There’s a page on Penelope Slinger’s website, under the heading “Bio-Sphere TM,” titled “My Life as Art.” The page pictorializes Slinger’s biography as a red circle surrounded by dozens of miniature hyperlinked images. At the top of the circle is a thermal color picture of Slinger’s parents in 1946 on their wedding day, titled PreConception. Slinger’s timeline proceeds around the curve, with the most recent entries nearing the first. At the centre of the circle is a picture of Slinger wearing all red and a big smile. Her hands, set wide, appear to be holding an invisible square, indistinguishable from the black background of the page against which her portrait is set. Slinger’s square contains a reproduction of the entire page, complete with a mini Slinger at its centre. And this mini Slinger is holding her own mini invisible square, which contains a reproduction — smaller still — of the entire page. The pattern repeats ad infinitum, further than the eye can perceive, as if to suggest that the evolution of Slinger’s biography is contingent on the cycle of all that has come before it.
Website biographies do not usually demonstrate their subject’s worldview so comprehensively — but then, there is nothing usual about Penelope Slinger. When we speak, Slinger is on the phone from the Garden of Forgiveness, her compound in Boulder Creek, California. The property was founded in 1989 by Christopher Hills, yogi, distinguished scientist (often nicknamed “The Father of Spirulina”) and Slinger’s partner from 1994 until his death in 1997. From the Garden, she runs Goddess International, dedicated to exploring the transformative powers of what Slinger terms the Awakened Feminine and to facilitating creative projects onsite.
Slinger’s early work is perhaps her best known: in 1971, she published 50% The Visible Woman, a book of black-and-white collages that explore the sublimated feminine aspect of surrealism. Through the mid 70s she exhibited sculpture and photographs in London and New York, including Opening’s erotic wedding cake. An Exorcism, published in 1977, is a similarly surreal but perhaps more cosmic and romantic representation of the female psychic journey.
At the end of the 70s, Slinger’s trajectory as an artist in the commercial sense paused. She moved to the Caribbean with her partner at the time, tantric practitioner, author, art dealer and archaeologist Nik Douglas. She stayed for 15 years, working extensively on art projects inspired by the previous inhabitants of the islands, the Arawak Indians, before moving back to California, meeting Hills, and settling in Boulder Creek.
Recently, Slinger has been thinking a lot about the cyclical nature of life. At the end of last year, she revisited her collage work from the 70s for concurrent exhibitions at Riflemaker in London and Broadway 1602 in New York — her first in over 35 years. As Slinger describes below, she will soon return to An Exorcism due to a chance encounter with an old friend and collaborator, but with many more years of experience as a woman and an artist to inform her work. It seems that now, perhaps more than ever, Slinger’s evolution is in her hands.
What are you working on at the moment? What are you thinking about?
I have been working on this project called The 64 Dakini Oracle for many years, and I’m still working on that. I got it out in a certain form, but that’s a rather multimedia, multidimensional kind of project, so it still has many evolutions.
I have audio and video studios here on the land, which I put here because I wanted to be able to do that kind of work, but in the seclusion of my own space so that I could work with this media in a more meditative way, and outside of the normal timeframe of the world. Over the years, I’ve been doing my own projects here; but we also work with other people that we have some kind of affinity with. At the moment, we’re doing production; recording music with this wonderful group of musicians and doing a music video for them.
And then I would say the third thing is a rather exciting new addition. Since I went back to England last year, I reconnected with the woman who is in An Exorcism with me, and who was a very close friend, but who I completely lost touch with for 30 years and thought she was dead and didn’t think I’d ever see again. Anyway, when I had my exhibition of this work in London, she showed up at my talk as a surprise and it was so wonderful to see her again. And now she’s coming out here next month and we are going to go in the studio and create a whole lot of new work, both photographic with collage and video material. We’ll do new versions with us at this time in our lives, and see what kind of reflections and imaging can be evolved from what we did in An Exorcism. The working title is Reflections on the Liberation of the Feminine.
There seems to be a cyclical aspect to a lot of the work that you do.
You know, there’ve been different spaces and stages, and different ways in which I’ve applied myself and my aesthetics according to the context, but at the same time, I feel it’s all one big trajectory, which is why when I made my biography on my website, my “Bio-sphere,” as I called it, the name I gave it was “My Life As Art.” I do believe that the whole nature of existence is cyclical, so one’s life does work in that way. I see everything that I’ve been doing, one thing evolving into another, as a natural kind of evolution.
The lifecycle of a connection is interesting. One can experience a connection with a place or a person and then it can disappear — and if it happens to reignite, it’s as though it had never fallen away at all.
And it’s also very interesting how, when the timing isn’t lined up, you can be somewhere but feel completely disconnected as if you’d never been there at all. I remember going back to London and feeling as though I was in this sort of vacuum, as if I’d never had a life there; and it seemed to me so strange and inexplicable, really, to feel like that. And so it did feel good to be able to weave the threads back together again, because it is all one fabric, you know.
The feeling of connection can be so ephemeral. Do you find that in other aspects of your life, not just related to work?
I do, you know. And when you get those times in your life when everything does work by the magic of connection, the grid lights up and you see how everything really is connected. You suddenly you see how that connected to that, to that, to that, which came to this. And, to me, those moments are what this life is all about. And it is really a mystery to me when it doesn’t work like that! But then all of life is really like an ebb and flow. I guess we wouldn’t be so happy with the highs if we didn’t have the lows to measure them by. That’s what they say, anyway. [Laughs]
A lot was written about the fact that you had not shown work in a gallery for about 30 years before these recent shows. Was this gap the result of a decision, or did it happen naturally?
One of the reasons was my deep disappointment back in ‘74, when I put on my exhibition of erotic tabletops called Opening. This was a few years before Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party. I didn’t know about her till years later. I wanted to do an opening that would be a totemic event, and I even had backing from the British Film Institute to film it. I wanted to create an erotic wedding banquet, and for everyone to come as a bride and/or groom. My invitation was actually the image of me as the wedding cake.
We were going to do it in the mews outside the gallery, and at the last minute, Angela Flowers — whose gallery it was — got cold feet and thought the neighbors were going to get upset and said, no, we’d just have to do a regular opening. And I was so disappointed and felt that it sterilized the nature of the work. I’d wanted my pieces to be totems of an experience. This is something I always talked about: I don’t want to just show people my work; I want to give them an experience. The experience I had planned out was thwarted, so I planned with a few people I knew in the press that I was going to make this dramatic event at the end of the exhibition: all the pieces remaining, I was going to burn publicly and have it filmed as a protest against the sterility of the art world. In point of fact, I didn’t actually do it. The morning I was going to do it, there were headlines in the paper saying, “Molten plastic falls on children’s heads.” The night before, there was an amusement arcade fire and a lot of children got hurt with the kind of materials that I was using in my show, so I didn’t do it.
I tried once more in ‘77 to do a show with the Patrick Seale Gallery, but that was a complete fiasco, and I closed it after a few days. It’s a whole other story, but he was really insulting. Then I just rented a space and opened it myself and did it there, but that was my final fling in London. In ‘82, I did a retrospective exhibition at a gallery in New York, and having been in the Caribbean for a while, I thought “Oh, great, New York. That’s a sophisticated art market. They’re going to get it.” But, again, I was very disappointed with the reaction. I guess it centered around three particularly powerful men who wanted to buy the collection, or a bunch of it — but then when they found out that I didn’t come with it, they got particularly unpleasant and it made me go, “Okay, these are the signs they’re not ready for this work,” and back off to the Islands.
Then there was a question: “Well, shall I continue to do this kind of cutting-edge work and send it off to London and New York? What’s the point? I think I’ll try to make a bridge through my art with the local culture here.” So that was the choice I made. I was there until ’94. It was not so much an exact choice, but kind of going with the flow of things, and then being in that situation of trying to see, “Well, why am I here and what is the meaning of this?”
When I got together with my partner Nik Douglas, we had a whole outburst of new work that was influenced by tantra — not tantra the religion of sex, but tantra the way of spiritualizing everything in your material life so you’re in this non-dual embracive existence. I thought that was the best spiritual path I’d ever heard of. It didn’t have all the dogma and all the blame and shame.
There’s an aspect of your work that deals with reconciling divisions, reconciling the taboo with the acceptable. I can see that it is connected with tantra, but it also seems like an almost psychoanalytic approach.
Someone who did an astrology reading for me once said that I could be a great psychiatrist or psychologist, but I didn’t have a normal approach. Mine was a much more hands-on approach [laughs] in the sense that I got my hands dirty. I tended to use myself as my main subject. I like Jung much better than Freud, because I found Freud way too reductive, and Jung looked at the collective unconscious and all of this expansive alchemy of the being. As I say, when I discovered tantra, I found so many wonderful tools for self-transformation, and I’ve always been particularly interested in that. The other aspect that they mentioned in the astrology, or some of the numerology, was that I had the ability to turn a defect into an asset. And I think that’s actually a really important thing: if we can all latch onto that particular program, there’s no limit to what anyone can do.
You have said that, at the end of An Exorcism, the heroine emerges more fully realized after undergoing these — I think you used the word “harrowing” — experiences. It’s an interesting idea, the role of negative experience in self-transformation.
I sometimes find myself saying that, these days, I don’t think there’s any art worth its salt that isn’t a form of healing art. We come in whole, yes, but we’re all kind of wounded too; and it’s how you deal with those things. And how do you recognize that you have these [wounds]? So, for me, my middle name is Delve. It’s my grandmother’s maiden name, but it means, obviously, to delve into things completely, and I’ve always liked to do that. And then my birth name being Penelope, I didn’t like that at first because I didn’t like the idea of patience. [Laughs] I wanted to be the explorer and not the one staying at home weaving. But after time’s gone on, I like it, because one of the meanings of tantra is to weave. I like to talk about how to weave the tapestry of one’s life, with all those threads connected. It’s exciting.
I’ve always loved your statement that 50% The Visible Woman was about making the female side of surrealism visible. It’s that same idea of delving into the unrealized and unrecognized, perhaps even more than it is a feminist idea.
I’ve never considered myself a feminist as such, because I’ve much more been interested in the power of women being recognized rather than women having the same kind of power as men. There’s a subtle distinction, but a very important one, I think. Because, of course, all the political changes needed to happen — but at the same time, I felt that women who were really on the forefront of the feminist movement were often throwing the baby out with the bath water, in the sense of seeming that they didn’t want to be considered sexual. They didn’t want to be all these feminine things, because they wanted these equal rights. But I’ve always been striving for the qualities that are the right of the feminine, and for those to be able to be seen in a position of strength and equality. When we have that, then we have the opportunity for a new kind of sacred marriage between the male and female within, which reflects in a harmonious balance of those energies in the world at large. So, for me, it’s never been about wanting dominance of women, which I don’t even think the feminists really wanted. They too, of course, did want equal rights, but I’m talking about a liberation of consciousness in general so that it’s not a sexist thing per se, but instead becomes about the recognition, the acceptance, the honoring of the feminine within male and female alike. You know, the opening of the heart and the understanding of compassion as being a prime factor in the world, and a shifting of values away from this lopsided grasping after power that’s been the ruling factor.
What you are describing reminds me of that alchemical idea where the two opposites — masculine and feminine — join together, and there is the birth of a third aspect that transcends them both.
Yes, I’ve always been fascinated with that, because I believe it happens on an inner and an outer level. I really feel that every creation is about that marriage and that union within, and that then finding form and manifesting. And so, yes, we as whole beings need to be able to unite those principles within ourselves as well as have them in healthy and dynamic balance in our lives. That’s why the pendulum needs to swing over to the feminine, I believe — you know, seeing the connectedness of everything, and in seeing that connectedness, we understand the connection between all living things and start to honor that quality and then start to be able to live in harmony with our environment. I believe it’s a reflection of the natural evolution that each being goes through in its life. When you’re growing up, you are naturally going to be selfish and self-centered at a certain point because you have to be, because you’re trying to find out who you are. “Who am I, what’s me, and what’s society and how can I separate myself from the projections of others in order to know who I am?” That’s very much what the work of An Exorcism was all about. “Who am I, what’s me, and what is the environment and the values in which I find myself incarnated at this time? What skeletons in the cupboard do I have to look at in order to see who I am in that process?”
Tell me about the presence of nature in your work.
A lot of the surreal images, which blend the anthropomorphic/zoomorphic figures — heads of birds, of animals, or things that are growing and Daphne turning into a tree, any of these things — I’ve always loved them and just been fascinated by the surrealness of them. But it is also very much a reflection of how connected I feel to the world of animals and birds and insects and creatures and trees and flowers and water and air. It’s much easier to relate to nature than to people in a way, because it’s so direct and simple, and just relies on energy and emotion. I do think that the natural state of being here on earth is that we are all beings from all different forms of life: fur or chlorophyll or liquid or solidity. All of them are able to be in communication with each other. The land itself holds resonance. The trees will speak to you. They are all like antenna connecting to each other and receiving and transmitting energy and information, and they all relate to the — well, how do I say it — psycho-emotional frequency.
You and Christopher Hills would obviously have shared so many of these ideas.
Oh, yes. It was such a blessing to meet him and to spend not many years together, but a really powerful and connected time with such a man who combined the heft of his intellect with the vastness of his heart, and the strength of his vision, and the ability to manifest. He was a real optimist; a mixture between a yogi and a druid. He had come late in his life to discover the Goddess, and he said, “I’ve written 32 books, I’ve had all these businesses; but right now, you know, it all means nothing. What we need is the Goddess to press the heart button of the world, and then people will wonder why they did things in that old energy-inefficient way before.”
It was actually quite funny: in the time just before he was dying, we were in the living room and he looked up at a painting I had done and he said, “I didn’t want to tell you before, because I didn’t want it to go to your head — but I just want to tell you what an incredible artist you are.” And then he went on to describe for a good long time all the things he saw in the work which told him that. I would say, for me, he offered me the greatest gift I think one can have, which was to recognize and appreciate my highest self, and in that way, allow me to move into my full potential. Him offering me that gift is what made me want to try to keep offering that to others, and to be able to recognize and appreciate the highest qualities in others.
I like the idea of potential. It’s an idea that fits well with art, because before you begin anything creative it exists in energetic terms as infinite potential.
With all my art, I feel I’m making such poor approximations of what I really see. You know, it’s how to translate and bring that vision space, that mind’s eye, down into some kind of tangible form. But the tools at our disposal are getting more and more wonderful. I know people have said to me, “Why are you working with digital collage instead of with cut and paste?” But how could I not? You can play with the transparency without having to go into a darkroom. You can paint to scale. Your colors are light, rather than pigment. It’s a bigger pallet of frequency when it’s light, you know. It’s so beautiful. So it’s, to me, a natural evolution.
Why do you think people are surprised that you are interested in using technology?
Because they have limits to what they see art to be, you know. And because, well, let’s face it: it’s a kind of complex world we’re in right now. Collage has been my favorite art form, whether I’m doing three-dimensional or two-dimensional, I really like bringing different things together to create a new reality out of these parts of reality. But if you look at modern advertising and fashion and all these things, the predominant way of creating the art that they’re showing is collage. In a way, it’s become the most popular art form and yet, in that context, it’s not really seen as an art form, per se. It’s an applied art. We’ve got these fuzzy edges.
It’s all to do with association, and it is also a question of what defines the art from the not-art. It’s in the intention; in what one is bringing to consciousness with the choice of images that one uses.
You know, there’s this horrible archetype of the artist suffering and starving in a garret and having this terrible life in one way or another; that only struggle produces the great art. But I didn’t think this was a very satisfactory archetype at all. Everything in one’s life is a form of art, and that’s a much more inclusive archetype for everybody to find the art within. One of the roles of the artist is to help people to find that. It could be inspiring.