Seven contemplations on Babel

Miranthe Staden Garbett
November 2023

Contemplation 1: Out of nowhere, the mind comes forth

Once upon a time, in a latter-day Babel, an artist created her own genesis story; offering an original response to the kōan-type riddle of how existence came into being. The Seven Sisters installation is Barbara Wildenboer’s version of Genesis, her vision of beginnings. In a tongue of her own invention, she conveys the sensation of that latent moment, when out of nowhere and nothing, consciousness came forth. For prima materia, she convened seven books that explain some of the old stories about origins and how we got here. This genesis story, as is often the case with myths, calendars, maps and monuments, is built upon seven previous versions. These books, amongst them two the Bible and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, were powerful towers, broadcasting over space and time, in different languages, their particular worldviews. Religion and Philosophy; Academia, Science and Biology; Archaeology and Palaeontology – those pillars of Western civilisation; idols with feet of clay. With her scissors, the artist has cut through the dense and claustrophobic treatises, rendering the cacophony of Ages mute.

The dogma days are over. She does not get bogged down in those established tales that begin with hubris, mistakes, curses, exile, and end in desolation and disconnection. She sidesteps the swamp infested struggle for survival, ignoring what the delegation of experts have had to say on behalf of the ancient rocks, ruins and fossilised bones. They have not been summoned here for debate. The artist’s treasure is not the letter of their laws, but the genius of her own intuition.

She has convened these ‘cultic’ traditions’, upon which different empires and kingdoms have been built, with a higher purpose. This Babel is an exercise in unification, offering a language of coherence, harmony and delight to the scattered and squabbling tribes. In this Genesis template, they cease to be at odds with one another. Instead, like chicks cracking out of their shells, their flickering tongues chirp in unison, with little concern for the ink on the page. This genesis babbles in a bristling new born language. It is entirely original. Don’t try to figure it out. Leave your knowledge-baggage behind at the threshold. Approach it barefoot, with a beginner’s mind.

This genesis does not begin with a bang. It starts softly, imperceptibly, like a breeze. Starlight kissing the dark night; a kiss that splits the world in half. Inhale. The scent of petrichor perhaps, accompanies the pitter-patter of the first raindrops, of the very first spring. A frisson of anticipation, then a quiver. The sound of fireflies flickering and butterflies stirring in the solar plexus. Seven star-sisters twinkling, almond-shaped eyes waking, lashes a-flutter, blinking, opening sesame seeds. Seven books like seven birds, pages spread open like wings across seven Orion® screens. An animated time lapse video shows the pages being snipped into feathery filaments, blown by an invisible breath. The template shapeshifts, holding potential for several archetypal forms: seven decks of cards shuffled by invisible hands; seven mandorla eyes about to see, seven Easter eggs, seven cowrie shell vulvas, wombs on the verge of giving birth to the whole of creation. Exhale.

The Seven Sisters installation takes its name from the Australian Aboriginal creation myth. Their genesis is called The Dreaming; a cosmic beginning marked in the sky by seven sister stars, also known as the Pleiades constellation. These same seven sisters are ubiquitous in creation myths, and have been known by different names since the dawn of history. In Japan they are called subaru meaning unity; in Polynesia matariki, meaning eyes of god. According to a Polynesian legend, the Pleiades was once a single star: the brightest in the sky. It was smashed to pieces by the god Tane as punishment for its vanity. While The Dreaming is possibly the most ancient creation myth known to date, it is important to understand that it is not something bound to the past. In that genesis, as in this one, time is a circle not a line. The dreaming of life into being is always now.

Contemplation 2: Stairways to Heaven

-when no one is looking, and I want to kiss God, I just lift my own hand to my mouth –

The original tower of Babel was conceived as a literal stairway to heaven. Think of it as a man-made ladder to the stars, with which men could ascend to knock on heaven’s door or, or more likely, shake at God’s gate – the words Babel in Hebrew, and Bāb-ilim in Akkadian mean God’s Gate. Built on a plain with baked red bricks and sticky black bitumen, this ziggurat was made using advanced technology. The builders of Babel did not suffer from a lack of knowledge. It was wisdom and understanding that was lacking. This doomed temple was built, proverbially, on sand, instead of solid rock. This temple-building fiasco was a profane event – profane being a word that literally means “outside the temple”. By all accounts it was a self-serving exercise in vaulting ambition; built by men with the aim of making “a name for themselves”.

Babel also means mayhem and confusion. The original Babylon may have been geographically situated in the Middle East, in modern day Iraq or Syria, but metaphorically it describes a corrupt and rotten system. It has taken on mythological proportions as a cautionary tale, by those seeking to call out a materialistic civilization, marked by an excess of knowledge and lack of wisdom. The spirit of Babel is not bound to a time or place. The increasingly overarching domain of AI may well be the latest manifestation of the tower of Babel myth. It is not hard to see the World Wide Web as a hybrid temple/marketplace, and detect the fanatical worship of cyber gods everywhere.

While this type of temple is ubiquitous in Babylon, it is not the only temple template. History has witnessed numerous spectacular temple-building projects. In England they built Stonehenge, a temple made from standing stones arranged in circles. In India and Ethiopia, temples like Kailasa and Lalibela were carved out of rock and the earth itself. The earliest Greek temples originated in sacred groves in forests. There have always been wiser, more soulful, less literal, ways to build a temple. For example, a temple can simply be a circle drawn in the sand.

The Sufi poet, Hafez famously did this. He simply entered a circle that he drew on the ground. There in the centre he sat with God, his beloved friend. After 40 days of doing nothing but this, he stepped out of the circle, filled with bliss, transformed from the inside out. After this he wrote mystical things like “when I want to kiss God I just lift my own hand to my mouth”. The artist’s devotional intention similarly sets aside a space for wonder and deep contemplation. The result is Babel, the artist’s latest body of work, which in the spring of 2023, will be gathered under one roof, in a dedicated space of contemplation. However, this Babel is a temporary temple, a moveable feast. It follows the artist wherever she goes, an internal flame. – My mind is fire. My soul is fire – The true artist is one who discovers she has her own treasure house within.

Contemplation 3: Snakes and Ladders

– I came into being as I came into being, I grew as I grew – I changed as I changed –

The urge to grow is an electro-magnetic force of nature felt and shared by all living things. The artist has captured these invisible forces at play in Creation with high fidelity. The lively spirit of evolution is fully present in Babel. As in nature, everything here is held together by a vertical axis, whether overtly or implied in the totemic poles of the towers, spines and spires. There at the still centre of the turning world is an invisible needle around which all life spirals and twirls, spinning its silky thread; spreading its Kirlian filaments and wisps in ever outreaching fractal feelers.

As the column that connects heaven and earth, this axis is worthy of contemplation. The artist has been working with this archetypal shape of late. It forms a powerful yang counterpart to the yin that underpins the artist’s sense of aesthetic and process of intuition. -Clouds follow dragons, Winds follows tigers-. Babel is a successful balancing act of yang and yin, dragons and tigers, snakes and ladders.

The totem and wands are relatively new developments in the artist’s oeuvre, but the open books and title spines have always featured, simulating the Axis Mundi and other fundamental archetypes. The artist’s signature style is a unique expression of nature’s growth code; her own golden ratio. The feminine vesica pisces also features, resembling a cowrie shell or almond nut – two halves, with a line down the middle. This is evolution as art, as a vibrant dance of life, not a struggle for survival. These objects and artefacts are nervous creatures, absorbing and releasing energy in flowing streams, the same way rivers, trees and bodies do. The bristling energy, arising in stars and galaxies, rhizomes and bones, shoots and roots is revealed here. Creativity is an endlessly renewable energy, which the artist not only seeks to make visible, but also sources liberally.

Contemplation 4: Language of the Birds

– I flew straight out of heaven, a mad bird full of secrets-

The birds have many secrets to teach us about evolution. They are after all masters of ascension and adaptation. They are the dinosaurs that made it out of that extinction event alive. There’s a reason the mythical phoenix, symbol of rebirth, takes the form of a bird. Evolution however, might only be half of the story. Sufi wisdom teaches that life is not a one-way path, rather all things reach out to one another and are connected from highest to lowest, connected to what is moving toward them.

Involution is the flip side of evolution. The Sanskrit terms Pravrtii and Nivrtti translate as “coming forth” and “returning”. Involution comes closer to describing the inner evolution of the mind, soul and heart. For the Kabbalists, the true self lies within, a “point in the heart”. From this centre, a desire for reunion attracts us upward, to a realm beyond this world. Birds have also been used to symbolise involution, the process by which the Divine manifests in the cosmos. One of the most well known symbols for the descent of spirit into matter is a bird; the diving dove represents the holy spirit plunging into human consciousness.

To get to deeper truths, we must learn the language of the birds, which is a language of symbolism, beyond words. This concept has long been associated with attaining psychic vision and wisdom, and is found in some form or other in most world mythologies. Wise kings, prophets, saints and sages know about the language of the birds. In the ancient Egyptian Mystery Schools, the soul is conceived of in two parts: Ka and Ba. The Ba, which is the part of the soul that makes a person unique, is depicted with wings and a falcon’s head.

If you want to know what’s in the artist’s head, soul and heart, look into her art. Take, for instance, the series of seven small strange masked birds with wild electrical plumage. Its title The Conference of the Birds is a homage to a 12th century poem written by the Sufi mystic Farid ud-Din Attar. According to Hafez, Attar “traveled all seven cities of love”. For the Sufis mystics, the relationship between the Creator and all of Creation is one infused and suffused with Love. As devotees and students of Love, the Sufis have more words for love than any other religion. In the words of Rumi,”one can discuss it forever and never exhaust it.” The Conference of the Birds is a fable written about the journey of a group of birds in search of a king, called the Simorgh. Its deeper meaning points to the human search for self. 

There are seven valleys that the birds must cross on their journey to find the legendary bird-king. I noticed that the first three stages correlate with the artist’s journey. It begins in the Valley of Quest, with the understanding that “only the journey matters – all worldly powers and material possessions are of secondary importance”. Enormous commitment is required to get through the second Valley of Love, a heart-centred realm, where the logical mind is of no consequence. In the Valley of Knowledge it is understood that no two journeys are the same. Here, where all worldly knowledge fails, the seeker must find their own truth and individual insight. The journey becomes less arduous when you realise that “What you seek is seeking you” – which is both the riddle and the moral of The Conference of the Birds.

This seven-levelled quest from the egoic self to the complete self is also described in the Quran. These seven stages of spiritual evolution are known as Nafs, a kind of Piaget for mystics. The first self is tyrannical and controlling; the second, regretful and blaming; the third inspired; the fourth is centred and serene; the fifth grateful and content; the sixth is devoted to worship, service and prayer. Only at the 7th level does one  arrive at the true self, also called the pure or complete self.

These ideas are not unique to the Sufi traditions, there are parallels to this idea of spiritual evolution in every wisdom tradition. For example, in Judaic Kabbalah, this state is called “the attainment of adhesion with the Creator” and it is considered the purpose of life and our reason for being. Only this relationship of mutual love can fuse the scattered fragments back into oneness.

A multitude of voices, stories and languages, but on closer inspection the message is the same. Being on the human journey is a multi-layered mystery. Knowledge of this is key to self mastery; the only mastery necessary.

Contemplation 5: The gold we seek is within

Babel is an alchemical transmission. The artist’s most monochrome body of work to date, these offerings are mostly made in black, white and shades of grey. Black void and mud, white bone and cloud, grey ash and lead. The artist has added silver, gold and red only very sparingly.

This black, white and red colour palette mirrors the three phases of the Great Work of alchemy. Referred to by their colour, they are Nigredo (black phase), Albedo (white phase) and Rubedo (red phase). Alchemy was revived in the Renaissance from ancient Greek or Egyptian sources, and had as much to do with spirituality as with chemistry. Taken literally, it is the process of turning lead into gold. Lead is a base metal; the heaviest naturally occurring element on earth, as well as the softest. It dulls and tarnishes when exposed to air. Gold on the other hand does not perish, rust or decay. Its appearance doesn’t change. It stands the tests of time. It is a natural symbol for the soul’s radiance and immortality.

Another alchemical symbol for the soul is a star. Consider how stars start in dark nebulae (Stage 1) and end in a luminous stellar explosion (Stage 7). In between, accretion is the process by which super massive stars like our sun form. Yet, another example of Creation pulling itself together. In alchemy, sun and moon are pulled together too. The chymical wedding of Luna and Sol creates a third entity; a perfectly balanced hermaphrodite being; the divine human being, also known as the philosopher’s stone.

The higher aim of the alchemical arts is transformation, healing, union and wisdom. Because humans need wisdom more than gold. Wisdom discerned from knowledge, is as gold is to lead. The artist’s discretion guides her process. For her, this is healing work, this attempt to unify the scattered pieces. But it is also healing for the receiver, this evidence of the power of intuition, imagination and devotion. These days we don’t talk/know enough about the healing power of art as contemplation.

We can start with the art of a woman called Enheduanna. The first recorded author. Maybe you, like I, did not know about Enheduanna until now. The poetry carried by the Exaltation to Innana ‘word wands’ is Enheduanna’s. It is a testimony to her alchemical journey. It is a praise poem/hymn, also known as Lady of All the Me’s, addressed to the goddess Innana (Ishtar/Astarte/Aphrodite), guardian of the seven powers or “me’s. Here’s the story behind the epic poem, that the artist has reconstructed letter for letter in seven vertical word wands.

Enheduanna was an Akkadian princess and high priestess. As the high priestess of the ziggurat temple in Babylon, she is thought to have brought unity and harmony to her father, King Sargon’s divided land. She reached the heights within her father’s domain, before life took a turn for the worse. In this poem she writes in the first person, about her sense of inadequacy, about being driven from her sanctuary by a usurper (her cousin), and the abuse she suffered at his hands. Once a renowned beauty, her features turned to dust. She is forced to walk among the brambles, stripped of her ornaments and given a dagger with which to kill herself. However, her crisis becomes a turning point. In this case, a re-turning to the Mother, the divine feminine. Her father’s chief deity, Nanna the Moon God, was unable to assist. Only the Goddess Innana could save her. This goddess with seven divine powers, was not only seen as the creator Queen of Heaven, she also needed to be a warrior. It is a story of death, revolution, rebirth and restoration.

Alchemical transformation is not, at first, a pretty sight. The ruby light only dawns much later. It starts at rock bottom, in the mud, in the darkest parts. There is much confusion and illusion to get through first. 

Contemplation 6: Writing on the Wall

The story of the writing on the wall is another version of Babel, where human hubris and arrogance leads to a lesson in humility. This time the offenders are identified as Nebuchadnezzar II and his son Belshazzar. Their desecration of Solomon’s Temple results in a cryptic warning written on a wall: “God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; you have been weighed … and found wanting”.

Unlike those other temple raiders, the artist is not interested in loot and desecration; nor motivated by greed, power, glory or fortune. She ‘loots’ the tombs and temples of mediated history, looking for a way to retrieve a sense of wonder and return sanctity to the sacred. Her writings on the wall are not warnings but reminders.

Genesis, Proverbs, Revelation is a triptych in which these parts of the bible have been transformed and linked together to form a strange new beast – or at least its post-apocalyptic garments. Wild, protective and liberating. The pages now cascade like waterfalls or archangel wings.

It is always darkest just before dawn. The nigredo of the dark night of the soul happens micro- and macro-cosmically. We are still in the aftermath of the original Babel, scattered, polarised tribes wandering under a cloud of unknowing. It is easy to feel lost, bewildered and confused. The towers in Babylon may glitter like gold, but we have been warned against those illusions and tricks of the eye. Instead, to navigate the maze, the artist makes a space within.

The whole of Babel has been hand-made by one woman! With the exception of The Seven Sisters, all the other artworks are visceral, physical objects, built with painstaking attention to detail, letter for letter, page for page, with all the qualities of a sacred ritual. This Babel is not a desecration, or a bad translation, it is a labour of love and devotion worthy of contemplation.

Contemplation 7: Pearl Diving

the cobra wakes and spits in my eyes, I rise through ochre smoke into black air enclosed in a shower of stars. –

From the oceans of knowledge – contained in all the libraries of Babel – the deep-sea diver emerges with her pearls. From the “leagues of senseless cacophonyshe has plucked a few lines of poetry. With serpentine wisdom, the artist discerns her treasure; spelling it out in seven gold-lettered Translations/Incantations. Sometimes sentences are better ladders to the stars. Some are truth spitting cobras. Only a few worth reviving, safe-guarding.

Because in Babel, we know too little of the sacred, she chose sacred wisdom from ancient Egypt (The Egyptian Book of the Dead, Hermes’ Emerald Tablet), Mesopotamia and Babylonia (Enheduanna’s Exaltation of Innana), Persia (Sufi Rubaiyats and Divans of Attar, Rumi and Hafez), India (Bhagahvad Gita) and China (I Ching oracle) to keep intact. Her pearls are mystical truths from ecstatic poetry and the sacred texts of mystery schools; messages from time-travelling priestesses and whirling dervishes.

Because in Babel the people perish, not for lack of knowledge, but lack of wisdom, the artist shares her wisdom, her vision and her quest. This is her testimony to how “all things move with bliss toward their completion”.

This finds expression in the recurring number seven, the number of completion. 2023 is a year that numerologically adds up to seven. Seven starry eyed sisters, seven wise serpents, seven bizarre birds, seven terraced towers, seven word wands. Across multiple fields and disciplines, seven stages mark the journey to wholeness. In Babel different languages disguise and conceal the remarkable underlying similarities. Contemplation number seven is on completion. The artist has come full circle. The snake eats its own tail. After the end, another beginning, and the spiral of creation begins anew.

NOTES: The artworks under contemplation

Contemplation 1: Out of nowhere, the mind comes forth  The Seven Sisters

Contemplation 2: Stairways to Heaven – Incantations/Translations; Exaltation of Innana

Contemplation 3: Snakes and Ladders – All

Contemplation 4: Language of the birds – The Conference of the Birds

Contemplation 5: The gold we seek is within Disjected membra; Exaltation of Innana

Contemplation 6: Writing on the wall – Disjected membra; Genesis,Proverbs,Revelations

Contemplation 7: Pearl diving – Incantations/Translations, Exaltation of Innana