The Lingam at The Know Show
Installation view of The Know Show at Swampspace, Miami Design District.
A sand covered Styrofoam sculpture currently on view at Swampspace in Miami’s Design District transcends it’s obvious phallic aspect for a couple of simple reasons that dovetail with it’s righteous simplicity.
The work is a collaborative effort by the un-gallery owner, show’s curator, artist, blogger, and art fabricator to the stars, Oliver Sanchez and his daughter Lulu, but while it is part of ‘The Know Show’, for this observer who first sneak-peeked the sculpture through the locked glass doors before the show opened, it stood out like (and could even be said to resemble) the proverbial sore thumb.
The way the shape sweeps up from the floor tapering into a gentle ellipse, curving logically back out again and then rounding out at the top, creates a sweeping form that seems to have been patted into shape on a beach, or made out of snow somewhere up North.
The sand-skin reinforces the sense that the piece was patted into shape even though it’s made of sections of styro-foam that were probably rough cut and then smoothed with shaping/cutting tools.
It’s such a simple, even primal shape that it ‘s surprising that something so fundamental can still emerge in our all encompassing contemporary art industry.
Left: A Lingam. Right: Shiva and his wife.
Aside from steles, which often bear inscriptions and are variations on a more geometric shape, (like the one in Kubrick’s ‘2001, A Space Odyssey’), Sanchez’ shape recalls the ancient Vedic/ Hindu monument of worship called the Lingam, which by most accounts is said to represent the penis of Shiva, Hindu Deity of life, power and destruction.
Sexual symbolism: neckties and handbags, rocket ships and missiles, the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, (a kind of national vagina violated so outrageously by the Nazi’s who marched through it ), and the Washington Monument, our own national paternal virility symbol, to name a few, surround us and affirm the power and fundamental significance of sexual expression.
Jung and Freud may not often be considered to have parallel ideas, but in ‘Civilization and it’s Discontents’, Freud makes the case that civilizations are built up and based on social control over the completely subversive nature of human’s sex drive.
Meanwhile Jung points out the importance of symbols and archetypes that reappear over and over; often sex based, or ones who’s power and social significance is based in sexually-related constructs like the mother archetype. Or the Demon, who’s destructive power carries strong male sexual references.
What’s interesting about this is that, not unlike the Westerners who often try to downplay or deny the sexual references of the story of Adam and Eve, where serpents, apples and temptation all result in something naughty and forbidden take place, there are no small number of people in Hindu culture who try to steer away from the sexual origins and obvious sexual references therein.
Carved wooden Lingam’s. Image courtesy Wikimedia.org
Awakening dormant aspects of the divine. Image courtesy Puja.net
Oh well, sexual expression still seems degrading and deniable to some people; and maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that this would come up in religion: isn’t religion the original social construct of social (and therefore sexual) control? But engagement with the centrality of sexual expression doesn’t mean (at least to this observer) that acknowledging the power of sex means placing Freud above Jung. On the contrary, the idea that symbols are properly as powerful as what they represent seems as it should be, and as Jung, the modern defender of the soul, would seem to have it too.
The high-density black granite stone Lingam in The Dome of the Dhyanalinga. Image courtesy Dhyanalinga.org.
Accounts of private aspects of the lives of both Gandhi and Martin Luther King would seem to confirm that a sensuous nature and a life based on spiritual principles are neither contradictory nor mutually exclusive. As one photo of a Lingam shows, and as the text describes, the Lingam is typically accompanied by a Avudaiyar (base) through which water, a cooler fluid element to balance it’s unyielding and heated aspect, flows. The water is also said to represent Shiva’s seed. In Sanchez’ piece, tiny seashells and toy figures are spread around the base in what seems to be a variant of this fluid aspect.
Sanchez’ piece at The Know Show.
Stumbling upon this contemporary Lingam-like sculpture seemed a validation of the idea of the endurance of ancient symbols, and a worthwhile reminder of things past and ancient in a time when we seem to need to re define and re construct a few things.
The following is a text that explains the origin of the Lingam in Hindu / Vedic Mythology:
‘renowned sage Bhrigu once ventured to the abode of Lord Shiva, wanting to consult him on an important spiritual matter. On reaching, he knocked the door of Shiva’s residence. There was no reply. He knocked again, this time a little louder. No avail. The knocking turned to pounding and then to a desperate beating. Finally Shiva emerged, taking his own time. He had his wife Parvati on his left arm.
Obviously, the Great Lord had thought it fit to first complete his lovemaking with the goddess, rather than immediately divert his attention to the venerated ascetic. Incensed at the treatment meted out to him, the sage cursed Shiva that henceforth, since he was so fond of making love, he would be worshipped in the image of his organ of generation, rather than his anthropomorphic representation. Thus, to this day, Shiva is worshipped in the form of the male organ of procreation, often alone, and frequently conjoined with the corresponding female organ, which is sculpted as a receptacle to receive Shiva’s seed.
This representation of Shiva is known as the lingam. The word lingam literally means a ‘sign’ or distinguishing mark. Thus says the Linga Purana: “The distinctive sign by which one can recognize the nature of something is called lingam.”
There are variations on the birth of this symbol of Lord Shiva, some of which ascribe an esoteric and abstract origin to it. For example when Shiva is visualized as the intangible primordial Creative Power, the lingam is said to be his sign (symbol) which can be worshipped by his followers, who require a concrete entity to focus their prayers on. This stream of thought however does not negate the phallic connotations of the lingam. Its literal meaning as a distinguishing mark links these two interpretations. Consider a newborn male child. What is the sign which distinguishes its sex?
Thus, the phallus is the lingam, the symbol of Shiva’s manhood, and of which the human organ is just a microcosmic reflection.
(1)Ramakrishna practiced Jivanta-linga-puja, or “worship of the living lingam”. At the Paris Congress of the History of Religions in 1900, Ramakrishna’s follower Swami Vivekananda argued that the Shiva-Linga had its origin in the idea of the Yupa-Stambha or Skambha—the sacrificial post, idealized in Vedic ritual as the symbol of the Eternal Brahman. This was in response to a paper read by Gustav Oppert, a German Orientalist, who traced the origin of the Shalagrama-Shila and the Shiva-Linga to phallicism. According to Vivekananda, the explanation of the Shalagrama-Shila as a phallic emblem was an imaginary invention. Vivekananda argued that the explanation of the Shiva-Linga as a phallic emblem was brought forward by the most thoughtless, and was forthcoming in India in her most degraded times, those of the downfall of Buddhism.
According to Swami Sivananda, the view that the Shiva Lingam represents the phallus is a mistake; The same sentiments have also been expressed by H. H. Wilson in 1840. The novelist Christopher Isherwood also addresses the interpretation of the linga as a sex symbol. The Britannica encyclopedia entry on lingam also notes that the lingam is not considered to be a phallic symbol;
Wendy Doniger, an American scholar of the history of religions, states:
For Hindus, the phallus in the background, the archetype (if I may use the word in its Eliadean, indeed Bastianian, and non-Jungian sense) of which their own penises are manifestations, is the phallus (called the lingam) of the god Siva, who inherits much of the mythology of Indra (O’Flaherty, 1973). The lingam appeared, separate from the body of Siva, on several occasions… On each of these occasions, Sivas wrath was appeased when gods and humans promised to worship his lingam forever after, which, in India they still do. Hindus, for instance, will argue that the lingam has nothing whatsoever to do with the male sexual organ, an assertion blatantly contradicted by the material.
David Rohn at The Know Show. Image courtesy of Swampspace.
This post was contributed by David Rohn.