In my work, word is central, as related to the body, and to space and memory. While my art is a direct extension and materialization of my religious practice and interest in Jewish and Christian traditions, I continue to explore beneath the communal social structures to render those larger religious mysteries within the sacred realm that go beyond the boundaries of tradition. It is my ever present desire to construct meaning out of the common and domestic forms that abound in my world, and to insert my practice into larger currents of religious thought, history and ritual expressions which define life, lived-out within the cosmos.
My work is anchored in the book, the book as a cultural and a symbolic object, and as a container of history, narrative and memory. The Bible, as the primary book of Western culture and central to my tradition, is the book I alter and transform into sculptures. One understanding of these altered Bibles draws from the Jewish tradition’s long use of Midrash, the interpretive mode which breaks down the scripture into phrases, then words, then letters to uncover meaning. I have thought of my altered Bibles as a visual way of looking at the activity of deconstructing text in search of meaning. As in Midrash, my altered Bibles insist that interpretation must remain open; they serve as visual symbols against fundamentalism, defying a singular, literal read by rearranging the order into myriad possibilities.
The altered Bibles admittedly blend reverence with ambivalence. They are no longer books operationally, but are transformed to function symbolically, expanding our thinking about the Bible. A tension exists in wanting to retain readability. Usually the shredded and tangled lines remain bound at the spine even though scrambled. The text columns twist into a continuum of twine, or the spheres suggest that they could be unwound to be read. It’s all there twisted, rolled, tucked under and pressed down, even though only bits of words and isolated letters seem to be remaining. In the end an essence of words remains to be taken in through the experience of the senses, in visual and tactile methods of reading. Therefore, the altered Bibles also follow within the tradition of religious iconography as the transformation of sacred word into sacred object. As a symbolic form the Bibles defy rational ways of understanding. Instead the viewer experiences the sacred word in a visual whole of outward appearance.
Word and the Body
I examine the subjects of narrative, person, place or event through the perspective of larger religious thought, history and ritual, not solely through institutional interpretations. It is the more profound sense of Mystery that I seek to articulate and uncover in my work. When I conflate the lives and stories of others to my own personal events it is to define the common ways our lives overlap or converge in the sacred sense.
Certain parallels can be drawn to understand identity as text. An individual’s identity is the words they embody; the word is made material in the forms which extend from the life of the individual. A number of my works turn on the words of Saint Teresa of Avila, the poet Emily Dickinson, and the writer, Edmond Jabès. In several works I treat the handwriting of St. Teresa and Emily Dickinson as both a relic (what remains of the body after the body) and a map of their lives. I trace their handwriting, overlaying the mark of my hand onto the mark of their hand. In the series Castles, like rooms in a house, I enter into the narrative of St. Teresa’s life, by sanding and peeling into the pages of the story, by encasing the words in wax, or by interleaving layers of silk and embedding objects into the pages of the book. In Emily’s Pillow I embroider the handwriting of Emily Dickinson onto a pillowcase stuffed with a shredded Bible. In a series of works titled Wreadings, I simultaneously write as I read the words of Edmond Jabès, creating layer upon layer of words in blue ink, until readability is metamorphosed into abstract blue shape. To trace, to stitch, to erase, to “wread,” is to absorb and consume the texts of their lives into my body. Thus, both are actions that insert my narrative and memory into the narrative and memory of the other.
Word as Space and Memory
Following the destruction of the Temple, the reading of Torah became the instrument of exilic survival for the Jews—the literal and spiritual locus of identity. As George Steiner argues, the text became the homeland that cannot be destroyed. I explore text as a space which maintains history, narrative and memory. Since 1996 I have created several temporary site-specific memorial spaces in conjunction with Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. In each space my intention was to frame the word in a location where history, narrative, memory and ritual might conjoin—a space where individuals could come to reflect and to ritualize their feelings and experiences connected to the Holocaust. These spaces were locations for remembering; spaces, where remembering is the primary means for preventing such an occurrence from happening again, where remembering is also a means for regeneration.
In another series of works I integrate found objects in the memorial or gallery space. It is my intention to uncover and present the sacrality of such things as gloves, shoes and domestic articles. These now stand in for the lives and histories of anonymous people, their places, their events and their individual memories. Their memories become a microcosm of space where the viewer might merge in a shared recognition with the macrocosm of the sensed-familiar—the resemblances that sustain us in this life. Whether it is the space of the gallery, or the space of a reliquary jar, these are houses, large and small, that contain space and memory as saved out of time.
Perhaps the art form is the intimate, material camouflage that blurs distinctions between art practice and ritual practice. Cultural forms, like text and art, can bring the sacred into cognitive recognition where we encounter and hold mystery in relation to our bodies in time and space, where we can recollect and interpret that which we have experienced. Like religion, art can give back to us the situations of our dreams and the memories of our experiences that are physically inscribed in us by enabling us to locate those places of mystery and the sacred.
-- Linda Ekstrom