Mystical Participation: The Works Of Ruth Eckland and Kui Dong

A Cross-cultural Study that Combines Different Dream Heritages

by Demetra Paras

Ruth Eckland, detail from Youlan, manipulated slide projected on multiple scrims,
May 1997 installation at Meridian Gallery, San Francisco.

Fantasy and dreaming, the forms of consciousness that lie between the ordinary and the creative imagination, cannot be precisely defined. All people dream, yet not everyone dreams in visuals; congenitally blind people dream in auditory and sensory-motor modes. Most primitive cultures accept the fantastic associations between objects and actions in dreams. These associations are often referred to as "mystical participation." Many creative artists, healers and seekers of the divine embrace the passions that evolve from fantasy and dreaming.

Visual artist Ruth Eckland and musical composer Kui Dong have been collaborating since 1993 to construct experimental environments of image and sound. Eckland and Dong manipulate objects from our modern technological world to portray the fantastic, allowing the viewer to experience the possibilities of what aboriginal Australians have called the Dreaming. These two artists weave together visual art and music to invoke a provocative view of different cultural interpretations and life experiences, and to encounter the divine.

, the first collaboration by Eckland and Dong, constructs a dreamlike environment in which abstract images float, linger, transform and dissolve to synchronized music. Entering a darkened room humming with technology, the viewer is invited to experience the moment on a visceral level by music synchronized to visual images. One state of mystical reality slowly shifts to be replaced by merging new sounds and visions of another reality. The viewer is reminded of the impermanence of our reality. In this room, as in dreams, the wonder of color, sound, sensations and life emerges in the darkness. Eckland and Dong portray a profound understanding of life, following the footpaths of ancient traditions.

Many cultural traditions recognize the healing power of both waking and sleeping dreams. The aboriginal Australians, like many indigenous peoples, believe human beings, as part of nature, are intimately connected with other living things. Elaborate rituals using song, music and visual art tie these people with the Dreaming, a creative period when mystic spirits shape the land and establish human life. The Native American powwow translates from Algonquin as "he dreams." This again suggests communication with the dream or spirit world. In the powwow, prayer, dance, creative art and song are used to expel sickness, renew friendships and celebrate life. Other prior cultures embraced the dream state as significant, especially for the healing arts. Dreams were particularly important in Greek culture. Morpheus, Greek god of dreams, carried a cluster of poppies and scattered the seeds to induce sleep and dreaming, while Hypnos, the god of sleep, shaped the dreams of the dreamer. It is interesting to note thatthe caduceus, wand of the Greek messenger god Hermes, held magical powers to induce waking and sleeping dreams. The caduceus, entwined with serpents and surmounted by wings, is the currently widely-accepted symbol for the medical profession. The ancient Greek city of Epidaurus functioned as an international healing spa from the fifth century B.C. through Roman times. In long porticoes of the abaton, patients would sleep in order to dream cures prescribed by the god. This dream experience, although part of a communal tradition, remained a personal adventure. One can imagine, when
viewing the installations of Eckland and Dong, what a dreamer might have experienced while waiting to receive answers from the temple god.

Attempts to understand dreams and altered states of mind have captured the interest of thinkers, artists and healers of all ages, resulting in many ideas about what dreams represent. Dream interpretation has been used to predict the future and connect with the divine, as well as to heal. One of the oldest written books is an ancient Egyptian book of dream interpretations, dating back to 2000 B.C. Hippocrates, Aristotle and Galen believed that dreams had physiological information connected to future medical illness. Artemidorus, a physician from 150 A.D. who documented thousands of interpretations of dreams, maintained that dreams did not have one universal symbolic meaning, but were unique to the dreamer. The Magi, who appear as part of the tradition surrounding the birth of Christ, are also known as "the three wise men" because, as Eastern interpreters of dreams, they were known to be "wise in the things of God."

In the twentieth century, following the tradition of the Magi, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud considered The Interpretation of Dreams to be his master work. Carl Jung believed that humans produce symbols unconsciously and spontaneously in the form of dreams. After studying many primitive cultures, he concluded that we are unable to define or clearly understand the divine being because of our intellectual limitations. He held that unconscious aspects of events are revealed in dreams. Other doctors along with Freud and Jung use dream analysis to help cure their patients. Like healers from the past, they believe this altered state holds relevant information.

Youlan, Long Winding Valley, the recent collaboration by Eckland and Dong, was inspired by classical Chinese opera and Taoist philosophy. In classical Chinese thought, art is considered an expression of an all-embracing world view. Music is an emanation of the heart and represents an image of the cosmos. The ancient author Lu Buwei claimed that he was able to speak of musiconly with a man who had grasped the meaning of the world. Eckland and Dong capture the synthesis of heart and cosmos in this powerful yet gently meditative installation. This work creates a sacred space for the viewer to experience the fantastic, to explore possibilities in living and to connect with the divine. Youlan begins like a journey: as one enters the darkened room, one leaves behind daily routine. The music by Dong begins with a jolt to awaken the viewer to this present
moment. "Awake in the dream!" it beckons. Altered photographic images are projected onto a serpentine configuration of hanging layers of transparent scrim. This layering adds to the sense of timeless continuation. Characters from the Beijing Opera, saturated in red, lead the viewer along a course through the winding valley where darkness is punctuated by light, and images dissolve their boundaries and merge to birth new visions. The viewer is guided to a meditation that is both alluring and healing.

Dong uses ancient Chinese instruments which she transforms through digital processing and manipulation, creating sound structures. The visual images that Eckland creates allude to the ancient Taoist graphic art, which did not differentiate between the real and the imaginary. Most of the Taoist images were designed to create active use of imagination and abstraction. Traditional Chinese opera with its bare stage is intended to include the imagination of the spectator. Youlan unites sound and visual image to summon the viewer's "mystical participation." *

Demetra Paras is a Bay Area artist, a licensed narrative family therapist, and the curator at Serra
House, the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, Stanford University.

Dreams and Fantasies