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Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.
Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.
Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.

Week 03 — January 13, 2020

In Conversation

Lia Chavez Interdisciplinary Artist8 minute read


Interdisciplinary artist Lia Chavez is an explorer of the inner cosmos. She has built an accomplished body of work founded upon her interests in the aesthetic characteristics of deep consciousness and the light therein. Whether she’s meditating in the caves of the Himalayas, creating art, or collaborating with cognitive neuroscientists in the lab, they are all one and the same for Lia.
Her critically acclaimed performances and interactive installations harness the power of emerging science and technology to ask probing questions about the nature of mystical experience and scientific discovery.

Interview Rosie Anne Footitt

Photography Rosie Anne Footitt

It’s like returning to being a child and resting in the presence of this great mother. You’re completely nude. All the veils of persona fall away and you get to bask in the beauty of a deepened sense of your humanity.

R How did your artistic process develop from your work True Light in 2012 to this meditational practice of devotion? Can you talk us through it?

L I was meditating in my studio in July of 2012 and a sweet little dragonfly visited me. My studio at the time was in the heart of the Financial District in Manhattan, so you can imagine how cacophonous that would have been for a delicate, ethereal creature of transformation like a dragonfly. But somehow, this wonderful creature found its way into my studio window, which was cracked.

After he flew away, I went into a deep meditation and quite suddenly, this commanding voice of inspiration said to me, ‘you will devote the next months of your life to exploring complete surrender: listen with your whole being. This will open the door to your artistic process. What is prayer as an art form? I want you to discover that. This whole journey will show you what you’re looking for.’

I fasted for 90 days and it was there that my first performance, True Light, was conceived. The first month was devoted to exploring prayer as embodied art form; the second month was devoted to meditation; and the final third was devoted to silence. These combined practices led me through the wondrous experience of offering my integrated being as a vessel for a creative filling. In retrospect, I can see that the whole performance was designed to teach me how to inhabit my being in a way that it becomes a finely tuned instrument of creative inspiration.

It’s the same kind of inspiration that came through Rilke when he wrote Sonnets of Orpheus. The kind of inspiration when you receive a command and know the voice is not your own, but it resonates with the deepest part of you.

In Sonnets, Rilke discusses this ever-flowing song that springs forth from the earth that is an embodiment of eternal presence—the “font of the inexhaustible one.” I love how he describes this fountain as listening to itself and when we partake of it by filling our pitchers, this presence experiences itself as being interrupted, in a sense. It calls to life the idea that the creative presence underlying these artistic experiences we have is deeply involved in catalysing our creative expression.

Can you explain the relationship with this muse, this eternal light you receive in the artistic meditations, and how you transcend this in your art?

The reason I love being an artist is that I get to really experience the wonder of discovery. To experience the life of something from the more mysterious reaches of our reality being bodied forth in material form and getting to be a part of its birth and lineage in some way is sacred.

Life in its tender and severe ways trains the imagination to expand. This is why creators who have adhered to this ancient model of creativity—the notion of a vessel being filled and emptied—are so attractive to me.

My artworks typically aren’t illustrative of a particular experience but instead are refractive. Beauty is not static; it’s strange, other, dynamic, and ultimately interior. It can be experienced by every person, but it insists on a kind of specificity in the way in which it’s received.

It’s kind of like a Chinese whisper. Beauty travels through the person and the other person interprets it in a new way... 

Definitely. It means the spirit of beauty is so irreplaceably inventive and fecund that every time it’s perceived, it shape-shifts. You look at the world and its microcosms and macrocosms and the mind-blowing beauty of the natural universe and wild genius expressed in the fractal patterns that inhabit physical reality and you realise we only observe a tiny fragment of the whole.

How do you prepare yourself for these artistic devotional experiences? How would you differentiate the methodological approach itself from contemporary art creativity?

Meditation within artistic practice in a weird way is modelled after spiritual devotional practice in offering all of one’s faculties to a presence and force. But to create and engage in that process is an ongoing and quite determined conversation—it’s not random. It’s as Pasteur said, “chance favours only the prepared mind.” Courting inspiration may be a different sort of practice, but it is indeed a practice. The kind of creativity that interests me is that which arouses from deep silence and holistic listening. It occurs as a revelation of sorts. I find this revelatory sensation fascinating. It’s an intensive process.

Would you liken it to a sense of rebirth? Seeing the world in a new way each time you come out of the meditative art process?

When you lose your egotistic specificity, you’re still a person. When so many masks that are thought to be ‘signifiers’ of our true selves fall away, we’re still uniquely ourselves but connected to something larger. It’s like returning to being a child and resting in the presence of this great mother. You’re completely nude. All the veils of persona fall away and you get to bask in the beauty of a deepened sense of your humanity.

I experience radiant visions in my mind’s eye when I meditate deeply, and these visions have provided me a great deal of inspiration as an artist. One intriguing thing I’ve noticed is that I cannot inhabit this creatively inspiring meditative space with a transactional mentality. A transactional intentionality would never enable me to even enter that place. When I go there, I go to that meditative place, I go there to bask in that sweet and mysterious presence. Quite naturally, the luminous visions eventually appear, but I’ve noticed the moment I become enamoured with them, they go away. It’s quite telling. Ironically, my deepest gaze (the gaze of my intention) unfurls with those blazing creative flourishes only when it is centred on something else entirely.

The state of consciousness that I must hold in order for the visions to appear is one of tender, blissful devotion. The dignity of the human being is located in this deepened and concentrated presence that can become the portal for transformation. I think of all of the oppression of the wild characteristics that make us inconvenient social subjects and it’s those very things we must pay attention to. Those untamed aspects of ourselves are the very essence of life. Those are the keys that unlock the joy of life and its wonder.

Can you tell us of an example of a significant vision/dream you’ve had?

In dreams where there is a communion with nature itself and some kind of elemental presence within nature, water often finds its way to me. I find myself plunging into the deep sea. I’ve had a vision of my soul that has been recurring. It appears to me as a supernatural male being partially submerged in the water, from the waist down he is the sea. He invites me in to the deep end of him. There is incredible silver moonlight illuminating everything but no clear source of light. I’ve taken the source of light to be this very being. He pointed to the deep end of the sea and said, ‘it’s easy to wash up on the shore but the challenge is to go there’ pointing to the dark, unknown depths of the ocean.

Can you talk about your research with Goldsmiths and Queen Mary?

One of the things I feel passionate about is that art should not be subverted to philosophical materialism and used as a decorative device. Art is a form of dynamic and integrative intelligence—the intelligence of sensation. Art offers a special kind of metaphorical knowledge which can expand the scope of our experience.

I draw many parallels between the neuroscience lab and the kinds of caves that mystics and sages have frequented for millennia. These are radically different settings but I’m able to explore the same lineage of ideas in both places: What is the nature of visual perception? How are darkness and light indelibly linked? How might we excavate the most delicate and liminal aspects of sensory perception for the post-scientific revolution mindset? The lab is similar to a Himalayan dark cave in that it thrives on sensory deprivation and extreme conceptual restraint.

Professors Joy Deep Bhattacharya (of Goldsmiths, University of London) and Caroline di Bernardi Luft (of Queen Mary, University of London) both specialise in the neuroscience of creativity and found co-explorers in one another. They found in me a subject whose methodology allows her to systematically tap into inspiration. I approached them with the concept for generating a scientific language for super-conscious visual perception. Together, we have created a discourse validated by rigorous research around the phenomenon of mystic vision in neuroscience. That was five years ago, and the journey still continues!

In February, we published our first set of findings in Frontiers, the most cited journal in psychology. It’s a great victory. It took us nearly two years to find a reputable publication that would even touch this wild, subjectively-led research. Because our research is genuinely collaborated and co-designed, our discoveries defy the hierarchies within current science. It has been a fruitful process that has led us on to unmapped territory in the neuroscience of light. Before this research began, I instinctively felt I could create robust language around ‘feminized’ ideas of mystical encounters of intuition, insight and vision to demonstrate they possess substance and great sophistication.

We’re currently looking at how gamma wave activity is translated into physical artwork. It relates somewhat to my artistic process of meditation drawings, and I’m enacting this process now in the lab. We’re monitoring these visions when they happen with questions like: Is there a time lapse? Is my perception being affected by my environment? If so, how? Are the variables actually altering my perception? Is this process altering my perception of time?

In the monitoring process we ask: Where does this creativity come from? How is it manifested, and what conditions might enhance it? These are ambitious inquiries, admittedly. If we could illuminate this to even a small degree, we may be able to tap into some of the greatest creative potential of humanity.

We’ve embarked on a process of devising viable language around the perception of light within the mind’s eye. These phenomena have historically been considered to be too subjective to analyse scientifically, but now our ability to identify neurobiological correlates for these experiences have allowed us, for the first time, to seriously consider them in a rational framework.

Where do you want this research to go? What change do you want to see it make?

In incorporating neuroscience into my exploration of light, I wanted to engage the current ‘arbitrator’ of truth in a way that rigorously subverts the hierarchical structure that governs what we consider as knowledge. I suppose this is my training in feminist theory bubbling up.

It’s critical that we excavate more embodied forms of knowledge that have been subordinated and give them space to be talked about seriously.  Female-generated knowledge often exists in a more integrative, conceptual space that incorporates the body and intuition. Unfortunately, these kinds of experiential forms of knowing have been classified as romantic and have been altogether disqualified as knowledge.

My path has taken me through a deep engagement with academia and it’s absolutely fascinating to observe the gendered politics of policing what is considered ‘viable knowledge.’  How exclusionary the current perimeter of knowledge is to very particular forms of intellectual introspection that have to do with qualitative processes, intuition, and bodily intelligence of sensation. This is a whole field to be explored. It’s perhaps the most intriguing mode of knowing and experiencing the world, because it relies on synthesis.

My work is purposed on showing how vital these ways of knowing are. With some help from some adventurous scientists, I hope to recast them as access points of interdimensional knowledge.