This ember state: Artistic Process
Essay by artist Samita Sinha
Describe your project, the research that informed the work, and how the concept evolved through the project’s development.
In This ember state I investigated the root of the human voice, of how the body generates sound. I discovered tremendous knowledge and power in the pelvis and sexual organs—a connection to big water, a sense of the infinite beyond the limits of what we conceive to be “knowing.” Wound together with this elemental power is all that the body has been taught—social mores, and the invisible weight of unarticulated experiences transmitted through generations. I wanted to touch this tangle of cosmic power and social history as known by the body.
I used myth as a vehicle—the myth of Sati, the Hindu goddess who sets herself on fire in an act of self-sacrifice for what she believes is true, and for what she loves. As the myth was absorbed into society, Sati became the dutiful wife who self-immolated for her husband. Holding her calcified body, Shiva dances an earth-shaking dance of grief that ends only when the gods intervene, hurling a metal disk to cut Sati’s body up into pieces. The last piece to fall is her ashen vulva. I used these very potent images, actions, and symbols from the myth as inspiration to create a work that traveled through the psychic landscape of this elemental power, and layers of its complex history, via the human voice.
Describe the artistic process to create the work, including how you worked with your collaborators.
Asia Society generously offered several site possibilities for this work. I chose the intimacy and blankness of a small gallery, in continuum with the landing outside, where heads of ancient Buddha statues were exhibited. In one early discussion, Rachel Cooper and I spoke about secret languages of women and how private and public space are manifested in different architectures. I knew then that the relationship between inside and outside would be key to This ember state. I composed the sonic journey of This ember state to begin with recitation of the Hindi/Sanskrit alphabet, which travels from the back of the tongue and palate to the lips, each letter differently activating the body’s energy.
My collaborator Cenk Ergun (composition, performance, and sound design) and I chose sounds for the incredible instrument he built, which simply, and with great complexity, alters the pitch, time, and density of whatever you put into it—in this case my voice. Stationed on the landing, Cenk manipulated and choreographed—moved—layers of sound (the alphabet I sung, my breath, bells) between the gallery where the performance took place and the larger building beyond. At the same time, I worked with Dean Moss (co-direction and visual design) to arrive at the physical material and image gestures for the work, to compose the space, and to consider audience experience. The myth was distilled to a mound of charcoal piled in one corner of the gallery, which I would activate with my body, and which would leave traces. After working this way, solo and in separate pods, we came together as a team for a crucial residency in August 2017, 8 months before the premiere, to build the work on site.
How has creating the work commissioned by Asia Society impacted you as an artist? Will the experience have an effect on your work in the future?
This ember state was an essential work. Through it, I followed my questions to essential places in flesh and in spirit—the voice uniquely receives and gives form to information in both realms simultaneously. I took great risk in exposing what I discovered and felt to be true and in doing so expanded trust in myself and in the cosmos that contains me and which I contain. Over the course of the several intimate performances, which were at times quite trying, something was freed, and I was profoundly changed. The piece was a necessary act of transformation for both myself and what I carry: multitudes of women and so many other kinds of creatures! Touching this incredible root of both power and pain, and staying within that root, has opened new channels and possibilities that I am in the process of discovering and shaping.