EGG … sculpture, ritual and performance

Recently, I had the honour of being asked to create a sculpture for a friend’s 60th birthday. This work was to be incorporated into the more performative, ritualized aspect of the weekend-long celebration … the intent was to create a form that would hold pieces of paper inscribed with wishes, blessings, names of ancestors – whatever people chose to add. The sculpture and all it contained were to be floated on the water of the dugout at her farm and burned … the goal being the release of all that people had placed into the structure, and the physical and visual marking of a transition to a new chapter of life for my friend.

What developed in conversations around this structure was the natural settling on an egg-like form for the work. As a vessel for change, rebirth, transformation, and transition of states, the egg is such a thoroughly weighted symbol, and with such thoroughly female associations that it made perfect sense. That this form also had more personal resonance for my friend  – as a powerful symbol from parts of her family history – secured the idea for both of us.

Like the living structures I had begun earlier this spring (see my post dated September 2 for more on Make=Believe), this work was going to be be based (and firmly fixed) in the place of its making and eventual destruction. Moreover, I wanted to bring the same approach I had taken with Make=Believe to bear here:
– I wanted to work with what came to hand on site, to maintain the connection between the person and the place immediate and direct, and to allow the available materials to mediate that connection and speak to the transformative power of  both the immediate environment, and of the process for which the sculpture would be made.
– I felt it tremendously important to minimize the overall footprint of the work on the environment; I didn’t want to have the harvesting of materials (or their burning) to have a detrimental effect on the land, nor did I feel it would be appropriate for the materials to be ‘imports’ to the place – to have been brought from great distances, through the use of much energy.
– I also needed to make sure that gathering the materials to make this work was not going to result in the destruction of living things, as much as possible; the work needed to be made from living plants, and those plants had to be able to continue to thrive after I had harvested what I needed.

So in general terms, the goal for EGG was the same as for my other, living structures: to avoid as much as possible taking the position of mastery in the work – I wanted an active dialogue between the goals of the work, the materials, the space, and my self as an artist – rather than positioning myself with absolute authority in relation to the creation of the work I was undertaking.

The entire project, from beginning to end was marked by attention to the notions of evolution and process … and their sister in creativity, improvisation. I wasn’t entirely sure how the structure needed to be made – I had never made anything like this before – but I was trusting the materials to show me what I needed to do to make it work.

For building the work, I used willow switches that had been cut from tress on the land … these were harvested  from several trees, so that no one tree was going to be unduly stressed in the process, and so that I could gather switches that were of various sizes and levels of flexibility. The branches themselves were used to hold the structure together; I used a small amount of sisal twine where necessary to shape the framework, and a bit of wire (subsequently removed before burning) to fix the main branches of the frame together in the early stages of its formation.

After a lovely, long hot day working in the sun on the first day of construction, we were greeted by storm clouds and rain on the day following … so we moved the work indoors, to the cozy barn, where I was able to work with swallows for company, and an old wood stove for warmth.  Studio space doesn’t get any better than this, especially when it’s inclement! I was extremely grateful that I had the option to move the remaining assembly work indoors … it was a real luxury.

I was pleasantly surprised how quickly the form took shape, and how pleasant and forgiving the willow was to work with. I was able to employ rudimentary basket weaving into the construction of the form, to provide both shape and strength. At the same time, however, there was a looseness to the overall development of the form that, as it developed, really resembled doodling or drawing. I became extremely conscious of the willow switches as lines contributing to the overall form; as such any gaps or holes in the structure read to my eye increasingly as negative spaces that needed equal consideration in the overall composition of lines over the surface of the egg shape itself.

By the end of the day, the egg was complete as a structure, and was mounted on a raft of willow switches, with an additional pontoon of twigs lashed to it crossways, for stability (so it was less inclined to tip over).

What we discovered in ‘test driving’ the sculpture’s ability to float, however, was initially a source of consternation … it was, shall we say, a much better anchor than a buoy. Needless to say, this was both frustrating (since the original raft for it floated so well), and a bit stressful – because the entire structure needed to float on the dugout, and do so without presenting a replay of the Titanic sinking!

Fortunately, we were able to McGyver a flotation device … again, a case of using available materials: in this case, floats left over from a previously-constructed river raft. These had the added benefit of providing a receptacle for bits of the sculpture that fell away as it burned; I was initially concerned about any material (especially any liquid fuel added to aid combustion) coming in contact with the water of the dugout, and harming or killing anything living in or around the water. Serendipity provided this excellent solution to both concerns, and we were ready to go in good time for the evening’s celebrations.

(Floats at the edge of the dugout, in the background)

… More on the event itself, what was left of EGG after we burned it, and some thoughts on the process and the work to follow in Part II … soon …

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