Flying Dakini: Agnes Arellano

She appeared in the midst of the surpassingly captivating, most lovely mountains where the mind comes to rest because of the destruction of the defiled mind.

Agnes Arellano’s latest solo exhibition at MO_, Flying Dakini, is a return to the artist’s inscape. Drawing from various philosophies, religion, mysticism and eroticism, she creates a convergence of various elements in an environment that is at one with itself. In Flying Dakini, the Tantric winged goddess soars against a Himalayan blue sky, hovering over the remains in a cremation site --- Kama Sutra relief tablets propped up against the walls, like relics from an ancient temple, and skulls and omphalos (linga mushrooms) from previous installations, arranged like musical notes on a ground of crushed marble. The notes correspond to music that was performed in the past using flute, angklung and other Asian indigenous instruments, synthesizer and body sounds. The recordings have now been remixed as ‘sound sculptures’ to accompany the current scene.

Arellano’s own spiritual search and personal experiences direct much of her artistic practice. Her body of work is a visualization of her lifelong investigation of the feminine in religion and spirituality. She is known for her pantheon of goddesses in plaster and cold cast marble. Classical, stoic and at the same time, highly sensual and foreboding, they are powerful evocations of the feminine mystique.

In Flying Dakini, Arellano recasts the image of the goddess as a metaphor for spiritual insight. HerDakini is shown holding, in her right hand, the scimitar to symbolize the “cutting off of defilements – illusions that must be destroyed with a sharp discernment”. On her left hand, she holds a skullcap filled not with transgressive fluids, but with wisdom and blessings.

She first encountered the goddess in Bhutan, where she and her partner saw an apparition in the mountains. They believe it could have been Yeshe Tsogyal the legendary Tibetan princess and incarnate dakini who became the partner of the famous yogi Padmasambhava. Since then, they have immersed themselves in the study of the Tantric practices associated with the cult of the Vajrayogini, which flourished in India and Tibet as early as 8-10th BC.

The Sanskrit term dakini translates to the Tibetan khandroma (‘sky goer’, ‘sky dancer’ or ‘she who goes through the sky’). In her earliest appearances in Indian pantheons, she is defined by her powers of flight; in Tibetan depictions, she is cast against a limitless sky, an embodiment of the boundless space of emptiness. The image of the dakini can be traced further back to the “winged women” and "bird goddesses" found in many places around the world where they are part of the earliest works of art. “Since the prehistoric times, females in the ecstasies of flight have been depicted as able to ‘move through space’ like birds. In soul flight, the invisible spirit body detaches from the physical in order to ascend to upper worlds or descend to the underworld for healing or soul-retrieval. This flight is a well-understood feature of traditional shamanism around the world. Women's ancient, shamanistic work to facilitate the profound rites of birth and death quite naturally would have led to out-of-body experiences and the dissolution of boundaries between Self and Other that is a primary Buddhist goal.”

Arellano’s Flying Dakini is a manifestation of the artist’s own transformation. She notes “I used to be an iconoclast, now I am an iconographer”. For her current work, she re-used the live-cast of her own body done in the late 90s and returned to classical references on human anatomy and mythical and religious symbolisms. For the past few years, she has been making small hand-size bronze figures, which she initially models out of clay. The Flying Dakini also marks her return to plaster, a difficult material that forces her to work spontaneously with awareness and precision. She says, “the process of using one’s body to depict one’s aspirations is a very meditative one and one cannot help go through internally whatever it is that’s being shown externally. It can be a healing and empowering experience.”

The exhibition is a tribute to the late Roberto Chabet, Arellano’s mentor at the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts and curator of the exhibition where she created her first inscape Temple to the Moon Goddess at the Museum of Philippine Art in 1983. He also curated the first and last exhibitions of The Pinaglabanan Galleries, which Arellano resurrected from the ashes of her burned down family-home in San Juan from 1984 to 1989. Her altar for Chabet contains her offering of casts of a human skull and a thighbone painted with red polka dots in reference to Chabet’s cloth-wrappedBakawan. Visitors to the exhibition may also leave their own offerings, light incense, or say a prayer for Chabet. (RB)