'Darkness into Light' at Rivet Gallery
For photographer, a 500 year-old skull offers a new perspective
Special to Metromix
When the Rivet Gallery announced that the “Darkness into Light” show running Feb. 7-28 would feature “alternative photography,” it was definitely an instance of truth in advertising. The work on view in this exhibition is not the kind of material that typically makes it into places like the Columbus Museum of Art or the Wexner Center.
Instead, this exhibition will highlight the creations of respected underground photographers like Chas Ray Krider, John Santerineross and Christine Kessler: morbid pin-up girls, shadowy mystics and a painting that meshes ‘50s-esque art with Salvador Dali’s “Christ of Saint John of the Cross.” These images approach the seedier edges of art to discover startling results.
The most fascinating and macabre piece of “Darkness” comes from Arizona-based artist Wayne Martin Belger, in the form of “Yama.” It’s a 500 year-old Tibetan Lama’s skull that Belger bought in China and turned into a handmade stereo camera, fusing function with form in an extraordinary way.
The skull is ornately decorated with exquisite jewelry and is an actual working camera composed entirely of custom-made parts. The skull is just one portion of an overarching installation and, because of its staggering value ($240,000 in Belger’s estimation), is only viewable on Saturdays in February.
Metromix spoke with Belger upon the arrival of “Yama” and company in Columbus.
Tell us a little bit about the “Yama” installation.
“Yama” itself sits in a Burmese temple case. It's this gold case that has mirrors in it. That sits on top of a tabletop I got in India, and then the legs and everything else I made out of steel, windows from Mexico and wood from Rajastan in India. In the legs themselves, I inlaid over 500 pearls, and then there’s this metal tray that hangs underneath the table that’s full of sand, pearls, and another human jawbone. Above that is a Pyrex tube with copper end caps filled with half mercury and half of my blood. I'm really into mythology, and I love the mythology behind Yama. When you read the Tibetan Book of the Dead, you meet Yama in the second house after you die, and he has seen all of your life. He doesn’t make a judgment, but he has seen every detail. For your good deeds, he drops a white stone, and for your bad deeds, he drops a black stone, so that's why in the table legs there are over 500 pearls—some of them are gray, most of them are white.
How did you get ahold of the skull in the first place?
I do a lot of traveling, and I was in Beijing. People in China sell a lot of Tibetan artifacts that have been pillaged from monasteries. It is pretty screwed up, but I have a friend who is a Tibetan Lama who works for a legal organization in San Francisco, and I talked to him about the project before I bought the skull. He thought it was a great idea to do this to bring a lot of awareness to the Tibetan cause and such. It was an artifact in a monastery, but it has the same effect as a bird flying by and its feather falling to the ground. The feather isn't the bird, and that skull isn't the person that used to be in it. It has the same relevance as a feather, or a leaf that fell off a tree—the person's not there. So I got it and shipped it to San Francisco, and a special Lama was coming through town that has a lot to do with the Tibetan Book of the Dead and death rituals. He did a whole blessing on the skull. Part of the installation that you'll see under the case is this white material that looks like silk, and that's actually the prayer shawl of “Yama” of when the monk blessed him.
What kind of reactions do you get from people viewing “Yama”?
It's all over the place. It's funny because a lot of people write things on different blogs, and I can tell what their history is by their reaction. It's generally people that haven't done a lot of traveling that get really offended. People that have experienced different cultures think it's a really great piece. I've seen some pretty big brawls on blog sites, 50 or 60 comments, people going, "Shut up, you don't know what you are talking about!" I had one woman go, "I hope everyone that likes this and supports this including the artist goes to hell." It blows me away when people stick to some moral ground but then damn everybody at the same time.
What is it about “Yama” that makes it special?
I make the work for myself, so it's something I want to learn about. [My creations] are pretty much tools for my own study. I was never put in a place where 'This is your tool, this is your camera, and you take photos and your final result is the photo.' The camera is as important as the experience, as the photo. The whole installation is created as a subject of the study I want to get into. [Also,] I was just in this artists’ discussion group, and a lot of people are really drawn to my work, and we started looking at that. I came up with that it's about being vulnerable. I think there are so many artists out there right now that are creating stuff that's been done over and over just because they want to fit into a certain genre. I create my work from a really vulnerable place. There are so many walls that people build up around themselves that they don't allow anybody in, so when you're creating work that's really vulnerable, people feel like they get to really look at you.
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