The concept of guardian spirits is rich with history, ritual and symbolism. For millennia before the modern era, humans sought to protect themselves against the adversities of life by wearing protective symbols, sculpting guardian figures, and performing protective rituals.
In times of uncertainty and turmoil, people have turned to private and group rituals to seek comfort and a sense of security. In many different cultures and eras, protective guardians have played prominent roles. These include the totemic figures of Native American cultures, the Dvarapala statues in Hindu and Buddhist holy sites, and the guardian angels of Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions.
With the advent of science and modern medicine, the old ritualistic and sacred aspects of protection have waned in popularity and have been largely replaced by infrastructures and practices based on science and designed as control and protection.
But the more we endeavor to control nature, the more nature pushes back and reasserts itself; we see this in climate change and pandemics. As many writers have noted, life itself cannot be forced to be predictable or tamed.
So the act of creating guardian spirits has elements of irony and futility that have not escaped my attention.
Since early 2018 I have been creating an installation titled Guardians. The initial impetus for this series was deeply personal: my two remaining children had died within nine months of each other, leaving my husband and I childless, after raising two beautiful sons and a daughter.
These ‘pieces that have come my way’ are made of industrial detritus and bits of flotsam and jetsam that have washed up on the beach, coming from unknown places. From them I have created new beings that are composites of the disparate castoffs. These beings represent guardian spirits of protection. They also are a metaphor for myself: broken yet strong, always hopeful, salvaging what I can from tragedy and loss to rebuild my life. It is from the brokenness that all of us experience, that we create new configurations and move forward with our lives.
On a personal scale, Guardians is about building a new life from loss. Creating them helped me cope with my loss and grief. The meditative, incantatory process of building these figures enabled me to direct feelings of grief and loss to a more positive action. I found comfort in the care, thought, love and attention to detail I devoted to their creation.
On a larger scale, Guardians is about creating protection from the many threats the entire planet faces. This year, as our nation and planet confront the serious threat of a pandemic, Guardians embodies a larger significance than my own loss. All of us are facing unprecedented loss and threats, including climate change, species extinction, resource depletion, population displacement, and economic and racial injustice. And we are feeling vulnerable and under attack on many fronts.
I find the concept of spiritual guardians inspiring and hopeful. People of all persuasions, whether or not they believe in guardian spirits, can find comfort and hope in these figures. They are offered to viewers in a spirit of loving kindness, and in the hope that they will be comforted, inspired and reassured that there is cause for optimism even in the face of so many serious challenges.