Transformation of Metal into Metaphor

The origins of metallurgy are shrouded in mystery, contributing to the mythology that dev eloped around the metalsmith's art. With some variations this tradition existed in ancient China , Africa , and Europe but stemmed from roots so archaic as to arise from a basic principle.

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By Celia RabinovitchMore from this author

In archaic cultures the alchemist, the smithy, and the artist were all of one fabric; their powers of transformation over the material world were revered and even feared by the rest of society. The first alchemists employed metals to perform a physical transformation of matter that effected a metaphorical alteration in the witness.

This process of transforming matter into essence or metaphor exists in all traditions of making from the early herbalist's extraction of plant essences, to the grower's coaxing of earth into flowering and food-bearing plants, to the alchemist's wresting the gold or eternal essence that symbolized spiritual transformation and redemption from the raw material of lead - showing that we are physical creatures embodied in a material world, the properties of which remain secret and concealed until revealed to us by alchemical transformation.

For the early smiths who originated alchemy, only through worldly matter could that other, more vital, essential element he discerned. The making of their art became the conduit between these two worlds of matter and meaning, enacting the transformation of metal into metaphor. Moreover, such alchemical knowledge w as hermetic and, like Zen Buddhism, "a secret transmission of knowledge outside books and words" that becomes known only through practice and the guidance of a more experienced master.

The origins of metallurgy are shrouded in mystery, contributing to the mythology that dev eloped around the metalsmith's art. With some variations this tradition existed in ancient China , Africa , and Europe but stemmed from roots so archaic as to arise from a basic principle: that of the forge and crucible as metaphors for the interpenetration of natural and sacred worlds. Of all the traditions of homo faber-man the maker-the smith- is the first in recorded history, developing from the Neolithic period of hunting and gathering as the creator of efficacious tools that extended the reach of the human being. Similarly, these forged objects or tools w ere often adorned with symbols that called forth the hunted animal, increasing the efficacy of the hunt through the principle of sympathetic magic-that is, that the part suggests the whole. Mircea Eliade observes that, "One element nevertheless is constant that is the sacredness of metal and consequently the ambivalent, eccentric and mysterious character of all mining and metallurgical operations."

In medieval Europe , the alchemist, the apothecary, and the artist belonged to the same guild, those who ground matter with mortar and pestle, extracting the essence, color, or vital energy of the material itself. While in modern European history alchemy has been viewed as an early form of chemistry that worked empirically by trial and error, this year not necessarily the case. The intention of the alchemist was to perform an analogous process whereby the refinement of the metal embodied the spiritual transformation of the alchemist's soul. In ancient Nordic culture, the smithy was connected to the myth of extraordinary beings, the unpredictable, mischievous and treacherous dwarfs (the Nibelung), who forged with hammer and crucible in the underworld to bring elements of earth, matter, and fire into the world of form.

In Africa the smithy referred to the crucible as his wife or the anvil as his bride, because the intertwining properties of male and female, heat and material are coalesced into a new form of the smith's making In all of these archaic cultures the smith is known to accelerate, further, or emulate the processes of nature, creating new phenomena. Thus metallurgy and alchemy were initially connected, and only later did they develop into separate forms of knowledge. In Europe the magical properties of metals were congealed by the alchemist into the force of the philosopher's stone, which granted powers of vision into all aspects of the material world, whereas in Chinese alchemy, gold itself was used as an elixir that extended life and gave the alchemist the power to see into all things.

Peggy Eng, Brooch, 2001
Anodized and carved aluminum, 6×1″
Dawn Nakanlshl
Zephyr, 1997
sterling silver 4×1″

The 2001 exhibition "Asian Roots, Western Soil: Visual Poetry in Metal," curated by artist Dawn Nakanishi for Cabrillo College Art Gallery in Santa Cruz, brought together these themes of the artist as smithy, shaman, or alchemist in Asian and Western culture. This ambitious exhibition provides an ideal point of departure to explore how these artists use the principle of alchemical transformation of the first metalsmiths. The exhibition brought together work by eighteen Asian or Asian-American artists living in the United States . Some of the artists, including Christine Clark, Ron Ho, or Dawn Nakanishi, were born in the United States but feel an increasing pull toward their original culture; others, like Junko Nakazawa or Mariko Kusomoto, came from Japan or other Asian nations but now reside here. The artists' works included expressed individual sensibilities arising from Asian aesthetics recontextualized in contemporary North American culture.

The exhibition presented works that embodied the individual Asian heritage of each artist, complemented by the artists' statements that described their relationship with their culture of origin. "Asian Roots, Western Soil" judiciously avoided imposing an ideal aesthetic or theory on the art, thereby- recognizing the multiplicity of cultures in the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean sources from which the individual artists drew. But in fact a new aesthetic emerges from this diverse group of artists loosely connected through their experience of biculturalism or expatriate perspective. This aesthete becomes more evident when seen against the backdrop of spiritual, aesthete, and alchemical sources in Asia , Europe , and North America.

A similar aesthetic of cultural complementarity was first manifested in the transmigrations and heritage of the ancient world, where even in 500 B.C. there is an "orientalizing" influence in archaic Greek art originating from Egypt , Mesopotamia , and China . In ancient Rome there were substantial multicultural influences from North Africa (the cults of Isis, Astarte) and Asia Minor (the Goddess Cybele) evident in numerous archaeological examples. A significant history of East-West cross influences in art already exists, particularly between China and Europe, which since the eleventh century and the development of the spice trade have encountered each other in art, trade, and values.2 The fascination has been mutual, its long history complicated by an informal exchange of ideas, art, and goods between cultures, which created a demand for specific items such as jewelry, curiosities, embroidered silks, porcelains, and enamels coveted by the European audience, and for the stylistic influence of certain

Western art motifs, including deep space, illusion, and colored surfaces. In our current, rather a historical culture, these earlier developments arc often overlooked in the deconstructive rush to theorize about the "other," leading to the myopic idea that multiculturalism may be an isolated new phenomena. "Asian Roots, Western Soil" framed a synthesis of contemporary North American culture and the millennia-old cultures of China , Japan , and Korea that resulted in a new aesthetic peculiar to our own times. This aesthetic was a phenomenon of the "hybrid artist," who from Asian roots is changed by the Western soil and influences that he or she absorbs. The exhibition elegantly demonstrated this hybridization as a unique process, substantively and stylistically, in each artist's work. Each was compelled by different experiences of dislocation and relocation or by the sense of regained cultural memory. For this reason the exhibition ventured into new territory both in the contemporary history of metal arts in America by developing a new perspective of hybridization, transcultural roots, and the cultural memories of Asian artists as they uncover sources long familiar to them.

Carol Kumata, The Possibilities of Order
Welded steel, 32 x 50 x 72″

The aesthetic traditions of China , Japan , and Korea have re-emerged in a new geographical, cultural, and historical context in North America . In Chinese culture, Taoism defined art, poetry, herbalism, medicine, and alchemy, as a way of knowledge that encouraged the interpenetration of the Tao with all things. The Taoist wanted to reveal this energized chi-presence, to make visible this invisible Tao, the mother of all things. The Chinese worldview produced a spiritual aesthetic centered on the balanced expression of quiescence and dynamic energy. In order to understand this religio-aesthetic tradition, one must compare the sacred texts of Taoism and Ch'an and Zen Buddhism with their parallel expression in art. Through its synthesis with Zen Buddhism in China from the sixth century A.D. (and in Japan from the eleventh century), art itself became a way to experience the Tao or the Buddha nature, because unlike the supernaturalism of Western Europe , Taoism never rejected the physical world; in fact, it embraced it. Early Chinese metallurgy and alchemy stemmed from Neo-Taoism's pursuit of the elixir of longevity in the hermetic truths of the Tao-te Clung; all physical trasformative processes lead to this goal.3 Mareel Granet has noted that "Taoism goes back to the days of the guilds of smiths, custodians of the most wondrous of the magic arts and the secrets of primal sources."4 Taoism, the indigenous sacred tradition of ancient China , became synthesized with Ch'an and Zen Buddhism from the sixth century onwards. This synthesis produced a richly associative web of ideas, practices, and forms that provided the basis of the art of China and later Japan

Richard Mafong, Button Dawn Shirt
Sterling silver, brass, embossed foil

From Taoism's emphasis on the fundamental emptiness and receptivity of the Tao, Ch'an and, later, Zen Buddhism began a philosophical and aesthetic dialogue around the interpenetration of form and formlessness. From the standpoint of meditation, the polarity of form and formless manifests itself in the ephemeral thoughts that preoccupy the fundamentally empty nature of mind. In the visual arts of China and Japan this had a concrete manifestation. This aesthetic of emptiness, combined with modernist simplification, is found in Carol Kumata's sculpture, The Possibilities of Order, which derives from natural forms such as pods and shells and plays with emptiness by enclosing space in linear wires.

Similarly, Dawn Nankamishi's Zephyr brooch relies on an idea of formlessness encapsulated in this excerpt from chapter 14 of the Tao-te Citing:

Revealed, it is not dazzling;
Hidden, it is not dark.
Infinite, it cannot be defined.
It goes back to non-existence.
It is called the form of the formless,
And the image of non-existence.
It is called mystery.
Meet it, you cannot see its face;
Follow it, iron cannot sec its back.

Metaphysical empty space is one of the strongest motifs of both Chinese and Japanese art. Stemming from Zen Buddhism's ideal of sunyata (emptiness) as the ultimate end of meditation, the aesthetic quality of an active emptiness in painting was called the kung, or "void," and informs the design of most Asian art.

Susan Chin
Mia Divining Rods, 1997
Mixed metals and semiprecious stone, shakudo, and mokume

The art of Michael G. B. Tom makes reference to specific themes from Confucianism and Buddhism. He writes that, "my art has incorporated two parallel thems-the embodiment of the vessel form and the spiritual nature of death. I have used the vessel in its broadest interpretation to include boats, the human body and containers." Confucianism in China referred to the human being as a "vessel" that could be filled with the correct filial emotion. The large sculpture For the Streets of the Tombs uses layered references to the human form as a vessel, the funerary urn, and to archaic Chinese bronzes. Its symmetry and patina of age suggests the incised ritual bronze vessels of Shang and Chou dynasties. Contradicting the static, hieratic, and ritual impression of the vessel, it rests on elementary copper wheels, implying both movement throughout the "streets of the tombs" and the use of the vessel in sacrificial ritual and interment in the tomb. The elegant form of the vessel remains mute, and like archaic columns or hieratic human figures, expressive of finality and silence.

The metaphor of the boat as a symbol of transformation provides an important image in Buddhist culture, along with the perception of life as the formless and ever-changing movement of water. The important Buddhist Prajna-Paramita Sutra uses this metaphor to suggest that the Buddha way is itself a boat or vehicle for insight, which, once achieved, leaves its vehicle behind. The Sanskrit term Prajna-Paramita translates literally as "wisdom gone over to the other side," and many Buddhist parables support this concept. There is the popular story of the two monks who, hiring a ferry to take them over to the other shore, find themselves carrying the boat even after they have arrived at their destination. Hence the Zen retort to the scripture-reciting purist monks to "kill the Buddha," or the observation "you're still carrying that boat (or sutra, or woman) even when you're arrived." Along these lines, Peggy hug's Brooch uses the image of the boat as a carrier of insight or good luck. The pearl of Eng's brooch embodies the precious quality of insight.

In China , Japan , and Korea , the elemental image of the dragon (a reservoir of the ch'i of nature, water, wind, thunder, and rain) often contains a pearl or jewel in its mouth, or held by its chimerical legs. A symbol of wisdom, one must enter the dragon to achieve insight, thereby working with its elemental force. This myth is antithetical to the medieval tales of St. George, who slays the dragon to carry away the princess, Marguerite, whose name in French means "pearl." Pearls appear combined with gold in several works, including the Mia Divining Rods brooch by Susan Chin, of mixed metals and semiprecious stone, and the Pendant by Hiroku Pijanowski The divining rod, an intuitive tool to uncover the secret movement of water in both East and West, expresses a feeling of hope and discovery in the balanced design by Susan Chin. Pijanowski's Pendant marries baroque, exquisitely wrought wings (a symbol of the transitory nature of life) with the eternal luminosity of the pearl.

Hiroko Sato Pljanowski, Pendant, 1996
Gold, emerald, pearl, 18 k

The Ch'an or Zen Buddhist worldview synthesized the Taoist idea of ch'i energy with the Confucian filial piety and ancestor devotion. Zen arises from the insight/satori that the ordinary is extraordinary, an insight manifested in the aesthetic and artistic attitudes of China , Japan , and Korea . If even the most modest object can embody ephemeral beauty, described in the simplest possible terms in the haiku of Japan , then it too can become a vehicle for spiritual transformation. In modern art history the Surrealists arrived at the idea of the ordinary becoming extraordinary from a different path, that of non-rationality and poetic, psychological association. Each path arrives at the same aesthetic goal of nonattachment to conventional ideas of art or beauty. Along these lines, Richard Mafong's Button Down Shirt takes a conventional item from the history of Chinese labor in North America -the laundry-and sets it apart in a frame of gold foil. Mafong thus elevates the ordinary shirt while at the same time opening the viewer's imagination to its potential meanings and history. Cast in precious materials, Mafong creates an ironic commentary on contemporary American cultural values by turning the shirt into an icon set within an elaborate frame. Both ironic and poetic, Mafong's Button Down Shirt employs traditional Asian and contemporary European aesthetic ideas of transforming the mundane into something rich and strange.

Mariko Kusomoto, Homeland 1995
Copper, brass, silver, found objects, 8x4x2″

In the realm of function, the amusing tea and coffee pots created by Komelia Hongia Okim play dramatically with the art of feng-shui, which anticipates the movement of chi-energy within the environment. Of Korean origin, Okim states that her work "reflects the principles offing-shun, an Asian philosophy. focused on the relationship between humans and their environment: a philosophical system of hove to live and excel in harmony and nature." Her Harmony #3 Coffee Set is made with the traditional Korean metal technique of kumboo, which overlays 24-karat gold foil on sliver without solder or flux. It invites the user to grasp it from the finial-tipped, open-ended handles that lead to the slanted plump forms of the coffee pots. These forms move forward aerodynamically in space, suggesting birds and other natural forms-. The witty lids of the pots make visible the vaporized steam as it escapes invitingly from the coffee pot, encouraging a sense of warmth, energy, and playful delight in the viewer.

Junko Nakazawa, Night Flight, 1997

Finally, two works in the exhibition by artists born and raised in Japan, Marion Kusomoto and Junko Nakazawa, give material form to the Japanese aesthetic values of wabi and sabi, which roughly translate as poverty of means, or poor, simple, rustic, irregular, aged, worn. Whatever shows unselfconsciously the workings of nature possesses simplicity, and is therefore elegant. Wabi and shim are achieved by the ebb and floss- of natural processes over time, evoking memory, a sense of the evanescence of life, its loss and its preciousness, thus becoming the idea of the beautiful in Asian aesthetics.

This elusive aesthetic lends itself yell to such eccentric and evocative pieces as Kusomoto's Homeland, a cabinet with a door made of copper, brass, silver, and found objects. The door depicts a homely beetle symmetrically placed on a surface scarified by inscribed patterns. Some of these patterns recall the early pictographs or ideographs of Chinese and Japanese cultures, even the portentous archaic "dragon bones" of burnt tortoise shell whose patterns is ere used to divine future events. Kusomoto turns the beetle, whose realm is earth, into a symbol of transformative power because her surfaces suggest wear over time. Moreover, the door conceals a cabinet enhancing the sense of a secret, hermetic process.

Nakassavca's Rain in the City uses a winged form to enclose a seemingly industrial, machined object, Swallowed by the rugged, irregular surfaces that surround it, the industrial box is reclaimed by- the persistent processes of nature. Nakazawa states that "intense and perfectly balanced .shape, the highest level of skill, subtle and mysterious finishes … those were the things I adore … my work w ill reflect my experience of different cultures."

The exhibition "Asian Roots, Western Soil" gave evidence of a new, hybrid aesthetic informing contemporary art. The intermingling of Asian art motifs and aesthetics with the current artistic climate of irony and cultural critiques proves a sometimes uneasy but provocative relationship. The principle behind these cultural tensions lies in the authentic Asian understanding of the transformative potential of matter, allied with the contemporary deployment of art as intellectual comment. Art, like alchemy, relies on processes of cultural sublimation and transmutation to create a greater intensity and vitality for its audience. The magical potency of matter is conveyed vividly by an excerpt from an ancient treatise on alchemy-, written by Wei Po-yang in the second century A.D.. The artist and alchemist are identified as one, as the alchemist turns the matter of gold into the elixir of immortality by ingesting it physically and therefore magically.

Komelia Hongja Okin, Harmony #3 Coffee Set, 1996
Sterling, 24k gold, kumboo

Gold by nature does not rot or decay;
Therefore it is of all things most precious;
When the artist (i.e., alchemist) includes it in
   his diet,
The duration of life becomes everlasting.
When the gold powder enters the five-entrails,
A fog is dispelled, like rain clouds scattered by
   the wind,
Fragrant exhalations pervade the four limbs;
The countenance beams with joy and well
   being. . . .
He whose forms is changed and has escaped
   the perils of life,
Has for his title the Name of True Man.

  1. Mircea Eliade, The Forge and the Crucible. Second Edition translated from the French by Stephen Corrin, ( Chicago and London '. The University of Chicago ) 1978 p. 100.
  2. Mircea Eliade State, "Alchemy is one of those creations of the pre-scientific era and the historiographer who would attempt to present it as a rudimentary phase of chemistry, or indeed, as a secular science, Would be treading on very shaky ground. (Eliade, The Forge and the Crucible, p. 13). See also Michael Sullivan, The Meeting of Eastern and Western Art (Berkeley University of California Press, 1989) for an excellent history of this relationship.
  3. See William Theodore de Bary, Sources of Chinese Tradition Volume I, compiled by William Theodore de Bary, Wing-tsit Chan, and Burton Watson (New York and London Columbia University Press) "Neo-Taoism," "Belief in Immortals" and "Alchemy" pp. 239-265.
  4. Marcel Granet. Danses et Legendes, p. 161, quoted in Eliade, The Forge and the Crucible p. 109.
  5. Tao Te Ching (London Unwin and Marcos Books, 1976) translated from the Chinese by by Ch'u Ta-Kao, P.26.
  6. Ts'an T'ung Ch'i, ch. xxvii, translated by Arthur Waley, Notes on Chinese Alchemy, p. 11 Cited in Brad, The Forge and the Crucible, p.115.
By Celia Rabinovitch [Metalsmith Magazine – Spring 2002]
Celia Rabinovitch, an artist and writer, teaches fine arts at Cabrillo College , Santa Cruz , California . She is the author of the forthcoming Surrealism and the Sacred Power, Eros, and the Occult in Modern Art, Westview Press, 2002.
In association with SNAG‘s
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.

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Celia Rabinovitch

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