University of Tasmania
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Poem number 124 : visualizing the material folds and sacred spaces in Emily Dickinson's poem through printmaking

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posted on 2023-05-27, 10:51 authored by Slade, J
The research discussed in this exegesis outlines the development of a visual language to evoke the experience of the sacred space as expressed through the nineteenth century poet Emily Dickinson, particularly her poem number one hundred and twenty four, Safe in their Alabaster Chambers1. I propose that this poem refers to a fluid space where the imaginings of the soul and the body co-exist and is an expression of Dickinson's ambivalence towards religion and its framing of mortality (L. Freedman 2011, p. 1). I suggest that Dickinson used poetry to grapple with the space between the material and the spiritual worlds. In order to make visual my concerns I propose a re-reading of the poem and re-working of the poet's modus operandi, through my print practice. Rather than illustrating Dickinson's poem in a literal way, my work seeks to evoke the conflicted feelings aroused by Dickinson as she seeks to express her relationship with religion and negotiate the expectations of her gender (Freedman 2011, p. 3). My perspective employs a feminine lens through which I contribute to the work of other women artists who have grappled with the idea of spirituality and pushed against the confines of religious belief. I work with the concept of the sacred space, particularly absent for women in religious iconography, making a further contribution to the challenge of how to make the 'invisible' visible. Printmaking, with its traditional links to religious texts and imagery, is a particularly appropriate medium to explore the sacred. The two print techniques I have employed are stone lithography and mono printing. Stone lithography allowed me to facilitate a unique series of prints through drawing directly onto the stone where deletions and over printing meant each print has a unique state. Mono printing has been especially appropriate, as it has allowed for the layering of inks, stencils and textures to create a series of prints to invoke the two stanzas of the poem. Layering techniques have been used with subtle tones and textures to suggest the invisibility of the sacred space. The issues pertaining to the poem and my visual explorations are the subjects of the following chapters. This exegesis is set out in three chapters. In Chapter One I discuss my concerns with religious belief as expressed through the words of Julia Kristeva, 'This incredible need to believe' (2009, pp. 3 -12). Kristeva's words are complicit with my intentions to re-fold back to the nineteenth century to engage with the poet and the poem as a foil for my concerns. This is manifest in the re-folding of roles between Dickinson and myself as the poet expresses her concerns related to mortality and religion through her poetry and I re-imagine these through my visual language. To develop this, I delve into how the poetry reflects her ideas, both in language and structure. Dickinson used syntactic devices, such as dashes between words and phrases to denote the 'inexplicable' problem of mortality and the soul. She structured her poem into stanzas, the first of which can be seen to evoke the material world while the second is suggestive of the infinite realm of the spirit, whilst maintaining fluidity between the two realms. Gilles Deleuze's concept of the Fold is introduced as a way of conceptualizing this relationship between the two realms. I argue that there is a connection between the structure of the poem and Deleuze's idea of the two levels of the Baroque House, where one level is for the body and one for the soul, with movement between the two levels (G. Deleuze 1993, pp. 4, 5 & 100 -107). In Chapter Two the idea of the sacred space, and mortality is developed and contextualized through a number of artists. As I have proposed to view the sacred space through a feminine lens, I have researched women artists who have either employed Dickinson's poetry in their practice or who have found new ways of visualizing the invisible realm of the 'sacred'. Three contemporary artists who have taken Dickinson and her poetry to focus on spirituality and language are Kiki Smith (1954 -) who has recently collected and illustrated a limited edition book of Dickinson's poems, called Sampler (Arion Press), employing the skills of embroidery artisans; Lesley Dill (1955 -) who has referenced Dickinson through her dramatic and large-scale installations and Roni Horn (1955 -) a contemporary American artist who has found an affinity with Dickinson through 'place' and the syntactic devices she employed in the poems. Horn became especially pertinent to this investigation as she took Dickinson's poetic structure and sought to express this through spatial configurations of the components of her work. Twentieth century artists whose works have been referenced for their explorations of the intangible world of spirituality are Mira Schendel's transparent mono prints, and Agnes Martin's translucent pastel hued paintings as an expression of 'nothingness'. This chapter concludes with a discussion of Tacita Dean's installation in the church tower, now art gallery, St Agnes in Berlin. How these artists have influenced the methodologies of my art practice is discussed in detail throughout Chapter Two. All the artists I discuss are women except for Fra Angelico from the mid fourteenth century. The art critic Georges Didi-Huberman's interpretation of Fra Angelico's fresco, with specific focus on the four panels under the main fresco, has been influential in bringing new understanding to the disruptions in my work. The magnificent fresco Madonna of the Shadows (1450) will be discussed in the final chapter. The methodologies employed throughout the investigation and subsequent influences are the subject of the third chapter, Modus operandi. An engagement with New Materialism has been central to making sense of the methodologies I employed for the investigation, especially Karen Barad's theory of 'hauntologies'. Barad's proposals have been integral to framing the processes I employed and combined with serendipitous events, interacted to bring about new possibilities in understanding and making. There have been fortuitous discoveries that have led me to bring a sense of Dickinson's manner of working ‚Äö- discoveries where there was a need to let go of the materials and the medium to allow the intra-action of events to bring new understanding between the maker and her materials and the poet and her poem. This has led to the exploration of how to image the text as an absence and has encouraged new insights and questioning of my own practice.


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