Earthworms, termites, women, mollusks and sandalwood

How can feminist art historians unearth, excavate, reconsider and recontextualise the non-canonised, quasi-mystical practices of female and other-than-human artists.

by Rosalyn D`MelloPublished on : Aug 21, 2021

I haven’t yet been able to crack the tonal mystery behind why the title of the composer, Pauline Oliveros’ poem, The Earth Worm Also Sings, sits so easily within my consciousness. I don’t know if it bears an aural resonance with something already nestled in my brain. Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings comes immediately to mind, but it doesn’t explain why the empathic ‘also’ feels both pronounced and familiar. Oliveros’ poem was published in 1993 in Leonardo Music Journal, having emerged as a response to a paper given by Joachim-Ernst Berendt at a Glenn Gould Conference on Music and Technology in September 1992 in Toronto, Canada I Hear Therefore I am: Listening in the Twenty-First Century. I arrived at the threshold of this poem by Oliveros through a citation in a poem by Michael Swaine that was part of a book I was recently proofreading, which had been accompanied by illustrations from Charles Darwin’s controversial 1881 manuscript, The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms, more popularly known as The Habits of Worms. Through his experimentation and observations, Darwin had concluded the following: “It may be doubted if there are any other animals which have played such an important part in the history of the world as these lowly organised creatures.”

An earthworm casting from the Nilgiri Mountain in South India, a plate in Charles Darwin: The formation of vegetable mould, through the action of worms, with observations of their habits | STIRworld
An earthworm casting from the Nilgiri Mountain in South India, a plate in Charles Darwin: The formation of vegetable mould, through the action of worms, with observations of their habits Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

For the scientific community at the time, Darwin’s findings were colossal and earth-shattering. But the feminist in me often wonders if he had only managed to empirically prove what most indigenous cultures and women had always known through their farming, gardening and composting practices, facts that already existed, in some measure, in oral, non-western, and other non-mainstream religious cultures. It reminded me of some of the insights I had gained from a paper I was once asked to peer review for a journal called Art History that was titled “Picture-Rhythms of Mixing Rivers, Termite Hills, and the Repeating Earth in India, circa 1800: How do you picture rhythm,” focussed on how, in western India, at the turn of the 19th century, artists visualised the notation of a tala (a cycle of beats). The author of the paper, who remains anonymous to me, was suggesting that while other aspects of Indian classical music, such as scale and raga, had been pictured consistently since the 15th century, as well as art forms dependent on rhythm, such as dance, since even longer before, “the steady beat underneath these melodic or bodily ornamentations had not.” The essay interrogated why rhythm was being pictured at that moment in time; what were the art historical references being used in the absence of precedence, and finally, how did the artists arrive at temporality, using nuances as varied as metrical rhythm, a person’s mental activity, an animal’s gait, and the waxing and waning of the moon. The most spectacular part of the essay, for me, was the discussion on the figuration of termite hills accompanied by a serpent in order to evocatively depict rhythm, which was built on well-documented mythologies around anthills and termite hills in South India. In one watercolour illustration titled Mandarachal tala, the author, in the endnotes, remarks upon how the five-headed serpent wrapped around an orange lingam-shaped termite hill denotes 15 half-counts (drut), followed by a two-count guru, and seven three-count plutas, ‘essentially fast beats followed by a slow then slower one.’ “Without any other clues, one can imagine how this rhythm replicates the quick repetitive knocking of termites’ heads on the walls of their hill, which then slow and pick up again…” I learned, from this essay, that termites allegedly always build their mounds angled or titled towards the sun. Lisa Margonelli, author of Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology, who is cited in the essay, wrote marvellously about this orientational strategy, “as if the termite has computed its own position in the solar system, relative to Earth’s latitude, in mud.”

An illustration of an earthworm casting in Charles Darwin: The formation of vegetable mould, through the action of worms, with observations of their habits | STIRworld
An illustration of an earthworm casting in Charles Darwin: The formation of vegetable mould, through the action of worms, with observations of their habits Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Oliveros’ poem places the earthworm’s activity of singing and burrowing at the heart of her ideological stance on deep listening and sonic meditations. I was magnetically drawn to the title also because of how elegantly it stands in opposition to human-ego-centric notions of performativity; for instance, the speciesist undertones of the beginning of an un-skippable ad that appeared recently on YouTube for a ‘masterclass’ by the celebrated writer, Salman Rusdhie. After the introductory, “We need stories. We need stories to understand ourselves,” Rushdie says something that sounds profound but is, in fact, quite banal. “We are the only creature that does this unusual thing. Telling each other stories in order to try and understand the kind of creature that we are.” I found this observation grounded in a form of superiority, a candid, off-hand, yet flagrant inability to imagine other forms of story-telling by other-than-human life forms. Oliveros’ poem, instead, is an ode to all the narrative energy that exists in the cosmos that can be experienced and encountered by cultivating a practice of deep listening. “Sound is the fibre of my being and of all sentient beings without exception,” she writes.

The earth is also sound
guided by sound
and so are all things of the earth

Rocks are her ears recording all of her events from the beginning
My earth body returns to hers
where the earth worm also sings
Inside/outside vibrations
My bones resonate
My stomach, spleen, liver, kidneys, lungs and heart resonate
These organs are sound
contain sound

The rhythms of my bodily life
encoded in the theater of my mother's womb
I listened from the beginning
universal process cellular language familiar to all sentient beings without exception

12 mins watch The difference between hearing and listening by Pauline Oliveros|TEDx Talks| STIRworld
The difference between hearing and listening by Pauline Oliveros Video: Courtesy of TEDx Talks

These days I have been thinking a lot about what it means, as a feminist art critic, to ‘listen to’ and excavate stories that were consciously kept outside of our range of hearing. How do we put our ears to non-cis-het-white-male ground to uncover alterity, to tune into frequencies that have been institutionally dismissed and discarded, cast off for not falling into male-prescribed norms of what art is supposed to look like, how it is supposed to function, and who is allowed to make it, show it, collect it. If even the definition of who gets to be an artist is now defined by the validation of an institutionalised education, how do we conceive of reparative re-considerations of female artistic and intellectual labour? Does it demand of us to completely transform our received understanding of who gets to call themselves an artist?

Chiara Vigo is the only living artist who knows the historical and ancient art of making sea silk | STIRworld
Chiara Vigo is the only living artist who knows the historical and ancient art of making sea silk Image: Courtesy of Rosalyn D’Mello

On a warm, humid early July afternoon, at the Museo del Bisso, in Sant'Antioco, Sardinia, thanks to a field trip organised by the Sardinian Film Commission, I encountered the fantastical Chiara Vigo, who said, determinedly, in Italian, that she didn’t consider herself an artist but a maestro, which reminded me of a quote I had come across attributed to Meera Mukherjee, who spent her life working with all manner of people who are not conventionally considered to be artists. Mukherjee preferred to call herself an artisan, not only as a gesture of solidarity, but because, according to her, an artist primarily aspires for recognition and status as an artist, while an artisan aspires to link life and art into one inseparable entity. This was the premise of Vigo’s lifework. Every year, on Spring full moon night, Vigo, now in her mid-60s, dives, possibly around up to 17 yards deep into a location off the coast of Sardinia that is home to giant mollusks (Pinna nobilis), which secrete a fibrous saliva in order to attach themselves to the seafloor. The secretions contain proteins, which harden into a silky filament upon touching sea water, called byssus. Vigo preciously fetches this hairy filament, retrieving it carefully without in any way endangering the mollusk. Which means she may have to dive in multiple times to gather about a single once, trimming the byssus from each bivalve with a tiny scalpel. She says a prayer before each dive, and strictly adhering to her sea oath prevents her, as a custodian of the tradition, inherited as a family secret kept by the women over at least 24 generations, from profiting off it financially. Sea silk may not be sold. As such, like many ancestrally practised female traditions, her art exists outside of capitalist networks that cater to demand and supply. Vigo sustains herself from whatever visitors leave in a box in her studio. She performs demonstrations of her entire process, thus engaging in a form of transparency about every detail relating to it, from how she cleans the fibres, sorting each strand manually, relying on a microscope, to how she spins it into a thread-like form, then dips it into a saline solution into which she chants a prayer. She insists that her sound intervention is what activates the molecular components of the organic solution, strengthening the thread, giving it its consistency and tension. She uses an old loom to weave, and while the warp is set into place, the weft, constituted by the silk thread she has spun which glints in the sunlight, is woven in by her using her fingernail. Throughout her performance of her process, she sings.

04 mins watch Living on the Sardinian coast, Chiara follows in her family’s footsteps as a master weaver—perhaps the last remaining on Earth | STIRworld
Living on the Sardinian coast, Chiara follows in her family’s footsteps as a master weaver—perhaps the last remaining on Earth Video: Courtesy of Great Big Story

Her practice is entrenched in embodied mysticism, much like Pauline Oliveros’ compositions were, or like Annapurna Devi, whose sensibilities were framed by the dissolution between performer and audience, in that what they produced through their acts of deep listening, were not meant for public consumption but were primarily private. There’s a story about how George Harrison had to appeal to Indira Gandhi to be allowed to listen to Annapurna Devi. Even then, he was only allowed to listen to her perform the surbahar at night, and from a distance. From all accounts, especially from Devi itself, it seems like it would have been the most mystical time to hear her, at night, when she did her riyaaz. “When I play at night once in a while I smell the sweetest seasonal flowers in this very room,” she had told Swapan Kumar Bondyopadhyay, who published a book titled Annapurna Devi—An Unheard Melody. “The smell comes and envelops me from nowhere. Once when I was playing, I saw the half-hidden face of a sweet woman draped in a white sari. She appeared again and again but not for once could I see her full face.” Annapurna Devi believed in the power invested in sound, in music. “Music has real power. It can bring the rains. It can put trees on fire. It can make cows give more milk…. If you have the power of the mind, if you can get your mind tuned peacefully to the eternal, you can do it.”

Chiara Vigo is the only living artist who knows the historical and ancient art of making sea silk | STIRworld
Chiara Vigo is the only living artist who knows the historical and ancient art of making sea silk Image: Courtesy of Rosalyn D’Mello

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