New Desert Myths

“A man in a desert can hold absence in his cupped hands knowing it is something that feeds him more than water”.

                                                                                                                       Michael Ondaatje

“The desert, after all, is never deserted, people live there eternally.”

                                                                                                                      Andrey Platonov

“Water cleanses the body and the desert cleanses the soul”

                                                                                                                      Ibrahim al-Koni

 "A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral".

                                                                                                                       Antoine de Saint Exupéry 

 

Our perceptions of desert often come to us encoded with the idea of it as a waste land, a relentless vastness where life is not only absent but negated - a convenient metaphor perhaps for our fear of separation from all that is life-sustaining. Yet paradoxically this fear is often sublimated in the counterpoised idea of desert as an amplifier of our personal existential journey, a place to both lose and find ourselves.

Desert, in its slow procession from rock to sand and back again to rock, has over the eons erected and eroded countless rock simulacra - stone totems that can be regarded as ‘deities’, some perhaps venerated by our early hunter gatherer ancestors. They have left us moving petroglyphs of the hunt across once sylvan savannahs, the husbandry of cattle, depictions of their gods and the simple imprint of a hand. These archaic tableaux, suffused with an aura of ritual magic, belie the desert as a perpetual pristine void and instead insist upon it as the scene of unknowable dramas, lost histories and myths. These mysterious images may also be our distant ancestors’ earliest expressions of the numinous.

Hinting at these ideas, New Desert Myths attempts to bring a human perspective to the otherwise raw mineral landscape. Many of the images contain discrete human elements therefore; full figures, shadows and hand prints made in situ, all using purely photographic techniques.

Despite the popular image of desert as a sea of dunes, this topography accounts for only 10-15 percent of the whole, yet it dominates the present day iconography and mythology of desert to the almost total exclusion of its remaining rocky landforms. It is predominantly these other, overlooked features that are the prime focus of New Desert Myths because of the way they are powerfully imprinted on our minds: monoliths, caves, balanced rocks, arches, anticlines, ridges and escarpments, even rivers and lakes - each with their own symbologies, forms which speak of elemental interventions and hidden narratives.

Another current running through New Desert Myths is anthropological, influenced in part by the possibly mind-developing aspect of Upper Palaeolithic art, and the realm of magic to which it links us back. Certainly, the appearance of art at this time suggests an awakening in early man that required expression. One current thread of academic consensus supports the idea that these early peoples may have thought of the rock surface as a ‘membrane’ that separated them from the spirit world, a realm perhaps made accessible to them in an altered state of consciousness. A few of the pictures attempt to echo this notion. For example, one image shows a frieze of hands on a cave wall (NDM8), in another, the shadow of a hand falls across a boulder, and in yet another, a hand appears beside an inscrutable Tifinagh inscription. The placing of hands upon rock, whether painted, or in negative form, was a widespread practice across many primal cultures, performed with calibrated intent at sometimes difficult locations. And it is therefore here, in this somewhat fugitive concept of intent, where the images are designed to elicit from the viewer, a diffuse range of musings and associations