Tantric Tradition as Performative Utterance: The Case of Candi Sukuh

Fig 1. Candi Sukuh as seen from third (top) terrace of temple complex. Source: Jogja Petualang, 2013.

Fig 1. Candi Sukuh as seen from third (top) terrace of temple complex. Source: Jogja Petualang, 2013.

Known most popularly as a cultish trend of eccentric sexual rites and erotic traditions, Tantrism is perhaps one of the most misapprehended forms of spirituality in Western consciousness. This fundamental rift in understanding can be primarily attributed to the methodologies of colonial anthropology that have simultaneously decontextualized and categorized objects of Tantric cultural production as archaic relics of primitive consciousness. But in 1985, Southeast Asian art historian and Cornell University professor Stanley J. O’Connor wrote about a small, peculiar, and little-known Tantric temple in Indonesia with a seemingly alien blacksmith relief in an account that reframed the anthropological discourse surrounding Tantric tradition to contextualize its meaning in linguistic terms. By describing the relief as a gesture analogous to performative utterance—a class of speech act with ritual implication—O’Connor constructed a dialectical paradigm that understood the Tantric artwork to be a site of activation for a sublime, spiritual experience, rather than merely an archival artifact of a forgotten past.

Three-thousand feet above sea level, on the west-facing side of Mount Lawu in Central Java, there is a modest patch of flat terrain veiled in the milky clouds that embrace the massive stratovolcano. On this grassy site six-hundred years ago, Hindu settlers from around the vast island of Java fleeing the impending influx of Muslim settlers[1] laid a small temple complex called Candi Sukuh (Fig 1). Three-hundred years later, the infamous British colonial Lieutenant-Governor and self-proclaimed ethnographer Sir Thomas Raffles stumbled across the site in vandalized ruin: figurative statues were decapitated, reliefs damaged, and sculptures thrown violently on the ground (Fig 2). Yet local villagers in the inhabiting town of Berjo continued to lay their daily offerings of vivid flowers wrapped in banana leaves and perfumed with varieties of sandalwood incense (Fig 3).[2]

Fig 2. Three decapitated figurative statues located on the third (top) terrace of the Candi Sukuh temple complex. Source: Mariko J. Azis, 2016.

Fig 2. Three decapitated figurative statues located on the third (top) terrace of the Candi Sukuh temple complex. Source: Mariko J. Azis, 2016.

The temple is as much shrouded with mountainous haze as it is in mystery: as is the case with many of the Javanese Hindu candi (temples) of the region, much of the accompanying scripture and written record of the sites were written in palm leaf that failed to survive the precarious monsoon seasons.[3] Despite this, what was evident to Raffles at the time of his introduction to the site was that the temple was unlike any other in the region, if not on the entire island: the highly sexualized and violent subjects of its reliefs were stylistically rendered in a grotesque, demonic manner that remains in stark contrast to the intricate decorative techniques of its regionally neighboring candi (including the marathon complex of Candi Prambanan, constructed in the 9th century).[4] Strewn with images of vaginal yoni and phallic lingga iconography, the defacement of Candi Sukuh’s profane, unsuppressed imagery was likely justified by Islamic colonizers’ obligation to modest propriety.[5]

Fig 3. Reliefs on an altar located on the third (top) terrace of the temple complex depicting the mythological story of a mortal named Uma who was liberated from sin by the goddess Sudamala by means of a kriya (purification ritual), as told in the Hindu epic called the Mahabharata. Shown in the altar is an assortment of Hindu offerings arranged from colorful flowers collected in handmade banana-leaf dishes. Source: Mariko J. Azis, 2016.

Fig 3. Reliefs on an altar located on the third (top) terrace of the temple complex depicting the mythological story of a mortal named Uma who was liberated from sin by the goddess Sudamala by means of a kriya (purification ritual), as told in the Hindu epic called the Mahabharata. Shown in the altar is an assortment of Hindu offerings arranged from colorful flowers collected in handmade banana-leaf dishes. Source: Mariko J. Azis, 2016.

A century after Raffles, O’Connor revisited the site and performed detailed research on a particularly curious relief tucked in its own terraced setting on the south side of the complex. Cast in iron and well-preserved, this relief depicted two men forging a weapon in a smithy, flanking a demonic dancing Ganesha goddess figure (Fig 4). Initially shelved as an anomalous object with no textual explication for its presence at the temple, O’Connor’s research reconceived the relief’s presence completely: he revealed the work as an embodiment of the Tantric principle of spiritual liberation by means of material transformation. “By seizing upon the processes through which metallic substances are transformed,” O’Connor writes, “[the artist] has provided an equivalence in natural energies and rhythms for those spiritual transformations believed to govern the career of the soul after death.”[6] Portraying the smithy relief within the Tantric context of transitional cremation ceremonies—fraught with energetic ritual that is simultaneously creative and destructive—O’Connor elucidated the very pertinent relationship between the seemingly deviating subjects of sexual imagery and blacksmithing tradition in Java.

Fig 4. Iron relief on the south end of the second (middle) terrace of the temple complex—the subject of Stanley J. O’Connor’s “Metallurgy and Immortality and Candi Sukuh” (1985). Source: Mariko J. Azis, 2016.

Fig 4. Iron relief on the south end of the second (middle) terrace of the temple complex—the subject of Stanley J. O’Connor’s “Metallurgy and Immortality and Candi Sukuh” (1985). Source: Mariko J. Azis, 2016.

“If we read the Sukuh relief as a performative utterance, then what it performs, through a presentation of craft mysteries, is the transfiguration, transformation, or transportation of spirit,” he continues.[7] What O’Connor refers to here as performative utterance is a class of operative speech-acts expounded by the philosopher J.L. Austin, in which the very act of utterance ritually fulfils the result that it intends. Austin writes that “to utter the sentence (in, of course, the appropriate circumstances) is not to describe my doing of what I should be said in so uttering to be doing or to state that I am doing it: it is to do it.”[8] A familiar example of such speech-acts in Western philology might be a wedding vow, in which the utterance “I do take thee...” in its own performance realizes the intended result of vowing oneself to a partner in marriage.

O’Connor’s identification of Candi Sukuh’s enigmatic blacksmith relief as a performative utterance is arguably the most accurate linguistic account of the artistic merit and experience of the piece. Circumventing the post-colonial anthropological convention of dismissing the artists’ and practitioners’ tendencies as founded simply on pure myth and superstitious representation,[9] O’Connor paints an image of an artistic hand self-aware in its capacity to simultaneously demonstrate, embody, and commemorate the act of the piece’s creation. Rather than explicating the relief as a constative pictorial representation of mythological belief, O’Connor comprehends the object’s inherent propensity to exist as a fulfillment of its own ritual purpose. In fact, upon a broadened analysis of the philosophia perennis of Tantric tradition, the attribute of performative utterance may even be said to be characteristic of all Tantric craft and cultural production.

While not an autonomous religious faction nor even an articulated collection of texts, Tantrism can be best understood as a genre of literature and practice existent in all South Asian religions, ranging from animistic folk religions, Jainism, Buddhism, and Hinduism.[10] Tantrism more accurately embodies the philological quality that pervades theistic texts rather than the texts or practices in themselves. As can be expected of such a syncretic class of scripture, Tantric literature tends to evade comprehension in terms satisfactory to categorical definition: to the extent that a text could exemplify qualities of Tantrism, Tantric texts are not always homogenous in their material, nor do they necessarily include definitive “markers” of Tantra as a cataloged genre. Thus, to elucidate a more comprehensive demonstration of Tantrism, this research is guided not by the delineation and description of the exponentially diverging sects birthed from Tantric literature, but rather on the expression of Tantra as a Gnostic ideology founded in the mastery of the physical realm as a site for unification with the divine.

One of the most popular and multiform pieces of literature in Tantric scripture that meticulously models the relationship between the body and universal divinity is the Kalacakratantra (derivative of kala [time] and cakra [cycle]).[11] Within this text, the most repetitive mantra (“magical speech” or incantation) illustrates this relationship with simplicity: “Yatha bayhe tatha dehe (As it is outside, so it is within the body),”[12] but the cosmological vehicles through which this relationship is mediated are interrelated in an eternal cycle laden with complexity and fragility. Central to the Kalacakratantra (and derivative of the ancient Buddhist ontology of cosmological organization[13]) is a triadic coordination of the universe—one that persists on multiple spatiotemporal levels of cosmological conceptualization. In the cyclical existence demonstrated in the Kalacakratantra, two types of cosmos—the inanimate and the animate—co-dependently cycle in perpetual flux, characterized by their origination, duration, and destruction. The formation of these cosmos relies on all sentient beings’ combined karma—a multifaceted concept that could most accurately be abridged to the notion of actions classified as wholesome or unwholesome, dependent on their extent of collective service. The karma generated by sentient beings produces a boundless supply of karma-vata (karmic winds) that spawn the multiplicities of cosmic world-systems via their triadic typology: the holding wind (samdharana) provides structural support for the atomic world, the churning wind (manthana) churns atoms into solid elements, and the shaping wind (samsthana) maintains the eternal shifting and bending of the elements.[14]

Candi Sukuh is a site whose devotion appears to have been focused on the celebration of the second of these winds, manthana: the karmic wind responsible for the Samuderamanthana, one of the major episodes of Hindu mythology, described famously in the epic Mahabharata text. According to the Mahabharata, the Samuderamanthana—translated literally to “churning of the milky ocean,” was performed by the gods in order to produce amrita (the water of life).[15] As written in the original Mahabharata text:


...the gods came to the shore of the Ocean with Ananta[16] and addressed the Ocean, saying, 'O Ocean; we have come to churn thy waters for obtaining nectar.' And the Ocean replied, 'Be it so, as I shall not go without a share of it. I am able to bear the prodigious agitation of my waters set up by the mountain.' The gods then went to the king of tortoises and said to him, 'O Tortoise-king, thou wilt have to hold the mountain on thy back!' The Tortoise-king agreed, and Indra[17] contrived to place the mountain on the former's back.[18]

 

Accordingly, Candi Sukuh’s main temple distinctively illustrates this epic creation myth in its iconographic depictions of the three embodied forces: the Tortoise figure, the mountain (which is also echoed by the temple’s situation on Mount Lawu), and the divine architects. The temple structure maintains a triadic organization derivative of the three-world ontology of Hindu creation mythology: three circular tortoise pedestals (denoting the underworld) herald the pyramidal mountain structure (denoting the middle world), which supports a phallic lingga structure at its zenith (denoting the heavenly world). The cosmological structure is further echoed in the three-tiered terraces that steep towards the top level on which the main temple is situated. On the lowest terrace at which the temple entrance is located, pilgrims to the site would behold reliefs depicting the profanity of life when mala (moral “dirt”) persists in the practitioner’s mind and soul; at the second terrace, a “semi-sacred” space invites pilgrims to engage in kriya (purification rituals, the likes of which remain ambiguous); and at the highest terrace, the main temple and reliefs denote the most sacred space of the temple complex in which pilgrims are invited to attain perfection, unifying their earthly existence with heavenly nirvana.[19]

The latter notion of unification between the mortal world and the divine introduces a fundamental thread of all Tantric practice and literature: the emphasis on the practitioner’s own body as the site of transcendental worship. Described as the achievement of “self-apotheosis,”[20] the Tantra practitioner’s performance of ritual acts through the physicality of their own body intends to establish the individual’s identity with the identity of the deity upon whom the practitioner meditates. Perhaps the most straightforward as well as the most translatable Tantric tradition that illustrates this unification is the practice of yoga. Although contemporary global sensibilities of yoga conceive the practice as a fitness trend, yogic philosophy in actuality devotes the smallest portion of its literature to the physical practice of asana (posture), characterized instead by illustrating spiritual liberation through meditation of the holistic body and mind.[21] Simply put, what pervades the practice of yoga (which translates literally to “union”) much more than asana is the notion that a practitioner can master their body in order to unify its corporeality with its divine spirit, referred to hereafter as the True Self.[22]

Here, we begin to see parallels with the cosmological conceptualizations present in the Kalacakratantra; for example, the triadic typology of the aforementioned generative karmic winds can be understood analogously in terms of the comparable cosmology of the human body in yogic tradition, in which prana (life-force energy) is embodied by breath. Five vayu (subtle winds) affect prana in various areas of the body—the tradition of yoga asana entails the yogi’s practice in exercising control over the internal movement of these vayu (and thus control over their prana) through postural meditation.[23] Consequently, the body can be understood as a mesocosm of the divine cosmos: to the extent that the deific world governs the fluid existence of the universe, a cosmological world exists within the physicality of practitioners’ themselves, thus heralding the epitomic mantra of the Kalacakratantra: “As it is outside, so it is within the body.”[24] Just as the deities achieve a balanced coordination between the heavenly and the earthly cosmos through mastery of the three karma-vata, the Tantric yoga practitioner achieves a coordination between the physicality of their human body and the divinity of their True Self through mastery of their prana during postural meditation. This practice of mastery accordingly brings the practitioner to a state of absolute unity with the divine, as is illustrated in the earliest extant reference to Tantric yoga, scribed in the Tantric text Nisvasa:

 

The Goddess said: “How does union [yoga] with the Independent Deity [Nirālamba Śiva][25] come about?” ... The Lord said: “That which may be seen by the eye, that which is within the realm of speech, those things which the mind thinks and which the imagination imagines, are made aspects of ‘I’ [i.e., appropriated by ego], as is whatever has a specific form; [therefore] one should search for the place in one’s own body where there is no such form.[26]

 

Evidently, in the model so described in the Nisvasa, the cognitive capacities that are mediated by the “ego” function as a much different modality from the state of unity with the True Self—yet both are necessarily coalesced within the human body. Thus, a particularly anti-Abrahamic religious assertion is made in Tantric thought: that every sentient being literally embodies divinity itself. The True Self can therefore also be generalized and understood as the Divine Self, or the Divine Spirit. In fact, “Namaste”—the Sanskrit mantra most pervasive in modern vocabulary, as popularized by the globalization of yoga asana practice—translates most accurately to “I recognize the Divine Spirit within you.”[27] From a phenomenological perspective, the experience of absolute detachment from the “ego” (and thus absolute unity with the True Self—a state referred to as Samadhi) can be understood as a metaphysical suspension of consciousness that is fundamentally unknowable.[28] Nevertheless, those who have attempted to “know” this psychological state in clinical terms often refer to the trance-like consciousness as a “dissociative condition”[29]; the terminology, however, may seem paradoxical to a learned yogi given that the practice of Samadhi exercises absolute unity with the True Self rather than dissociation from it.

Inherent in the notion that yoga is a practice towards achieving Samadhi is the inevitability that an act of transformation must occur within the practitioner’s body. In literal terms, this can be understood as the transitional state of an egocentric consciousness towards the True Self—a universal divine consciousness. Moreover, Tantric literature presupposes an equivalence between this transmutation of the yoga practitioner’s consciousness and the material conversion of elements, as in the alchemical practices that pervade Tantric tradition.

Hatha yoga does to the body of an adept, what alchemists do to base metals,” medical anthropologist Joseph S. Alter writes of this analogous relationship. “Although it is possible to think of this purely in symbolic terms, it is important to keep in mind the fundamentally materialist orientation of both yoga and alchemy. It does not make any more sense to say that base metals become like gold, than it does to say that the body of an adept becomes god-like.”[30] In recognizing both transformative processes to be epistemologically “real” as phenomenological experiences, we can finally begin to fathom the magnitude to which a sentient being’s mastery over elemental transmutation can be considered an exercise of divine power. Whether in the material conversion of copper into gold or in the spiritual conversion of the egocentric consciousness into the universal consciousness, a Tantra practitioner is committed to the constant endeavor of transforming physical energies into divine energies. Accordingly, in reference to the seemingly anomalous blacksmith relief at Candi Sukuh, O’Connor acknowledges that “operations of the smith and smelter parallel cosmic process and that, with their ability to alter the mode of being of metals, the smiths also possessed the key to the means of spiritual transcendence.”[31]

Considering the supreme value placed in transmogrification processes against the backdrop of the established tenet that the physical body exists as the critical nexus for spiritual worship, it thus easily follows that the act of sexual procreation—in all its generative, metamorphic energy—could be considered within the highest realms of divine activity. Moreover, the female body is deemed a particularly holy site in this paradigm. “The greatest transformation of all, that of human seed into pure spiritual energy, takes place in the most sacred of all sacred vessels: the womb, the holy vessel which is also the fount, well, and spring of all creation,” describes writer and Tantra expert Indra Sinha.[32] “To see woman’s body as a vessel of transformation is, of course, also the alchemical view.” Turning to the Matrkabhedatantra—the quintessential Tantric text on rasayana (alchemical secrets and rituals)—we find that the language used to describe productive methods of transmogrification does indeed conform the material transformations of alchemy to the female body’s procreative capacity. For example, the Sanskrit term for the generalized female reproductive system is kunt[33]—the same term that is sometimes used to refer to the pots and ovens in which varieties of food and alchemical materials were cooked over burning coals. While the Matrkabhedatantra is primarily concerned with the instructional methodologies of alchemical ritual—devoted to methods of creating mercury ash, jewels, silver, and gold—the term kunt is found throughout the text, used interchangeably in the description of precious metal transmogrification as well as in the scarcer sections that briefly address the significance of fertilization and birth.[34] An understanding of this equivalence also justifies the etymology of the document’s titular “Matrkabheda” being named for the Sanskrit matri (“mother”),[35] effectively signifying “mother energies”—a derivation that might otherwise seem arbitrary or merely symbolic at best. The parallel relationship between Tantric treatment of alchemy and female reproductive capacities is vital to the practitioner’s journey towards Samadhi; thus, a strong overtone of feminine power and energy suffuses the language in much of the Tantric literature surrounding creation—whether in reference to cosmological, reproductive, or alchemical transformative processes.[36]

In considering the contextual implications of the distinct pictorial iconography pictured at Candi Sukuh—from the narrative reliefs depicting the churning of the milky ocean in the Samuderamanthana, to the iron relief that simultaneously embodies and portrays the alchemical processes of blacksmithing, to the unabashed imagery of sexual and procreative vigor—it is clear that there is a purposeful thread that fuses the seemingly disparate subjects into a single mode of spiritual piety. What appeared to Raffles and other colonial anthropologists to be an arbitrary or mistaken assortment of artifacts was actually a consecrated construction devoted to the energetic power of transformation—within the cosmological creation myth, the elemental transmutations in alchemy, and the procreative physicality of the sexual body.

Today, most Tantric cultural production is understood in the hegemony of Western anthropological discourse as indexical artifacts of representational significance (or worse, as exoticized displays of barbaric, excessively promiscuous societies). However, an empathetic consideration of the role of these remnants in their contemporaneous ethos elucidates Tantric artworks not as representations, but rather as material embodiments of the unification between the physical and divine realms, in a very literal sense. For this reason, O’Connor’s analogy of the blacksmith relief at Candi Sukuh as a gesture of performative utterance effectively shifts the diagnostic rhetoric of anthropological academia towards a conversation about cultural context and experience.

Indeed, contemporary notions of the class of performative utterances acknowledge the stylistic, cultural, and ritualistic variables of the speech act as fundamental to semantic meaning. Expanding on the speech act’s aforesaid parameters, J.O. Urmson—Austin’s primary editor for his most seminal texts on the subject—clarifies that “performative utterances are that subset of wholly conventional acts which is constituted by non-linguistic conventions but where these non-linguistic conventions require one to act in accordance with specified linguistic conventions.”[37] Urmson’s 1977 addenda to Austin’s initial 1955 conception of the performative utterance underscore non-linguistic cultural conventions as the essential foundation to the speech act’s ritual meaning. He correctly asserts that the gesture of the utterance itself does not retain its tautological logic if it is performed in a context that is inappropriate to the linguistic convention. For example, inasmuch as the ritual act of marriage in a culture foreign to one’s own would require knowledge of the lingustic conventions of that culture, it is entirely dependent on that community’s civic conventions—legal, social, and religious—that the accompanying speech acts could actually fulfill the ritual truth of the act. Urmson succinctly demonstrates this distinction in the example of marriage with the point that the completion of the ritual act for a foreigner in say, Turkey, would not be founded in a question of lingustics (or, “How do I get married in Turkish?”) but rather in a question of cultural convention (that is, “How do I get married in Turkey?”).[38] The performative utterance thus can be understood as an act that becomes a conventional in its cultural context when the ritual truth of its content can be verified by its non-linguistic significance.

Considering this signification in a purist sense, the semantic value of the performative utterance could be understood as a non-linguistic gesture altogether. “The true performative should not be classed as a speech-act at all,” Urmson writes. “It involves speech, just as the act of homage involves bodily contortion... [yet] it is a non-linguistic convention that determines that the utterance of those words, with the meaning that they have, constitutes that conventional act.”[39] If we thus expand our consideration of performative utterances to any gesture that fulfills the self-satisfying logic of asserting its ritual truth (as designated by its non-linguistic conventions), then we might consider all rites of Tantric ritual to be gestures of such logic. Considering our primary example, if Candi Sukuh exists as a literal embodiment of the transformative nature of the cosmological universe, the reality of the site itself asserts its ritual truth by being a gesture of that transformation, rather than about it. Inasmuch as the temple’s pictorial symbols and reliefs do provide representational description of its content (that is, the narrative of the Samuderamanthana chapter of the Mahabharata accompanied by the equivalently transformative iconography of sexual and alchemical energy), if we actually understand the act of the temple’s creation and contextualized function, it transcends its representational character. In fact, as the circumscribed principles of creation in Tantric philosophy would indicate, all material creation in the name of Tantra transcends representation: operating along the fundamental intention to create the yogic union between the material and the divine, the material creation becomes the divine.

What this adapted methodology of deciphering Tantric culture through the lens of performatives affords our current practices of historical analysis is a drastically more empathetic, holistic, and anti-colonial approach to interpreting the enigmatic tradition. This methodology also correctly identifies such objects to be contextualized as objects of the sublime experience of art rather than merely indexical artifacts, as O’Connor acknowledges them to be. In relating the perspective of the Tantric practitioner beholding the Candi Sukuh blacksmith relief, he writes that “in the synthetic and combinatory manner in which consciousness actively cooperates in experiencing a work of art and bringing out its implicit meanings, the viewer would draw on his whole range of knowledge and experience.”[40] Consequently, this methodology also allows the receptivity necessary for modern anthropological accounts to translate the contextualized phenomenological experience of Tantric ritual objects into comparatively expressive language—a language that is predominantly reserved for artworks that subsist as progeny of the decidedly Eurocentric canon of art history. O’Connor exemplifies this receptivity through the illustrative character of his writing on the blacksmith relief, in which he beautifully illuminates the sublime encounter with the artwork:

 

The relief would be wreathed in memory, a pressure of feeling, something more gossamer than a set of propositions. Ignited in the mind were images of the smelter sweating over the rising gorge of fire; the splintered roasting ore glowing in the reeking smoke; a pod of orange-white bloom bulging in the hearth; the blood-red threads of slag tapped off in steady trickles; the phased rhythm of the bellows with its pulse of spurting art; the granite hammer-stone ringing on chilled steel; the searing hiss of white-hot iron plunged in water.[41]

 

Candi Sukuh still remains an inscrutable work of art to historians and anthropologists in both its form and function—its structural appearance signifies a conscious deviation from both the architectural and stylistic standards of its contemporaries, and there appears to be no centralized deity nor particular ritual to which the temple is dedicated. Yet the spiritual essence of the site is unmistakable. Furthermore, the site is particularly unique as a landmark of the island’s fluid and pluralistic spiritual history: its conception falls in the brief period between the fall of the Hindu Majapahit Empire to the Islamic Demak Sultanate, during which it is said that indigenous populations were mobilized to revive the glory of the pre-Hindu, animistic, even Tantric Java.[42] If this is true, Candi Sukuh may therefore remain as one of the most essentially Javanese temples in existence[43]—an assertion that could have considerable implications for understanding the fundamental ontology of Javanese culture.

But as long as the hegemonic methodology of constative analysis dominates contemporary approaches to anthropological study, very real barriers remain in synthesizing a comprehensible image of what that Javanese-ness could be. For an island (and archipelago) so rich in its plurality yet so unmistakably fragmented in its national identity in more recent colonial history, these barriers are not irrelevant—they perpetuate a national attitude that this Javanese-ness is a distant memory, too vague and incomprehensible to identify with. Nonetheless, even a tourist could intuit the quality of the island’s spirituality in the lasting veneration that all natives still have towards such sites. Today, the Javanese maintain the essentially Tantric impulse that these lasting objects still materially manifest a certain intangible spirit—though elusive and cloaked in cloudy mystery, they continue to respect these objects as embodiments of the divine.

[1] Often misunderstood as an “Islamic invasion,” there is compelling evidence that the immigration of Islamic peoples to the island of Java was amicable, and that the indigenous peoples of the island converted willingly to the religion (which eventually resulted in the fall of the Majapahit Empire). See Fic, Victor M. From Majapahit and Sukuh to Megawati Sukarnoputri: Continuity and Change in Pluralism of Religion, Culture and Politics of Indonesia from the XV to the XXI Century. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 2003.

[2] Tiffin, Sarah. “Raffles and the Barometer of Civilisation: Images and Descriptions of Ruined Candis in The History of Java.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 18, no. 03 (July 2008): 348.

[3] Forman, Bedrich, 1919-1985. Borobudur, the Buddhist Legend in Stone. London: Octopus, 1980, 23.

[4] Tiffin, 344.

[5] Tiffin, 352.

[6] O’Connor, Stanley J. “Metallurgy and Immortality at Caṇḍi Sukuh, Central Java.” Indonesia 39 (April 1985): 53.

[7] O’Connor, 65.

[8] Austin, John Langshaw, and James Opie Urmson. How to Do Things with Words: [the William James Lectures Delivered at Harvard University in 1955]. 2. ed., [repr.]. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Univ. Press, 2009, 6.

[9] Tiffin, 352.

[10] Jones, Lindsay, Mircea Eliade, and Charles J. Adams, eds. Encyclopedia of Religion. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005, 4019.

[11] Wallace, Vesna A. The Inner Kālacakratantra: A Buddhist Tantric View of the Individual. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001, 22.

[12] Wallace, 65.

[13] Jones, Eliade, and Adams, 1214.

[14] While the sovereign utility of these three types of karma-vata may function chronologically, they seem to be understood on a timescale likened more to non-linear, multidirectional “space-time” than to Euclidian one-directional chronology, as they act in constant simultaneity. See Wallace, 59.

[15] “Sukuh Temple.” Berjo, Ngargoyoso District, Karanganyar Regency, Central Java: Candi Sukuh, 15th century A.D. Information card.

[16] One of the many names of the Lord Vishnu, one of the most significant deities in Hinduism. According to yogic scripture, Ananta eavesdropped on the teachings between the Goddess Parvati and the Lord Shiva (recorded in the Nisvasa, which is quoted later in this paper); when discovered, Shiva sentenced Ananta to the human realm to divulge the teachings of yoga. Patanjali, the author of the allegedly original yoga sutras, is said to be the human incarnate of Ananta. See Maehle, Gregor, and Monica Gauci. Ashtanga Yoga--the Intermediate Series: Mythology, Anatomy, and Practice. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2009.

[17] The king of the gods.

[18] Adi Parva, Astika Parva Section XVIII

[19] “Sukuh Temple.”

[20] Jones, Eliade, and Adams, 4019.

[21] Boons, Allison. “Yoga Philosophy.” Desa Seni Yoga School, Bali, Indonesia, January 13, 2016.

[22] Patañjali. Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Boston, MA: Weiser Books, 2002.

[23] Boons.

[24] Wallace, 66.

[25] Synonymous with what has thus been referred to as the “True Self,” Nirālamba translates to “self-supported” or “independent” and Śiva refers to the omnipresent deity of regeneration and destruction. “Independent Deity” is a common English translation of the term, but its literality may imply that it has autonomous agency or that it exists as a separate entity from the practitioner, which is misleading; thus, I continue to refer to it as the “True Self.” Other anglicized terms that can be considered synonymous to this concept include “Universal Divine Consciousness,” “Universal Spirit,” “Oneness,” and others.

[26] Nayasutra, 4.11-13 from Wallis, Christopher D. (2015-07-15). Tantra Illuminated: The Philosophy, History, and Practice of a Timeless Tradition (Kindle Locations 3178-3180). Mattamayura Press. Kindle Edition.

[27] Boons.

[28] Boons.

[29] See Castillo, R. J. (2003). Trance, functional psychosis, and culture. Psychiatry, 66(1), 9-21.

[30] Alter, Joseph. “Modern Medical Yoga: Struggling with a History of Magic, Alchemy and Sex.” Asian Medicine 1, no. 1 (January 1, 2005): 119–46. doi:10.1163/157342105777996818.

[31] O’Connor, 54.

[32] Sinha, Indra, ed. The Great Book of Tantra: Translations and Images from the Classic Indian Texts with Commentary. Rochester, Vt: Destiny Books: Distributed to the trade in the United States by American International Distribution Corporation, 1993, 116.

[33] From this etymology, English language has adopted what is often referred to the “C-word.”

[34] It is also emphasized in the Matrkabhedatantra that perfection of the body for attainment of spiritual liberation necessitates the satisfaction of carnal desires; therefore, a predominant tangent in the text underscores the significance of pleasure in Tantric worship. Consumption of wine and engagement in sexual desires are detailed as sanctified gestures. See Magee, Mike, trans. The Matrkabheda Tantra. MetaPlume Corporation, 2011.

[35] Sinha, 117.

[36] Though a discussion perhaps excessive for the purposes of this paper, it may seem counterintuitive that the role of male energy in the Tantric literature (as embodied by the phallic lingga conjoined with the vaginal yoni) actually emphasizes the sanctity of a certain extent of male celibacy. While castration signifies the most extreme gesture of this spectrum of male chastity, the most common Tantric sacrament of sex places heavy emphasis on prolonging the sexual act without male ejaculation. The underlying principle of this abstinent practice is aligned with the notion that perpetuation of the sex act and semen retention is the definitive gesture of mastery over Kala—the dimension of time that sustains the cyclical nature of existence the physical world (i.e. as described in the Kalacakratantra). Theoretically, such mastery releases the practitioner into moksha, or spiritual liberation from the unending cycle of physical incarnation—which is why Tantric imagery of the lingga solidified in constantly erect form indicates such liberation. See “The Severed Phallus” from The Great Book of Tantra (Sinha, 66-75).

[37] Urmson, J. O. “Performative Utterances.” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 2, no. 1 (September 1977): 124-125.

[38] Urmson, 124.

[39] Urmson, 127.

[40] O’Connor, 56.

[41] Nayasutra, 4.11-13 from Wallis, Christopher D. (2015-07-15). Tantra Illuminated: The Philosophy, History, and Practice of a Timeless Tradition (Kindle Locations 3178-3180). Mattamayura Press. Kindle Edition.

[42] Fic, 24.

[43] Along with Candi Ceto, another 15th century temple built (presumably by the same peoples) very close to Sukuh, and with a similarly crude stylistic hand.

A New Pedagogy for the Artistic Freethinker

A few months ago I began reading Gaston Bachelard’s seminal book The Poetics of Space, and—for lack of a more eloquent expression—it felt like a slap to the face. I equate the delicate extravagance of Bachelard’s literature to the willfully physical gesture of a slap because it simultaneously inflicted a sting of humiliation and pain while also inciting a moment of hypersensitivity and awareness to the reality of my situation: that I have some bona fide self-inflicted barriers that are frustrating the potential of my own artistic practice and production.

In beginning just the introduction to the book, I encountered one of those surreal moments in literature in which feels almost as if an author clairvoyantly projected your most sacred of contemplations into written word for you alone to ponder. What I read was what Bachelard articulated in a deceptively casual tone:

“Academic psychology hardly deals with the subject of the poetic image, which is often mistaken for simple metaphor. Generally, in fact, the word image, in the works of psychologists, is surrounded with confusion: we see images, we reproduce images, we retain images in our memory. The image is everything except a direct product of the imagination.”[1]

I began to wonder: Have I been working backwards? Could my intuition to be a student of psychology actually be a hindrance to my practice of image-making, if not the ruin of it? Of course, the psychologizers of public interest during Bachelard’s prime were the disciples of pseudoscientific artifacts like psychosexual theory—“scientists” who quite literally endowed scientific authority upon legends and folklore. But temporal detachment from Bachelard’s own academic landscape did not excuse me personally from the likes of would-be scholars whose analytical mechanisms have conditioned a trained impulse to demand resolute meaning from imagery. Logically, such an impulse then disallows reception of the pure pleasure of phenomenological experience—much less the ability to generate that experience for others, as Bachelard insists great artists are compelled to do.

Outside of my individual readings in phenomenology, the unconventional trajectory of my art education has truly challenged my perception of myself as an artist and aesthete to the extent that I am recently beginning to feel that I identify more truthfully with the latter than the former. At least some extent of this awareness is owed to the conditions surrounding my introduction to the notion of art as a critical practice at all, which occurred only two years ago. At the time, my consistent restlessness and enthusiasm to spearhead any and all opportunities for creative direction in professional and extracurricular settings appeared to be an unequivocal indicator that I was patiently harboring some substantial creative instincts. I planned to appease these instincts through an eventual career in advertising, but as I was preparing to transfer into Cornell’s Applied Economics and Management program accordingly, I promptly discovered that I retained not only a disinterest in the curriculum, but an active repulsion towards it that I could not readily articulate.

Disappointed and defeated, I then deferred back to the liberal arts as a course of study. Based on a primarily intellectual rather than career-oriented impetus, I made definitive decision to study psychology. Although I had no forecasted interest in careers in psychiatry, neurological research, nor human resources, I was inexplicably captivated by my coursework in neuroscience and perception in a capacity that was so effortless that I felt obligated to engage that intuition. I soon realized that psychology’s hold on my intellectual cravings resided almost entirely within the poetic and philosophical implications nested quietly in the folds of the hard scientific literature—implications that reformed my own speculative approaches towards psychosomatic and existential concerns, such as perceptual relativity, the truly unfathomable capabilities of our brains for adaptation and plasticity, and the question of consciousness.

Whether it was this early fascination with the causal relationship between psychological and epistemological study, the social pressures from my best friends (all of whom were architecture students and would therefore be staying on for a fifth year at Cornell alongside me), or simply the exhilarating prospect of traveling to Rome for a semester, my decision to become a student of art emerged from a particularly sudden, unprecedented, and admittedly rash decision-making process. Yet somehow, the combinations of factors brewed a perfect storm that inspired an unprecedented resolve within me—one indomitable enough to prompt the hastened production of my required twenty-piece art portfolio exclusively within the span of two months, with absolutely no prior experience of producing a single finished piece before.

When I describe this pivotal yet almost entirely oblivious transition in my life, I describe the experience as “falling into art,” in order to accurately capture the spontaneous, intuitive, and admittedly inadvertent impulse that sponsored the decision. In considering the excessive demands of the transitional process yet my unwavering determination to complete it (and clear the myriad of bureaucratic hurdles enacted just for me, due to the relative tardiness of my application), it now seems somewhat ludicrous that the decision itself was essentially a mere product of circumstance, contingent on the specificity of my situation at the time (which I might dramatize as a state of existential limbo).

While it is difficult to retrospectively imagine exactly what my professional motivations may have been in making this decision (I mostly trivialized the gravity of the choice by characterizing it as a mere proclivity for my “creative itch”), the curriculum immediately began to transcend my expectations of how it would redefine my values and priorities—academically and professionally indeed, but more profoundly, ideologically. I became obsessed with the theory and criticism of post-war and contemporary art, and selfishly dragged anyone and everyone I could to museums and gallery shows in order to have even the most illiterate of listeners to endure my stream-of-consciousness interpretations of the exhibited works. In gaining this surveyed insight, however, I became increasingly more conscious of the inefficacies of my own instincts in being able to transcend pure visual gratification and reach a state of critical, poetic content. When I have tried, my pieces have been stiff, impersonal, and didactic, as if I have meant to reverse-engineer a specificity of interpretation—the very “psychologizing” that Bachelard situates as an enemy to the experience of art.

This instinct, which ultimately ails the production of almost every piece I have created (although admittedly it may be somewhat symptomatic of the lateness of my introduction into any kind of art-making practice), is counteractive to the phenomenology of imagery that inspired me to pursue art as a legitimate academic focus at all. Bachelard encapsulated the ideal art-making and -consuming paradigm best: “A man’s work stands out from life to such an extent that life cannot explain it… Art, then, is an increase of life, a sort of competition of surprises that stimulates our consciousness and keeps it from becoming somnolent.”[2]And although it remains far from slipping into somnolence, my consciousness stubbornly maintains its conditioned response to imagery by analytically charging it with psychosomatic allegations and implicating it towards its own precedent references. Despite honestly legitimate efforts to reverse this, I still consistently find myself guilty of reducing art spaces to semantic classrooms.

Although perhaps my energies may evidently not be best suited for an independent art practice, the sensitivities that my albeit recent introduction to an art education have bestowed upon my creativity and autonomy as a freethinker are immense: they have elucidated a critical dialogue for my own political, sociological, religious, and philosophical beliefs to the extent that I feel more confident and active as a socially engaged and socially aware member of our civil society. But such enrichment is not nearly particular to me: in fact, artistic engagement endows this cognitive restructuring universally, transcending even the most societally engrained disruptors of equality such as race and socio-economic status[3] (which perhaps foreshadows the promising sociological outcomes that could result from the systemic reformation and democratization of artistic programming). Most importantly, however, even my limited extent of an art education has nurtured an increasingly severe skepticism towards our societal dependency on institutional education as an agency of scholarship and career orientation—that is, a dependency on the assumption (or rather, expectation) that the astutely named system of “higher education” is directly causal to a “higher order” of prosocial performance or even civic obligation.[4]

Admittedly, confessing my inability to effectively “phenomenologize” my art work may be both harsh and reductive to my expressive instincts and intentions. In fact, it is precisely within these inefficacies that I have personally begun to delineate social issues about which I care most deeply, and thus attempt to share within an aesthetic forum (however straightforwardly didactic my methods may be thus far). To take the most obvious example from my work, my first real venture into making any sort of socially critical artwork was also my most intense and most personal. After a particularly distressing incident of sexual violence—towards which I felt overcome not just from the incident itself but by the all-too-palpable misunderstandings, miscommunications, and unresponsiveness on the part of people from whom I sought help—I reactively began to put pen to paper as if to express my anxieties in a medium beyond the pragmatics of verbal language, which was evidently not a sufficient means of expression for myself nor for others. In the process of creating the works (which eventually became a series entitledNoli Me Tangere [2013] [Appendix A]), I had no real knowledge or expectation of what product would surface, nor whom the audience would be, but I was somehow driven by more initiative and intentionality than I ever had been towards my schoolwork.

The project’s progression was painful, cathartic, and ultimately tremendously educational for me—more so than any other project I had produced throughout my academic career to that point. Perhaps I was not altogether aware at the time, but the fruition of the project was a personal moment of realization of the candid value of my art education. In no other field was I so blissfully blithe about my grades yet so personally invested in my peers’ and professors’ reception to the work, and in no other field was the resultant object of my work so intrinsically motivated and therefore so productive.[5] Most remarkably, in no other field could I receive opportunities (much less utter encouragement) to liberally research social issues that pertained to my own personal and social landscape, and accordingly articulate my understanding of that research in a medium that was simultaneously perceptible yet intangible, moralistic yet nuanced, and confrontational yet interrogative. To me, this experience epitomized what learning really is.

Of course, this paradigm shift in public pedagogy has not been systematically implemented for quite observable reasons. Namely, how would one begin to “fairly” affix a grade or normative judgment to a product that is not a self-justifying treatise in itself, but essentially an imprecise yet intentional appeal for critical deliberation and dialogue? How would practitioners of a centuries-old tradition of evaluating categorical procedures of research, analysis, and explication (and in plenty of cases, post-rationalization) even begin to arbitrate measurable data from a product that dissents from those procedures’ perpetuity? And if this pedagogy of experiential intrinsic learning by way of artistic engagement truly has the constructive merit I believe it to have, how then might we begin to stimulate a systemically reformed education that breeds critical dialectics as much as actionable decisions? And ultimately entangled in this upheaval, how do we mediate the material values of “free market” capital with the intangible values of self-actualization[6] and actual freethinking?

The most immediate and profound barrier that directly obstructs this paradigm shift is the paradox of education as an institution. Our current model treats education as a product of a system dependent on fundamentally (though tacitly) political Western methodologies, fraught with their own self-imposed and self-maintained ideological dualities for the sake of comfort, ease, and propriety. While my politicizing of these dualities may seem indulgent or even “radical” (which embarrassingly seems to be one of the most forbidden adjectives among the utter jargon of present-day politics), the phenomenon of constructing them with such moralizing conviction (consciously or not) to the extent that they become an instructional manual for social regulation is necessarily a political phenomenon.

It therefore seems rational to me that what follows is the essential gesture of historicism, in all its reductive seduction. Let us consider this gesture ascribing upon the most classic of dualities: Us and Them (which Bachelard also refers to as Here andThere, mentioned later). First, the most fundamental ideologies within the duality become detached from their pure semantics, and thus are reconceived as binary oppositions—that is, the Us and Them concept transcends from being a cognitive representation of the individual’s relationship to their externality and evolves into an antagonistic product of social identification, in which ingroups and outgroups are reduced to polarized beliefs. Second, the schism between those systems of beliefs becomes a matter of social competition, from which the system of beliefs belonging to the dominant party are those that become codified into complex, self-validating, and inherently artificial symbolic representations. Thus, moralistic judgments are imparted such that the set of values associated with the social identity of the ingroup is sermonized and the outgroup is demonized. As the dominant belief system is perpetuated throughout its historical trajectory as the ruling perspective, it becomes historicized—that is, represented as the historical reality: a truth truer than other histories; the proverbial Eye of Providence placed firmly atop the pyramidal hierarchy of literary and therefore cultural sanction). These particular artificial symbols (materialized as products of hierarchical order such as written law and organized classism) are indeed pragmatic in that they preserve the operational capacity to sustain the necessary social inequities erected into its own structure.

Those happenings that are considered evocative or provocative—as determined by the dedicated classifications of these historicized conventions—are then frozen in archival indices; those that are considered superfluous or counteractive to the narrative agendas are simply expunged from their ideological paradigms, and thus disallowed any acknowledgement of their incidence at all—neither contemporaneously nor among forthcoming generations of students and scholars—a true force of obsolescence. Subsequently, in the consistent repetition of this nearly algorithmic process, a palatable tessellation of narratives emerges—arranged in a configuration which occasionally bends and evolves, but never seems to truly rupture its original algorithm. To put it in Winston Churchill’s much simpler and more celebrated terms: “History is written by the victors.”

Once again employing the effortless resolve of his prose, I defer to Bachelard’s writing in the context of confronting of the issue of artificial dualities:

“’This side’ and ‘beyond’ are faint repetitions of the dialectics of inside and outside: everything takes form, even infinity. We seek to determine being and, in so doing, transcend all situations, to give a situation of all situations. Man’s being is confronted with the world’s being, as though primitivity could be easily arrived at. The dialectics of here and there has been promoted to the rank of an absolutism according to which these unfortunate adverbs of place are endowed with unsupervised powers of ontological determination… But in philosophy, all short-cuts are costly, and philosophical knowledge cannot advance from schematized experiments.”[7]

While Bachelard is ultimately addressing his line of reasoning specifically towards the architectural experience, he approaches the subject of interiority and exteriority as the phenomenological human experience, thus granting its validity to permeate through the entirety of the knowledge acquisition process, in a gestaltian sense. The here versus there duality that Bachelard illuminates in this context is precisely the social mechanism that has projected into virtual existence some of the most basal dualities upon which the Western world has constructed its social convention. The dualities are politically repurposed into a standard of binary oppositions, such as those injected between nationalism versus exoticism, simulated borders between human civilization and “nature,” “hard sciences” versus the arts, among literally dozens of other major and minor examples.

What I allude to in the lattermost example is the direct consequence that politicized oppositions have on the industriousness of scholarship—for at this point, what began as my own supposition of historicism’s implied teleology progresses now to encapsulate the system of education as a whole. The conception of history as an entity detached from our state of presentism is in and of itself reductionist, as it is within the contours of our historical understanding that we navigate our current world—both on a sociological as well as an individual timescale. While the loose ontogenetic procedure that I have thus ascribed to the process of historicism is theoretical in nature, it actually exists as the current paradigm of educational convention thanks to the victors of our colonial history. Accordingly, the bias of the empowered entities has generated a ruling system of beliefs within our society that can broadly be characterized by the dominating moralized values of capitalism, patriarchy, and luxury.

So in summary, the entire problem of education lies in historical governing bodies being granted the authority of deciding upon a peoples’ conceptions of what is true and what can be dispensed from study, for which they employ historicism in order to enforce. Why is this a problem? Because the notion of knowledge—understandings that individuals hold to be accurate, objective, and therefore applicable to their schemas of their own existence—should absolutely be egalitarian. Because if a population is denied ownership of a history that in its mere occurrence is an object of public domain, what knowledge can they truly own? If an individual’s own consciousness cannot even be free from the politicized agendas of hierarchical authority, are they truly free? And in what world does this systematic denial equate to a society that prides itself on its values of freedom andpublic education?

Bahamian artist Tavares Strachan is both hypersensitive and confrontational towards this institutionalized inequity of knowledge. Many of his works directly address the issue by means of memorializing some of those marginalized individuals whose contemporaneous social circumstances prevented their legacies from reaching the point of archive or heroism. For example, hisPolar Eclipse exhibition at the inaugural Bahamian Pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 2013 featured a video of Strachan trekking through a polar tundra (Appendix B) to pay homage to the voyage of Matthew Henson, an African-American who was one of the first individuals to successfully journey to the North Pole in 1909—a man whose accomplishments never before reached the pages of Western transcripts of our history. Not surprisingly, individuals of marginalized populations whose accomplishments arecelebrated in the books of our Western histories have their recognition quickly trivialized by the exoticism that is imparted to outweigh the merits of their contribution; take, for example, the Disney animated feature film Pocahontas, which transformed the historical figure into a sexualized cultural icon.

“With a collapsing educational system and the distraction of tourism,’’ Strachan once wrote in a letter to Jane Farver, “a focus on developing an agency that allows its citizens to expand beyond its waters seems appropriate.’’[8] This notion of goading the viewers’ consciousness beyond their predetermined expectations is crucial to Strachan’s work and philosophy: he is cognizant of tourism’s impending threat of not actually allowing for global dialogue, but rather reinforcing the stratification of social identity, nationalism, and therefore, cultural expectations.

For example, of his experience presenting his Polar Eclipse exhibition at the Bahamas Pavilion, Strachan shared his observations that the majority of viewers of his show had reactions varying from surprise and intrigue to even shock and anger. Their expectations of the work presented at the Bahamian Pavilion—which was the country’s inaugural presence at the Bienniale—were that it would be representative of the Bahamas’ “national identity.” This was the effect of “postcolonial nationalism” that was appended to the Bienniale, by which he refers to the dominant notion that attending an international event in which works are presented by their geographical classifications should fulfill the role of essentializing the international identities that are represented. Viewers anticipated bite-sized iconography (perhaps with a trendy contemporary “twist”) reminiscent of the exoticized illustrations of the Bahamas that Western forms of cultural consumption have introduced: Caribbean culture, tropical weather, and the likes. They were instead shown imagery that on a surface level appeared indifferent and extraneous (if not blatantly contradictory) to the viewers’ established knowledge of the Bahamas as a destination: Strachan trekking through a polar vortex in the North Pole, for example.

The definitive nature of these expectations (as well as the resultant sentiment of disappointment from the thwarting of those expectations) are symptoms of postcolonial historicism that pervade much of the literature and perpetuated criticisms of contemporary art: specifically, the essentialism of exoticized culture. By essentialism, I refer to the convention of automatically exhibiting and understanding the work of non-Western contemporary artists as representations of the “essence” of the artist’s cultural background or heritage. It is the mechanism by which the canon of Western consumerism wants to bottle the consumption of non-Western contemporary art into a knowable and homogenized representation of a nation’s social identity. It therefore prohibits the artwork from being an autonomous, phenomenological experience; it disallows and demeans the poetic experience; it marginalizes those who are already marginalized.

It is thus self-evident why the theorists and scholars most skeptical of the Western notions imposed into historical discourse might themselves be cultural products of those very impositions’ resultant inequities. Take for example Sarat Maharaj: a preeminent scholar and curator who obtained his primary and secondary education in Apartheid South Africa (undoubtedly among the most extreme and catastrophic cases of systematized inequality within our recent history). While Maharaj seems to be hyperaware of the incongruities of the familiar Eurocentric lineage of art historical criticism he also seems to be unabashedly optimistic. “The archaeology of the word ‘art’ as understood within the Western system is an extensive subject, but look how dramatically we are leaving that system!” Maharaj exclaims, referring to the active radicalization of interdisciplinary practice in regions historically marginalized by the art world such as India, China, and Africa. He expands:

“[This global activity] deterritorializes received concepts of art. Groups working on the Internet or with film, video, performance, and other practices are involved in modes of knowledge production that often have oblique relations to the visual. They amount to spasmodic events that are rather different from what passes as visual art in the museum-gallery system. Are such practices more like research machines through which social, political, visual, statistical, epidemiological data are telescoped? These are visual-intellectual evolutions that cannot be reduced to constructions of the art system. What we call art activity is expanding, extending, transmogrifying in the global contemporary setting.”[9]

What Maharaj begins to unravel here is what Claire Bishop characterizes as the condition of the dialectical contemporary—a proposal for the paradigm shift of artistic scholarship to accommodate for what is evidently a new and radicalized landscape of art-making. Bishop explains how the classification of an artistic genre by its temporality—as in, the phrase “contemporary art” itself—is clearly paradoxical: it is indicative of the extremity of our engrained impulse to historicize anything of discursive value. How do you historicize what is by definition a condition of our present? How can we encapsulate the exponentially expansive activity that Maharaj observes as the contemporaneous circumstances of artistic practice? The dialectical contemporary addresses this by essentially embodying dynamic and planetary discourse as the ruling authority of criticism. It is therefore a form of defiance against the current methodologies of critical discourse: it disallows the conventions chronology, historicism, and essentialism, and instead proposes a discursive model that readjusts to new understandings of geography and temporality. Essentially, it recognizes the arbitrariness of the systems of classification with which we have been piloting art historical research and reconstructs them to treat the study of contemporary art not as a historical temporality, but as a module for understanding and accepting presentism in all its spastic, multidisciplinary, and ephemeral mystery. It is thus the ideal educational apparatus for the pluralistic world.

In deconstructing the fundamental conventions upon which the education of our future generations is contingent, this is not to say that educational curricula is optimized for learning when it is completely liberated of any imposed structure. What is certainly evident, however, is that the principal assumptions upon which these existing structures are provsional truly implore a methodical reassessment, and eventually a fundamental overhaul.

I deliberately target the educational system as a potential medium for the critical repair of our Western value systems for several reasons: certainly for the clichéd but valid truism that younger generations are indeed the leaders of our future societies, but also for the relatively cloudless tabula rasa that young minds are sensibly apt to retain. (Indeed, I anticipate that a radical reconstruction of traditionalized pedagogies—especially as a deliberate means of undermining the capitalistic values upon which the entirety of our populous has adaptively invested so much—would invoke indignant defensiveness and cognitive dissonance at a critical mass. Revolution, it seems, is a young person’s game.) However, the most critical role that institutionalized education plays within the theatrics of revolution is that in its ideological inception, it represents the romantic universal desire to “seek truth” among the chaos of existence, such that it might inform our constructive decision-making. (So ironically, the idealistic educational system is actually directly opposed to the existing educational system that obscures “truth” through a political lens, as I have thus thoroughly discussed.) So if the problem of our civil society lies within its barriers to free thought and proprietary consciousness, what better system to reimagine than that whose teleogical purpose is to foster an expanded awareness—a “higher education”?

So via what channels of outreach can we begin to mobilize a true critical dialogue? How can we engage a nervous public in the unfamiliar territory of the dialectical contemporary? How can we disengage the Western world from its post-colonial lens? How can we take advantage of the tendencies of civil behavior in order to optimize a system of social engagement and criticality—one that breeds freethinking as a civic duty?

These questions are quite obviously utopian in nature, but the one solution I can intuitively propose in order to begin to invite answers to them is exactly what this autobiography-turned-diatribe-turned-personal statement has thus far meant to assert: that the bounty of an individual’s egalitarian thought can be excavated by a practice in poeisis—which, as the foundation for art-making, I consider as the practice being a vessel for the creation of phenomenological experiences that transcend the material comforts of our constructed society, of spatial and temporal rationalizations, and of historicism: an experience of the aesthetic sublime. The aspect of removal from societal obligations is key, as Paul Chan emphasizes: “By not obeying the law of any system or authority external to the process of its own making, a work emphatically expresses its own right to exist for itself and in itself, and questions—by merely existing—the rule of law that works to bind all to a semblance of the common good,” he writes. “Art is a lawless proposition.”[10]

What the practice of poiesis teaches us is exactly this resistance that Chan describes: a resistance to reductionism in all its ease of articulation and self-justification; a resistance which engenders the straightforward unknowingness of our perceptual experiences, rather than fears it. As the social beings that our current state of civic engagements have bred, we are immensely fearful of confessing our inabilities to understand and articulate, to which our instinctive reaction is to over-articulate—either with semantic emphasis, repetition, or intellectualization—as a means of demonstrating the impression of understanding. We thus encounter a paradox: over-articulation as a medium for reductionism. But the institutionalized application of this paradox is the very phenomenon of cognitive dissonance that spawns historicism, essentialism, and my own inability to dissociate premeditated meaning from the creation of an art experience—it classifies threats of the unknown into categorical systems of the known.

Artistic practice—in all its creativity, relativity, and constant elusiveness from institutional definition (especially in the context of the dialectical contemporary)—resists such categorization. It epitomizes the practice of experiential learning in the mere fact that when implemented properly, the experience of engaging with art is exactly the experience of learning how to be free. In creating art, we release ourselves from the assumptions of value that are in actuality merely reflections of a post-colonial social order, and instead bravely attributing value to the intangible experience of the poetic form. And evidently, in our contemporary state of affairs, we crave this renewal of consciousness: as Bishop observes, “The idea that artists might help us glimpse the contours of a project for rethinking our world is surely one of the reasons why contemporary art, despite its near total imbrication in the market, continues to rouse such passionate interest and concern.”[11]

As a theoretical practice, artistic engagement exists in opposition to the constructs of our societal biases. But much more importantly, in engendering a sustainable model for freethinking, it actively resists acquiescence to the current state of affairs, elucidating a higher-order understanding of the systematic inequality and indifference that has been erected by those very constructs. In other words, freethinking enlightens the oppressed of the nature of their oppression. It is therefore a prerequisite for revolution, since ultimately, what will hopefully ensue from this critical understanding via poiesis is the mobilization of poiesis’ Aristotelian cousin praxis—the compulsion for social engagement, critical dialogue, and an honest form of freedom.

So where am I currently situated within this master plan? As with any radical deconstruction of established social orders, professional opportunities to engage with revolutionary ideals are not made easily accessible while also allowing navigation and survival in the capitalistic landscape in which we exist. Furthermore, it is only retrospectively that I realize that the pragmatic ideals that I have been progressively cultivating since my foray into critical artistic theory and practice have been aligned with Marxist ideals—given the taboo prescribed upon Marxism itself, the potential that these ideals might spontaneously be invoked amongst a critical mass of Americans is quite slim.

In the a Marxist account of my ideological saga, I might illustrate my present condition as a loyal and patient consumer of Cornell as a “higher education” institution: a centuries-old service-based establishment that apprehensively teeters between functioning to its societal expectations (as a productive asset to what is presently the accepted model of epistemology) and functioning as a nucleus for the very dialectical engagement that could begin to collapse those expectations. And in the most practical account, I still cling to idealism: I am simply a student whose accidentally auspicious academic path has engendered a faith in art—a vessel for the constructed experience of experience itself—as a force of educational reform. Above all, I am an individual (of hopefully many) who is patiently exploring opportunities to crack at the threshold of an intellectual revolution.

[1] Bachelard, Gaston, M. Jolas, and John R. Stilgoe. The Poetics of Space. Print.

[2] Ibid.

[3] A 2012 study by the National Endowment for the Arts noted significantly higher rates of prosocial behaviors such as civic engagement, academic performance, and career goals among students that were engaged heavily in arts curricula. See “New NEA Research Report Shows Potential Benefits of Arts Education for At-Risk Youth.” National Endowment for the Arts. National Endowment for the Arts, 30 Mar. 2012. Web. 26 Apr. 2015. <http://arts.gov/news/2012/new-nea-research-report-shows-potential-benefits-arts-education-risk-youth>.

[4] At this point, I feel obligated to interject with the disclaimer that from now on (unless otherwise indicated) I will be referring only to the Western canons of societal and educational order ( even more specifically, to those of America); although I have been educated in other international school systems, I regretfully admit that I do not feel as though I have sufficient insight nor criticisms towards those systems to formulate a substantial argument for reformation. Presently, the term “we” will refer to the proverbial “we” synonymous with the current American populace.

[5] Behavioral research in the field soundly indicates “a synergistic interaction of prosocial and intrinsic motivations in predicting higher levels of persistence, performance, and productivity”; see Grant, Adam M. “Does Intrinsic Motivation Fuel the Prosocial Fire? Motivational Synergy in Predicting Persistence, Performance, and Productivity.” Journal of Applied Psychology 93.1 (2008): 48-58. Web.

[6] In situating the issue of self-actualization within this argument, I refer specifically to the provocative psychologizings of Abraham Maslow in which he describes self-actualization as the ultimate “need” of the human psyche within his famous Hierarchy of Needs. Although the legitimacy of the hierarchical model has since been widely agreed upon as heavily reductive (and perhaps even a case of pseudoscience), I believe his theories maintain sociological significance in that they provide a rough skeleton for a global reconsideration of our motivations: atop which self-actualization humbly resides, encompassing . See Maslow, Abraham H. On Dominance, Self Esteem, and Self-Actualization. Ed. Richard J. Lowry. Boston: Thomson Brooks/Cole, 1974. Print.

[7] Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space.

[8] Meier, Allison. “Overlooked African-American Explorer at Center of Bahamian Venice Pavilion.” Hyperallergic. Hyperallergic, 12 June 2013. Web. 24 Apr. 2015. <https://hyperallergic.com/73215/overlooked-african-american-explorer-at-center-of-bahamian-venice-pavilion/>.

[9] Birnbaum, Daniel. “Temporal Spasms, Or, See You Tomorrow in Kiribati!” E-flux (2007). Print.

[10] Chan, Paul. “A Lawless Proposition.” E-flux. E-flux, n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2015. <http://www.e-flux.com/journal/a-lawless-proposition/>.

[11] Bishop, Claire, and Dan Perjovschi. Radical Museology: Or, What’s ‘contemporary’ in Museums of Contemporary Art? London: Koenig, 2014. Print.