by Shauna Aura Knight –
What is the difference between a ritual and a performance piece? What makes something installation art and something else a shrine, altar, or temple? When is our singing sacred and when is it just entertainment? When is a painting just aesthetic, and when is it a connection to the deep and transcendant?
I have struggled with these questions for some time. For me, painting is so often an act of devotion. Sometimes it is through my subject matter that I explore the divine, such as when I paint images like the Grail, the World Tree, the Sacred Fire, the Lotus. Sometimes it’s the act of painting itself that puts me into the zone, into a trance state, where I feel myself losing that separation between me/my local self/my identity, and the larger all-that-is.
In recent years as I’ve led large group rituals, I’ve begun asking deeper questions. What is performance, what is sacred, what is art, and when is there a difference? In many rituals I facilitate for the Earth-centered, Pagan, and alternative spirituality community, I decorate the space. As we are typically renting a space instead of using a devoted church or temple space, I work hard to set up altars, candles, archways, and other mental triggers that we are stepping into sacred work.
But these could just as easily become installation pieces.
When people take on roles in rituals, they might invite in one of the elements of Air, Fire, Water, or Earth, or invite in the ancestors, deities, or other archetypes. They might stand near an elaborate altar and speak in the voice of Apollo or Lugh or Brigid or Freyja or the Horned One.
But these could just as easily be performances.
What is the difference? And what makes them the same?
For me, part of the difference is intent. If I host a performance art/installation art event with altars—installation art—for each of the 12 signs of the Zodiac, and have 12 performers speaking in the voice of each of the 12 signs, the people attending might not perceive this as spiritual or religious, just as entertaining. They are not approaching the 12 installations as shrines, they are not stepping into temple space, they are simply observing an art piece which may or may not transform them.
However, for me, transformation is what makes these two things the same. I am a mystic, in that I believe I have experienced direct communion with the divine. I am agnostic inasmuch as I don’t pretend to understand the depths of the divine, or how the divine might manifest for you or anyone else. As a ritualist, I use ecstatic techniques like singing and dancing to help the group get into a trance state so that they can commune with the divine in whatever way works for them, in whatever form works for them. I’m not there to teach a theology, I’m just there to get people to the door. It’s the role of the priest/ess, the shaman, the witch.
But as an artist, I can take people to that door, even if they aren’t calling it spiritual or divine. Whether you are engaging in this piece as a ritual, or as an installation/performance piece, imagine this experience:
You have entered a building where you are greeted. You are asked to pass down a hallway which has veils you must pass through; they are soft and silky. There is gentle drumming being played, and there are people speaking, their voices overlapping. “What is your journey? What is your destiny?” “Who are you, who would you become?” “What has brought you here to this moment?” “What has held you back from being…” “Being who you could be,” “Reaching for a dream,” “Stepping into your power.” “What has made you powerless? When have you lost your way?” “What has distracted you, what has called you away?”
The questions overlap and overlayer with the drumming as you pass along through the hallway until you come into a large room. There are people wandering around from one area to the next; it looks like there are about 12 shrines or installations. People stand and listen to costumed performers speak. At some places, they light something on fire. At others, they submerge something in water.
Someone in an elaborate robe stands before you. “You may enter the Temple of the Zodiac. You may visit as many shrines as you wish to listen to the wisdom of the twelve astrological signs. When you are finished, you may exit there.”
You are allowed to pass. You go to the closest area; there is a man lounging on a decadent chaise, there is greenery all around him and a table heaped high with food. “I am Taurus,” he says. “I like my comforts. Don’t you? What are your comforts? What are the physical pleasures you just can’t live without?” You think about it, not sure if you should answer. Nobody else standing there speaks. “Oh, come now. What are those pleasures that you just crave. Is it chocolate?” One person nods. “A nice comfy bed? Or a couch?” A few others nod. “What about sex? What would you do for some really great sex? Or what have you done,” he grins. He rattles off a few other comforts until he strikes a nerve. Yes, that is the physical comfort that always seems to take a precedent.
“How have these comforts held you back? When have they kept you from reaching and risking to do the work that truly calls to your soul?” You can think of a lot of times when you gave up your dream for this comfort. You wonder how he knew. “Here, here is a bit of ash. When you are ready, take up a handful. Think about how you are attached to some comforts, how they rule you. How they shackle you. When you are ready, release them here into the earth,” he gestures at a huge vat of soil with plants that is at his feet. You take the ash in your hands, you think of the time you’ve wasted on something that is ultimately meaningless, when you could have instead pursued your passions. You release the ashes into the ground, and Taurus smiles at you. “The earth receives your sacrifice, the earth breaks your chains.”
You wander to other altars, to the fiery bright altar of Leo. It seems there are a hundred candles bedecked around Leo garbed in red and orange and gold. Leo sits enthroned before a blazing fire. “Come forth,” she demands. “You are here to see me. To witness me. Do you not see how special I am, how unique?” She smiles, pausing. “Do you think I am selfish? Do you think I am a show-off? Perhaps it is because each one of you fears that deep inside, if you let yourself, you would be a show-off too. When have you been so consumed with being seen and being special that you demanded a group’s attention? When are you the show off? And did it feel good or were you guilty about it? Perhaps you are the one who needs to be right all the time, needs to make other people wrong. Is that you?”
You actually blush, thinking about the times when you were a know-it-all, when someone would talk about something and you’d interject, “Actually, you’re wrong, this is how that works.” Was that it, was it a need to be seen and special? You just wanted people to like you for being smart, but it never seemed to work out that way. But you didn’t stop doing it. You’d press the point further. A lot of people you once called friend seem to avoid you after you’ve told them how wrong they are.
Leo is speaking again; she strolls around with a feathered fan, wafting it near people’s faces. You realize her skin is painted gold. “Don’t we all want to be seen? Don’t we all want to be special? But how do we act out in a way that annoys others? When are we showing off? Can we perhaps find a better way? Each of us deserves to be seen, to be special, to be unique. How are you unique?”
People begin speaking. “I’m an artist,” one says, “I’m a writer.” “I’m a mother.” “I help communities in need.” “I rescue animals.” The words flow out, and you find yourself speaking your own truth, what you wish everyone would see about you. “I’m smart, I’m competent. I’m good at things.” You know that you just wish people would acknowledge it without you having to put on a show. Leo looks into your eyes and nods. “You are smart, and competent, you are good at things. Now, how can you find a way to be seen, and ask to be recognized, that helps people to see that? And would you release the other ways, the showing off that does not serve?” She hands you a slip of paper. “What old ways of being seen do not serve you? Release them into the fire. Begin anew.” People cast their pieces into the fire.
You have visited all of the shrines, and you pass through the veils of the exit. More voices, more drumming. “What do you seek? What have you always wanted to become? What have you let fall away?” The voices overlap, and you can hear a song being sung. You enter another room with a fire in the center, and people are collected together around the fire, singing this song. It’s repetitive, a chant. Another person in an elaborate gown stands before you. “You may join the music in the center; you may sing and add your voice, or you may also just sit on the edge and listen to the music.” The music in the center shifts to a tone, and silence, and then there is the rising sound of a gong bath, the sound is overwhelming. You take a seat, letting the sound wash over you and fill you. It is like the crashing sound of the ocean, it is a larger sound than you have ever heard. When the sound fades away, someone begins another song and people join them. The rhythmic song is easy enough that you join in, you find yourself drifting toward the fire in the center where others stand, swaying. Others simply stand on the edge and watch, and others slowly leave the room. When you have sung until your voice is too sore to continue, and that song falls to silence, you leave the room and find yourself in the outer lobby of the event space.
You think about all you have seen and experienced. You think about the changes you might make in your life, the way you want your life to be, not the way it is, always scrambling to catch up on bills and paying for things you don’t really need on credit cards, hiding your true feelings from the people around you, never really connecting. You want something more. You’re not sure quite what that will look like, but you wonder that you never thought of that before, that nobody ever told you there was something more out there. That your life could be different. You feel shaken up but in a good way.
Imagine that experience. It could be a ritual, it could be an art installation. But it can lead to our personal transformation. For me, there is no separation between spirituality and the art of transformation. As someone who is a Pantheist and a bit of an Archetypist, I believe in an immanent divine that is in all of us. In ecstatic ritual, I work to connect people to the all that is, to the am-that-I-am, to the divine within and without, however that looks to them. It could be God, or a God or Goddess, or a spirit or element or an ancestor, it could be a holy guardian angel or an inner divine. It could just be that something larger, that universe out there that we are just cells of, atoms of.
I believe that the spiritual work that I do is the art of helping people to transform their consciousness. To release the old patterns and behaviors that no longer serve us, to reach for what we’ve always wanted. To live a life of meaning. To achieve this, I use ecstatic ritual techniques. Technologies, I call them. It’s really just science. Multiple voices speaking at once. Drumming. Singing. Movement. Layered experiences that increase in emotional depth. These are all very old technologies that the oldest traditions have used for thousands of years.
But beyond the science there is magic. I usually define magic as science we don’t yet understand, but here I mean magic as that something deeper, that something that defies words. It’s the sensation mystics have when they commune with the divine. We can’t put our experience into proper words. We try. Read Rumi or Hildegaard von Bingen to see the fumblings and attempts to explain that communion.
When we sing, dance, drum, when we create a painting or sculpture, when we experience a play, we have the capacity to touch that something larger. Name it what you want, but it is compelling and continues to call to us in many forms. As artists, as ritualists, as seekers, we can help bring people to that place of connection, whether they call it a spiritual experience or just transformation.
What transforms you? What art, dance, song, play has send the shiver down your spine, has caused you to question what you are doing in your life? What song has brought you to tears? What does divine communion feel like for you?
Shauna Aura Knight
An artist, writer, leader, teacher, environmental activist, and ecstatic spiritual seeker, Shauna travels nationally offering intensive education in the transformative arts of ritual, community leadership, and spiritual growth. Shauna has published articles and a book on ritual facilitation, paranormal romance stories, and her artwork is used for magazine and book covers and to decorate shrines and altars. http://shaunaaura.wordpress.com
Shauna’s work is featured in LFAC’s From Energy to Iconography exhibit running through September 17th.