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The Spiritual Dimension in the Art of Alexander de Cadenet

Watkins Mind Body Spirit Issue 46

Fellow artist Patrick Howe looks at how Alexander de Cadenet’s art combines inquiries into the big philosophical questions of life, death and the enigma of art itself with an idiosyncratic, ‘post-pop’ aesthetic.

When we are considering the spiritual dimension of art in any serious way, the truly spiritual artist must be art-educated and have a good grasp of art history. They must practice their craft consistently and understand how the gears of the art world turn. And foremost, the artist must be rooted in the practical aspects of the spiritual life. Then the question is, what kind of artwork will materialize through the spiritually awakened artist that would be wholly unique to our time? One artist exploring this question is British artist Alexander de Cadenet, who works predominantly in painting, photography and sculpture.

In de Cadenet’s Skull Portrait series he uses X-rays of his subject’s skulls, which are then reproduced in high key, stunning electric color. Some of the skull X-rays show his subjects wearing articles of elegant jewelry, which create a stark contrast to the clinical ghoulishness of the skulls they adorn. But how do de Cadenet’s skull portraits communicate the spiritual dimension?

Because they use a universal symbol of death, the human skull. I recall once touring an ancient Roman catacomb with a tour group. We came upon an alcove that was piled high with human skulls and before the mound was a sign that read: “Who you are now we once were. What we are now you will soon be.” After reading that, everyone in the tour group was suddenly ready to get out of there and go have lunch.

A characteristic of the unawakened state is a fear of the dissolution of the human form. That is also why novice Buddhist monks are sometimes encouraged to meditate in graveyards.

You cannot awaken spiritually without embracing death; that’s not a morbid idea, it’s a fact. Reminding people of the inevitability of death, as de Cadenet’s skull portraits do, is to nudge them toward the spiritual dimension. The truly spiritual person dies before they die. That is to say, they have let go of identity with their physical, mental and emotional forms enough to realize that they are something more. And ironically, in doing so, they begin to experience an increase of life and joy that all great spiritual teachings promise. In his skull portraits, de Cadenet is using modern art language and processes to communicate the vital spiritual teaching of death in a way that is relevant to our time.

De Cadenet also makes sculpture out of meteorite because he believes the material may cause us to ponder the mystery and infinite vastness of the universe. For de Cadenet, the fact that the meteorite may have travelled to earth from countless light years away is a sacred contemplation. It connects him to a sense of awe into which he invites his viewers.

Many of de Cadenet’s meteorite sculptures and bronze works relate to stories from religious texts or mythologies. For example, in his piece “Hunger”, created out of meteorite, we see an apple with two bites taken out of it, which is the Biblical symbol of Adam and Eve having eaten of the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. Their choice got them booted out of the Garden of Eden and set the Fall of Humanity into motion.

According to mythologist Joseph Campbell, almost all cultures on the planet have a similar Eden/Fall story. Campbell believed that the “forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil” represents humanity’s ingrained self-righteous judgment and the presumption that we know all.

Therefore, the apple with the bites out of it symbolizes the stage in human evolution when the human mind be- came self-referential and divorced from the natural order of life. And so, within meteorite, de Cadenet has incased an instruction, like a message in a cosmic bottle from outer space that tells us to let go of our know-it-all attitude. It tells us to welcome the unknown, symbolized by the sacredness of space and the infinite vastness of the universe.

In his bronze sculpture “An Impossible Task?” we see an axe buried into a log, which de Cadenet says refers to the tale of King Arthur. As the legend goes, King Arthur was the only one who could withdraw the sword from the grip of the stone. The story of King Arthur is a metaphor and de Cadenet’s “An Impossible Task?” is a variation on that theme.

The deeper, universal meaning of the metaphor is that King Arthur represents the True Self. The stone represents the rigidity of human egoic unconsciousness. The sword represents wisdom because it is the light of wisdom that carves falsehood away from truth. Thus, the sword of wisdom can only be withdrawn from the grip of egoic unconsciousness by the True Self who then uses it with discernment and integrity. However, the True Self is not a legendary king or special being, it is anyone who awakens to their true spiritual identity now, in the present.

Then wisdom comes to them naturally and easily. This is what “An Impossible Task?” may remind us of. It has also been said that de Cadenet’s Life Burger series relate to Pop Art. The Pop Art movement originated in Britain in the mid-1950’s and then spread to America. Pop Art was the first modern art movement to use objects of popular culture as its subject. Pop artists used Tootsie Pops, brand name products like Campbell’s Soup cans, science fiction movie characters like Robby the Robot, and cartoon strips as their source of inspiration. The established art world raised their noses at Pop Art, considering it to be a crass and banal departure from real, serious art—but Pop was unstoppable. The average person on the street loved Pop because he could finally understand something about art.

With Pop Art, the art world was no longer a high-minded exclusive club for the art world elite, now it was a party for everyone!

De Cadenet’s Life Burger series carry a whiff of Pop Art in that he uses popular culture images, but with a twist. Instead of common consumer products he uses luxury items. You see Rolex watches, sexy women, private jets, fancy cars, and other objects that make life luxurious and lusty, all layered together between burger buns. Which conjures a fattening materialism that works like a toxic cholesterol on the spiritual heart. Not only is materialism unhealthy, in its extreme it can dictate political policy and shape the structure of a society. I find that the Life Burgers are not particularly pleasing to look at, but I don’t think it was the artist’s intention to make them look pretty. However, de Cadenet’s message is clear: there is no inner peace, security or spiritual awakening to be found in identifying with material things and attachment to sensual pleasure.

Unlike the Pop Art party of the 50’s, de Cadenet’s Life Burgers seem to be saying that the party is over. Materialism, greed, lust and desire are over. However, from the spiritual perspective, the real issue is always more about attachment to things, and less about things or worldly experiences themselves.

De Cadenet is also a photographer so I would like to conclude by sharing his description of a recent experience while taking photographs in the Mojave Desert, in California: “When I’m out there taking photos of the desert plants, rocks and encounters, it is a form of meditation. A connection to some form of higher power. It’s an intense form of focus and concentration. It’s about being completely in the moment, absorbed fully in the activity. In this state of mind one becomes a channel for an energy that is so much vaster than oneself. When I enter a meditative state, I can also experience art on a different dimension. You get to experience things in the art that may have not been present when you first encountered it. It’s as though you have accessed the hidden secretive dimensions of the artwork. A connection to what it was that inspired the artworks creation.”


ALEXANDER DE CADENET is a visual artist who has been exhibiting his art- works internationally for the past twenty years. His artworks reveal an exploration into philosophical and spiritual questions such as the meaning of life and death, the nature of human achievement and the sacredness of art itself. He was intro- duced to meditation by a Zen Master and integrates this practice into his production of art. His recent film Meditation at the Oasis which explores the relationship between meditation and making and experiencing art can be seen here: www.

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Poem (Krause) - New Mexico Desert Dawn
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