The LUMENS 2018 residency in Atina is on the theme of “Astronomia, Arte E Religione”.
For a fortnight, a group of 20 artists lived and worked together in an old nunnery building in the mountains of Atina. The aim was to enter into creative experiment as the Perseid meteor shower traced milky streaks across the skies. Each night we looked up, photographed, shared what we knew about the constellations and the stories that animate them. Evenings went late in shared excitement, laughter and curiosity, spotting meteors burn up overhead. Spontaneous cries of joy and frustration echoing through the nunnery, when people saw – or failed to see – the brief appearance of these distant specks.
The residency occurred over the festival of the Assumption of Mary, so after the night of wonders, each hot day brought a fresh celebration: processions through the streets holding the Madonna’s casket high, traditional dancing and opera singing in the square, illuminations and fireworks, as well as the arrival of a stream of tiny shiny Fiat cars and an inexplicable race down the hill in tiny metal carts.
The residency completed with a group exhibition in the local cathedral.
One inspiration for journeying to Atina was to explore whether dreaming is imprinted by meteor showers. Do these lines of light reach into the dream space? I listened to the dreams of the artists in residence over the days of the Perseids and drew them out. A space for the unconscious, for the unsaid and undone, a necessary part of any communicative experience. Communications always animated by feelings of the possibility of something more to come.
I spent the mornings researching communication and messages travelling across gulfs of understanding: reading up on Umberto Eco and Gregory Bateson, Lincos and Laban notation, Neuroscience and Ionic Membranes, and – of course – SETI. I was also gifted some unexpected visceral moments of experiential research: accidentally electrocuting myself on a faulty plug and a bout of extreme food poisoning from shellfish pasta. The body is full of mysteries!
In August, my eyes are drawn to the Summer Triangle (or the Navigator’s Triangle): the three bright stars high in the sky in the Summer night known as Deneb, Vega and Altair in the IAU Working Group on Star Names. Three stars connecting to different constellations, stories signposted by the living images we see in the sky, like the swan in flight of the Cygnus constellation. Finding the symmetry of the swan’s open wings helps me locate Cygnus, and from there I find Deneb. The name Deneb is actually derived from the Arabic word for “tail” as the brilliant white star signifies the tail of the swan. I see the swan as Orpheus, transformed after death, next to his famous lyre, the constellation Lyra where the bright star Vega lives, but she holds many stories.
I wonder why we don’t teach children the constellations and the stories of the stars at school? It is such a compelling way to learn about different cultures on a shared planet, looking up at the sky, noticing the complexity differently.
Many cultures speak of the three triangulating stars of the Triangle. One of my residency activities was to translate an old Chinese poem by Qin Guan that tells of Vega, Altair & the intercession of Deneb.
纖雲弄巧，飛星傳恨，銀漢迢迢暗渡。 金風玉露一相逢，便勝卻人間無數。 柔情似水，佳期如夢，忍顧鵲橋歸路。 兩情若是久長時，又豈在朝朝暮暮。
— Qin Guan 1049-1100
Immortal at the Magpie Bridge
Held by the delicate clouds,
ephemeral forms of art,
the sad message of the shooting stars,
a silent journey through this dark Milky Way,
one meeting of the Cowherd and the Weaving Girl
in the jade dew-touched morning of the golden autumn wind,
eclipses the countless meetings of the impassive world.
Feelings flow tender as streaming water,
the inspired moment unreal as a dream,
how can they bear to go back on that magpie bridge to different homes?
If love between two can last for aye,
why need they abide together
day after day, night after night?
— translation KG
And a translation into Italian by my dear friend and poet, Faye Miravite
Immortale sul ponte delle gazze
Tenuto dalle nuvole delicate,
forme effimere d’arte,
il triste messaggio delle stelle cadenti;
da un viaggio silenzioso nell’oscurità della via lattea,
un incontro tra il mandriano e la ragazza tessitrice
in una mattinata giada, sfiorata dalla rugiada e
avvolta nel vento di questo dorato autunno;
un solo incontro che mette in eclisse innumerevoli
incontri di un mondo senza passione.
Sentimenti che scorrono teneri come l’acqua del ruscello
un momento tanto ispirato quanto un sogno irreale
come fanno sopportare di andare sul ponte delle gazze
e poi tornare ognuno a casa propria ?
Se l’amore tra loro due durerebbe un’eternità,
perché mai occorre vivere insieme
giorno dopo giorno, notte dopo notte?
— translation Faye Miravite
It is a sad song for long distance relationship and the benedictions of synchrony to console the incurably romantic…
From what I understand it’s the story of Zhi Nu (Vega) the weaving girl who weaves colour into the clouds, and her meeting with the earth boy cowherd, Niu Lang (Altair). They are so besotted – so elated – in their meeting, that they completely neglect their tasks and spend all their time love-making. The work remains undone and the Queen of Heaven in outrage demands everyone get back to work. She takes her hairpin and creates a rift in Heaven – Yin He – the Silver River or the Milky Way. And this is why, the cowboy lives on one side of the Silver River and the weaving girl on the other.
It seems to be a tale of the endless grind and the impossibility of union, but there is some sweetness to it. Once a year on the 7th day of the 7th month, the star Deneb creates a bridge of magpies to carry Zhi Nu across to the one she loves to reunite. In China they’ve many names for the bridging day: the 7 Dusk, the 7 Opportunity, the evening of the 7s, the Double Seventh.
On my last night in Rome I discovered that the 2018 celebration of the 7 Opportunity was that very night. It gave a magical sense of completion to a sublime work phase in Italy.
If you speak Chinese (or know the story of Vega and Altair well) please do send me details or corrections. I would like to learn more.
The Lumens programme and the Italian residency connects artists and creates mutually supportive spaces of creativity and focus. It’s rare and precious, and my thanks to all involved.
The Lumens show is opening in London in January 2019 and includes work by: Rachael Allain • Sakchin Bessette • Mark Cheverton • Tim Corne • Kimberley D’Adamo • Dovile Dagiene • Nettie Edwards • Sarah Gillett • Luke Harby • John Hooper • Risa Horowitz • Marty Langthorne • Becky Lyon • Hanna Mattes • Heather Merckle • Aliya Orr • Phil Power • Hannah Pratt • Arezu Salamzadeh • Harry Stevenson Miller • Armelle Tulunda • Katharine Vega • Brenda Vega & Sergio Sarango • Georgia Watkins • Adele Watts • Won Young Chang