Ashley Fitzgerald discusses the legend of the Golem, his connection to it and how it has influenced his work.
I was drawn to creating Golem-related art forms, alongside other relic-based work, following a near-death experience in 1993 as a result of Gillian-Barré Syndrome (GBS). Caused by a viral infection, the immune system initially responds by turning in on itself, shutting the body down. This left me temporarily paralysed and locked within my own body. I was on life support connected by many tubes. I was fortunate to survive and after several months in rehab I made a slow and gradual recovery, learning how to walk and talk again.
During this time, when I was trapped inside my body unable to move or communicate, my creative visualisation saw me transition from death to life and this experience led me to focus on the Golem legend and the undead, how life was created from non-living matter.
According to Czech legend, the Jewish mythical behemoth known as the Golem was fashioned from clay and then brought to life by a rabbi to protect Prague’s 16th-century Jewish ghetto from persecution and is said to be called forth in times of crisis.
Post-recovery saw me grab life through exploration on how to extend my experiences into creative art forms and how to capture death into life. A series of empty body forms evolve into layers of new life in order to create series of contemporary art pieces of mixed medium art, based on the themes and relationships of body and book, connecting bloodlines with the undead and the Golem.
Another exploration has seen me use film of that journey as I moved forward in my creative process. For example, in 2017 a short Golem film called Burning Anxiety I created as part of a group project for the Venice Art Biennale. The film is a visual depiction of Golem-like beings, their slow disintegration as they transform from life to death, back into a new sense of being. For me, it personally reflects a process of anxiety and life cycles experienced in having felt burnt or the smouldering emotions after facing death to my eventual recovery. After each event, there is a sense of release as new life evolves. In this I discover new relationship with self, as I relate to the burning, unwrapping or stripping down to overcome internal anxiety in preparedness for new life journeys.
But the true depth of my Golem journey established itself when in 2010 I started my Masters in Fine Art. This provided an opportunity to explore further my connection with death to life and creating Golems in many different mediums. I looked at the style of creating them from leaves and earth forming a body both lying and standing as this demonstrated a connection of my movement from having been on life support unable to move and the rebuilding of my body to a standing life form. The materials I mainly used wererecycled paper and cardboard when creating these forms. Each takes shape of a singular form. The shrouding drapes towards recycled books, whilst small Golems reach out. All are extensions of self to reconnect to life.
My MA enabled me to explore and reflect my re-connection as a solitary being in how I felt when I came out of hospital, the feeling of being an outsider like the Golem and relearning social interaction. At times, it felt like I was wrapping and unwrapping shrouds of my very being. I also made a very short film Cutting Down Golem during my MA and this was a shrouding installation of a suspended being to reflect the removing of tubes which had connected me to life support. As I cut it down and folded it up this represented my being able to walk away from death ready to face new life.
My final show piece was called Body and Book. This particular work contained two main themes of resurrection demonstrated by an ‘altar’ supporting the shrouded body, an emerging Golem and connection to book-like sculpture representing knowledge and a record of that event. I instilled a sense of animation as the shrouded figure is reaching out towards the book. This is a metaphor for my struggle with dyslexia and also striving to gain knowledge despite my disability.
The transformational process and theme of resurrection are represented in used materials that were once abandoned and I recycled, such as tarpaulin and paper over a tailor’s dummy connected to wire, hard board and plaster, giving them new life and form. This closely reflects my recovery from temporary paralysis and reshaping my old self, giving myself new direction and purpose. As said my process now takes many forms exploring methods of wrapping, layering and stripping back of old drawings and artefacts and use of recycled materials. For example old cardboard and paper, cutting into them, to make each unique as they start to take their form when layering the materials in a collage based process before finally sealing them with acrylic or other materials such as used tea bags for staining, shoe polish, even using Tipp-Ex white corrective fluid to create Golem figures and ghost like faces with a haunting presence.
My interest continues in a process of connecting body, books, myths, cultural and medieval history, shrouds and creating these into Golem-like identities to be released from their isolation, that of the outsider, and reflect transforming death into life. For example, on some they have only one eye as this is a memory from my slow recovery from GBS when I could only open one eye. My left eye remained closed for several months until the muscles recovered. Also my drawing a circle in the chest represents my heart beating, the circle of life. I also continue creating mixed media drawings when I use pen and ink or paint markers.
Over time, my process continues as a visual narrative relating to Golem influences and of life frozen in time. For example, images of creatures which could have been born out of a violent vibrant volcanic place such as Pompeii. For me, this translates into how the Jewish legend of the Golem was to protect community. In the same way, these forms have become more like environmental guards to protect people’s homes from natural disasters, to preserve our planet’s ecology and prevent the extinction of all of its living creatures.
More recently, during the COVID lockdown, art has been my therapy as I had been unable to get into my studio being classed as high risk having an autoimmune condition. Until I was able to return to my studio, I worked from home and all the current drawings remain connected to my Golem influences. A new mental journey back but not a physical one.