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I understood then that there was something universal about the desire to calculate experience by attending to the smallest increments.” –Akiko Busch, Just Beneath the Surface
The KILLING of LIONS: An Iraqi War Meditation Above: Diptych One-The Lion Attacking and The Dying Lion, 2004 Acrylic Painting on Wood Panel © M. Drdak The Recasting of an Iraqi Masterwork as a Meditation on War and Sacrifice This brief essay is an examination of the modern relevance of ancient art, its ability to inspire contemporary art, and its power to speak with strength and sophistication to the present. Two works will be explored; my painting cycle, The Killing of Lions; An Iraqi War Meditation, and the famous Assyrian Lion Hunts from the North Place in Nineveh, located in present day Mosul, Iraq, upon which my work is based. I believe that my work, The Killing of Lions; An Iraqi War
Meditation, is the first extensive contemporary interpretation of these works of the anonymous ancient artists of Iraq. Though originally created for the Assyrian King, Ashurbanipal, in the 7 th century B.C, the Nineveh Lion Hunts are, as I experience them, an eloquent and timeless metaphor for the tragedy of the present Iraqi War. The compositional sophistication of the Assyrian works, and their resulting psychological charge, has only recently been fully appreciated and examined; in my work, these unique qualities are refigured and amplified. Leonine forms evocatively prefigure the Iraqi dead - imago of the powerless Other; mineral thread vectors convey the impersonal violence which penetrates these leonine souls and embody the societal projection of force - a collapse of Past into Present. Referencing the mass and powerful interaction of the Assyrian works, The Killing of Lions; An Iraqi War Meditation is comprised of two diptychs in dynamic dialogue; - four panels each measuring 33H x 96W x 2D inches. Diptych One comprises The Lion Attacking and Dying Lion, and Diptych Two, The Lion Released and Offering of the Lion. Viewer response to my work and to the Assyrian Lion Hunts, the source of my inspiration, has been moving; both works convey a deep and reflective gravitas - sublime, restrained and monumental.
The Relevance of the Ancient to the Modern Physics affirms that in nature, there are no categories of beings, there are only “connections” forming a “tissue” of being; so, too, with the sensibilities and formulations of culture. Categories of art in modern art history are a new, and arguably artificial, historical construct. Art is in living dialogue with cultures and traditions both past and present, as the current quest for a “global aesthetic” affirms. It is an ongoing exploration and conveyance of expression, communication and reception of spiritual values beyond the purview of words. Ancient art offers us a visual archipelago of such submerged impulses and energies. Interestingly, these same insights are manifest through the “excavating” practices of archeology and psychoanalysis; powerful and primal drives are evidenced, identified, and held forth for our examination and contemplation. The nature, activity, and expression of this submerged machinery are of continued interest to me as reflected in the mythic archetypes and cultural lives of various societies and civilizations. It was the ancient artist who first gave form to these psychic voices. Powerfully resonant and relevant today, these forces determine our humanity within the contemporary moment. Through these “snap-shots” of our psychological past, we become reacquainted with older, submerged, and turbulent aspects of ourselves. The Nineveh Lion Hunts - the inspiration for my work- represent just such a powerful aesthetic document. I experience them as very “contemporary” works. Within them violence and power are condensed, contained, restrained, and juxtaposed with elements of extreme sensitivity and beauty. The compositional structure is masterful and dynamic; it is of high sophistication. The visual relationship between the impassive formality and dominance of the human figures and the descriptive pathos of the animals is famously moving. All these qualities result in an extraordinary and peculiar quality of tension, which is transmitted to the viewer on all levels; aesthetically, psychologically and emotionally. In my study of these ancient works, I knew that I had found a unique and compelling statement, the elements of which when brought forward, could speak with power and relevance to the present.
Detail, The Assyrian Lions Hunts Assyrian, Approx. 645 B.C.E. © British Museum
The Dying Lion Detail from The Killing of Lions: An Iraqi War Meditation © M. Drdak
The Modernity of the Assyrian Lion Hunts and Their Influence on The Killing of Lions The Assyrian Lion Hunts have been examined in the book The Forms of Violence, by Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit of UC Berkeley; it is an aesthetic analysis of visual response to these images, celebrated by the authors as under-recognized works of universal genius. The Forms of Violence asserts that the classic visual structure of Western Art – its narrative structure with attendant focal point of climax, has actually, if unintentionally, promoted a fascination with violence. The particular structure of Assyrian Art, the Lion Hunts in particular, frustrates this fascination through a number of devices, exemplified by repetitive layering of form and “switchback” compositional placements and groupings....resulting in what the authors have termed “disruptive mobility”. The authors propose that the modernity of the ancient Assyrian works is underscored by these subversive and sophisticated anti-narrative devices. Within the images a terminal reading of form is prevented by de-centering of imagery; dynamic action and clusters of interest are broadly distributed throughout the image, and lack a primary center of emphasis. The “capture of the eye” by an ultimate focal point (of violent imagery) is thwarted, and thereby also the viewer’s fascination and identification with that image. This effect is experienced by the viewer as a type of visual ricochet, a flitting of the eyes rapidly over the image field. This experience carries an important psychological effect – one of an oscillation between emotional immediacy and psychological distance. The nature and significance of that effect is as follows…. This visually disruptive energy embodied within the Lion Hunts is correlated by the authors as analogous to the rupturing of the psyche that is attendant upon the experience of sex and death. Both sex and death function, and are experienced, as ways of “fracturing” the ego restrictions that result in anxieties of the self and psyche as it is normally experienced in the world. These anxieties are generated by conflicting and shifting boundaries between what is permitted, what is desired, and the felt reality of the isolation or separateness of the self. In experiences of both sex and (near) death, in the resulting feeling of satisfaction or extinction, a total calm can be experienced - in brevity or finality - by the individual, until the internal conflict of the psyche regroups and reasserts itself once more. A sense of mergence or primal union is briefly glimpsed - a self-surrendering. In this sense, war can thus be seen as the ultimate –and bitterly ironic sadomasochistic exercise in “relief” of societies or groups. (The frequent reflections of the soldiers who affirm a state of heightened “aliveness” in the face of death, and who celebrate the special battlefield bonding of brothers describe common aspects of these phenomena.) A similar feeling of “mergence” or primal identification is encouraged by the narrative structure of Western Art, and by its visual employment of the “focal point” - the locus of climactic action. But, in the Assyrian bas-reliefs the viewer’s gaze is unceasingly redirected from one locus of excitement to another, and as visual culmination is never achieved; climax is continually deferred. The authors establish that within these works, and with few exceptions, we are continually swept up in the violent stream of imagery much like the swirling eddies of a river, momentarily pausing before continuing our swift meanderings. Indeed, any lack of appreciation of this intrinsic quality is the result of photographic presentation of the bas-reliefs, in which isolated imagery from various sequences is commonly cropped and removed from its image
matrix. In Assyrian art a state of “fracture” is prolonged; the lack of a primary locus of action frustrates and prevents visual bonding. In summary, Bersani and Dutoit maintain that the importance of this effect lies in this; that as our vision is kept moving; the effect of the violence within the imagery upon us is diminished. This effect is in contrast with the narrative visual tradition of the West, in which an apex of action-the focal point of an image- predominates as a structural device. It is at that apex where the dangers of mimetic identification and desire occur for the viewer, resulting in a fascination with violence —the identification of the viewer with the action. “In the Assyrian Palace reliefs, the very centers of anecdotal violence de-center themselves.” (B/D 39) My meditative study and readings on these works occurred on the eve of the second war in Iraq. The structural sophistication of their “disruptive mobility”, conjoined with their arresting form and expressive poignancy, convinced me of their capacity to speak with force as an image of remembrance. The building forces of emotional and political tension, and a long standing desire to creatively dialogue with these works, generated within me a powerful sense of immediacy of mission; to reinterpret these ancient and moving works as a meditation on the violence of war.
The Killing of Lions Installation at Penn College of Technology, 2008. © M. Drdak The Language of the Lions; Strategies of Structure "To make objects by hand in an industrial society -- to work slowly and uneconomically against the grain-- is to offer, however inadvertently, a critique." -- Rosemary Hill, Art Critic, from The Twilight of American Culture, by Morris Berman Remembrance is fundamentally - and ultimately - an intimate personal experience; it necessitates an intimate encounter and a receptive and reflective space within which that encounter is supported and sustained. The creative work itself functions as that “space” of reception and
reflection, containing within it the material evidence of the artists’ experience of such intimacy, and as such, it invites participation. And for that intimacy to be effectively conveyed to the viewer, the artist must dwell within the state of remembrance, continually imbuing the material with feeling, and must maintain that sensibility along the lengthy path of the work’s creation. In the traditional medium of painting, this path can be long, arduous and uniquely contemplative. The creation of The Killing of Lions: An Iraqi War Meditation was in itself, a prolonged meditation, taking two years to complete. Today issues of media saturation, information overload, and contested ownership of “culture” heavily impact concepts of creativity; non-traditional media are increasingly employed in the service of artistic expression. For me, however, there was never really a question regarding form in conceptualizing this work; I determined the traditional medium of painting an appropriate platform from the beginning. There were questions of visual strategy and approach. What forms, what devices, and materials were appropriate - and effective - for a reinterpretation of the ancient work? There was the question of how to reinterpret the essence and visual voice of these works within the framework of contemporary art - as to how that voice related to the War. In this, the ancient artist again suggested solutions. Three formal devices organize this work; the void of contemplative space, the vector lines of mineral threads, and the visions - flaming biomorphs of the lions; these three devices are fully interdependent and reinforcing. Mineral threads and fragments of form and matter are wedded to gestural intimations of “writing”; they float upon the surface of the black void. The use of mineral accretions, fine veils of pigment, thin skinned surface of heavy wood panel - all express complementary and oppositional dualities. As my intention was to reflect the presence of the bas-reliefs, the friezes are translated into two diptychs, each comprised of two images. Through this diptych structure, rapid movement is maintained and the “disruptive mobility” is most effectively preserved. Void The painting field is that of contemplative space - the Void - encompassing all change, reflective of emptiness. Change, erasure, revelation, destruction, creation, and sublime spiritual experience are all written upon its face; it is pregnant with being; it is the desert of the Lions. In my paintings, these voids are active; their surfaces are flooded with traces of abrasion. The process of abrading the surfaces is beautifully and meaningfully resonant with the great natural processes perpetually at work in the deserts; erosion, attrition, consumption, corrosion, destruction, disintegration, washing away and wearing down. What wears down also reveals. It is the terrain that “births” through emptying of assumptions and illusions - the abrading of dreams and the erosion of desires. It is the space of revelation. It is memory oscillating between becoming and dissolution. It is the anvil of the psyche; the permeable membrane floating between the divine and the demonic. It conveys the sense of Infinitude, the only real refuge and reality. On these black force fields, the mineral thread vectors and burning visions- the lion biomorphs - dialogue in expanding space.
The Killing of Lions Assyrian Relief, Approx. 645 B.C.E. © British Museum
The Offering of the Lion, detail from The Killing of Lions © M. Drdak
Vectors The essence of the “disruptive mobility”, or lability, of the Assyrian compositional field is distilled and communicated in my work by vectors - or carriers of force - mineral threads uniting the visual field, representing the major directional currents. They in essence, form a “panjara”, a Sankrit term used to connote a cage for containing cosmic forces. Panjaras are schematic diagrams that are most commonly employed by Indian artists to establish the formal framework for the individual energy schema of various deities, themselves anthropomorphic embodiments of cosmic forces. The panjara can, in itself, represent the essential energy identity or quality of the deity. The Orissan Hindu text, the Vastusutra Upanishad, codifies and speaks to the structural lines of a composition and its elemental meaning through the panjara. Peaceful images, santa, are expressed through vertical lines, sympathetic images, karuna, on horizontal lines, wrathful images, raudra, on diagonal lines, and others on oblique lines, including heroic forms, vira. Texts in the West from the early twentieth century similarly explore the possibilities for codifying language in abstraction; “ a vertical line in form or nature is dynamic, forceful, but posed” and suggests “uplift, majesty” and “is to some degree dynamic”; a horizontal line gives a feeling of “repose, peace, and absence of power”. In The Killing of Lions: An Iraqi War Meditation these panjara vectors represent a distillation of this quality of disruptive energy; integrating and unifying the energy fields, they maintain the compositional stateliness and weight of the work. The mineral threads speak for the unseen and impersonal energies, the human agents of violence, who are present through their absence. They also form the Great Wheel in my images. Drawn from the king’s chariot, it signifies dominion, technology, and time. These threads are composed of mineral particles in an acrylic matrix which are painstakingly laid down upon the surface plane. The extremely slow pace, precise physical concentration, results in a contemplative state of being. Paradoxically, though representative of violent force, these vector threads became the agents of contemplative control. When laying down the mineral threads in these works I entered, of necessity, a meditative space. The quality of the execution was directly effected by the emotional energies of my thoughts-negative energies disrupted the lines, positive energies facilitated them. A beautiful and sublime dialogue between myself and the work appeared and sustained itself, self enforcing and self sustaining. I became aware that I was, in essence, practicing a form of kinhin, Japanese meditation through motion: kinhin meaning “to go straight.”
Visions The visceral pathos of the Nineveh Lion Hunts is intensely moving and has spoken with profound eloquence to viewers since these works first came to the attention of western audiences. The animal participants - the lions - enact an agonizing continuum of innocence hunted, eviscerated, and consumed. Their ritualized execution, their rage and confusion stands and speaks in poignant contrast with the distanced command and control affected by their killers. Their sacrifice can be seen as the culmination of a ceremonial and compulsive display of control,
necessitated by the anxious and predatory impulses that lie within the human psyche. The power of the Assyrian artist to evoke sympathetic identification with these animals, themselves an archetype of primordial danger and ruthless violence, is testimony to their creative eminence. These are works of pronounced paradox, terrible beauty, and consummate pathos.
Detail, The Assyrian Lions Hunts,Assyrian, Approx. 645 B.C.E. © British Museum
The Lion Attacking, © M. Drdak Detail from The Killing of Lions: An Iraqi War Meditation
Finding the appropriate visual approach to the Lions in my work was challenging. In the Assyrian works, the physical form of the Lions is represented with a sensuous veracity; my response was to express my subject through a distillation of essence, and for this, I felt the biomorphic form was most effective. Incorporating fragments and insinuations of coherent form, it suggests and intimates to the viewer the nature and identity of the energies expressed, yet accommodates a very personal interpretive form in the mind of the viewer. I have long favored a biomorphic approach in my work. In The Killing of Lions; an Iraqi War Meditation I felt this language to be particularly effective in evoking the virtuality of these leonine souls, oscillating between the luxuriant qualities of life form, and the liberating qualities of the abstract. The flaming energy fields favored by Tantric painters in their paintings of wrathful deities provided additional inspiration in both color and form; in fact, the manner in which I painted the Lions, in the concentrated bursts of calligraphic brushwork and flaming gestural form, has often led me to say that the Lions were written. This is especially true of the prana channel, the veinous connection from tongues to genitals that runs through the length of the lions; the permeable path of thoughts, drives, and actions. Animals are particularly effective in trans-cultural bridging. Their ability to immediately convey psychological impressions, images, and metaphors lies precisely in that they speak to us in a language older and more elemental than our own. Indeed, our essential differences are terrifyingly small; and most often consciously obliterated during the greatest hunt of all – the enterprise of war. In their wanton sacrifice humanity is afforded the contemplation of its own bestiality, and likewise, the urgency of its collective need for redemptive humility.
The Hand of Witness Detail from The Killing of Lions: An Iraqi War Meditation © M. Drdak
Conclusion The Killing of Lions: an Iraqi War Meditation is my elegy for the Iraqi people; my vision - and hope - is that this work will occupy a sanctuary dedicated both to the celebration of their culture and to the memory of their collective human loss. The contemporary relevance of its symbolism, originating as it does within the ancient hearts and minds of the Assyrian artists, lies with the resulting enlargement of the contemporary individual’s world, and the increase in perceptual sensitivity of associative connections. Regarding the form of forms, it is worth reflecting upon the root meaning of the word “symbol”, that of “drawing together”, and its antonym - diabolic or “pulling apart”. Man is in essential and continuous pursuit of inner form—the form of meaning –wherein he is destined to find the understanding that all things, all beings - both himself and the Other- are drawn together. All creation is indeed, One.
© M. Drdak 2010 email@example.com , www.mdrdak.com, www.myartspace.com No part of this document may be reproduced without the written permission of the author.
LIST OF WORKS CITED Berman, Morris. The Twilight of American Culture. W. W. Norton & Company, 2001 Bersani, Leo and Ulysse Dutoit. The Forms of Violence: Narrative in Assyrian Art and Modern Culture. New York: Schocken Books, 1985. Boner, Alice, Bettina Baumer Pandit Sadasiva Sarma. Vastusutra Upanisad; the Essence of Form in Sacred Art. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2000. Busch, Akiko. “Just Beneath the Surface,” New York Times, July 8, 2007, http://www.amazonswim.com/media/press/2007_07_08_Nyt.pdf
EXIBITION HISTORY : The Killing of Lions: An Iraqi War Meditation 2010 Forthcoming, The Killing of Lions; An Iraqi War Meditation, Rhys Carpenter Library, Bryn Mawr College, PA. Drdak: from Mosul to Mustang, Lawrence Gallery, Rosemont College, PA. 2010 2008 2007 Iraqimemorial.org Exhibition, Sheppard Fine Arts Gallery, University of Nevada, Reno. (book forthcoming) The Planes of Aspiration, The Gallery at Penn College, Penn College of Technology, PA. The Planes of Aspiration, McKinney Galleries, West Chester University, PA. Ex Voto, Society of Fellows in the Humanities Art Gallery, Center for the Humanities, Temple University, PA. 2005 Ex Voto, Dwight V. Dowley Gallery, Chestnut Hill College, PA. Maureen Drdak: Recent Works, Charles More and Associates, Philadelphia, PA. 2004 Ex Voto, Phillip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art, Ursinus College, PA. (catalog)
LECTURES, PANELS, and INTERVIEWS: The Killing of Lions: An Iraqi War Meditation 2010 Forthcoming, Gallery Lecture, The Killing of Lions, Bryn Mawr College, PA., with introduction by Dr. Mehmet-Ali Atac, Bryn Mawr College. Visiting Artist / Presenter. The Killing of Lions, University of Nevada, Reno. <http://iraqimemorial.org/stream.html> Artist Gallery Lecture, Lawrence Gallery, Rosemont College, PA. 2009 2008 2007 Artist Talk, Philadelphia Sketch Club, Philadelphia, PA. Artist Gallery Lecture and Presentation, The Gallery at Penn College, PA. Artist/Museum Lecture, What is Modern about Ancient Iraqi Art? (Public), Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, PA. Visiting Artist Lecture, What is Modern about Ancient Iraqi Art? Center for the Humanities (CHAT), Temple University, PA. 2006 2005 2004 Visiting Artist, The Killing of Lions, by Invitation of Dr. John M. Russell, Massachusetts College of Art, Critical Studies Department, Boston, MA. Area Artists 2005, Panel Discussion, LUAG, Lehigh University, PA. Ex Voto; The Paintings of Maureen Drdak, Lecture by Ann Priester, PhD., Philip and Muriel Berman Museum, PA. Artist Lecture, Ex Voto, Lecture, CIE Studies, Ursinus College, Collegeville, PA. Artist Lecture, Ex Voto, Artist Gallery Lecture, Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art, Ursinus College, PA.
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