Mind Tapas

Small Plates of Healing and Ideas

Birds of Transformation

What does art have to do with transformation?

It might be argued that people seek out therapy for one reason and one reason alone. For transformation. For change. Like a chemical change that makes it impossible to return to one's original state.

A major function of art healing, the transformative function, is concerned with transformation occurring on multiple levels. A physical reconfiguration occurs where the metallic form of an original sculpture becomes melted down, on purpose by the artist, and is recast as something altogether different. The original form continues to exist as a kind of idea embedded within the brand new sculpture, just as the new you that emerges from the work of therapy is formed by shadows of your former self, deeply embedded in you but no longer active or obvious.

The transformative function calls on you to borrow for your own purposes the energy of artworks embodying change or metamorphosis. At a recent exhibit at New York's Museum of Arts and Design a pair of works by Jochem Hendricks, HANSI, 2002-4 and BUBI, 2002-4, inspires the transformative function. Picture this: you are faced with two tiny amber-colored gemstones, each resting on a black display pillow, each surrounded by a thick wreath of small bird feathers-one blue and one yellow--and each enclosed in a transparent cube for viewing, each cube supported by a pedestal column standing in an art gallery. Now on first blush, this appears to be something unusual, but simple in its design and conception. You might think to yourself that this has an interesting look to it, and you might be tempted to move on. Unless, say, you were curious about the type of mineral that formed the stones. You might ask yourself, are these bits of amber? Or, is this a kind of diamond? And then, where would someone get all these bird feathers? Are they real? Could these birds have been killed for the purposes of creating this art?

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So by looking and so absorbing what you see in front of you, you will be moved to ask questions. And questions are your key to getting the most art seeking benefit for your time spent in a gallery or museum. Once you've had enough time to take in the physical form and visual arrangement of objects before you, you might have lingering questions. Then it makes sense to read the accompanying information-the wall text or exhibition catalog. (Just as a side note: in most cases of your art seeking adventures bending over to read wall text will likely not play a principal role. However, with works that involve transformation owing to complex processes, not readily apparent from the objects or forms themselves, getting this extra information will be critical to your understanding and optimizing your emotional benefit.) In this example the information gained from reading this text is invaluable to your art healing. You learn a lot from this text and I will quote the entire couple paragraphs here:

"Hansi and Bubi were budgerigars, one blue, the other green. The birds have been transformed by two former Soviet research institutes into diamonds. The bodies of the birds were first transformed into carbon. The carbon was then made into ultra-pure graphite, and out of the graphite a synthesized diamond was created. The stones were preserved as rough diamonds, as they were formed, and were not cut or sanded.

"The research for an adequate institute-both on site in Eastern Europe and from the artist's studio-were both difficult and adventurous for the artist. No official collaboration was possible. Parallel to his research, Hendricks, after having overcome strong reservations, collected dead birds in the desired colors from bird breeders. He then plucked them and conserved the feathers. The dead bodies were then carried-by a sort of courier system-into Eastern Europe and brought to the institutes. While Hendricks was occasionally on site during the execution of the work, he also has others looking after the project. These people protected him during his stay. Precaution was necessary within these countries."

(from Dead or Alive, David Revere McFadden and Lowery Stokes Sims, Museum of Arts and Design, New York, 2010)

So now we have a story that deepens our experience of this work. No longer is it merely a couple of fluffy feather rings around tiny dirty diamonds. Now it has a history, an explanation, and even a backstory of the artist and the ill-defined danger associated with his skulking about in Eastern Europe. But the key for us remains the transformation of living birds--birds that had names and so we can presume were pets--to diamonds of pure carbon.


When you stare at the same work of art now that you know more about these objects as the end result of a remarkable transformation, what does that do to you? What do you feel? Does your intellectual sense of the work's symbolism commingle with a breathless sensation of its creepiness? Perhaps HANS and BUBI speak to you about the impossibility of preserving love. Maybe could be a jumping off point for consideration of how you might renew yourself, creating diamonds from the substrate of particular imperfections or wounds. Maybe you solidify a commitment to yourself for taking chances on new ways of being, for greater health.

Then again, the details of how a particular work embodies transformation may emerge less important than simply being faced with an overarching notion of change. It could be that you do not connect with this work of art which you might find, say, strange or odd or distasteful. No matter. But if this matches your sentiments, still, before walking away from this work forever, you might ask yourself if you are any closer to understanding what change in general might feel like. Spending time with the idea of change or renewal may be just enough to get you moving in the right direction.

The transformative function is the most alchemical, inviting a deep merging with an artwork that encourages you to broaden your perspective and alter your internal dynamics in such a way that you will never again be exactly the same person as before interacting with it. Using such art as catalyst might result in a breaking free from destructive behavior patterns or a major overhaul of parts of your personality.

For a fuller description of all six functions of art healing, please refer to this recent article at The Ultimate Stress Blog: http://www.deepermeditation.net/stressadviceblog/archives/art-seeking-merging-with-artwork-to-alleviate-stress.html

Please tell me and the other readers what you think. Are there any works of art that embody transformation that have moved you to change for the better, even in subtle ways? I know that I and others would enjoy reading about your experiences.

Happy Art Healing!





Jeremy Spiegel, M.D. is a psychiatrist and medical director of Casco Bay Medical, with offices in Greater Boston, Massachusetts and Portland, Maine.


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