The most significant actions of early societies were performed and then literally translated as symbols onto objects of daily or ritual use, creating both an ephemeral and lasting narrative. These symbols and performed actions were part of a belief system that brought joy and hope to often perilous situations. Jessica Smarsch explores the negotiation between performance and symbolism from a historical and contemporary perspective.
Symbolism is a rich and important part of historical cultural narratives. The most significant actions of early societies were performed and then literally translated as symbols onto objects of daily or ritual use, creating both an ephemeral and lasting narrative. These symbols and performed actions were part of a belief system that brought joy and hope to often perilous situations. Certain ancient practices still exist today, but increasingly cultural symbolism and performance has lost its original meaning. In some cases, this loss of meaning could also be seen as an evolution of narrative, perhaps even revealing something about the core human spirit. While our understanding of the world has changed drastically over centuries, many self-referential, existential questions still puzzle humanity today. Symbolism was once a language of negotiation with the natural and spiritual world 1. With which world are we negotiating today?
In early civilizations, survival was, on one hand, dependent on nature’s mercy: if no rain came, plants would not grow, there would be no food, and famine would set in. On the other hand, if there were ways to persuade nature to cooperate, survival was at least a negotiation. But negotiation with nature was an abstract idea; a kind of intermediary would surely be needed, something half human, half nature, something living between both worlds.
Fertility was the most important concept that early agrarian societies held 2. As much work as farming required, fertility was presumably more reliable than hunting and gathering: it was a more direct and proactive means of controlling one’s own destiny. The desire and will to positively affect one’s own destiny lies at the core of a uniquely human characteristic: hope.
Traditional symbolism was not only figurative; it also took form through material and physical representation. The string skirt first discovered on a Paleolithic figurine dating to 20,000 B.C., worn to exaggerate woman’s pubic hair as a symbol of her maturation and fertility. This material symbolism has sustained its presence over thousands of years and is still seen in many examples of folk costume in Europe 3. Symbolic actions were performed in parallel to daily life or ritual practice, such as the still practiced Bulgarian ritual ‘Enyo’s Bride’4. Dance and physical celebration created social cohesion and euphoric release.
The idea of the ancestor-as-spirit is prevalent in many cultures, from Finland and Russia to the Native American Indian’s. Particularly, ancestors were seen as spirits who watched over their living descendants. Ancestors were mothers, fathers, grandparents and great grandparents, but there was another category of the dead: young girls who died before giving birth, ancestors to no one. This category of spirit had died prematurely and was stuck in limbo, but with her fertility intact. Such a spirit had no particular allegiance to the living, but could be appeased and persuaded to impart her fertility by honoring her and her ways. This maiden is seen all across European and Asian folk culture and is known by many names. She is a shape-shifter, half-human, half-other. In many cases, this fertile spirit lives near or in water and by removing her feather skin, can shift form from human – to swan 5.
Despite the ancient roots of pagan practices and belief systems, folk traditions began to slowly change with the spread of Christianity in Europe, starting in the 5th century A.D. and continuing through the 13th. Cultural beliefs, ceremonies and rituals based on the solar calendar, seasonal rotation, and fertility conflicted with almost everything Christianity promoted. The idea of celebrating female fertility was particularly taboo. After all, the mother of Christ was a virgin. As the church spread its reach across Europe and new ideologies were introduced, pagan practices began to integrate with Christian teachings. Many traditional rituals and celebrations continued, but some lost aspects of their original significance. For example, some traditional customs under- went calendrical shifts and were performed under the guise of Christian worship; Enyo’s Bride and its related festivities are performed on St. John’s Day, a day of health and abundance. It is interesting to consider what did remain and how new narratives were formed.
The link between performed narrative and design has disappeared, or at least changed drastically. Perhaps the performed narrative today is the repetition of the industrial machine or the tapping of fingers across a keyboard. The centuries-long evolution of the swan suggests that by connecting body and mind, and perhaps even giving way to the body, we may find a clearer path to joy. Bringing this connection into the designed object may do more than simply create “something special”. It could transform how we regard design and how we perform within it.
In Body-Scapes, abstract digital patterns, formed by the body in conscious movement create a language of graphic symbolism that become the blueprints for subsequent designs in textile. Exploring this theme through a specific design project, Body-Scapes focuses on the self, and uses mind-body connectivity to create personal narratives through daily ritual.
The performed ritual in this case is an intuitive walk, starting and ending from the home. The emotional states before and after the walk are recorded with a body sensor bracelet, by method of enacting feeling through body movement. Using a custom software system, graphic symbols are chosen based on specific and personal associations and a pattern is consciously built in coordination with the movement until the desired effect is achieved. The purpose of the walks is to develop mind-ful presence through movement, though the specific environments are often influential on the outcomes. A walk through nature inevitably differs from a walk through cement city blocks or past a busy motorway; the challenge is in how those experiences are processed through the body.
This daily ritual creates space for intuitive exploration and personal reflection, and the pattern-making experience brings awareness to the internal process.__
KELLY, Mary B., 2011. Goddess Women Cloth: A Worldwide Tradition of Making and Using Ritual Textiles. Studiobooks: Hilton Head, Southern California, USA.
WAYLAND BARBER, Elizabeth, 1994. Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years. W. W. Norton & Company Inc: New York NY.
WAYLAND BARBER, Elizabeth, 2013. The Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology, and the Origins of European Dance. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc: New York, NY.
WAYLAND BARBER, Elizabeth, SLOAN Barbara Belle, 2013. Resplendent Dress from Southeastern Europe: A History in Layers. Great Wall Printing Company, Ltd: Hong Kong.
Jessica Smarsch is a designer from the United States with a professional background in textiles. After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2001 and working 10 years in New York City, she moved to the Netherlands in 2012 to pursue a Masters degree at the Design Academy Eindhoven. During her studies her true interest remained in textiles and how this material development process has been linked by many to the meditative, spiritual practices. Inspired by the shared pattern language between the human mind-body and textiles, she developed a software program that connects controlled body movement to graphic pattern generation through live animation, and a textile technique that materializes these patterns into woven end-products.