Awakenings

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Karen Sewell, Awakenings I, 2020. Installation, Helium balloon, organza mesh, mirror, soft resting elements, 2.5m x 2.5m x 3.5m. Photograph supplied by artist.

Just days before New Zealand went into full level 4 lockdown due to the COVID-19 virus, my husband Graham and I spent an evening in a warehouse in Central Auckland, shooting this work titled Awakenings I. What we experienced that evening was surprising, strange, and otherworldly. As we worked in the dark with a video light, the huge transparent rainbow PVC balloon and organza mesh transformed. It became a levitating partially-concealed object of uncertain substance radiating dancing, shifting fields of colour and light that changed as we moved around and under it. The immediate encounter evoked a sense of wonder, acting for us as a threshold into an experience of the numinous.

Since that evening, I’ve wondered at the timing of this work; of how God might want to be at work in me, and in others during lockdown; of the possibilities waiting for us to be awakened to in these unusual circumstances.

‘Numinous’ means something mysterious, awe-inspiring, or supernatural; unknown or unknowable. It speaks to everything within the realm of our experience which cannot be quantified, explained, or contained. Our intuition, and our sweeping feeling-states. Our connection to the cosmos, and sense of the divine. The German theologian Rudolf Otto, in his book The Idea of the Holy (1923), explains it as a ‘non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self’. 

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Karen Sewell, Awakenings I, 2020. Installation, Helium balloon, organza mesh, mirror, soft resting elements, 2.5m x 2.5m x 3.5m. Photograph supplied by artist.

Artistically, my interest is in the intersection of art and spirituality. This interest has led me to seek and receive inspiration (often through prayer and contemplation) and then to mediate the creation of spaces for audience/participants to engage with and within. The spaces are an effort to open up the potential for a viewer/participant to explore and experience the terrain of the numinous, including an awakening to a sense of wonder, and liminal moments of encounter with the divine. 

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Karen Sewell, Detail of Awakenings I, 2020. Installation, Helium balloon, organza mesh, mirror, soft resting elements, 2.5m x 2.5m x 3.5m. Photograph supplied by artist.

A sense of awe and wonder is closely linked to our deep feelings and emotions, and is excited by something strange and surprising. With my work, I aim to provide a sense of awe and at the same time create a calm atmosphere, a sense of a place to just ‘be’; to observe, to explore, to create, to be present in the moment, to just breathe. It can be about connecting us with nature, with others, with our feelings, and developing a sense of things unknown outside of ourselves. 

As Albert Einstein once put it:

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. S/He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead – his/her eyes are closed. The insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion. To know what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true spirituality.

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Karen Sewell, Detail of Awakenings I, 2020. Installation, Helium balloon, organza mesh, mirror, soft resting elements, 2.5m x 2.5m x 3.5m. Photograph supplied by artist.

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Karen Sewell is a visual artist who lives and works in Auckland, New Zealand. She is interested in the intersection of art and spiritual experience. She works across multiple media including sculpture, installation, painting, drawing, and photography, specialising in installation practice. She was the recipient of the Premier Award in the Waitakere Trust Art Award in 2011, and has exhibited work across New Zealand, with a highlight being Wonder Tree, 2019 at Splore Festival in February 2019. In addition to her creative practice, Sewell founded The Bonfire and now facilitates this national artist network. The aims of The Bonfire are to assist and support the thriving of other artists, through online blog posts and face-to-face regular meet-ups involving workshops, retreats, and events.

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