Fred Gettings’ Dictionary of Occult, Hermetic and Alchemical Sigils contains lists and discussions of marvellous symbols, called ‘sigils’ by which alchemists recorded their secret formulas, as reminders of their ideas, either to themselves or used as an insider language within their rather mysterious ranks. The front cover of Gettings’ book shows an intriguing array of these squiggly dingbats.
In 2011 an eminent Johannesburg gynaecologist kindly provided me with a handful of sterilised intrauterine devices his practice had collected over time. Only recently, in 2007, IUDs became the most widely used form of reversible contraception, with more than 180 million users worldwide. I discovered that IUD’s come in many shapes and thought that my own set resembled the sigils in Fred Gettings’ book.
When studying the history of contraception, I learned that a great deal of mystery had always surrounded its successful use. Small contraceptive stones and hand-made contrivances are engraved in the hieroglyphs of ancient pyramids. The earliest documented descriptions of birth control are found in the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus (1550 BC) and the Kahun Papyrus (1850 BC), relating the use of honey, acacia leaves and lint placed in the vagina to block sperm. The Kahun texts tell of the use of the plant silphium as birth control in Ancient Greece. Silphium, due to its effectiveness and thus desirability, was harvested into extinction. Because contraception was such an intimate practice, shared in utmost confidence and entrusted to the innermost, vulnerable parts of the body, no-one knew exactly why it was successful and a great deal of myth and religious dogma developed around it.
In medieval Europe, any chemical effort to halt pregnancy was deemed immoral by the Catholic Church and women resorted to coitus interruptus as a not all too effective method of birth control. Alchemists were forced to operate in secret, applying their own formulas for contraception, such as inserting lily root and rue into the vagina. Casanova, living in 18th century Italy, described the use of a lambskin covering to prevent pregnancy. Condoms became widely available in the 20th century.
The first modern intrauterine device, made from silkworm gut, was developed in 1909 by Richard Richter in Germany. It is well nigh impossible to understand how copper bracelets might alleviate the effects of arthritis and rheumatism and its pseudo-scientific ‘success’ in this regard made the use of the ‘copper T’ all the more baffling. In reality copper IUDs primarily work by disrupting sperm mobility, damaging sperm so that they are prevented from joining with an egg. Copper wound around a small plastic frame acts as a spermicide within the uterus, increasing levels of copper ions, prostaglandins and white blood cells within the uterine and tubal fluids. Most copper IUDs have a plastic T-shaped frame that is wound around with pure electrolytic copper wire or has copper collars, also called sleeves. Copper IUDs are quite popular because they are relatively corrosion free.
In my artwork ALCHEMICAL SIGILS, I arranged my collection of IUD’s in a few organised lines on paper to create a secret type of communication. The work of an IUD is done in obscure, unknown recesses of the most private parts of the human anatomy. It is literally trusted in the dark. My cryptic ‘sigils’ and their organised formation are meant to evoke a kind of insider syntax – in Greek syn is ‘together’ and tassein ‘to arrange’. Visitors to galleries often enquire after the meaning in the work of conceptual artists. Unlike the grave texts of the Rosetta stone or the scribbles of alchemists, my own ALCHEMICAL SIGILS are meant to frustrate pedantic efforts of decipherment for some time to come. Finally, in an overpopulated world, I might yet succeed in enraging the fertility gods and goddesses through my folly of conjuring up their worst fears.