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sirenThe Siren 2009  • Afrika Burn

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The proposed installation is a meander – a footpath forming the outline of a snake woman - an ancient and almost universal symbol for the earth goddess. The figure is to be placed on both sides of a long straight road, symbolising the earth and our own sense of belonging that has been ravaged by our fast moving modern culture. The creation of the siren represents our hope that it will be possible to restore and pay homage to an abundant earth. The meander invites participants to walk the path of the siren – putting her (and themselves) together again by completing the trail.

Origin of the Idea

There are two lines of thought that converge in the idea to create the siren –

In South Africa we are experiencing widespread and continuous levels of violence that far exceeds that of most other countries. A great deal of this violence is aimed at women and children – with an incredibly high incidence of rape (more than a quarter of South Africa’s women and girls have already been raped, and every day thousands more are subjected to this torture). One of the long term effects of rape is that it destroys a woman’s sense of sexuality – of being in her own body and being able to actively embody her needs and powers. Women that manage to recreate a sexuate self in the aftermath of rape, do so through years of creative exploration and expression of the ordeal, confirmed by the supportive witnessing of significant others. [Louise du Toit: The Making and Unmaking of the Feminine Self – A Philosophical Investigation of Rape. Routledge 2009]

The means to such a re-creation of self is often not available to women and children, principally because our society not only avoids acknowledgement of the crime, but actively discourages victims to address their trauma as the machinations of our justice and economic systems re-enact the violence. For most women, there is no way to begin to address their healing, because they are enveloped in a society that will not acknowledge their (or its own) need for healing.

Globally we are experiencing the effects of a consumer culture that is threatening to consume all. We see it in the weather, in the disappearance of butterflies and chameleons from our gardens, economic recession, the threat of famine and social chaos – suicide bombers, displaced people and refugees – all fighting over a smaller and disappearing pool of resources. [Read Derrick Jensen: A Language Older than Words; The Make Believe Culture; Endgame]

Some aspects of power in our societies would prefer to ignore the facts, as Al Gore illustrated in ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, but even if one manages to disregard these gluttonous social imperatives, the actual experience of most of us is that we are enveloped by our consuming society to such an extent that it does not seem possible to act in a way that does not gravely impact the earth. We are locked in a fatal embrace with our own destruction.

Anita Roddick (the late founder of The Body Shop) said: ‘What we do to the earth, we do to our bodies.’ Here, in South Africa, at this moment in time, her comment seems darkly significant.

Change and Symbolic Shift

As the stories of rape survivors attest, it is possible to again attain a (different) sense of volition and sexuate self after a rape. As previously stated, most achieve this through creative exploration and expression, which implies that it is (at some stage) a symbolic shift and enactment that enables them to recover what is rightfully theirs. Could it be that these wounded women hold a key to the way out of our collective dilemmas?

If so, then maybe it is our task as artists and creators of the symbolic expressions of our time, to create the symbolic structures that would allow us to step outside of the confining patterns of our violently destructive and consuming culture. Personifications of ‘Mother Earth’ used to be found all over the world. Often associated with fertility rites, she used to play a significant role in the way people interpreted their own being-in-the -world. Her disappearance from the major religions and exclusion from prevalent systems of thought seems to be one of the factors that makes the rape of her daughters and the earth itself much easier, actually almost inevitable, since she (and they) lack symbolic meaning, and are therefore reduced to mere objects, devoid of spirit, soul or divinity.

In our quest to address this symbolic void in our collective psyche, we need to create a symbol that will allow us to re-enter a world that thankfully, we can still find traces of in the remains of, older and other cultures.

siren Mphumalanga riverbed

Mpumalanga Siren on riverbed rock

Historic Earth Personification

In many cultures the earth goddess had various animal body parts. Sometimes her tails were those of fish, sometimes snakes, and often she had wings as well. She was known by many names – Siren being only one of them, but chosen in this context for its lovely ambiguity, expressing both the historical basis for the figure and alluding to the crisis of a siren call.

The earth goddesses in African mythology often bear traits reminiscent of the Siren. Here in Southern Africa, Nomkhubulwane, a Zulu fertility goddess, can change herself into any kind of animal, and is often depicted with only one human leg, an animal limb for the other, and green skin. The snake dance of the Venda and the reed dance of the Zulu (both performed by young maidens) are well documented and refer to a vast fertility tradition around the earth goddess. Amongst the San the rain god and goddess also take the form of the water snake. (The goddess being responsible for soft, life -soaking rain, and the god for angry, dangerous floods.)

Walking the Earth

Early sculptures of the Siren are found in remains of the Etruscan culture – a pre-Roman civilization that flourished in the hills of northern Italy [Selma Sevenhuizen: De Glimlach van de Sirene]. Here, the Siren was always associated with a labyrinth – deep walking trails that had been cut into the Etruscan landscape. Walking these paths enabled the people to connect to a sacred landscape – the real body of the earth goddess.

Images of the two tailed Siren, as well as labyrinths continued to be incorporated into cathedrals all over Europe for many centuries, but eventually the mermaid was diluted to a frail half-shadow of herself – the one-tailed mermaid found in fairy- tales. Sometimes the labyrinth survived in cathedrals such as Chartres, thousands of years later walking a labyrinth still constitutes a profound spiritual practice akin to that of the pilgrimage.

Geoglyphs (earth drawings) are almost as old as humankind. They are found all over the globe, with possibly the most famous ones being the Nazca lines in Peru. These enormous drawings in the desert can only be seen if one is flying over them. On the ground they are merely scratches on the surface where rocks have been swept away, exposing the pale sand underneath. The windless hot climate of that desert has preserved the drawings for thousands of years.

The Romans had a saying: ‘Solvitur Ambulandis’ – ‘It is solved by walking’. It is hoped that the siren will give those that choose to walk her, a new sense of belonging, of being of the earth, knowing that there is a bigger picture, and we are walking it, even if we can’t always see it.

The Big Dream

Eventually it is envisaged to build a big Siren that will be visible from Google Earth – approximately 16 km of trail, somewhere in the Karoo – where people can walk the Siren in order to heal themselves, find a new perspective, or as an offering of ritual reconnection to the earth. It is quite possible that such a Siren would bring many additional gifts to the people inhabiting that part of the land, but those dreams must form part of another proposal.

siren karoo

Google view 01 of the proposed Siren

In order to successfully build a siren of such a scale, is is essential to test the idea and different building techniques in smaller prototypes. This process will also allow awareness of the idea to spread, and open avenues of funding.

Obviously one wants to build the siren- path with minimal impact on the ecological environment and the size of each prototype Siren is dependent on the space available, the nature of the environment, as well as the amount of time and available hands willing to do the work.

August 2009

Afrika Burn 2009, Earth Siren

At Afrika Burn (September 2009, refreshed April 2010) the first public Siren made her appearance. Thanks to those who made her happen!

Earth Siren, Tankwa, South Africa

Aerial shot of Afrika Burn site and the Earth Siren, 2011.
See Google Map View 2012 >>>

Earth Siren daytime

Daytime shot of the Earth Siren at Afrika Burn 2009.

Earth Siren Night

Night shot of Earth Siren at Afrika Burn, 2009. Tealight candles in brown paper sand bags. As we started lighting her, people at the Burn came out of the dark to light her up, a wonderful moment to witness.

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Added September 20, 2009



First post August 2009,, author: Anni Snyman

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