Art and Photography > What Others Say About Adi Da's Art > Donald Kuspit

The Female Nude in the Art of Adi Da Samraj

by Donald Kuspit

Donald KuspitDonald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. Winner of the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism (1983), given by the College Art Association, Professor Kuspit is a Contributing Editor at Artforum, Sculpture, New Art Examiner, and Tema Celeste magazines, the Editor of Art Criticism, and on the advisory board of Centennial Review. He has doctorates in philosophy (University of Frankfurt) and art history (University of Michigan), as well as degrees from Columbia University, Yale University, and Pennsylvania State University. He is Professor of Art History and Philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and has been the A. D. White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University (1991 - 1997). Among his recent books are The Cult of the Avant-Garde Artist, The Dialectic of Decadence, Signs of Psyche in Modern and Postmodern Art, Health and Happiness in 20th Century Avant-Garde Art, Idiosyncratic Identities: Artists at the End of the Avant-Garde, The Rebirth of Painting in the Late 20th Century, Psychostrategies of Avant-Garde Art, and Redeeming Art: Critical Reveries.

The page references for the Quandra Loka images are for the book, The Quandra Loka Suite, for which this article is the Introduction. Adi Da describes the suite: "Quandra Loka is a visual meditation on a very simple circumstance: a woman in and near a pool of water. Narcissus, the archetype of ego, gazes at his own reflection in a pond, never able to contact the 'object' of his self-enamored affection. But Quandra, the true beloved, is one with the water itself, whether in or out of the pool."

I’m with Adi Da: the issue of life — and art — is how to enter “the domain of intimacy — where people are involved with the profundity of fundamental human existence.” There the “realm of merely social meaning and social signals”— encumbered with the “‘additives’ that interfere with an understanding of existence for real” — falls away. It is an age-old problem — in effect the problem of salvation — articulated by many thinkers in many different ways. How is one to separate the dross of life from what is essential to it? In Heideggerean terms, how is one to achieve authenticity in the midst of everydayness? In psychoanalytic terms — those of Donald Winnicott — how is one to recover one’s True creative Self from one’s False compliant Self? Or, as Erich Fromm asks, how is one to emerge from one’s social role and identity into spontaneous individuality? Adi Da shows us one way: by returning to the sensory self, in effect renewing it. I am suggesting that, whatever else they mean, Adi Da’s photographs convey a radical consciousness of the primal body, which is invariably woman’s body. It is the truly first body, the original body — the body in which we originated, in which every human body generates. To return to woman’s body — to identify with it, and, more deeply, to re-enter it, as Adi Da’s photographs of it suggest we do — is to recover our own originative powers, to spontaneously regenerate ourselves, indeed, to be reborn. And, as a genuine second birth — essentially a conversion experience — always is, to be born without trauma, not only the trauma of separating from woman’s primal body but of entering the everyday world. For in merging with elemental woman the everyday becomes beside the point of life. Recovering one’s sense of being a lived body through the living body of woman — indeed, by vicariously living the body of woman through Adi Da’s photographs, which show just how successfully art can be an instrument of intimacy — one leaves the familiar everyday world behind to enter an unfamiliar paradise of the senses, which have a wisdom of their own.

Work after work conveys a sense of intimate, absolute merger: woman’s body is literally immersed in water, and in many images seems to merge with it, losing materiality to become sheer fluidity. It often becomes transparent, as though it was a passing fancy — an illusion, hypnotic but transient. In Quandra Loka #203 (page 31) the breast is the opaque vestige of a body in constant process. The nipple precipitates out of the flow, a temporary island in a boundless ocean whose substance is light and shadow. They do not simply play over the water’s surface, but are the substance of its depth. The complex sequence of nine photographs in Quandra Loka #222 (page 41) narrates the protean interplay of woman and water in seemingly endless detail. In similar sequences, for example, Quandra Loka #156 (page 87), the body seems more noticeable than the water, however striated by watery light, while in other sequences, for example, Quandra Loka #145 (page 99), the body all but dissolves in the water, to the extent that they seem indistinguishable. Sometimes a woman’s face emerges, like the proverbial phantom from the depths, and sometimes details of her body stand out with ecstatic abruptness.

image from the Quandra Loka Suite

Indeed, again and again Adi Da’s photographs convey a sense of aesthetic as well as physical ecstasy. Virtually all of his images are masterpieces of abstraction — ecstatic visions of the female body that are simultaneously formal epiphanies. Quandra Loka #231 (pages 33-34) makes the point succinctly, indeed, with deft clarity: an abstracted torso — at once elegant and elemental, like a Henry Moore body-sculpture — stands out of the luminous flux in which it is submerged. The torso seems to be drawn, as though by some quick, sure hand. It becomes pure line, transcending the photographic condition. Even in the sequence of images in Quandra Loka #220 (page 117), in which woman’s body becomes a sculpture — initially a realistic, conspicuous mass, ultimately an abstract, elusive vision (the body is fragmented, with some parts imaginatively combined to make a formal as well as expressive point) — there is a strong sense that the figure has been actively created by a quick hand rather than passively found by a static eye. Indeed, there is nothing static in any of Adi Da’s images. His water has a painterly energy — an inner texture. It is as though the ripples of light defined inner space. They are within the surface as well as on it, forming it yet independent of it. The nipple is concentrated sacred space — a radiant aureole with a shadowy center — signalling the sacredness of bodily space as a whole. Like a kind of repoussoir device, it seems to burst through the picture plane even as it signals the mysterious depth within the picture.

At once classic and iconoclastic, Adi Da’s female nude becomes a spiritual emblem — a symbol of consciousness becoming conscious of its origin in unconscious matter, and so able to rise above it while remaining connected to it (and thus simultaneously embodied and disembodied) — even as she remains an exciting sensuous form. Adi Da’s female is a new Aphrodite, her curves reflecting those of the sea from which she emerges, even as they take their own erotic course. Indeed, Adi Da’s female body has what another artist-mystic,William Blake, called “the lineaments of satisfied desire,” in Adi Da’s case desire fulfilled, it seems, by self-expression. Adi Da’s female nude is cryptic — an arcane symbol of the dialectic of process and reality, to use Alfred North Whitehead’s phrase — even as she is eros perfected into radical explicitness. She is that rare thing in modern art, the female not simply as seductive body, the victim of the so-called male gaze, but the female as a spiritual presence, embodying consciousness of “the profundity of fundamental human existence,” to again quote Adi Da’s words. Such emblematic, peculiarly serene images as Quandra Loka #211 (page 19), Quandra Loka #207 (page 39), Quandra Loka #204 (page 27), Quandra Loka #205 (page 51), Quandra Loka #143 (page 85), Quandra Loka #228 (page 97), make this self-evident. They are remarkable visions of the goddess emerging from the depths even as she remains one with them. It is a vision of the goddess’s face that is the fruit of profound intimacy with her body. It is a rare artist who can convey, convincingly, the sense of being face to face with the source of being. Adi Da can clearly live in the depths without succumbing to their pressure, bringing back pearls of art to prove it.

What is perhaps most striking about Adi Da’s photographs is their gnostic quality — the intricate movement of light and shadow that gives them their expressive depth and profound intimacy. It is more than a matter of standard chiaroscuro. Adi Da is not simply employing the evocative power of light and shadow, but bringing out their emblematic character. Interweaving them — and in numerous works skeins of light (“the fire of the sun”) play over and within shadowy if transparent water (“the water of life”) — Adi Da suggests the union of opposites that is the core of mystical experience. Ecstatic experience of their unity brings with it a sense of the immeasurable. Adi Da places us in a garden of paradise — as the lush vegetation that appears in many photographs suggests — and the female body may be its ripest, most perfect fruit, but it is a paradise not just because of her presence but because we experience it as illimitable. It is space that is no longer divided against itself because its light and dark are inseparable. One extreme can no longer take the measure of the other extreme — afford a kind of detached perspective on it, as it were — because the extremes have been integrated. The physicist David Bohm describes mystical experience as an attempt “to reach the immeasurable, that is, a state of mind in which [one] ceases to sense a separation between [oneself ] and the whole of reality.” [1] It is a state of mind which has no measure — a state of mind beyond the everyday measurable state of mind. Adi Da conveys this transcendental state of mind by fusing elemental light, shadow, water, and body in a dimensionless space.

In many of Adi Da’s images we lose all sense of direction.We cannot readily orient ourselves, an effect of dislocation that re-orients us to ourselves. Freud regarded such “oceanic experience” as narcissistic and regressive, which misses the reason — and need — for what is in effect a return to primal origins in a society that is fundamentally indifferent to our existence even as it uses us for its own ends. Such an instrumental society is by definition at odds with the sense of intimacy necessary for psychic survival. In an existentially unfacilitative world, invariably bringing with it the threat of psychic disintegration and annihilation, mystical experience — the feeling of cosmic merger or infinity implicit in healthy narcissistic regression — affords a sense of union with the whole of reality beyond everyday social reality. It becomes the saving psychic grace in a routinely graceless world. Adi Da in effect pictures the oceanic experience that makes existence graceful despite its social vicissitudes. Such experience is a “necessary illusion,” like art itself, as the psychoanalyst Gilbert Rose — it is his term — argues.

Adi Da himself has said that “A woman’s form is meaningful.Women are a sign of the psyche. In my images women communicate the born being suffering its bondage in the conditional realm.” As the psychoanalyst Wolfgang Lederer writes, she symbolizes “time and world,” and thus death. [2] But, as he also writes, “a woman redeems through love.” “She does not need to become a hero, and she does not need to become more than she has been,” but rather through love “becomes more what she already is.” [3]

Thus woman is also a symbol of the unconditional realm signalled by love, as Goethe famously suggested in the concluding lines of Faust: “The Eternal Feminine draws us upwards.” The philosopher Jacob Needleman writes: “This is an avataric age . . . just look at the world. . . . Almost everyone who is drawn to the new teachings accepts the Eastern idea of cosmic cycles of time in which the whole of creation progresses further and further away from divine unity until the last cycle, the darkest age, will see a complete dissolution and destruction of the civilization and the immediate birth of another grand cycle, introducing a new golden age.” [4] Woman has a double or split mythic identity: she represents both the darkest age and the new golden age — dissolution and destruction and joyous new life. All but dissolving her, Adi Da suggests her power of negation, but she never entirely dissolves. She remains a positive force for life whatever the vicissitudes of her appearance. Again and again Adi Da disassembles and reassembles her, suggesting both disintegration and reintegration. Indeed, in Adi Da’s photographs woman is a loving as well as powerful presence — tender as well as passionate. Her body becomes a glorious beacon in the wilderness even as it seems part of the dangerous wilderness.Woman’s body is always profound for Adi Da, whether it signals the elemental forces of nature or the spontaneous transcendence implicit in oceanic experience.

Adi Da has said that all his artwork “is a performance-assisted subjective process — a subjective process to be engaged by whoever is participating in it or viewing it.” It has also been called “a kind of sacred ‘opera’” or “theater.” It can also be understood as a kind of duet-encounter which Adi Da, the masculine photographer, performs with a female devotee, who in fact shares her spiritual name, Quandra Sukhapur Rani, with the Quandra Loka suite. The body is certainly presented in a dramatic way, and the intense luminosity of Adi Da’s photographs — which reminds us that from childhood on he was perceived to be “Bright,” that is, he had a certain spiritual presence, as though emanating light (the way rays of light emanated from Moses’ head at the moment of revelatory contact with the divine, and the way the halos of the saints signify their divine calling) — is implicitly sacred in import. (It is thought that Adi Da was “born already illumined by the ‘Bright’,” as has been said, while Moses and the saints came to be illumined by the brightness of the divine, and thus were not fully spiritual to begin with, as Adi Da was.)

Indeed, the light spreads limitlessly, conveying its universality. It miraculously passes through the boundaries of the body, as though releasing it from the bondage of its materiality. In many photographs the body loses definition, and almost becomes unrecognizable — certainly seriously blurred — as though it was on the verge of becoming as limitless and diffuse as light, and suddenly able to move with the same speed. The subjective import of the photographs is evident — as I have suggested, they convey a remarkable sense of intimacy with their universal subject matter, which is not only the female body but water and light, and more broadly nature at its most consummate — but what strikes me as important about them, as works of art, is their aesthetic freshness and immediacy. It is as though we are not only viewing woman’s face and body with fresh eyes, but the movement of water and light with fresh eyes. These fundamental phenomena seem more immediate and vital than ever because Adi Da is more aware of them than we usually are.

It is an artistic feat to take such an age-old theme and make it seem visually new. I want to suggest that this aura of aesthetic-expressive newness and excitement — emblematic of psychic newness and energy, that is, the sense of being given a new inner life, and even a new body (dynamic new psychosoma) — is the result of Adi Da’s impulse to articulate his “avataric vision.” Indeed, the Quandra Loka images are all what might called “avatar-appearances.” The female nude, more particularly the female face as it appears in the photographs, is Adi Da’s alter ego, which means himself as avatar rather than as an everyday person. This is more than a matter of discovering what Jung called the anima within himself.

Needleman writes: “The concept of the avatar is deeply rooted in [the] traditional Eastern sense of the universe.Within man is a finer quality of life which becomes obscured by the attractions of the isolated intellect and the concomitant force of individual desires. Relative to the ordinary ‘fallen away’ condition of the human being, this finer quality is divine. It is closer to, if not identical with, the quality of life by which creation itself is governed. Since it is finer than our ordinary mind, it may be said to be more intelligent, more conscious, as well as more loving and more powerful.” As Needleman points out, “the universe requires that man in some measure come in touch with this finer quality of life,” that is, “experience a moment of connection with this inner life.” He adds: “In India the word ‘avatar’ is often applied to any man who has realized this connection in a deep and persistent way,” that is, more than momentarily. Needleman is only partially correct: in India an avatar is a person who is born Divinely Illumined, rather than someone who has to strive for illumination. However, whether understood in Needleman’s Western terms or esoteric Indian terms, Adi Da is an avatar. But the point that seems implicit in the photographs — ironically through their intense momentariness — is that woman and avatar are one in spirit even as they remain physically distinct. She embodies and symbolizes the finer, deeper, most inward quality of life. She is the divine on earth, and the divine conventionally manifests itself as the opposite of the everyday earthly, which is what man seems to represent by reason of his worldly activity.Woman redeems man through her love, as Lederer writes, and her love is sacred because it has the power of redemption, which means liberation from the everyday earthly or worldly. At the same time, man’s redemption by woman is her embrace of him, confirming their intimate togetherness or spiritual oneness. In Indian mythology this takes the form of the marriage of Siva, the masculine principle of being-consciousness, and Shakti, the feminine principle of energy. In a sense, Adi Da’s photographs enact this mythical union of archetypal opposites, revealing that they are aspects of the same whole.

It is worth noting that woman represents creation itself by reason of her power to give birth literally — not only spiritually, as when a man gives birth to a work of art (which implies idealizing identification with primal woman, that is, woman who has the innate capacity to give birth) — which suggests that in meditating on woman’s body, as Adi Da does, he is meditating on the act of creation, which is essentially ongoing.Woman’s body acquires special presence in his photographs, in part because they perpetually recreate her body, in part because they show that she is a perpetual process of creation, indeed, merged with and sustaining all creation with her presence. Just as Lucretius thought Venus personified creation — he thought the curves of her body symbolized the primal rhythm of matter in creative motion — so Adi Da’s Venus symbolizes the water of life that generates her.Water is no longer the realm of illusion — however illusory woman sometimes appears in Adi Da’s photographs (the photograph itself being an illusion of substance) — but of the intimacy in which creativity is possible.

In a world in which woman’s body has been reduced to a sexual object, stripping it and sexual experience of spiritual consequence, Adi Da restores it to ripe innocence — the uncanny erotic innocence of the primal that woman’s body has in the mythopoetic depths of inner life. In an art world overloaded with pseudo-intellectual, antiaesthetic conceptual art — art that eschews the aesthetic as a hindrance to ideological advocacy — Adi Da reminds us that aesthetic experience is a catalyst of spiritual consciousness, that is, consciousness so conscious of itself that it is able to liberate itself completely from the everyday social sense of reality. In a society in which art tends to be valued as entertainment rather than as a spiritual statement and force, Adi Da reminds us that art is “one of the mightiest elements” of “the spiritual life,” as Kandinsky said. [5] If, as the psychoanalyst Hanna Segal writes, entertainment asks nothing of our psyche, while art demands self-transformative psychic work, then a good deal of psychic work is required to fully comprehend Adi Da’s art, for it tracks the transformation of everyday earthly consciousness into spiritual consciousness, with woman symbolizing both. Adi Da has written that the female nude is a “metaphor or sign of the psyche of humanity, of human beings altogether, male or female — the inner depth, the experiential depth, the deeper personality, the realities of human life reflected for all.” His photographs show us that art can also function as a metaphor or sign of the depth of life, especially when they are photographs of the female nude in all her spiritual glory and complexity — photographs that are revelations rather than simply images. Adi Da’s photographs are not only seductive but enlightening: contemplating them, we become conscious of the avatar that informs them, and with that our own inner light and depth.

  1. David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order (London: Ark, 1983), p. 24.

  2. Wolfgang Lederer, The Fear of Women (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968), p. 181.

  3. Wolfgang Lederer, The Kiss of the Snow Queen: Hans Christian Andersen and Man’s Redemption by Woman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), p. 157.

  4. Jacob Needleman, The New Religions (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970), p. 76. All subsequent quotations from Needleman are from this book.

  5. Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (New York: Dover, 1977), p. 38.

Quotations from and/or photographs of Avatar Adi Da Samraj used by permission of the copyright owner:
© Copyrighted materials used with the permission of The Avataric Samrajya of Adidam Pty Ltd, as trustee for The Avataric Samrajya of Adidam. All rights reserved. None of these materials may be disseminated or otherwise used for any non-personal purpose without the prior agreement of the copyright owner. ADIDAM is a trademark of The Avataric Samrajya of Adidam Pty Ltd, as Trustee for the Avataric Samrajya of Adidam.

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