[Interview by journalist Zora Burden, special to The Wild Hunt]
Penny Slinger, born Penelope Slinger, is a British born, multi-media artist known best for her esoteric, surrealist, provocative photographic collage work focusing on spiritual alchemy, the sacred feminine, and female psyche. She earned her 1st Class Honors degree in 1969 from the Chelsea College of the Arts in London, with her thesis on surrealist Max Ernst. Her art is considered revolutionary for its time, using herself as her own muse and subject. Her esoteric subject matter ranging from spiritual alchemy, sexual mysticism, Jungian archetypes, and tantra.
It was through her studies in surrealism that she met art historian Sir Roland Penrose, who curated the London International Surrealists Exhibition in 1936. Penrose arranged to have Slinger’s student artwork shown at the ICA and personally introduced her to some of the original surrealists. That experience launched her career.
Slinger’s first book,50% The Visible Woman was a groundbreaking feminist exploration in photo collage and was later followed by her surreal, photographic collage masterpiece An Exorcism. Her work with a women’s performance art group in the 1970s led to the making of Jane Arden’s film The Other Side of Underneath, in which Slinger has a starring role.
During that time, she also opened an art gallery that displayed on her own art and that of the region. When she met her partner Nik Douglas, she began work with him focusing on tantra and has written and illustrated many books with him on the subject, Together they created the Secret Dakini Oracle, featuring her collage work, as a divination system inspired by the 64 Dakinis symbolic of female intuitive wisdom and tantric tradition. It was republished as the Tantric Dakini Oracle and is widely available. Penny then took on the immense collaborative project of an online Dakini Oracle, in which she recreates the Goddess in 64 incarnations by photographing live models who embodied and channeled each aspect of the Goddess
She married microbiologist Christopher Hills, founder of University of the Trees in Boulder Creek, California, who passed away in 1997. Penny lives and works at the property he dedicated to the Goddess, hosting many events and workshops focusing on the Divine Feminine. There is now a documentary on Penny Slinger’s early life and work, Penny Slinger ~ Out of the Shadows due out this year.
Zora Burden: Your work was so revolutionary and ahead of its time. Will you talk about how you became interested in archetypes, metaphysics and surrealism?
Penny Slinger: When I did my thesis at art school, I was looking through the history of art and trying to see what really interested me and I noticed that woman as muse was such a central theme to a lot of art but it was generally women looked at through the lens of the male artists. That became pivotal for me. I wanted to be my own muse. I wanted to be the one who was actually observing, as well as observed. This is very important to me. The importance of the woman’s eye, rather the woman as the one who is seen. That has been, through all my work, a very central theme and core to it.
When I was trying to do my thesis at Chelsea Art School, I discovered Max Ernst. I was thinking – what do I really want to do my thesis about? I wanted to find something that was going to be an absolutely juicy topic for me, not something that was just going to be academically stimulating. That seemed boring. I wanted something I could really get my teeth into as an artist and would really be provocative for me to be working on. So I started pouring through all the art history books at the library in the art school and thinking about what really interests me. What is the core of my interests in art manifestation? What do I find myself most turned on by throughout the history of art?
In doing that, I realized that the human figure, especially the female, the human body was for me an absolutely prime interface. I still feel this way. The human body is our interface with everything we experience, our senses, it’s our antennae, everything about this vehicle is something that we then interact with through all our other perceptions of what happens in the world. So first and foremost, the human form. But what about the human form? I’m not that interested in the representations of the human body. I’m not interested in just portraits. I’m not interested in just showing what is. I’m interested in the symbolism of it, in the mythology of it, in the magic of it. In using that human form to show something beyond the physical manifestation, to use that human form to show the multi-dimensionality that it is heir to.
As I looked through the history of art in different cultures, I found a lot of things in the ancient worlds; in India, in the East, in Egypt and all those cultures which totally embodied that for me. It was in all these highly spiritual cultures where the human form was then used in anthropomorphic ways, in ways that showed a whole mythic nature to that being. I really appreciated and resonated with that. Interestingly enough, in the history of art course, I think we had two classes in the whole of the three years that dealt with the East and with India, no more than that. I thought this was fascinating but it’s not really super relevant to what people looking at this now are going to feel connected to and triggered by. It is totally relevant to me because it’s timeless but not so relevant to this thesis. I thought what can I find that is more contemporary in the field of art that is going to tap those same kind of veins for me and give me that same kind of mythic feel.
It is then that I discovered the collage books of Max Ernst. That was a revelation for me because at that time in England, there wasn’t really much knowledge of Surrealism or exposure to it and we didn’t learn much about that in our art classes. I had also used collage from the time I was a little girl lying in bed cutting up magazines and creating images. I used bits of paper in different colors and cut out particular bits of colors or tore them out and stuck them down to reshape them, to create new forms and textures. But you could see all the bits of paper stuck together. I found Max Ernst’s work in these two collage books La Femme 100 Têtes or Woman with 100 Heads or Without Head and Une Semaine de Bonté or A Week of Kindness. These were seamless new realities. Where he’d taken these old engravings and stuck them together but you couldn’t see they were stuck together, you couldn’t tell that they were collages. It was this new world that he’d created with bits of the old world but they were in a total immersive environment, which you couldn’t see the edges of. That for me was a big aha moment of – oh wow, you can do that?
You can create new realities like this with previously unconnected realities. He had women with wings, bird headed people, snakes, lion headed men, in all these very surreal and compelling, atmospheric, so atmospheric, immersive situations. I thought this is what I want to work with. I wrote my thesis but I also made a film at the same time using images of his collages from his books and other related imagery from my research in books, all kinds of mythic pieces in the weave. Then I shot live footage of oceans and internal organs, all kinds of things. I made this montage film as part of my thesis. For the third part of my thesis, I made a book of my own collages and poems, which was 50% the Visible Woman. I bound it myself, which I learned how to do at art school. This was me using my inspiration from his work to create my own work in homage to him. I took the tools of surrealism but applied them to photographic collage work, rather than the old engravings he was using and making it something to expose and express the feminine psyche, which I hadn’t seen done before.
ZB: Your art, particularly for An Exorcism, is so raw and vulnerable. It took a lot of courage and bravery as a woman then to create it and seems incredibly empowering. How were you able to be so explicit and fearless in your openness at the time?
PS: Well, my middle name is Delve, so I don’t think I had any choice! I had to dig deep. That whole Exorcism series came out of my own pain. I was losing my relationship with Peter Whitehead, the filmmaker I was living with. It fell apart, very much as a result of my engagement with feminism and work within the women’s theater group. Our relationship disintegrated and I fell apart as a result of that. I think, so many women know that feeling of when a relationship falls apart, that it’s one of the most challenging times in one’s life. Then you say, well, who I am? What does it all mean? Because in a relationship, it’s like a part of yourself goes out into that other person and you see the other as a reflection of your inner self. So when that gets destroyed, it’s as if part of you is ripped out and you feel empty and alone and wonder what is my meaning?
An Exorcism was a process. It was an engagement with my own process of trying find out through the devastation that I felt in that breakup. Well who am I? What is mine? What has society projected on me and what has been projected on me by my partner? It was like a whole unraveling, sort of a detective story, which I’m trying to investigate. The beginning of the book has a man with a key and a horrific symbol of the open door in front of a bricked up wall. I often think of happiness being defined by doors opening everywhere, you have so much potential, there’s so many opportunities and that feels so bright, you have so much to move forward to. But when suddenly the doors are closed, you’re in this dark corridor and it’s like the door to one’s own inner world has been blocked off.
For me, always, the saving grace has been my own inner world, my own inner landscape, that no matter what happens outside, you always have your own world of inner magic and fantasy to be able to return to and probe. You’ll never be alone with that. But when that feels somewhat blocked off, which is what I felt then, I have to now go into this process of self-exploration to find out why I’m in this predicament. It was a seven-year venture, from the time of taking pictures at the beginning in this empty, derelict mansion house, Lilford Hall in Northamptonshire, to the completion on the publication of it in 1977. In that time, I went into this very deliberate inner probing where each of the images consolidated into the collages of An Exorcism. I hadn’t known anyone else attempt this in that manner before. I was trying to depict and embody in each of those images a state of mind, a state of being, a feeling, a psychological framework.
I used my own images; of Peter, of animals and birds, of myself, my girlfriend as my alter ego. I used my own archetypal players in this, who were actual players in real life but I used them as mythic and archetypal figures. I wanted them to represent these archetypal anima/animus figures in Jungian language, that would hold the vibrations of these states of mind and of being, which I felt, when I really went in and distilled it, were again quite archetypical. I had chapters which were going through these different phases of looking at all the aspects in one’s life from childhood on through. It does go into technically ego loss work – the death of the self, the letting go, and the rebirth at the end. It was like a redemption and at the end I have the man inside me, having incorporated him, and I’m holding the key. I’m emerging into the light again and I have the key to all this in my own possession. To me, that justifies going into the darkness, so that one wouldn’t be consumed by fear.I do believe things like the fear of death are shadows which haunt us and if we’re never prepared to look it in the eye, then it’s always going to hold this shadow over us, which keeps us locked into a certain framework that we can’t escape from until we actually confront it and own it. Now we talk about descent work and shadow work. At that time these ideas weren’t really in consciousness in general but I felt they were absolutely key and important. So I felt I had no choice, that I had to do this work, in order to really know myself.
I remember going to a psychiatrist during the break up, I was so distraught. He saw me for a couple of sessions and said you know I don’t think I need to see you again because you’re doing your own psychiatry with your own artwork. I said well thank you, that’s what I feel I am doing. That’s my own psychoanalysis that I took upon myself and then depicted it through the art of the alchemy. It’s like the Nigredo, going into the darkness, that dark matter, which is the raw substance. Unless you get to that really dark stuff, you don’t have all that compost out of which to grow the seeds of the new reality, the one forged when you find those things that can become the pure gold. From the coal become that diamond.
ZB: Will you explain what about collage work appealed to you so much and how integral it is to manifestation?
PS: I love collage because it allows you to take pieces of the real world and reformat them into another magical reality. That for me is very freeing and liberating, whether it’s just to do with the mental space, the mind field, all those places which are the mind sky or whether It’s something which penetrates down into the material plane. It’s that freedom to live in your own world and create your own world at any time and place. You don’t need to be limited and locked down and confined by any precepts of what reality says you can have. The world of the imagination is so deep and rich. It’s that which connects this physical plane to the astral or the etheric, whatever you want to call it.
I have never any problem with inspiration, with manifestation and the tools to do that. I often feel like I can only touch the edge of the hem of the skirt of the magnificence of what the Goddess shows us in her realms of multi-dimensional reality. It’s so rich and infinite, that field of potential. Those little bits that one can bring down and bring in and manifest are like lifting the edge of the carpet of seeing underneath this huge resource, this huge magnificent realm, which is unlimited and unfettered. That’s one of the reasons I like collage. It just allows you to let the elements dance together in an arena beyond the confines of this world circus, to say anything is possible. It’s about when you can feel there’s so much potential and possibility and one is not hemmed in or pinned down. I don’t want be a butterfly pinned into someone’s collection. I want to be able to fly freely between all the realms and gather all the visions and stardust and weave them together into new beautiful pictures of unfolding realities, which don’t have any limits to what they can do and where they can go.
If we can’t bring magic into life, then what’s the point? Unfortunately, a lot of the social structures are very limiting to that. This whole economic reality which makes us confined to having to do jobs, having to do this, that and the other, in order to just survive. So much pins us down into being just a small fraction of our multidimensional beings. I hope that we can shift this into something a little more glorious. All of nature is so profoundly magical. But instead of being that, we just make nature into some sort of resource, which humans are there to plunder and serve their means, is so short sighed and unsustainable.
ZB: Can you give an example of what your artistic process is like? What is your preferred work environment or atmosphere?
PS: I’ve worked in so many different fields and atmospheres in my work, each one has had a different kind of milieu or feeling that wraps it all around. At this point, I’m able to function in many different artistic environments. It’s nice to be able to shift between the different realms. Each kind of process has its own sets of circumstances.
When I was doing the cut and paste kind of collage, I used to lay all my images out on the floor, cut things out and then be surrounded with all these images like a sea. Then I would bring one of my sets or backgrounds in and put it in front of me and then from this sea of images I’d bring in different players, different dancers and then let them interact and play within the set. Then wait and see when they would have certain gestures or movements that they would then reflect some kind of timeless, frozen moment, evocative of things beyond just what’s represented. That’s a very intangible thing but you know it when you see it. I used all kinds of ways of getting myself in the right state of mind. I had a friend, Jenny Fabian, who was a writer, she had to take a whole cornucopia of uppers and downers before she could get to the right balance, so she could write. I experimented with all kinds of modes of consciousness because I think an artist really has to look at consciousness. I’d say at this point; I can work in any kind of environment.
I work a lot on the computer these days doing digital collage. That’s a different kind of interaction. There’s another kind of meditation one has when working on a painting, that’s a different kind of feedback loop. The paintings would often speak to me. When I was painting Kali at one point, there was a time when I felt her energy and spirit come into the picture, really early on when it was a rough sketch. After that, every mark on the canvas was done with a lot of reverence because she was really there. Then in the studio, working on photographic shoots, in relation to say the Dakinis, that’s a whole other kind of practice.
It’s always very important for me to create a sacred space where I could have the person, if I’m working with a model, be able to relax into that, to be able to see you behind the camera, not as someone outside of themselves observing them but as someone who is part of them with the camera, as a third eye viewing them rather than a critical eye or objective viewer. This creates that synthesis, that symbiotic loop, where there’s this rarified atmosphere which is magical and allows people to go beyond themselves and bring out things that are unexpected and revelatory really.
For me, art is always a mixture of the intention and that kind of divine accident and you try to create space for that to happen within it. That’s the magic force the theater produces when you’ve got everything set right. That is a ritual space but I don’t always do it when I’m just working with my own work, with intentionality of creating ritual in a very formal way. It’s almost as though that’s already established and set up. I’ve never had any kind of lack of inspiration. I’m so fortunate that the muse is always with me and dancing in my mind space over time. Then it’s just about what is priority to be manifested at that moment.
I’m currently doing big pieces that are three dimensional. This is very demanding on me physically. It’s hard, getting older, things can be demanding. I’m attacking these very physical things at this point in my life, at 69 years old, as part of a heroine’s journey that I’m prepared to bravely take on doing this. A lot of really well known artists have interns or people who do these physical things for them and eventually I’m going to need that but I want to be able to show that a woman of a certain age is not ready to be thrown into a junk pile or the old people’s home or considered irrelevant. I want to show it’s my time now to feed my wisdom back into society because that’s what society is missing – the wisdom of the elders, with its cult of youth. It can enrich society if we are seen and recognized and understood as being vital and relevant. Not just for myself but for all the other women and their wisdom, who are sitting out there on the sidelines and need to be in the center of the circle. We need to rejuvenate and regenerate this whole pool of consciousness we’re pouring our energy into as we get older.
ZB: Will you talk about your use of poetry and text in your art and the dark humor you used to convey your intentions?
PS: Humor has always been a life line for me and not taking myself, or the situations I find myself in, ultimately too seriously. Even in the darkest times, a sense of humor can lighten everything and make the most daunting material approachable. I’ve always loved the combination of word and image. I like to have that connection between the two because I think there is a space that opens up when you can ignite with words and embody with the image. I’ve always loved words and images.
I used to get into trouble at school when I would write because I never used punctuation, I’d just use dashes because it was the way I really enjoyed writing and using words. It was like one stream of consciousness that wasn’t edited and was really flowing through. It’s that flow, that’s the poetic flow and that to me has always been as vital and exciting as the visual side of it too. I’ve always loved to use those together. When I did 50% The Visible Woman I came up with the idea of the transparent pages with poetry on it overlaid over the image, so I could place the words on the page in relation to the imagery and cement that connection between the two. That they aren’t separate but are interwoven, so those things that can’t quite be articulated with words can come across in an image but there is a wonderful opening into realms that can happen with the poetic use of language.
I’ve always appreciated the poetic form. It’s an intricate part of how I see, it’s just as powerful and beautiful and provocative as any painting or image. I was thinking of doing a publication that would redefine words that we use and taking out their negative overlays and bringing them back to their purity of essence, so we can start using words again with their full power and magical potency. It’s just one of the projects that I haven’t manifested yet.
ZB: Will you talk about the creation of the film The Other Side of the Underneath and what that experience was like for you?
PS: The Other Side of the Underneath came out of the theater production A New Communion for Freaks, Prophets, and Witches. I joined this all women theater group a couple of years after I left art school. I was looking for a place where I could share the creative process with others and be part of something larger than myself. When Jane Arden, the actress, playwright, and activist for female rights held a meeting to form this troupe, the first of its kind in England, I jumped on board when she mentioned the key words of creative collaboration and manifestation. We called our group Holocaust because Jane wanted to dramatically emphasize the plight of women and suggest that it was akin to one of history’s greatest atrocities.
The evolution of the theater piece came through the workshops we did, with Jane presiding, where we dug up all our wounds, power plays and complexes and sought to consolidate their essence in archetypal vignettes to shock and awaken consciousness around these issues. In 1971, we presented at the Open Space Theater in London and at the Edinburgh Film Festival. After that we went on to transform this into a film and went to Wales where we lived, commune style, in an old derelict pub for the duration of the project and process. I played a leading role and co-art directed. It was a very powerful and transformative experience, both full of elation and wrought with angst.
Many of the participants took psychedelics for the first time, on film, as part of the ‘group therapy’ experiment. I took my first mind altering tab of sunshine on film but in my own private session. Jane asked me to enter the trip on the theme of oppression, but my experience took me to the other end of the spectrum, as I found it liberating and enlightening and helped me access those parts of myself that were whole, intact and in connection with the universe.
The Other Side of the Underneath certainly forged new territory in the field of filmmaking and was the only feature film directed by a woman in that time period. It took the precepts of unorthodox psychiatrist R. D. Laing and tried to make a work of art out of this ‘anti-psychiatry’ approach. However, after the film was shot, the group fell apart as Jane and Jack Bond, her partner and producer of the movie, dropped out of sight and went on to edit and complete the film without the participation of the group. The fall out in the wake of the experience we shared was pretty brutal. For me it resulted in the breakup of my relationship with film maker Peter Whitehead, which took me many years to process.
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In part two, Zora Burden talks to Penny Slinger about the Dakini Oracle and the intersections of her surreal art and mystical practice and beliefs. In addition, next week, the full unedited interview will be made available in PDF form for readers who want to learn about more Slinger’s life and her inspirations.