Full transcript of New York-based artist Alex Grey’s TEDx Talk: Cosmic Creativity: How Art Evolves Consciousness at TEDxMaui2013 conference.
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Alex Grey – Artist
How art evolves consciousness? This painting: Body, Mind, Spirit shows the trajectory of the evolution of human consciousness through the physical to the mental to the transcendental. The subject of mortality whether our consciousness survives bodily death is a question that haunts us all.
This is the first drawing that I did of a skeleton, age five, and we can see it’s a time when the child is filled up with magical thinking and here we have a power animal on the shoulder of the skeleton and a happy gravestone, a little coffin.
Five years later, at age 10, I did another depiction of death but here in a more archetypal and mythological kind of portrayal of the Grim Reaper. At age 17 I was in art school and I was still drawing the same subject of the skeleton, but now from a more rational perspective and I was naming all the bones and everything — more disciplined in skill.
Now, at age 20, I had a dream where I saw my hair half shaved like this and so I decided to enact a performance ritual where I’d keep my hair half shaved for half a year. Then I did some performances, I was a billboard painter at the time and I placed this self-portrait in a dead board and then I did a self portrait, put it in the ad-slot on the subway and rode underneath it. It was called Private Subway.
Now, I handed out leaflets with my face on it and invited people to call me for dinner or, throw it down and step on my face. And kind of polarity situation. Now, after six months I did a piece called Brain Sack and this was how I ended the six months. So I ate a plate of spaghetti, and then I cut my hair onto the plate, I placed the brain onto the hair, took the universal antidote, Syrup of Ipecac, and vomited the spaghetti up onto the brain. I put it all in a sack and that was Brain Sack.
I was severely depressed. If you hadn’t noticed, and I prayed to a god I did not believe existed to show me a sign that there is a reason to go on living. And within 24 hours, I was invited to a party where I was given LSD for the first time. And I closed my eyes and I was in a pearlescent spiralic tunnel. I was in the dark and going toward the light and the light was God. Every conflict and polarity was resolved in this spiritual re-birth canal, and I could see that grey brought the opposites together. And so I decided that would be my mission as an artist to bring the opposites together and I changed my name to Grey.
Now, the hostess of the party, an acquaintance I barely knew in art school, had also taken the LSD, and by the next day she was the love of my life. And so, Alison and I have been together, married for — studio mates for 38 years. Within 24 hours of my prayer I had seen the light and met divine love in the flesh. My prayer had been answered.
I got a job in a morgue to study the anatomy. I wanted to make art about consciousness, and the body is the box that consciousness comes in, so I knew I had to understand it. I spent 5 years studying there and preparing bodies for dissection, and doing some dissections, and, it was kind of an underworld experience, really, in retrospect I look back, and it really helped to orient me to appreciating the preciousness of body and soul.
Meditations On Mortality was the performance that Alison and I did, Sarah Laurence actually, she was in white grease paint, I was in black grease paint, and meditating on a skeleton there. At the conclusion of the performance, we stepped outside of the circle of duality and sensuously merged our pigments and became grey.
This is called The Beast and I was dressed in a military uniform, and as people came into the room, I stamped their hands with the number of the Beast. I was acknowledging what I felt to be the evil of the military industrial complex, and acknowledging my complicity with a death machine.
As part of the installation there was a Nuclear Crucifixion painting, about 10 foot wide painting. It felt like the same ignorance and brutality that would murder a saint would be responsible for the kind of global self-destruction.
Wasteland. Mr and Mrs X were on their way to dinner when they were surprised by a nuclear blast. They arrived at a dinner table in hell to feast on money. So that’s what we did: we ate the money and drank the blood and vomited it up onto the table. Some art is kind of like shock therapy to activate us and wake us up to it.
This piece is called Prayer Wheel and Alison and I were in gold grease paint and tethered to a skeleton and carrying a baby-doll and we did 60 rotations around the Prayer Wheel chanting the Om Mani Padme Hum.
Living Cross: Alison and I were laying motionless and surrounded in the cross of apples and roses and staring up at the angel of death. Alison nursed our daughter Zena in the heart of a Goddess made of 5,500 apples as I did 100 prostrations at the foot of the Goddess. It was at Lincoln Center outdoors and after the performance we boxed up the apples and gave them to a shelter for homeless families.
This piece was Heart Net and it was at the American Visionary Art Museum. There is a world map on the back and it was up for a year and we invited visitors to the museum to write a prayer for the Earth and about 10000 prayers were hanging on the web there. It was really a beautiful outpouring from the community and a new vision of the world.
Alison and Zena and I participated in a — or created an event called World Spirit where we collaborated with musicians and other performers, and really the attempt was to create an experience of unity and healing, and there were about 1000 people there in the Bay Area to experience that.
Now, the same motivation went into creating the series called The Sacred Mirrors. And The Sacred Mirrors started with a performance called Life Energy and Alison and I met with a group of people, and we were doing exercises to get in touch with our life energy, and I made two charts for this performance: one was the nervous system, and the other was a kind of subtle energy map. And Alison noticed how people were really enjoying this experience there in the gallery. So, she suggested that I do an entire series based on this idea, and that was the birth of The Sacred Mirrors. She also named The Sacred Mirrors. So, you can see that there we have the framed finished example there, and here is Alison and I doing the frames in our basement back in 1985, and we sculpted them and cast them, 21 of them in our basement. It provides a philosophical framework for the biological and technological evolution of humanity and ascending toward god consciousness.
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