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El Otro Yo: una metáfora panamericana,1994


(The "Other Me" as a Panamerican Metaphor of Self-Transformation) 

San Ramón, Costa Rica, at the University of Costa Rica

For over twenty years I have sought to understand how various cultures have acted on the urge to visualize, to experience unusual states of consciousness and ultimately, how they fix and manifest insights gained from such quests, resulting in what we, often imprecisely, call art. I have entertained such interests to better understand my own urges and patterns of behavior. It has naturally led me to study traditional indigenous cultures as well as contemporary artistic and shamanic practices, petroglyphs and, most recently, indigenous groups through direct field research, such as I am doing now with my friend and colleague, ethnomusicologist Lic. Jorge Luis Acevedo. Insights gained from such studies have enriched and deepened my appreciation for the discipline of art, and have shown me its natural relatedness to other cultural and cognitive constructs, such as religion, anthropology, psychology, mythology and philosophy.


The significance of the ancient concept of the Otro Yo ( Alter Ego or Other Me), and what propels one to seek self-transformation is of primary importance in the mural. I had long wanted a chance to paint about this theme, and so was grateful for the free hand and trust afforded to me by the administration and art faculty of the University of Costa Rica in San Ramón. Without such trust I could not have proceeded in an improvisational manner appropriate to the issue at hand. The relationship between the mundane and spiritual realms, between a shaman and his or her animistic ally, is represented traditionally as a huge animal body, usually jaguar or serpent, towering over and encompassing a willing, usually ecstatic, shaman. This image configuration and spiritual idea is panamerican, though it is especially vivid in precolumbian imagery from Mexico, Isla Zapatera in Nicaragua, and Guanacaste. Noted Costa Rican archeologist Carlos Aguilar pointed out, after I had finished the mural, that such imagery is also found on the leg of a stone carved metate from San Ramón. The Otro Yo images from Isla Zapatera are larger stone forms which may have been used as architectural columns. Other transformative images in the historical record include zoomorphic and anthropomorphic figures, as well as single bodies with twin heads or multiple features on one face. One finds especially beautiful examples of such imagery in Costa Rican precolumbian gold objects and Mexican ceramics. Other manifestations of the transformative principle, many of which I employed in the mural, are the frog (often with with bifurcated serpent tongues), the Mesoamerica plumed serpent, and the Maya and Central American alligator deity.


But what relevance do these images have for us now, and how can we accept the notion that a human being, regardless of spiritual preparations, can in some literal sense become a jaguar or serpent, or can miraculously heal, fly, transport objects, and be in two places at the same time? Are these fantastic myths, collective fantasies, or merely metaphors for non-ordinary states of consciousness&emdash;or do they allude to something "magical" about which we know very little? Most assuredly, to accept the possibility of a flying shaman-jaguar requires a suspension of belief&emdash;one that we rational educated people find very hard to do. Is it possible to accept, without personal verification, the possibility of an expanded definition of consciousness, or does our rationality require us to deny that which we have no experience to verify?


These questions, I believe, describe a fundamental enigma which is impossible to solve intellectually without feeling foolish whichever side one chooses to adopt. To say yes, without really knowing through personal experience, that all of this is true is as unwarranted as saying that it is all just quaint superstition. I take the middle ground by choosing to suspend belief in order to be open to the sea of possibilities around us. I do so because I believe it is fundamental that artists&emdash;and indeed all creative thinkers&emdash;learn to do so, not to be gullible and silly, but to honestly admit that our description of reality is based on very limited and very filtered perceptions. To fish in the larger sea is, for me, the creative act that links true art and pure science.


The Otro Yo and the mythic image of twins are, for me as an artist, profound metaphors for the sense that creative and spiritual life is composed of recovering a functional relationship with the Other; an other which is paradoxically me and mine, and at the same time you and yours, both now and in the future. I believe the Otro Yo involves a temporary fusion of objective and subjective perception; what anthropologist Lévi-Strauss called participation mystique. I also believe such traditional indigenous imagery&emdash;at least in part&emdash;illustrates in mythic form what is experienced in moments of creative illumination; a sensation of rapture and tremendous power coming from behind and over the top of the head. Such phenomena are, obviously, not limited to shamans.


For me, this special kind of ecstasy is predicated on surrender, risk, and clear intent. In the mural I painted a moment of numinous contact between an ecstatic human and the tooth of the spiritual creature. Human figures are shown leaping or being suspended into the maw of a huge jaguar-serpent, through which I hope to convey the sensation of tremendous energy (some might call it grace) raining down and sanctifying a transformative moment. The leap is to indicate the requirement that the shaman&emdash;and, I argue, artist as well&emdash; consciously make him or herself available to the dangers of the unknown. Though contemporary artists cannot be shamans in the full social-cultural sense, the two share this singular dynamic. Moments of self-induced vulnerability are not self-sacrificial per se, but are sober leaps outside of the known. Though it may seem romantic, and it indeed is miraculous, I experience this process to be completely practical, though far from mundane. It is, in fact, the essential secret every artist in some sense knows. Whether he or she is devoured or blessed by the encounter is the essential tension that, for me, characterizes the creative enterprise and links present day artistic praxis with traditional shamanism.

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