man bent over his guitar,
said, 'You have a blue guitar,
man replied, 'Things as they are
they said then, 'But play, you must,
tune upon the blue guitar
Stephen Livick made six trips to India between September 1984 and November 1991 and is about to make a seventh. Calcutta is his spiritual home and Kali is his presiding goddess. His culture, like Kali's culture, is a culture of the teeming streets in which, in an endless festive display of living and dying (the two being one), humanity performs for the Great Mother. From her teeming womb it issues and to it capriciously returns. There is for the European or North American outsider something ferocious, blood-curdling about her. She is like an animal devouring her young, jealously guarding her possessions, allowing them no separate life. Or like a dragon guarding a tomb. But watch the hordes of Indian children playing around her, peeking out from behind her back, and you may glimpse something else: the Great Mother protecting her young. Death is her comforting assurance that she and her offspring will never part. "And death shall be the last embrace of her/Who takes the life she gave," Shelley's Earth triumphantly declares, '"even as a mother/Folding her child, says, 'Leave me not again!'"
Carl Jung on his visit to India experienced it as a woman of "immeasurable age with no history." History, he argues, is a relatively recent invention, a determination to rise up out of some real or imagined primordial past. History is an escape from history. "But in India," he writes, submitting to his own sensations, "there seems to be nothing that has not lived a hundred thousand times before. Even the unique individual of today has already lived innumerable times in the past. The world itself is nothing but a renewal of world existence, which has happened many times before."
From the moment he first arrived in India, Stephen Livick experienced what is called deja vu. He had arrived where he had always been, or almost always been, say "a hundred thousand times before." He both experienced a renewal of himself and, before it was over, came close to dying. When he had digested his experience (or when Kali had digested him), his almost dying was his renewal made conscious of itself, of his own existence as a momentary glimpse of the world's existence.
Such glimpses in India are precious, even sacred. Kali herself thrives on the unconsciousness of her offspring the way a surgeon in the West performs best when his patient is etherized. Rising to consciousness is a moment of stillness in an everlasting flux that can and does induce oblivion.
Stephen Livick's street icons record such moments. If you sense in them the presence of an "unique individual" you may also sense that she or he or he/she "has already lived innumerable times in the past."
Take his "Limeworker", for example. The mask he wears (lime dust) is the work he does. Bits of flesh appear around the nose. Though hardly seen, the eyes are there, looking intently at you. Or are they? It is as if in an excavation Stephen Livick came upon a well-preserved mummy. As if awaking the dead, bidding him arise, Stephen approached the limeworker and asked if he could take his picture. The limeworker, who was paid by the hour, at first refused, and then agreed to stop his work for ten minutes if Stephen would pay him a day's wage.
The shift in perspective was enormous. To stand against an improvised wall and face directly into the camera's gaze was to submit to an alien presence outside the subliminal orbit of countless goddesses and gods. He had to stare it down, not as an act of defiance, but as one who was not afraid, as one who was more than its equal. The dignity, majesty even, of the silent lime dust figure is that of a warrior guarding from foreign entry what lies hidden within his tomb, which is, indeed, himself.
As one looks at it, the dust itself seems along the arms to be returning to its original stone, a sculptural image forming within the process of Livick's making of his monumental print. One thinks again of Shelley's Mighty Mother who conceives her own young, "a spirit of keen joy," which is Prometheus rising, flowing along her "stony veins." "It is as if the statues of Apollo and the Muses had been endowed with life and motion," Shelley writes again, "and had walked forth among their worshippers; so that the earth became populated by the inhabitants of a diviner world." In the sheer potency of their unconscious life over which Kali presides as the guardian of the Hindu family, those who from time immemorial inhabit it seem in their complete immersion to belong, as in Livick's street portraits, to "a diviner world". Livick's limeworker inhabits "stony veins" along which flows Livick's preserving fluid.
Now look at the work in terms of the artist and see how the two worlds meet. Stephen Livick has in his "icons" revived and mastered the medium of gum bichromate which was first made popular during the late 1890's as, among other things, a way of preserving the life of a print in something of the same way that a mummy is preserved. Beginning with colour separations (yellow, red, and blue) from his original transparencies, enlarged to the size of the final image, Livick uses the highly specialized services and laser technology of the world-renowned printing firm of Herzig Sommerville. Prior to printing, he pre-shrinks the support paper in a bath of water and then sizes it with gelatin. Once it has dried he brushes on a hand-mixed light-sensitive solution of gum arabic, potassium bichromate and yellow watercolour pigment. When this has dried, and assuming it hasn't shrunk or expanded (which easily happens) he lays the negative for the yellow areas on the emulsion-coated paper and exposes it to a strong ultra-violet light source for approximately five minutes. Assuming that the pre-shrunk paper is still responding well to the process, he then develops the print in baths of water. Areas exposed to the light harden, while the pigment that has not been affected washes away. He then leaves the print to dry for about a day, and then he repeats the process twice more (again assuming it hasn't shrunk), once for the red tint and once for the blue. Finally, if all is still well, he places the print in a clearing bath to rid it of bichromate stain. He then submits it to a final washing and drying followed by spot-toning. The result is a photograph so carefully and highly wrought (or embalmed) that it transcends the limits of the mechanical eye (the camera lens) which initiated the process. "Photographs,", writes the Indian photographer B.N. Goswany, "...are said to convey the exact nature of the material world, but, actually, what they convey is spiritual."
Observing the process, one cannot help but think of Blake colouring and printing his own poems. "But first the notion that man has a body distinct from the soul is to be expunged," he writes in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. "This I shall do, by printing in the infernal method by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting the apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid". Rejecting commercial printers who were concerned only to display "the apparent" rather then "the infinite," Blake developed his own method on the assumption that "if the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite."
His Introduction to the Songs of Innocence is a poem which describes the making of it. Commanded by the Piper to sit down "and write/In a book that all may read," Blake plucks "a hollow reed," makes "a rural pen,' and stains "the water clear." Thus "[he] wrote his happy songs/Every child may joy to hear."
When Stephen Livick came upon the limeworker buried deep in his labour he recognized a fellow-worker. Far from rudely interrupting him, as a foreign tourist with an intrusive camera might, his instinctive and immediate desire was to bring to what the limeworker was doing a consciousness of what he was himself doing in developing a print using the method which I have just described. To be buried deep in lime was to be buried deep in time, to engage in processes older than alchemy and every bit as magical. The icon of the limeworker is the product of the conscious "alchemical" work of Stephen Livick as it mirrors, raises to consciousness, the limeworker's unconscious or unnoticed labour. "
In India," writes Martha Hanna, "the act of photographing, especially photographing sacred images or activities, is more than simply making a 'likeness' of something. The photographic image partakes in the reality it depicts. Rather than a 'likeness,' a photograph can be perceived as a sacred object, sharing a sacred energy with the subject." This element of the "sacred" which is so much a part of Stephen Livick's experience of India is not for him limited to so-called "sacred images or activities." The gods and goddesses who preside over every aspect of Indian Life (which includes dying) render all life sacred. The limeworker, like the transvestite, prostitute, rag-picker, veiled squatting woman, are figures who enact gods and goddesses unknown, even unthought of, in the more secular West. While transvestites and prostitutes tend not, in their professional activities, to procreate, they, by not regularly conceiving in the biological sense, raise conception to a ritual act. The female as male or male as female not only blurs the biological distinctions but fuses them into one in a manner that can in some curious way elevate both, release what is iconic in them.
Stephen Livick's icon of the transvestite carries in his own heightened rendering of her condition something of the mystery of the hermaphrodite, child of Hermes and Aphrodite. Love (Aphrodite) as the recipient of her own desire (Hermes) yearns for the Other which, to be Other, must first be separated from her/himself. She inhabits the eternal grief of her undifferentiated state, longing for a consummation eternally denied. "Only I discern," writes Robert Browning, "Infinite passion, and the pain/Of finite hearts that yearn."
The veiled woman squatting in the classical folds of her purple robe has a cat-like intensity in her painted eyes which extend themselves into the fabric. The masculine energy of the limeworker staring down the camera's gaze here assumes a feminine guise, more predatory and fierce by virtue of what, once released, it entails. Mindless power squatting on the ground, dripped from the mid-air by an indifferent beak.
Stephen Livick's street icons, I suggest, are the work of a major Canadian artist who has tapped in India and in himself a dimension of life which in my experience no other Canadian artist has previously explored. What raises the work to the condition of art, however, is less what he has tapped than how he has managed to shape it, sometimes to the edge of a Matisse-like abstraction, using a technique which is ideally, even uniquely, fitted to the task.