Shapeshifters abound. They populate our stories. Humans and animals alike share forms such as, Medusa and the Harpy from Greek mythology, the Elephant God, Ganesh and the Monkey God, Hanuman from India, as well as Spiderman, Vampires, Werewolves and Playboy Bunnies from the western world. Animals co join with other animals becoming creatures such as Pegasus, the Griffin, and the Manticore. Plants are also crossbred with animals, such as the Mandrake. And animals also transgress the boundary between creatures and elements, such as the Nigerian Waterspirit, the Zuni Thunderbird , the Hawaiian Goddess, Pele and the Celestial Lion of Tibet.
These transitional species permeate the natural world as well. A caterpillar transforms into a butterfly, a fish’s fin becomes an instrument of flight, an arctic hare changes its pelt to match the elements, a tadpole miraculously converts into a frog, and an octopus adapts to its environment through form and color.
The elements also morph into one another; molten lava turns to stone, rain pounds the earth until a wall of mud moves a mountain, a storm gathers dust, water turns to steam and evaporates. Even the earth is a hot ball of fire at its very center. As the Indonesian saying goes, “The sea becomes the shore, the shore becomes the sea.” In the science of Chemistry, elements come together to make molecular matter, the building blocks of life. Take two hydrogen atoms, join them to one oxygen atom and you have water, the fundamental matter of life. Matter is a vast continuum, a force field of powers that are constantly undergoing changes by their relational nature.
Our human existence is teaming with metamorphosis; a single cell grows into a fetus and a baby becomes an adult before our very eyes. Children are natural shapeshifters. They become animals, plants and elements. They seem to move back and forth between realms of the imagination with ease and fluidity.
Our psyche evolves and grows, shapeshifting between realms, however slowly or rapidly we can accommodate. If we pay attention, we become aware of changes as they occur and begin to take in the magic all around. But change isn’t always easy and it is human nature to try to avoid some changes, especially ones that seemingly stretch our skin too far. How does the cliché go, “ Change is the only constant”, and it certainly rings true.
By going and coming, a bird weaves its nest.” (Ashanti –West African proverb) The very act of creating is the way in which we stumble upon our true nature.
We live in an age of animal and human cloning, stem-cell research and cross-species viruses, such as AIDS and the avian flu as well as the knowledge that the human genome is only a few strands away from that of a flea. The very earth is heaving under the magnitude of climate changes. The elements are catching up to us. And we struggle to take responsibility. Our present world is filled with strange interspecies connections and yet somehow we still insist on maintaining specism ( one step beyond racism). As if all our technological advances have proven us the superior beings. Perhaps if we were to welcome interspecies communication more readily and in fact learn from our fellow life-forms, both plant, animal and elemental, we could embrace our whole potential. “A life that makes the greatest number of connections to other things and alters itself in the process is a life lived to its fullest.”(Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari)
Many artists have rendered shapeshifters: Odilon Redon, Gustav Klimt, Dali, de Chirico, Magritte, Max Ernst,Bruegel the Elder, Hieronymus Bosch, Miro and most notably Joseph Beuys, who founded the first political party for animals. They articulate a fascination with the intermingling of species.
I have always been aware of reinventing and dissolving boundaries . In these works, I take the inevitable journey between human and divine, animal and vegetable, mineral and elemental entities.
Shapeshifting is a delicate art. Training oneself is a humble beginning. The very act of creating, of exercising the imagination is what connects us to our deepest self, our soul.
In art making , physical materials are transformed, shaped into a new way of experiencing an idea. And when that idea is released into the world, there is hopefully a shift, a move toward a new way of sensing. Art making is an act of translation. Myths and the creatures that inhabit them are there to try and explain things about a world that is often inexplicable. But art can provide clues or a lens for us to witness how far we have traveled down the path of becoming.