I ascend the stairs with the residue of courtship and embodied romance. Mounting, my curiosity and excitement stir. I am completing a journey mapped out for me before this building was born. There is an air of inevitability, of fate and I imagine myself as Persephone claiming her throne. I step outside and a warm breeze greets my face and tops of my shoulders. The heavy air has cleared and the sun is pushing through the clouds.
I nod toward J and then turn to face the majesty of the river. I close my eyes, opening to the unknown once more. Embraced by the warm breath of wind, I feel received and welcomed. A ritual is being moved and I am at ease within it. I slide my hands along the top of the glass partition, my right foot steps behind. My limbs swing and my head is held high for the first time today. Repetitively, my left arm densifies as right flies skyward.
I go to my knees and sit for a moment of eternity before leaning softly into the glass with a kiss. I sense an osmotic stillness as I kneel in what feels like prayer. My attention shifts to the creeping wet of puddles soaking into my leggings. My hands push the water away in figures of eight. With head bent down to the ground, my hair drinks in rainwater; I feel pleasure travel up each follicle.
An energy raises me to standing and I am greeted with dream images of the sun, of lightning striking and the river; I am all three for I belong, nothing is separate in this world. My arms stretch out behind me and my chest opens up in offering to this sense of rapture. I am smiling.
The Architecture of My Soul.
A Somatic Inquiry in the Victoria & Albert Museum, Dundee…
Dear reader, this paper is my invitation to you to accompany me as I briefly narrate an unfolding love story between myself and a space I perceive as sacred in Dundee. In 2019, I had the honour of being granted permission to undertake the first piece of somatic practice-led research conducted inside the newly built Victoria and Albert Museum in Dundee (V&A). I have also been in communication with the architect Kengo Kuma, who kindly shared architectural drawings of the building with me for my research paper. With this support, what followed is the matter of my beating heart, an inquiry inspired by the relationship between my perceiving body and the body of the museum.
Once upon a time last year, the doors to a new architectural space opened in the city of Dundee. Built on a bank of our river, its horizontal volume nestles between the spanning arms of the road and rail bridges. The museum’s situation has revealed an ever-present liminal locale where edges of wet and dry meet. The mirroring and amplifying body of the museum revitalises our ancient connection with the river and landscape as we are invited to bear witness to the dance of water, shadow, light and weather atop the museum’s skin.
The interiority of the museum is cave-like, embedded with fossils and energy I name as Eros. Contrasting textures, materials and levels entice closer inspection. Waved walls of wood panels invite eyes and fingers to explore inconsistent surfaces in a perpetual dance of encounter and response. Carefully positioned windows offer an intimacy as light and shadow delicately duet.
Inside this space, I come alive as I imagine my many ‘virtual bodies’ filling the vertical and horizontal space and beyond (Gil 2006). I dream of walls and ceiling softening, body of space and I melting into a timeless dance with river and sky. I have fallen in love with this cavernous sanctuary, for my dreaming body is received and echoed back to me. She has heard my unspoken longing and yearning to become bodily whole and she wants to duet with me.
The presence of this new body has roused me from a collective somnambulance I surrendered to as a child. At age nine I moved to Dundee with a heavy heart, finding the city to be missing conscious dialogue with the remarkable landscape, built up instead with grey, uninspiring buildings and spaces that offered no invitation to dwell (Heidegger 1993) or dream.
Dundee stands alongside the longest, most voluminous river in Scotland. Once upon a time, river and city were inter-connected, reciprocal in their import and export of trade and culture. The dreams of the city, buoyed by this waterway to the world, slowly ebbed away with the dismantling of the iconic Royal Arch, the harbour and the relocation of industry. Inhabitants no longer dwelled with the river Tay, resulting in dry thinking; a loss of creativity befell the city as we turned our backs on the importance of story and the river, yet she has never ceased to call out. Sky and river breathe through every street, their interwoven moods meeting flesh with whisper or whip, the stories within remaining largely unheeded. Over time, I lost my conscious connection to the imaginal and sensorial world, my shoulders rounding in deflation; pulling in my curious neck, my gaze inevitably fell to my feet as I embodied the Dundonian posture.
As an adult, roused by restlessness and the yearning to belong, I would leave the city behind several times, following my heart to live in vibrant dwellings such as New York City and Paris, nourishing my hungry soul with fresh perceptions (Hillman 2005). The recent opening of the Victoria and Albert museum has stirred awake citizenship in Dundee as the promise of new life and untold stories began to impregnate the imagination once more. The lifeblood of Dundee has begun to mirror the polyphony of river currents, inspiring creativity and potentiality; moisture has returned to our lives and the city’s sense of cultural, economic and somatic health and wellbeing is reviving.
Galvanised by curiosity, I visit frequently with the intention of tracking my somatic responses and deepening my familiarity with the space. Each visit feels like a date, my body responding the way it does when I am in love, every cell clamouring to be witnessed and in connection with this other. As I consciously enter relational dialogue with the space, I feel my soul desire to be witnessed and received is met and a union is taking place. Woodman regards the body as feminine and as the vessel of the soul (1990); my body is in conscious relationship with this body of space, we are in dynamic exchange which animates and enlivens us both. Over time, I understood I was somatically perceiving and responding to the presence of the space’s soul (Hollis 1995) and our souls were co-animating. The silent level of our relationship suggests the unconscious feminine (Hillman 1979, Woodman 1990) and my research was transformative in nature, mothered by the space which compounds my sense of the sacred feminine; it is for these reasons I refer to the ensouled space as her or she.
Cellularly, I feel her beckoning me to engage with her, to realise my soul potential within her walls. The research I undertook is my response to her invitation. Perceiving myself to be in relational dialogue with her, I opened to a process of inquiry with a person-centred relational presence (Mearns, Cooper 2005). From this perspective, I intentionally approached the research without agenda, remaining open and curious to what could arise organically within this spacious relational container, recognising this boundary as a place where ‘something begins its essential unfolding’ (Heidegger 1993: 356). Influenced by Romanyshyn (2013), McNiff (1993, 2007) and Organic Inquiry (Clements et al (1998), I engaged with my intuition and dreams, widening my perception to receive the subtle and silent stories unfolding in response to my inquiry.
From prior visits, I perceived three sites to be most enlivening therefore my practical method was to collect data in these particular areas. To yield data of depth beyond my habitual perceptive state, I chose to undertake continuous cycles of somatic inquiry underpinned by the principles of authentic movement, accompanied by a witness (J). This particular somatic practice, rooted in active imagination, supports the body to actualise unconscious material kinaesthetically, capturing the symbolism within subsequent dialogue and creative expression. The uniqueness of each site facilitated experiences and embodiment individual to the architecture of these spaces, yet all interweaved to create a dynamic process deepened by the previous encounters.
Site 1 - The Window
This is no ordinary window; it invites a witnessing of the river. Belly of museum meeting belly of water, surfaces not quite touching yet full of haptic promise. As I approach, my breath leaves me momentarily from aesthesia, shocked by the beauty of the window to the river. The windows are a translucent skin leaning over the river, parallelogram in shape with bold, masculine lines against the soft white light reflecting inside. Exhaling my subtle gasp, I help my witness move chairs and low tables to clear the space for my movement exploration.
I place my hand on my heart to source its deep beats and take a moment to allow this compassionate touch to soothe my dysregulation. As my breath and heart synchronise their rhythms, I nod, indicating my readiness.
Closing my eyes, I take some tender side steps to a spot I perceive as the centre. I feel it is important to face the river from this midpoint, baring my all. I sense cooling air on my skin. My left arm densifies as my right arm finds flight, reaching up towards the ceiling. My knees bend and twist in mimicry of the building’s architecture, turning me around. I sense trepidation in my movements, as if I am approaching relationship with the space with slight caution. I don’t know with certainty that she will duet with me today.
I kneel on the floor and an image of a lake emerges; I peer in and see my reflection. I am reminded of the myth of Narcissus, yet unlike him, I recognise myself. In this moment, I understand the museum mirrors me. This realisation frees something in me and the quality of my moving changes as my muscle tone embodies a confidence.
In the background, I hear the squeaking soles of cleaners’ shoes, the slop of wet mops and the opening and closing of doors as staff go about their business. I enjoy the contrast of the ordinary alongside the extraordinary. It is a living example of how dimensions of the world coexist together, all that separates are our awareness of them.
Lying down on the cold limestone, I feel like a new born, my skin meeting the world as if for the first time. As I move from this position, my energy stirs and my movements become fuller with my presence. I have committed to this dance and the space is now meeting me in it. My right arm swings circularly and I recognise this motion from previous explorations. I know in my bones my right fist wants to penetrate the ground, to smash into it, yet it has never fulfilled this ritual with the energy and intention required to do so. Barely noticeably, my fist makes soft contact with the ground then I am moved elsewhere.
Drawn to the window, my right hand crosses in front of the pane with a slow reach towards the river. I lean back on to my left foot, my head dips forward and my spine arches at the top of my back; my peripheries pull inward to my navel as I descend to the floor. I sense our time is coming to an end; my right hand and fingers stroke the edges of the window frame in tender and reluctant farewell.
I gently open my eyes, taking a moment before indicating to J that I am returned; we both scribble some notes and speak briefly of our experiences. J shares he witnessed a courtship, of lovers touching for the first time interwoven with a sense of death. He shares words which spring forth as he witnesses, ‘the way that lovers seek death in each other’s arms as well as life’. His words take my memory to the exact moment I perceived this in my movement.
Site 2 - The corner
Walking straight to the site with the afterglow of the first courtship, I am seized, exploring without hesitation. J has not settled himself, yet my left elbow is angling towards the innermost corner. This intersection is a combination of masculine lines and feminine tucks with less natural light, offering an intimate woody glow to the space.
My body moves me with ease as energies flow unimpeded. A romance begins with stroking palms over wood and cheeks pressing into the cold of surfaces. A sigh of pleasure and relief warms my belly, softening muscles as it spreads through my front body. Curious fingers travel, exploring edges and the unseen underbellies of wood panels; in these shadows, my fingers scrape against concrete wall and an occasional cobweb.
With an ear resting against a sloping panel, I listen to the sound skin makes as my arms and palms sweep the wood; it is the breath of my skin, each pore an open mouth. My energy pulsates through me as I embody my stealth onto the floor. On all fours, I am a warm-blooded animal, my muscles and bones emboldened with masculine primacy. I flaunt my prowess with undulating shoulders and mammalian flexion. There is a confidence within this continuous movement as palms and soles navigate ground and wall with ease. There shall be no falling today for my body is centred and I feel completely oriented in this space. I instinctively know where edges of earth and sky begin and end.
I experience a sense of sacred arrival and an immediate freedom follows. My movements are playful and light, I jig without purpose, revelling in liberation. My right arm and shoulder begin to swing, they are readying for the motion. My right fist smashes into the ground with a force which signals to my whole body the ritual is complete.
A shift takes place and my right arm is no longer of the sky, it is angular and masculine, it is the building. In my imagination, I see the bones of my right arm taking on the shape and appearance of the architecture. My left arm is released from its heavy, concrete pull and begins to dance and float with the river and the sky. They equally explore their new sensations and switched roles before finding mutual freedom. I am dancing a prayer which needs no words.
J witnesses a sacred opening begin to emerge as my shoulders, arms and heart space open. He speaks of me being lifted from above as if I am floating over the glass into the air. My breath is powerful and accompanies me as I grow into my movements. As my fist smashes the terrace floor, he expects the concrete to crack. He enjoys watching my freedom and my lightness of body. We both describe a rapture.
Oscillating between the corner and the floor, this is a dance of utmost intimacy and display, an intricate exchange of lover and warrior. I do not stray far from the folds in the wall yet my raw power fills the space in ascension. As I move between vertical and horizontal dimensions, I embody tenderness and dominance, the ancient energies of masculine and feminine. My body curves and straightens as it simulates the shapes and textures of this nook.
Slapping open palms on the floor, I bare teeth. My right shoulder engages my arm in circular preparation to smash my fist into the ground. The contact between my knuckles and the floor is limp and unsatisfying. I sense I have not yet embodied the maturity, muscular or emotional, it requires for successful completion.
Returning to the corner, I recline, flushed. I rest. My hips open as right foot finds an unventured space between wood; I let it linger there in intimacy. I settle as my muscles release, softening my edges as I nest into the wall. Energy stirs again and once more I find myself on the ground, claiming territory. J anchors me with a call to return; I seek rest and reassurance under the bench, retreating into the shadows. Creeping out, I roll belly down onto the cool floor, my legs and arms spread wide just like the corner. I smile inwardly, I could stay here forever.
J registers an ease into a continuous flow of sensuous movement. He sees animal and bares his teeth in recognition. He witnesses an erotic quality to my interaction with the building, acknowledging how incredibly intimate this dance is. He speaks of the act of love making and how he could feel the hair on his arms stand up, of my flushed face as if from post coital bliss, lying alongside my lover. There is no tension, just a peaceful glowing energy. He says it is beautiful.
Site 3 - The Terrace
The layered process of data collection facilitated an archetypal hero’s journey through continual descent and return (Hartley 2017), resulting in individuation potentiated through active imagination in movement (Chodorow 1997). What emerged were transformational experiences of conscious embodiment revealed and symbolised through the emergence of mythological archetypes Eros, Narcissus and Persephone.
By undertaking research of a deeply intimate nature, I actively pursued my self-care, enabling conscious self-regulation and reorganisation of outdated patterns of embodiment. The arrival and accompaniment of three archetypes supported my capacity to enter depth connection with myself and the world; Narcissus helped me to understand I belong, Eros supported me to allow flow of masculine and feminine energies, awakening my conscious sensuality and sexuality and Persephone celebrated my journey to become a mature, individuated woman.
The outcome is a story of union and reunion for as I have become a part of the space’s ancestry, she has become a part of my corporeal structure. My experiences were invited and mothered by a sacred space built with the intention of extending perception beyond her walls to the landscape beyond. My deepening somatic awareness supported me to heed her call to return to wholeness and reconnect with all that is ever-present within myself and the world around me.
I returned to Dundee in order to be close to the V&A, intuiting the museum could nurture my wandering soul.By following my dreaming body into actuality, I honoured my soul desire for conscious embodiment and relationship. The space has enabled me to restore connection to my vitality and I no longer need to relocate to feel alive. I have come home to myself and it is here, I shall dwell (Heidegger).
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