Continuing our conversation from Part 1, Enrique probes into why I chose abstraction in an environment that seems to favour scenic depictions for tarot.
E.E: Tarot-aesthetics tend to swing between the vintage and the kitsch. On the one hand there is the allure of the old, expressed through classic decks and occultist practices. On the other hand there is the emotional comfort of a new-age sentimentality. The art of the Twenty Century embarked on a quest for abstraction that one could see as the unaware fulfillment of the theosophic doctrine: all kinds of artists from all kinds of cultural and religious backgrounds (Kandinsky, Malevich, Klein, Rothko, Agnes Martin, etc…) met on the common ground of pure forms. This somehow looks like what you define as “pure consciousness.” Twenty-Century tarot followed the opposite path. Everything became more anecdotic, edulcorated. Yet you are making this very intriguing gesture… Looking though your deck I was reminded of something Hugo Ball said: “Adopt symmetries and rhythms instead of principles.” In a context where people seem to be terrified of what they call “unillustrated pips,” what made you turn the whole deck into an abstraction?
MBD: Well to be honest, I wasn’t consciously trying to make an artistic statement that follows or responds to twentieth-century art, nor was I setting out to turn tarot into an abstraction. I just wanted something pretty, simple, and practical. But, at the same time, I also wanted something that’s not currently available… because unless it’s different, why bother?
I love the diversity of decks available now, but none of them totally fit the way I read. So I wanted to create something that expresses how I read tarot, and in some ways take some of the work out of how I read, too. By that I mean that when I read, when I’m looking at cards, I am continually reducing them down to their most basic principles, mainly their numbers and elements — and then looking at the relationships between the numbers and the elements, or combinations of numbers and elements. I’m looking at what the principles are that the card is built upon, so I kind of disagree with Hugo Ball: in the same way that geometry is how consciousness expresses itself, symmetry and rhythm (as aspects of geometry) are how principles (aspects of consciousness) are represented.
But it depends on how we define “principle,” too. Perhaps in Mr. Ball’s context, “principle” referred more to moral principles, or societal principles rather than “principle” as “essence.” I think he was after that essence with his statement, but when speaking to the “principled” culture of a post-Victorian age, getting to that essence required first dismantling societal principles, and that’s what “adopting symmetries and rhythms” does. But that’s just the start. Dismantling societal “principles” through symmetry and rhythm (read: geometry) leads toward the essence or principle of a thing, but isn’t its essence, its “principle.” So we’re actually using the same word to mean opposite things… or opposing directions of the same process.
Again, I’ll refer to yoga: when I’m practicing or teaching a pose or set of poses, I look at their essence, the principles that the shapes are built upon, the actions that are universally consistent from shape to shape, position to position, pose to pose… and what is required in the body to not only achieve those shapes, but sustain them from both the structural pattern and the most interior and essential rhythm. Through them, I’m after the principle of the pose or group of poses.
What specific efforts are required, and what overall efforts can be reduced?
What must be maintained, and what can be let go of?
When let go of, is the integrity compromised?
Where is effort excessive?
Where is effort lacking?
Where is my mind?
Where is it not?
In Tarology, you said: “the body shows the destination of the mind” — this is probably the best description of yogasana I’ve heard in a long time, but I’d replace the word destination with direction. In context, you were referring specifically to where the limbs are directed compared to where face is directed. But the statement extends much, much further. The body not only shows the mind’s direction of intent, the direction of movement, action, or thought, but the body also shows the mind’s very presence.
For most of us, our minds only inhabit certain parts of our bodies, or certain layers, and it’s through the body’s position, tone, effort, collapse, integrity, functions, circulation, vibrancy, etc, that we can observe where the mind is present, or where it is going, and where it is absent. And so, in this sense, yoga postures are about balancing the mind by symmetrically distributing consciousness through the body. This is the symmetry and rhythm that perhaps Ball was talking about, but it’s built on the principle of balancing consciousness. So the principle is first, the geometry is second; or, the geometry expresses consciousness — the body reflects the direction of the mind.
So, like my yoga practice, my tarot practice is just another method, another expression of that principle of balancing to consciousness. I do this, as mentioned, by reducing cards to their essence. But sometimes reducing cards to their essence is a lot of extra work! Many decks, beautiful as they are, have so much going on in them that depending on how one reads, the details can either be informative or distracting… Don’t get me wrong, I love the artistic decks that are packed with scenes and symbolism. I read with them, I study them, I look up their symbolism, I contemplate what that symbolism means to me, and how it interacts with the symbols on other cards, and I get a lot out of those scenic representations. I love seeing how different artists depict similar ideas, how they represent emotions and experiences that we all share through various different means. Each of these scenes gives a different shade, a different colour of what the card itself represents. But in doing so, they also somewhat “fix” that shade of the card in some way. Of course they can still be interpreted in many different ways, and their context changes from reader to reader, querent to querent, day to day, context to context… but they are still limiting in a way that can be restrictive.
With the Orbifold, I wanted to remove those restrictions — not from tarot itself, but from my own interpretations. Of course then the question becomes, “well why not just use a set of blank cards, or just short-hand numbers and elements on otherwise blank cards, or use a set of completely random images?”
This would miss the point of tarot, in my opinion. Tarot is a structure. 22 Majors, 16 Courts, 40 pips of Ace to 10 in 4 elements. It’s a fine line between removing all the limitations to the degree that it’s no longer a tarot deck, and removing just enough limitations that the reader is free within the structure to awaken their internal knowledge and grow into those expanded limits. But I didn’t set out thinking “I’m going to abstract the tarot.” Instead, I thought, “what’s the essence of what I need from a tarot deck?” I guess that’s probably what is meant by abstraction, though I often think of abstraction as a distortion rather than a clarification. Perhaps this is just my own misunderstanding of the word abstraction and its ideals… but for me it was just a natural and practical extension rather than an intellectual exercise or artistic statement.
I was definitely inspired by the Marseilles tradition, and in some way I see the Orbifold as a modern Marseilles deck. The non-scenic pips of the Tarot de Marseilles gets closer to that essence I’m after, but my problem with it is that there is a clear separation between the 38 scenic cards (22 Majors + 16 Courts) and the 40 non-scenic pips. This separation is, perhaps, where our common tarot idea that the Majors represent spiritual aspects, and the Minors represent daily life, or “un-spiritual” aspects of life comes from, even if it was not intended. This is a fundamental problem in the way we see tarot in my opinion, since there truly is no separation between the spiritual and the mundane, as we discussed yesterday.
To fix this fundamental problem, we are faced with a choice: represent all cards with scenes and people (or other natural beings) like we see in the Waite-Smith Tarot, and those that followed -or- represent all cards through the “abstraction” of being non-scenic. Doing them half-and-half just reinforces our illusory division between “life” and “spirituality”… at least by dividing them along the structure in that 38/40 way.
There is a deck that I really love, and it’s the first one that I really dug deeply into with tarot: The Wild Unknown. Of course it speaks to me from an artistic standpoint simply because it is so stark, so stunning, so rich, and yet there’s a simplicity to it… I love that it is impersonal in the sense that there are no people, but it is very relatable on a personal level as well.
It just occurred to me what I also love so much about it: it is scenic and non-scenic, like a Marseille deck, BUT the division between scenic and non-scenic illustrations does not follow the “38 Courts + Majors/40 non-scenic pips” division. Animals appear across the structure, in the pips, in the Majors, in the Courts… and the “non-scenic” (which are still very scenic, just no animals) cards also span across Majors and Minors. The entire deck is simply expressing nature, and by breaking the scenic/non-scenic duality across the Majors and Minors, it is, as a whole, saying that it’s all nature, it’s all spiritual, it’s all consciousness. That aspect didn’t cognitively occur to me until just now, but I think it must have been a principle influencing my creation of the Orbifold.
To answer your question, though, I think that what made me “turn the entire deck into an abstraction” was to make it impersonal to the degree that is universally relatable: no people, so no gender/race/age/status issues, and no social or cultural overtones, so applicable cross-culturally. The tarot structure is still very clear, in fact in some ways the division between Major, Court, and Pip is more blatant, but there is no value judgement made about them. The Five of Air is no more or less special than the Hermit. No more or less spiritual, no more or less important, no more or less applicable to the interior or exterior world. So the abstraction creates equanimity… it honours the tarot structure, but affords the reader much more freedom to move within that structure. Rather than telling the reader about the principle, it just communicates the principle and asks the reader to find that principle within themselves and go from there. The cards are a trigger to accessing aspects locked within ourselves, and in this case, abstraction is the key.