates the rise of cities?

I think she's saying that our notion of inner or spiritual development is too limited because it is too Judeo-Christian.  It is too urban.  It neglects the earth and nature.  Often our concept of inner development is too tied to our relations to others and not tied deeply enough to what nature is or can be.  We are concerned with development within a society, but we should be concerned about our development within an environmental system.

I think the work of Ruttenberg invites us to examine how limited and how urban our beliefs are, and challenges us to recognize that our perspective has to embrace all of nature along with human society.  'Love your neighbor' should not just mean your human neighbor.

You can see more of Ruttenberg's work here:

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