fig. 30: Did you know worker bees are female?
Dance of the Melissae,
Honeycomb Wall
Vinyl text, 11.5" dia. wd. panel
© Nancy Macko, 1994
fig. 31: Bees 3 + Hex
Dance of the Melissae, Honeycomb Wall
Computer gen. cibachrome,
11.5" dia. wd. panel

© Nancy Macko, 1994

IV
Woman as Origin
(Gallery IV)

From the Venus of Willendorf to the tantric "Yogini," whose serpentine energy flows from her vulva, women's bodies have served as votives in many ancient cultures. What is less understood is the egalitarian social structure which informs the female's central importance in pre-patriarchal societies. Recent scholarship by archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, who has written more than twenty books on European pre-history and Indo-European origins, supports the existence of "matristic" (female-centered) civilizations as far back as the Paleolithic period, which began about one million years ago.

According to Gimbutas, the "patriarchal transition" is a relatively recent phenomenon. She says it occurred within the last 5,000 years, overturning the prior and more peaceful, "partnership-based" social order. Gimbutas believes that the current resurgence of interest in Goddess religion and matristic culture (see authors Monica Sjoo, Gloria Orenstein, Eleanor Gadon, and Mary Daly, among others) reflects a "yearning now to create again something similar" to what was lost during the "patriarchal transition." She adds, "The Goddess is actually nature itself, and this connection with the earth is what we really need. We don't need any separation from nature, from animals and plants. This is what the Culture of Old Europe expresses."

Nancy Macko (and other contemporary artists) are honoring this rich woman-centered herstory, demonstrating that spiritual values based on female principles are a viable alternative to conventional (that is, patriarchal) religious and social practices. Macko's Dance of the Melissae, a multi-sensory large-scale installation based on honeybee society, explores the interconnections between nature, science, and spirituality from a uniquely feminist perspective. As Mary Davis MacNaughton, Director of the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery at Scripps College (where Macko is Professor of Art) has noted, "For Macko, the goddess symbolizes a female centered spirituality and the bee society represents 'the feminine potency of nature.'"

fig. 32 : The Goddess Hymen
Rules Over Honeymoons Dance of the Melissae,
Vinyl text, 11.5" dia. wd. panel
Nancy Macko, 1994
fig. 33: Pussies and Pollen
Dance of the Melissae,
11.5" dia. wd. panel Pussywillows, pollen, silkscreened plexi
Nancy Macko, 1994

 

Sometimes tongue in cheek, but always insightful, Macko's Dance of the Melissae is a dance through another time. She reminds us that bees were once thought to be priestesses in the service of Aphrodite, caretaking her temples and producing sweet elixirs that ensured fertility, even as they retained autonomy and control of their own sexual reproduction. The Goddess Demeter, for example, who in Greek mythology was said to have governed the cycles of life, was called "the pure mother bee." In Biblical times, the matriarchal ruler of Israel was named "Deborah," which in Hebrew means "bee." Scientists classify bees as hymenoptera, which Macko notes means "'veil-winged,' recalling the hymen or veil that covered the inner shrine of the Goddess's temple" (as it covers the opening to the vagina). Science, myth, and popular culture coincide in Hymen, the high priestess said to rule over marriage rituals, including the honeymoon.

Macko's installation awakens the mind and the senses: spices fill the air, along with the scents of honeycomb and bee pollen; songs of Tibetan monks drone in the background; and large sculptural votives (made of soft materials like wax and lead) are arranged around the gallery. A huge "honeycomb wall" comprised of 100 hexagonal wooden panels displays text, computer-generated imagery, and objects relating to honey bees; eleven sculptures called the "Stations of the Goddess" are positioned at the gallery's far wall. The hexagon is Macko's primary geometric motif; a hexagonal floor piece called "Aphrodite's Lattice," formed of 12x12 foot wax and lead sheets, is positioned at the installation's center. Centered within it, an elongated glass vase that Macko says "looks like a uterus," is filled with fresh, raw honeycomb.

When Macko first exhibited this work at the Brand Art Gallery in 1994, she filled the 3,000-foot space, transforming it into an ancient temple which referenced the past, connecting it to the present. While such cross-referencing illuminates syncretic connections between science and nature, it also exposes "the contradictions and dichotomies we, as women, are forced to live with and work with in our daily lives [. . .]," which Macko believes are still disturbing realities.

To confront such realities, Macko asks important philosophical questions that she feels are germane to everyone who cares about "our current plight on this planet":

Why do scientists choose to describe nature - and therefore, control it - rather than exist with it? How is it that women maintain or lose their power based on their possession or lack of sexual autonomy and independence? And, what kind of a culture might support or enhance the possession and maintenance of true female autonomy? I hope that by examining the relationships between nature and science, the feminine spirit and the power of female sexuality, I can uncover some connections [. . . ].

fig. 34: Abundance
Dance of the Melissae, "Stations of the Goddess," 1994
12x12x16" colander, bee pollen, hexagonal box, bee, mirror tile
© Nancy Macko

Abundance is one of eleven "Stations of the Goddess" that "celebrate life and health" rather than "memorializing death and sin." Macko's "Stations" reference pre-patriarchal belief systems in which the earth was the center and the Goddess her spiritual representation. An eerily gynopomorphic colander is filled to overflowing with fresh bee pollen. The body of the colander is stippled with pores; its shape is reminiscent of an insect's abdomen, and it tapers towards a small hexagonal box at the center of a mirror-bright tile. A few grains of bee pollen spill around the box, which appears to be a small altar. The altar contains a bee. Like the large votives dedicated to Demeter, Hymen, and Techne (goddess of art and science), Macko's "Stations of the Goddess" reflect her desire to create abundance by developing a feminist spiritual practice.

fig. 35: Spiral Hex
Dance of the Melissae, "Honeycomb Wall," 1994
Computer generated cibachrome on 11.5" dia. wood panel
© Nancy Macko

Part of the "Honeycomb Wall,"Spiral Hex turns a potential curse into a powerful promise, implying that women will enjoy reproductive rights and sexual autonomy. The image literally transforms a "hex" into a hexagon, the geometric form that Macko traces back to Pythagorus, linking the worlds of science and nature. The central image is comprised of spirals suggesting anatomical and mechanical parts. Are we looking at a fetus growing "naturally" in the womb, or at science reconstructing life? We see four repeated images of a bee priestess, garbed in a coral silk cocktail dress, leather gloves, and a traditional beekeeper's helmet (which bears an uncanny resemblance to a computer monitor). The priestess waves one leather-swathed arm, as if to ward off potential intruders and protect her queen-mother, the Goddess.

Macko says her work "addresses the balance of technological growth with the preservation of nature." Mary Davis NacNaughton concurs: "Her honeycomb is a metaphor of connection; it reminds us that we are part of nature, and not its master." She adds that "Macko's work [. . .] re-envisions a world where art and technology find common ground, and where society's androcentric attitudes of domination and power are replaced with feminist values of coexistence and nurturing."

fig. 36: Menorrhagia Healing
Acrylic, 42x46", 1991
© Barbara Bruch

If Menorrhagia Healing looks at first like a close-up of a bee's head, look again, for Barbara Bruch has painted an image that pulsates with female energy. "Menorrhagia" is a scientific term for excessive menstrual bleeding. Formed of hot colors and spirals placed in perfect symmetry, this painting embodies Bruch's use of sacred geometry to represent healing, transformation, and the cycles of life.

Like Nancy Macko, Barbara Bruch finds connections between science, feminism, and spirituality. She says her work "deals with creation Cosmology based upon astronomy and mathematics." She has traced these subjects to their metaphysical origins, traveling to ancient archaeological sites in Europe to study megaliths and "old stone circles, sacred wells and mounds."

fig. 37: Runes of the Spiral Goddess
Mixed media, 18x22", 1992
© Barbara Bruch

Born in Seattle in 1940, Bruch has nourished a life-long connection with the Pacific and the Cascadian mountain wilderness. Her work transmutes natural and geometric forms into rhythmic compositions that "make visible the invisible" and "represent abstract meditations." She has also been an active feminist, encouraging other women artists and incorporating collaborative ideals in her work as an educator. Bruch is currently working on a painted Tarot deck and accompanying book on the "Tarot of Cosmic Consciousness."

fig. 38: The Queen of Wands
Artist's book, offset, die-cut, foil stamping
Paradise Press, 9 1/2 x 12 1/16", 1993
© Susan E. King

Susan King has also found inspiration in the Tarot, as her artist's books frequently reference long-standing traditions including the history of art. Her Queen of Wands is an homage to the surrealist painter Lenore Carrington and posits a possible relationship between divination systems and women's intuitive faculties. As in most artist's books, the physical structure becomes a meaning-laden metaphor. King says that the book is a "paper sculpture, using a mathematical puzzle, the tetra-tetra flexagon, that explores the symbol of the Queen of Wands as the image relates to women printers and artists."

Treading the Maze: an artist's book of daze also explores a puzzle, but one which defies all conventional logic. In the winter of 1989, King was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had just returned from a summer sabbatical spent visiting medieval sites in Europe. In Treading the Maze, created four years later after her surgery and eventual recovery, she retraces both journeys - through the labyrinths of illness and Chartres Cathedral, where a stained glass rose window and a pattern on a stone floor seem to echo her body's new and inchoate language.

fig. 39: Treading the Maze:
an artist's book of daze, 1993
Double spiral, Xerox, offset, edition 800
© Susan E. King

Treading the Maze pairs images of architecture which reduce to ancient structural patterns - the cellular architecture of her body corresponds to the circular church window, and the labyrinth on Chartre's stone floor seems a code that her body must break. In one page-spread, King copies a sketch of cancer cells, crudely drawn by her surgeon to illustrate the disease pattern. Paired with it is the window at Chartres, which appears to replicate the pattern, despite its theological "perfection."

In a marginal aside, King writes that "Ancient and medieval labyrinths and mazes [. . .] presume a double perspective: maze-treaders, whose vision ahead and behind is severely constricted and fragmented, suffer confusion, whereas maze-viewers who see the pattern whole, from above or in a diagram, are dazzled by its complex artistry."

According to Pamela Petro, who reviewed Treading the Maze in The Women's Review of Books, September 1997, King's "generosity of spirit is such that she makes room for 'complex artistry' in the midst of illness, and grants the achievements of art - from Dutch darning samplers to the rose window at Chartres - a crucial role in the healing process." Petro adds that King's marginalia and references to "Amazon lore, the Great Mother and Hebe, cupbearer of the gods, suggest that King believes this kind of healing is a particularly female gift," and that "we sometimes need to find non-narrative, non-rational, perhaps even pre-patriarchal, ways out of mazes of all kinds, even those of our own bodies' making."

Debra Uhls is a metalsmith, sculptor, and jewelry designer who lives in Rock Springs, Wyoming. Uhls literally shapes elemental metals into emblematic architectectonic forms that harmoniously coexist with nature. Unlike Susan E. King, who was forced to use medical technology against her own elemental "nature" when the cells of her body turned cancerous, Uhls's extractive process is a give and take with the earth. Her metals must be mined, but when her pieces are sited in nature, one could say she has more than returned what she borrowed.

fig. 40: Gate
Aluminum, 12'x6.5'x6", 1994
© Debra Uhls

Uhls's aluminum Gate is made of a relatively soft and light metal. Yet its temper must be able to sustain extreme cold, combining elegant design with practical function. Gates are generally used to either bar or grant access. Symbolically, they may suggest rites of passage. Uhls's 1994 gate places branch-like natural forms at its center, flanked by swirling organic forms at both ends. It is an inviting sculpture that fits naturally into the landscape, connecting the fence with what it preserves.

Preservation of nature is one of Uhls's priorities; she self-identifies as an "ecofeminist," a woman who is dedicated to "preserving the ecological balance of the earth." In the essay which accompanies her materials, she outlines basic ecofeminist tenets: "The idea is to identify patriarchal culture in its forms of domination: industrial, mechanistic, militaristic and hierarchical." Citing numerous texts to flesh out her activist philosophical position, she explains that "Colonialism, militarism, and technological control make up, and have shaped the modern patriarchal world view. Appropriation of land, of metals and minerals, of agriculture, and now of genetic code and outer space make up the modes of exploitation."

fig. 41: Earth is Sacred
Steel, mixed media, 10'x4'x4', 1997
© Debra Uhls

In Earth is Sacred, a cross seems to mark a grave, but it is the coat of arms of colonial power, locus of patriarchal oppression, that is lying in the dust. What may rise from its ashes, one can only conjecture. But if Uhls's sculpture is any indication, it will rise like a Phoenix, honoring mother earth and the woman in us all.


Next
V Activist Practice
(Gallery V)


Community

Identity

Syllabus

Spirituality

Locality

All images © the artists.
All text (except quotations) © Susan Ressler.