Sunday, June 03, 2012

THE MYTH OF ALCHEMY

Murray Darling Currency Oil on linen 122 x 153 cm


Alchemy, the medieval forerunner of chemistry, concerned with the transmutation of matter, in particular with attempts to convert base metals into gold or find a universal elixir:   [ http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/alchemy ]
I am sure most readers will have an understanding of the alchemic myth. The idea that base metals could be transformed into gold or silver has fascinated me since I was a child, long before I realised these stories were more than just stories. Many of them were associated with greed, where wealth, of the economic kind, could be conjured out of thin air...or boring base metals. However, history's alchemists did lay the ground work for modern chemistry, when at some point, in the 18th century, science separated its processes from mythology and spirituality/religion.


                                                      Last Witness Oil on linen 50 x 50 cm

I have previously written about the alchemic myth, in relation to my painting 'Last Witness' [Above]. This is what I wrote:
Last Witness
The red tree, representing the age-old transcultural/religious tree-of- life symbol, stands as the last witness to humankind’s prosaic mutation of the alchemic myth of transformation. At its most profound the myth can be understood as a transformation into transcendence. Humankind’s frantic desire to transform nature’s gifts into commodities, where the most significant value is economic, shatters the alchemic myth’s potential to reveal, and revel in, the many dimensions of the meaning of ‘value’.


In ‘Last Witness’ the top part of the painting is a deliberately ambiguous ‘landscape’. Small brush strokes create a tapestry of colour which could be interpreted as sky, rain, a forest, land and water contours, and more. Towards the bottom half of the painting, these elements are transformed into another ambiguous ‘landscape’ created with small $ signs. When viewed from a distance these $ signs are not discernible, yet they become obvious when viewed up close. I am asking the question ‘Have we noticed?’


There is hope though. The red tree, the last witness to plundering in the name of monetary value and progress, is surrounded by small white dots giving a halo-like, portal like, seemingly illuminative presence. The tree stands as witness, but also as guide and illuminator to other alternatives. The tree, as the tree-of-life, represents the vigour of life with its vascular like branches and its pulsating red. It beckons us to ask better questions. It provokes us into conversations where new perspectives are illuminated. It reminds us of the beauty we lose if one dimensional interpretations of value erode the fulsome capacities of transformation.

Regular readers will know of my concerns about the rush to extract gas from coal seams and the massive increase in open cut mining, plus the enormous extraction, processing and export infrastructure needed to support all this activity. Is the planet a huge alchemist's cauldron? Are we all crossing our fingers that the processes of transformation from mineral to commodity, to energy, to money can be sustained? Seems to me that this kind of simple thinking... wishful thinking...verges on an archaic and vulgarised idea of alchemic transformation. I suspect post modernism's decline into slippery narcisistic tendencies has stirred and perpetuated a superficial, even glossy, notion of the vulgarised alchemic myth. In Novemeber 2008 I wrote a BLOG post called 'After The Implosion' where I discuss some of my thoughts about the role post modernism played in the GFC. I believe these insidious influences are still at play albeit under attack!

So...maybe we just need to think differently. Easier said than done, you might say. But is it? Indeed, it might take effort, meaningful effort, but we can change the way we think, the way we interpret/question and react to data, information, experience... mythologies even. Last week I attended a fascinating lecture given by Prof. Michael Merzenich, Professor Emeritus of Neuroscience, University of California at San Francisco: Chief Scientific Officer, Posit Science. I first came across Prof. Merzenich in the fabulous book by Dr. Norman Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself. Regular readers will remember I have written about this book a few times. Previous posts are HERE and HERE and HERE

Modern research into brain plasticity is showing we can rewire, recalibrate our brains to overcome things like stroke, brain injury, ADHD and other problems which manifest in reductive physical and emotional capacities [even old age!]. Given this, it should be even easier to change a normal healthy brain to think differently, more tangentially, to see more links between things, disrupt automatic prejudicial thinking etc...shouldn't it? Can we stir imaginational capacities? Can we [re] awaken critical thinking abilities? Maybe the question 'can we' is wasting time, because it seems we need new and better questions to open new and better pathways for possible solutions to the world's economic and environmental issues NOW!

I have read two articles in the last week that refer to thinking. They provide a glimmer of hope that new paradigms for knowledge creation, and how we relate to the planet and ourselves, are emerging. They are not without risk, but nothing ever is.The first was 'SCIENCE IS NOT ABOUT CERTAINTY: A PHILOSOPHY OF PHYSICS: A Conversation with Carlo Rovelli', in The Edge. The second was 'Craig Venter’s Bugs Might Save the World' by Wil S. Hylton, in the New York Times. Both fascinating articles, which in different ways gave breath to thinking, imagination, risk, joy and fun! Reading these after hearing Prof Merzenich's lecture really got me thinking!

A one dimensional prosaic interpretation of the alchemic myth, can be eroded and reconstructed to become one of multi dimensions, where the processes of transformation are more about how the human race can change and grow, and less about how the human race simply uses the world.

The painting below $oils Ain't $oils Anymore! is a finalist in SCOPE Galleries Art and Environment Award. Here's a link to my previous post for this painting. Briefly though, this painting and Murray Darling Currency [at the top of the page] each 'talk' about the prosaic alchemic myth, by questioning 'value'. In each, as in Last Witness, part of the landscape is created with small $ signs. In Murray Darling Currency the area of the Murray Darling is painted with small blue $ signs, playing with the word currency. The tree... the tree-of-life...creates the landscape of continent and sea as it cascades across the canvas. It seems to ask, is a $ value the only way to 'value' life? Maybe there are other ways, as well as monetry, that can be used to 'value'....which may help us to re-evaluate, re-configure, re-think how we also apply $ values? 

                                          $oils Ain't $oils Anymore Oil on linen 70 x 100 cm

Until next time!
Kathryn
www.kathrynbrimblecombe-fox.com

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