Dark Gods in the Wilderness of Spirit

Meditations on the art of Viona ielegems
by Dana Sawyer, Professor or Religion and Philosophy, Maine College of Art, USA

Have we lost the ability to dream? Today we live in a world scrubbed clean of passion and meaning. Our sciences, so powerful in their own domains, have greedily reached beyond their provinces to colonize the arts and humanities, seeking to eliminate all worlds and endeavors that speak of mystery or cosmic purpose, replacing them with quantifiable worlds of weight, length and duration. Unfortunately, too many people, even in our universities, have fallen (in the Biblical sense) into the belief that what can not be quantified must not truly exist, including such things as God(s), Beauty, and Love. Reducing human existence only to what can be measured, zombies of this zeitgeist have fallen prey to the cynicism and decadence that follows. Looking at the modern world, E.F. Schumacher once observed that we now live in a “disqualified universe” where science, acting as the killing jar of beauty, has traded quality of spirit for quantities of superficial pleasure. But, and here is the good news, we don’t have to stay in this limited view, and on some level of our being, we know it. There is more to us than our materialistic outlook can contain, and we have grown restless to touch that something more, that something beyond.

Moving from the contractual daylight of our everyday lives into the twilight realm of things that can’t and won’t be quantified, we see that we don’t have to live in the wasteland to which we had exiled ourselves. We CAN hope again. We can dream again. Because many things that we had believed do not exist are simply phenomena that can’t be seen through the lens of science. In the art of Viona ielegems, I find a confirmation of this fact. She seems to have grown tired of the boring work-a-day world that surrounds us, and the humdrum of postmodernism’s incessant tendency to conceptualize everything in logical terms. In her lush imagery and careful craftsmanship, we find a return to a world that is fecund with meaning, beauty, purpose, and mystery, a world of dreams and hopes that challenges us to awaken to the deeper voices within us.

Viona’s artwork is often compared to that of the Pre-Raphaelites and other romantics of the 19th century, and that is certainly a correct observation, for it has much of the same imagery, sensibility and purpose. However, this does mean, as some might suppose, that her work is therefore out of date, or that she isn’t saying anything new. Beauty is never out of date. In fact, Beauty is timeless. And to my own mind this is because Beauty leads us to the Timelessness at the core of our own soul, and how could that ever be out of date? Furthermore, like the wizards and witches of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, or the vampires of the Twilight novels, Viona’s photographs intrigue us because they suggest that we don’t have to remain a “muggle” or a non-vampire if we don’t wish to. We are beings who can embrace our higher and more complex natures, freeing ourselves from the boundaries of believing that our fate is to be wage slaves, cynics, consumers, or any other sort of zombie.

Many people today seem to believe that romanticism ran out of gas, or had nothing to say, or became so superficial that it was little more than a distraction from the real world, an escape into fairyland. But nothing is further from the truth. This is a mischaracterization of romanticism based on a corrupted view of its goals. It was at times child-like in its content and purpose but it was never childish. Romanticism was about awakening us to the metaphysical and transpersonal aspects of what we are, using symbols, metaphors and allegories as tools to reach beyond the rational mind to the soul itself. It was, at times, a non-rational movement but that is not to say that it was irrational. Romanticism appealed to the imagination, believing that the imagination is superior to the rational mind when we’re going after the deepest insights. From a purely rational perspective, romanticism was more interested in celebrating the mysteries of life than it was in solving them. Sometimes we have to let other aspects of what we are come out to play if we truly wish to understand. In short, the romantics didn’t believe that it always makes sense to always make sense! And Viona seems to agree with that. Her imagery is filled with metaphor, not unlike the work of other contemporary romantics (Terry Gilliam, Guillermo del Toro, and Tim Burton come to mind), and she uses it to call to aspects of what we are that transcend the linear mind.

Those who would judge Viona’s work as overly sentimental, childish, or too escapist in content simply don’t understand it, or lack the capacity to be moved by it. As with Burton, del Toro and Gilliam, she brings to life a world in resonance with the Jungian archetypes of the collective unconscious. She speaks a symbolic language that elicits voices from deep within us, urging us to live in a world where the laws of science simply do not apply and the mystery of life must be re-embraced. Figures from another world are placed before us, the images acting as doorways into the worlds of those figures, and as a mirror of the archetypal world within each of us. Viona shows us fairyland – a wilderness inside our unconscious minds, with all its beauty, mystery, and the terror of Nietzsche’s “dark gods”. It is NOT a superficial or silly world; it is a dangerous world of light and dark, of temptation, seduction and power, that must be navigated carefully, thoughtfully, and passionately, for so much is at stake. Like the prince in Lord Dunsany’s The Elf King’s Daughter, or the knight in Keat’s La Belle Dame sans Merci, we find that fairyland is not a playground for fools or dilatants; it is a liminal region inside our hearts and minds where drastic and uncompromising changes are not only possible but supremely worthwhile, though our demons, if we’re not careful, could also take possession of us there. Things must be risked if we are ever to grow, and so the adventure is an adventure indeed. But, personally, I think the risks are worthwhile; at least, if we approach the journey seriously and with an open heart. So if you’re willing, and if you have the courage, let Viona guide you into fairyland. Each of her images is a passport to other worlds. But (and this is important to remember) pack your bags carefully.

“Oh how I wish
For soothing rain
All I wish is to dream again
My loving heart
Lost in the dark
For hope I’d give my everything.”

From the song “Nemo” by Nightwish