TEMPLE

(Latin templum, sanctuary, space marked for observation by an augur)

Psychology being the modern philosophy we are increasingly compelled to conduct our quest for greater meaning within the recesses of our own consciousness, and sub-consciousness. Yet this introversion remains essentially a journey towards extroversion, an attempt to define ourselves and our meaning in relation to a greater order of creation and creative force. Most human societies have felt the need to focus this search upon sacred space, usually interpreted and articulated by intermediaries - the priestly caste - and it is through such an interface that the encounter between human beings and the higher forces controlling their destinies has traditionally been enacted. Against this backdrop the artist Jon Middlemiss acts as shaman in the sanctuary of his own work - Temple.

The role of the augur or exegete in interpreting aspects of the truth revealed within the sanctuary has often been an aspect of this process, and it is in this role that I offer my own readings of the symbolic imagery contained within the Temple.

The installation comprises three interlocking sections. The plan of the Temple resembles an ancient glyph for the human form, a totemic figure in its own right. The first, comprising ‘from the stars to the stars’ and ‘memories’ occupies the place of the feet and their grounding, the legs which support the whole and the reproductive organs. The second, ‘spiral and descent’ stands for the torso, seat of the essential organs, including the heart. The third, ‘the dance’, resembles the head, seat of creative thought, with its radial projections surrounding it as a nimbus, the glory burst or sign of grace.

Middlemiss equates these spaces to stages of "an intuitive journey of reclamation": the first stage enshrines "memories of other cultures and experiences that have arisen through recall"; the second is "a space of chaos and release"; in the third "new life emerges out of the fire".

Journey is integral to destination, and Middlemiss’ work is still pursuing its odyssey of self-discovery, just as our human quest for truth, divine or otherwise, goes ever onwards. One person’s journey is of empathetic meaning to us all and is seldom made more accessible than through the medium of the arts. In broader cultural terms the personal glyph of Temple can be interpreted as stages in the human journey and as symbolic of the way that societies and religions have expressed it.

The journey starts with the moment of genesis, ‘from the stars to the stars’, in the form of three figures: father, mother, child., the source of identity in which we are initially grounded and where our myths of origin reside. Before them lies a ceremonial avenue of opposing pillars, as megalithic as Avebury or Carnac. Upon these are placed the ‘memory figures’, totemic busts their geometric head-dresses and vibrant colours recalling stately Aztec finery. This cultural resonance is particularly apposite, summoning up as it does the sacrifice of the present to the past, in order to ensure the future. The cult of ancestor-worship and the celebration of genealogy is a common cultural mode of synthesising individual and group identity and of enshrining myths of origin. Thus the early Anglo-Saxon dynasties traced their ancestry back through historic group members to figures such as Caesar, thence to pagan Germanic deities, such as Woden, and, following Christianisation back to Adam. In so doing they were siting themselves within their own communities and peer groups, laying claim to legitimacy and the right to rule both as heirs of Rome and through the legacy of their forebears. Their need for human legitimisation is interwoven with that for the divine. This iconic capturing of the procreative life-force culminates at the end of the avenue with two prominent busts on either side: ‘remember’ and ‘memories’. The masculine is represented by the active verb and the feminine by the containing noun, embodying the tenet ‘women mourn that men may remember’. This duality of nature is emphasised by the materials from which the pillars spring: coal and chalk, the stuff of which environmental memory is made, the fossilisation of millions of small lives. Against this are set a number of glazed cases at the feet of the pillars. These contain codices displaying texts exploring the role of the shaman: the performance of domestic and public ritual, the interpretation of signs, the invigilation of rites of passage, the detached act of cleansing, of cutting through myth with a ceremonial knife to the heart of truth. For societies again feel the need to codify their group memory, often embedded within religious scripture. This process of acquisition and enshrinement of knowledge as part of an exploration of identity and definition of a belief structure can empower, but it can also constrain. For we are leaky vessels, as individuals and societies. Our memory is selective, as is our retention of knowledge on the shelves of the libraries of the world, and our personal and collective myths of origin are made to serve our own agendas even whilst they are shaping them.

Whatever our received wisdom we feel the need to transcend it, to push forward the frontiers of experience, and to perpetually reinvent the wheel - to experience things for ourselves. Endless repetition of the pains of the human condition can engender turmoil and disillusionment with the pillars of wisdom upon which societies rest. A need to destroy, to burn, to cleanse, to emerge phoenix-like from the ashes is all too often expressed in the act of sacrifice, be it the burnt offering of Judaic ritual offered up at the Temple, the human blood sacrifices of the Aztecs which flowed over the slopes of their ziggurats, the destruction of those sanctuaries themselves at the hands of the Romans and the Conquistadors, or the ultimate sacrifice of the Godhead itself in Christianity. This need is expressed in ‘spiral and descent’. Here order gives way to chaos in the dualism of destruction and sacrifice. Emotional trauma and environmental trauma are combined in the creative cathartism of the burning of writings made by the artist over two and a half years. Amongst the ashes emerge strange half-perceived forms and spirals redolent of the rock art of Newgrange and other Neolithic tombs, their fluidity bringing to mind the cosmos and the life-giving force of water, the Celtic and Christian source of rebirth. The act of offering up what you have made, what you have been, can give true life and meaning to the remote rituals of memory. To sacrifice is to make sacred and is also to liberate. Through descent, be it the Harrowing of Hell, the crossing of the Styx, or transgression into the realm of the Sidh (the Celtic spirit world) through the portals of chambered tombs and perhaps some fogous, resurrection and birth to new life is accomplished.

This sense of liberation, of the dawning of new ways of seeing, feeling and understanding, finds its outlet in ‘the dance’. Here attenuated organic figures, which are the antithesis of the static ‘memory figures’, dance their way through a number of complex themes, probing them as they go. At times it is a danse macabre, at others a joyous celebration of release.

The first of these is an elongated, constrained and strained figure with bird-like features. Its wings are clipped and it is held by nails to the cross, which we are all called to bear. It emits a silent cry for release, yet its suppressed desire to break free seems itself an act of betrayal, pinning it even firmer to its tether. The cockerel as symbol of betrayal (St Peter and the cock’s crow), of sacrificial victim and of ultimate resurrection through sacrifice (again a Christian iconography) comes to mind.

The second is another tense piece in which two angular figures appear in confrontation, their penetrating, pointed heads engaging in a dialogue of complicity in which victor and victim collude in their mutual plight and addictive aggression, oblivious to its impact on the onlooker who is both implicated and excluded.

The third presents the human figure as wounded animal, a fragile being resorting to crawling on all fours, as it tentatively feels its way along, its coccyx returning to the tail. The sticks at its core protrude through its wounds and provide an elemental link to the sycamore offerings placed at the feet of the dance.

The fourth is ‘beyond fear’. A tall figure steps confidently, recklessly from trestle to trestle, his face turned expectantly to the heavens in rapt contemplation. The words of Oscar Wilde, "we are all of us in the gutter, some of us are looking at the stars", ring in the ears. His recklessness may stem from the breaks and bleeding wounds which reveal all too painfully that he has fallen before. Was this due to misplaced confidence about to be repeated, or have such experiences led to the recognition that, in the parlance of Celtic Christian spirituality, it is time to step aboard the boat with no oars, to caste oneself off as a peregrinus (exile for God) open to the steering of a greater divine will?

The fifth is ‘dancing with the moon’. A lyrical, commedia del’arte figure describes an arc with her raised arms in a moonstruck act of worship and communion. It encompasses the lunar cycle, the feminine deity of the moon supplanting the sun-god, Apollo, as the Celtic lunar calendar supplanted its Neolithic solar counterpart. The steps of her dance lead her feet from a worn terrestrial steeping stone to a water-worn one, as the ancient earth mother gave way to the renewing spirits of water.

The sixth repeats something of this theme, its figure stepping from a cube of worked wood to another in its natural state, a recognition of the primeval at the core of the civilised.

The seventh is ‘stalking the shadow’ in which a dualistic figure combines features of penetration and submission. The artist may have intended these as inherently masculine and feminine features, but the result is to suggest the attainment of a degendered difference, the recognition that contradictory and complementary characters may reside in us all, irrespective of gender.

The eighth is an eclipse figure, in which sun and moon reflect the themes of the fifth and seventh pieces. Once again the sun is eclipsed by the figure of the moon, as in the ancient cosmic religions of northern Europe. Yet in so doing the two, with their masculine and feminine attributions, are inevitably merged into one.

The figures of the dance are complemented by symbolic gift offerings which bisect the plinths on which they stand to form a radiant, radiating nimbus. The mainstays of this are ten sycamore trees which were ‘taken’ by the artist and stripped of their bark to reveal a new energy and redefine themselves in a new spatial context. Clay and seeds taken from the artist’s parental farm in Yorkshire. Bark, humus and hazelnuts confirm the link back to the earth and its fertility. The pieces of clay are each impressed with rune-like symbols of memories and are surrounded by stones collected when his mother died. Tufts of wool also appear, again collected at the funeral of the artist’s sheep-farmer father. Semi-precious stones are also there, as gifts from others. One other element should be mentioned - the feathers fastened to nails, recalling the first figure of the dance. We all need to recognise what our binding nails are, to own them without judging them, and thereby to liberate them.

Thus the journey has returned to its starting point. But the experiences gained en route have been assimilated and have engendered a new creativity. Self knowledge and self determinism are not the destination, they are an integral part of the ongoing journey.

Michelle P. Brown, Curator of Manuscripts, British Library