In the Tibetan tradition, the mandala has evolved as an artistic form and provides a focus for a meditative ritual emphasizing cosmic integration. In the center is the abode of the deity, which is surrounded by a series of concentric circles. A cosmic hierarchy is established as the circles, filled with matrixes of animals and lesser deities, gain distance from the center of the mandala.
Carl Jung viewed the mandala as a therapeutic art form, created by patients in their search for psychic integration. In this application, in the Tibetan tradition, and in countless other religious and cultural traditions which employ mandalas (such as Navaho sandpaintings or the t'ai chi symbol of yin and yang), the mandala is a medium for gaining a higher level of self-integration and harmony within nature.
The mandala struck me as an ideal format for a piece that would provoke questions and meditation on our culture's present-day relationship to nature. We find ourselves far from the situation of those people in geographically, culturally, or historically remote civilizations for whom everything in nature is or was sacred. And yet no matter how "civilized" we become we must still answer for ourselves the basic questions of self-orientation, how we place ourselves within the "larger scheme of things." Much has been written and said concerning our loss of identity as a culture, sometimes referred to as a loss of "soul." I see this spiritual loss as a very direct consequence of a kind of amputation, of cutting ourselves off from the natural world. Without an awareness of the interdependence of all phenomena and their essential unity, we do not take up the slack on a sort of spiritual lifeline. One "real world" consequence of this, and my primary motivation in conceiving of this installation, is that we find ourselves to be in a horrible ecological mess.
In this installation, a series of twenty-one figurative forms are suspended from the ceiling, arranged in a central matrix of nine figures that is circumscribed by twelve figures, positioned like the numbers on a clock. Each figure is composed of a trenchcoat hanging on an armature. Hanging inside each coat, a few inches from the bottom hem, is a 20-watt circular fluorescent lamp. The light from these lamps illuminates and stimulates the growth of yams, suspended in fishbowls filled with water, each placed directly beneath a trenchcoat figure. As time passes during the exhibition, the yams grow toward the lights as well as toward one another, forming a viney mat of green. The yams and fishbowls sit on a fine layer of black gravel, groomed into the form of a circle, which echoes and extends just beyond the circle of figures suspended above.
In the four corners of the installation space are four "guardians." (These correspond to the four cardinal points in a traditional mandala, which may variously represent the directions of the compass, the elements, or the seasons.) These guardians represent the elements: earth air, water, and fire. Each one takes the form of a spiral, fabricated with variations on rope-making techniques. "Earth" is made of raffia grass, covered with dirt and sand. "Air" is a lacy, web-like form, made of gut. "Water" is also a web-like form, dripped with a mixture of cobalt pigment and beeswax. "Fire" is made of raffia grass, with gold leaf covering the tail of the form.
Mo Kelman, copyright 1993