This interview is an adaptation of an artist talk with Chad McCail given at 43 Inverness Street on 2 July 2011.
Could you explain the story about Rites of Spring? I’m sure each of us who have looked at the work closely have come up with our own narratives, but I’d like to hear yours.
Itʼs about the sexual initiation of a boy and girl. Before setting off on a journey, they are each given a knife by an elderly couple. The knife will serve them later in the story but I thought that to give an adolescent a knife was also a way of indicating that they have reached a certain level of maturity, that they can take responsibility for themselves.
After an arduous journey on foot they arrive at a tree with flowers, which look like human genitals. When they find the tree, they copulate with the flowers. I wanted to suggest that one’s first experience of sexuality is not so much about the relationship within which the experience occurs but about one’s own experience of the drive itself.
As they begin, a root rises from the ground and threatens to strangle them. Using their knives, they cut themselves free and escape with the root.
I see this as a process of individuation.
Afterwards, as they wash themselves in a pool, snakes emerge from the severed roots and they return home with these emblems of their awakened sexuality.
When does the story take place? It seems like a combination of a mythical past and the present.
The clothes indicate the present though of course it is a fable and so itʼs situated in a kind of timeless present.
The pit where the tree grows looks man-made though it blends with the surrounding rock formations. The tree is a monster. Perhaps it suckers. Its roots make it look as though it might. Perhaps a thousand years ago it ran wild and had to be contained so that the pit was built for it far from human habitation.
I know that you are a great fan of science-fiction and one can think of your work having a science-fiction element, but this series also seems religious to me, in the sense that it resembles a sort of biblical story that aims to teach us something. What do you think this message could be?
The message is really that we should take this transition from childhood to maturity and the development of the sexual drive more seriously, that we should acknowledge that the acquisition of fertility is traumatic, exciting, disorientating and emotionally destabilizing. That young people are particularly vulnerable at this stage and equally that they are quite dangerous to one another too.
It is an important part of the process of individuation. This newly acquired ability involves a certain struggle and challenge.
In this emotional turbulence people can be cruel, others can be hurt. More is demanded of them. Responsibilities increase. People get infatuated, attached, they treat each other like things, they use each other. They become possessed by this thing.
So that in the story, when they copulate with the tree it tries to strangle them, it wants to consume them, it’s hungry; it will have them if they don’t tear themselves away. It’s indifferent, implacable and inhuman.
When they cut themselves free, they exercise control over their desire and the root they take away turns into a snake (also a symbol of wisdom) and when they cross back over the boundary wall it becomes invisible, simply an emblem of their awakened, mature sexuality.
Could you tell us more about the tree? There was a genital tree similar to this one in your 2007 screen print, “Relationships grow stronger.” In that work, the tree is on a trolley and it looks like it is about to be planted or it has just been unearthed from the garden by a family consisting of multiple generations. In that work, there is a positive message of a family and their maturity in dealing with sexuality and relations among the sexes. In “Rights of Spring”, however, the tree is more sinister and tries to kill the young man and woman as they have sex with it. What is the symbolic value of the tree in this work? How and why has it changed from its appearance in “Relationships grown stronger”?
The tree reproduces and consumes. It stands for the indifferent, persistent, intransigent quality of desire.
I imagined the tree had developed somewhat similarly to the bee orchid whose flowers resemble a bee’s genitals and also like the carnivorous plants, which attract insects to consume. It tries to kill the young people not from malice but simply because it is hungry. Symbolically I wanted that to stand for the addictive desperation of the pleasure principle, the shadow of love. But it also reinvigorates, regenerates and the girl and boy return from their ordeal with the boon, the snake, their mature individuated ability to master the drive.
The encounter is more intimate in “Rites of Spring”. In “Relationships grow stronger” the children have rucksacks too. They are about to go on the journey.
The tree in that picture has genital flowers even on the higher branches. It is like a float from a pageant. Perhaps they tow it through the village before setting off on the adventure depicted in “Rites of Spring”.
Also there is no skeleton. It is shown in its benign aspect.
The post- Jungian Robert Moore talks about archetypes as those patterns towards which one is powerfully attracted but which, were one to identify too closely with them, would destroy one. He sees the human ego as surrounded by drives to which it is drawn but to which it surrenders at its peril. I wanted the tree to have that quality of fatal mesmerism.
To continue with symbols, what is the snake a symbol of? They come out of the severed root of the tree and they seem benign where usually the serpent has negative connotations. Why do the snakes appear and then disappear, or rather grow invisible? Why can’t they remain visible?
The snake is an ancient symbol. Its ability to shed its skin gives it the apparent quality of rebirth and immortality. This facility identifies it with the seasonal cycle, the dying of vegetation in the autumn and its re-emergence in the spring.
Shown in a circle with its tail in its mouth, the ouroboros expresses that continuity – everything feeds on everything else, nothing is lost and the individual parts make up a greater whole.
Within this economy birth and death lose some of their absolute quality and a greater dynamic becomes apparent, a flowing continuum where things form and dissolve to reform and re-dissolve endlessly.
More specifically in the Hindu tantric tradition the snake appears as kundalini and is identified as desire. It is depicted inside a person stretching from the genitals to the head.
In Genesis, an anthropocentric, male dominated, hierarchical perspective replaces the older, broader view. In this reversal of values the snake is cast down and acquires it’s purely negative aspect.
The snakes become invisible in the last frame because the young people have passed back over the boundary wall. The snakes, although invisible, can still be felt, a closer approximation to the tantric reality.
The boundary wall is from Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy where the hero on his quest into the land of the dead has encounters a dry stonewall which marks the boundary between the living and the dead. Also in Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man an Innuit museum curator says of the film’s subject that he tried to cross a boundary between man and animal that cannot be crossed.