By: Eileen Chen
Image credits: Liliana Kleiner
Streaks of magenta, white, and purple plummeted as Liliana Kleiner unrolled her fabric canvas painting Light Horse.
“See the little fish swimming?” She turned the painting on its side to showcase an aurora-tinted river dotted with two rows of fish. “And now…it turns into a horse!” She flipped the painting back vertically again, grinning. Indeed, the canvas now displayed a majestic horse of the river’s colours, bowing its serene head as it breathed out wisps of red fire or blood. Both images felt abstract to me, yet pregnant with symbolic meaning.
Liliana’s whole life is a tapestry of symbols in-progress. Born in Argentina and raised in Israel, her deep fascination with the human psyche led her to pursue a psychology degree at Haifa University in Israel, and later a PhD at Queen’s University in Ontario. As a student of psychology, however, Liliana found that a focus on behavioural therapy and impersonal theories could not satisfy her curiosity towards the human soul. She was fascinated by Freud, but unhappy with his androcentric bias. I didn’t know I could appreciate her candid personality more until her brusquely satisfying response to Freud: “What is this ‘penis envy’? I think you guys have an envy for my tits. You come from my womb but cannot give birth – you’re the ones who should be envious.”
The Jungian Society lecture that she attended in Montreal hit a bingo. Liliana found her calling in examining spirituality and psychology interconnectedly, and began studying dream interpretation. Eventually, she was able to help others connect to their inner selves by offering Jungian therapy and dream interpretation workshops.
Meanwhile, Liliana recorded her own dreams religiously, and it was one of them that ignited her relentless obsession with mythological goddesses. In the dream, she was walking alone in a forest when a dark-skinned old woman crossed paths with her and handed her a red book wordlessly. On the book was the sole word: “Lilit.” Liliana had assumed that “Lilit” referred to herself, as she was often called “Lilita” by her mother as a young girl. It was when she encountered a feminist magazine entitled “Lilith” that she decided to further investigate in the name, which pointed to a Hebrew goddess – Adam’s rebellious (and in Liliana’s words, “proto-feminist”) first wife – whom the Bible had left out.
This discovery led Liliana to dedicate fifteen years of her life to researching the myth and depicting it through a series of organic, hand-drawn pages, reprinted into a book that interprets the myth in pictures and haiku-styled verses in Hebrew, Spanish, and English. According to ancient Jewish folklore, Lilith had left Adam because he demanded her to obey him, and had flown to the Red Sea to copulate with thousands of demons. Adam had no option but to ask God for a second wife (Eve), this time from his rib, to ensure that she remains loyal. To Liliana, Lilith represents the “repressed feminine” in us as individuals and in society. To explain the concepts of gendered archetypal energy in simple terms, Liliana associates “masculine” with the head and “feminine” with the heart. Masculine energy is about discerning and acting, whereas feminine energy is receptive and encompassing. An individual is always composed of both, but society often represses the emotional and intuitive feminine in favour of the logical masculine. Liliana praised the insight of Mexican elders, who believe in thinking with the heart rather than the head. “Lilith is in exile, and needs to be retrieved,” she said firmly.
Immediately after The Book of Lilith came The Book of Inanna, to which Liliana devoted another decade. The book was revealed to me in its preserved, original form.
Liliana had removed the cloths and binding that swaddled the large book with extreme tenderness. I had reached out to help, but thought better than to touch the delicate work of art. Aside from the hardcover, each inner page was detached, and laminated in a protective plastic cover. “Parchment, seaweed, fox [fur], cedar…,” she labelled as she brushed a hand over each material used. As she lifted up each inner page, she began narrating the story of the goddess Inanna – a 6,000-year-old myth originating from Sumeria (modern-day Iraq).
In the beginning was wholeness of the three worlds: Spirit, Earth, and the Underworld. The three were eventually forced apart, and in the worlds above ground, Inanna roamed freely. She fell in love with a tree (which, miraculously, contained Lilith in the trunk); obtained powers of civilization, war, love, and wisdom after winning a beer-drinking contest with the god Enki; took lovers; and eventually married the shepherd Dumuzid. Wood and paper prints of red, black, and brown accompanied each chapter of Inanna’s life in the book. Despite all her powers, Inanna decided to renounce everything and descend to the Underworld to reunite with her dark sister, Ereshkigal. This chapter, my personal favourite, was represented by snakeskin and onion skins embedded in the organic paper to symbolize “shedding.” Liliana linked the Underworld with the human unconscious, and at my curiosity, explained at length how Inanna was able to reunite the three worlds after rising from the Underworld by sacrificing her newlywed husband.
“Nobody can go into the Underworld – the shadow, depression, psychotic episode, the land of darkness in ourselves – and come back alive and renewed without sacrificing something,” Liliana said. Why did Inanna sacrifice her young husband? Apparently, he was the only one who didn’t mourn when she became trapped in the Underworld. But after the descent is an occasion for reconstruction and revitalization.
“You see, she’s a symbol, and he’s a symbol,” said Liliana. “He’s the part of us that’s immature and not caring – that boyish energy.” The book concluded with an image of two female and two male figures in harmony amidst swirling colours.
“I treat the myth as if it was the dream of the people, and interpret it as I interpret dreams” Liliana said. And how do you interpret dreams? Liliana explained that it was much similar to learning a second language – you study the basic symbols, then allow intuition to guide that knowledge into application. There are collective symbols that share significances across people and cultures, and individual symbols with unique personal links that only the beholder would appreciate.
“What does dulce de leche mean to you?” Liliana asked as an example.
“Dessert? Very sweet dessert?” I tried. But to Liliana, dulce de leche connotes to childhood memories involving her mother in her Argentinian home.
Dreams intensify the dualities we experience in daily life, and try to get us to reconcile the extremes in ourselves. “There is always a message, and there is no bad dream,” Liliana insisted. Liliana advocates recording dreams each morning, lest they be forgotten. Even if you only remember one image or word, your recall abilities will improve the more frequently you write them down. “Catching a dream is like catching a fish from the sea of the unconscious. Now, the fish could be a starfish, a little sardine, a huge salmon, a whale, whatever…but it’s treasure. If you don’t put it in a bucket right away – right back to the sea. Slippery.”
On the topic of self-knowledge, Liliana exhibited and commented on the self-portraits that she has been painting almost every year. “It’s a way to have continuity, across countries, across languages, across culture, and also to continue to look inside in a creative way,” she said. All her paintings tend to be richly coloured, and some displayed herself as aged and wrinkled. When asked what changes she has observed in herself, she replied, “I get more and more beautiful!”
Her latest self-portrait, Dangerous Ideas, depicts herself with “one eye looking out and one eye looking in.” It represents to her “the artist battling with forces of the unconscious on one hand, and on the other, looking out and seeing the social context of the times and places where she lives in.”
Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Liliana believes: “the unlived life is not worth examining.” She concluded the interview by reiterating her love for her own mother and for Mother Earth. “I think She has a dream and She’s trying to convey it through Her creations – us. […] And I say it with modesty and gratitude, and this is what I want to pass down – to listen to the dream of Mother Earth, our beautiful mother.”
Off the camera, Liliana asked me what my generation’s view on the future was. Having hung around too many stressed-out and nihilistic students during exam month (and identifying to some extent with the description myself), I spoke of existential crises and anxiety towards economic and environmental conditions. Liliana frowned as she listened.
“Well, if you ever come to Gabriola, I’ll show you how to reconnect with Mother Earth,” she generously offered. I pictured her hermitage – a wooden, warehouse-looking studio, situated in the middle of unknown woods with a window looking out to the sea.
Can life really be so simple, so idyllic? I wondered as I dashed for the bus to my second-to-last final exam after lingering too long for my interview with Liliana, held captive by her stories. Can opposing energies – especially concepts with as nuanced a history and connotation as “masculinity” and “femininity” – really reach an equilibrium? Can there truly be a respectably singular “spirit” or “psyche” in us? Such doubts inevitably linger, but the skeptic in me was nudged aside by pure feelings of awe and respect when I examined Liliana’s works at so close a distance that afternoon.
Those interested in Liliana’s works can find abundant information on her website: http://lilianakleiner.com/
Liliana is invited to speak at our next Art-Science Dialogue “Female Nature,” which takes place at Kitsilano Community Centre on Saturday, February 23rd.