Essay: On Materiality and Source
The first time I was given the word “material” in relation to art was from my mother. She was talking to me about writing, fiction writing in particular, and how as a writer one might use the art form also to help one weather life’s hardships a little better: when bad things occurred, at least you could chalk it up as “material” to use for writing later on.
So maybe my first lesson was that “material” is collected by/in the body, but it needs memory - and mind - to truly ignite it. (And: a certain emotional distance from source/event is necessitated in this equation.)
Interestingly perhaps, the word “material” - in its relation to the word “matter” - shares lineage with the root for the word “mother” : mater : origin, source.
So, in working with our materials, in our endeavoring to hew something original with or through them, are we not also seeking some relation (or re-relation) to a source that once had the power to produce us?
We live, it is said, in a material age: an age of matter. A domination of the physical element. Some theories I’ve absorbed about this speak of it as an age of descent (which has its hardening consequences). Matter - which we are all made of - is subject to gravity: which pulls downward. Which compresses. Concretizes. Material-izes.
But the word “materialize” also has to it (for me) a slightly mystical quality—something material comes to be out of something or in a space of (previous) immateriality.
We all know well enough those threads of mythology that suggest matter must be ignited by another element: to become animate.
And, what is this other element?
It is usually something we cannot enclose our fingers around. But can certainly feel: its volatility; its flammability.
For years I worked with language—written words—as my foremost material. And I infused this material with the summoning-force of memory, with recalled and imagined sensations, observations.
The word “material” is cousin also to words like “matrix” and “matrimony” : that is, actions of pulling together into structures that bond, or bind.
Containers. Are made out of materials.
The matrix, or matrimony, of words as my sole material began after awhile to be too binding. Insufficiently concretizing.
I learned then that the element that infuses material can also detach from it, and seek alchemy through other materials, can seek relation to other portals of entry. Other means of materialization.
And perhaps (like marriages) our creative matrimonies also call for continual reorienting - continual attention - to the relationships between elements.
Let’s return to a contemplation of source.
Once I took a singing workshop with the artist Dohee Lee. In her teaching, which is based in Korean shamanism and music, she speaks about the “singing body.” The source of the singing body, she says, is a red dot located in the sacrum, in the root chakra of the body. (This image stands also as a metaphor for the importance of connecting with one’s ancestors in order to access the power of one’s voice.) Specifically: in her workshop Dohee describes a visualization in which you imagine a line connecting the red dot in the sacrum, to the energy of the voice as it moves upward through the body. Singing in the higher register involves something called the “head voice”—and Dohee counsels about how when you enter the head voice there is, literally and figuratively, now more distance between the voice and its source in the red dot: hence you must work even harder, in this type of movement, to maintain connection.
As we involve ourselves deeper and more expansively in our ventures with and through materiality, I wonder how / what will be our connection to (whatever may be) our source?
2019 MFA Spring Festival, Univ. of Washington Bothell
Dao Strom is the author of a bilingual poetry/art book, You Will Always Be Someone From Somewhere Else (Ajar Press, 2018), which was a finalist for the 2019 Firecracker Award in Poetry; an experimental memoir, We Were Meant To Be a Gentle People + music album East/West (2015), and two books of fiction, The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys (2006) and Grass Roof, Tin Roof (2003). Her work has received support from the Creative Capital Foundation, NEA, RACC, Precipice Fund, Oregon Arts Commission, and others. She is the editor of diaCRITICS and co-founder of the arts collective project She Who Has No Master(s).