Take Rabi’s hand as he leads you, feet squelching as peat squeezes between your bare toes, to DANCE IN THE SACRED DOMAIN. A sculptural, sensual installation held at Collective’s Hillside Gallery throughout this summer, Rabi’s work invites audiences to join him as he transcends the physical realm through his deconstructed bog landscape.
A space of historical othering, ritual and crucial to the nourishment of flora, fauna, and humans, the show traverses the landscape of Scotland’s peatlands and the queer body, finding joyous harmony between the two. SNACK chats with Rabi about meaningful offerings and taking only what you need.
What can people expect from the show?
When you first come in, you’ll pass through an arch of foraged sticks and hand-rusted metal, held together with various delicate fixtures. There’s another stick-and-metal sculpture running across the space, with a dangling element holding a video work.
On the floor, you’ll see bog pools made with a ‘chameleon’ vinyl, which changes colour depending on where you are in the room. They will be surrounded by a border of peat I gathered from Shetland to create a ritual space.
The windows will be covered with a mixture of clay, peat, testosterone gel and other matter, with figures of the Hanged Man scraped into them. And finally, there will be seating in the corner to rest on and listen to the audio work, made up of poetry and other bog-inspired mouth-sounds by myself, Sammy Paloma, and Oren Shoesmith [artists].
The title refers to historic bog dwellers – people who were ritually sacrificed and preserved in bogs, or those who were not afforded a proper burial. Could you tell me more about this research?
Yes, exactly. The unique environment of bogs means that matter doesn’t decompose in a typical way, and it can preserve many things, including human bodies. Burying people in bogs is an ancient practice that appears to be either to stop people from being able to go to heaven, or as a sacrifice, probably to a fertility goddess. The latter is usually indicated by ritual items like torques, which were often depicted on fertility goddesses.
For a dark subject matter, your embodied performance itself appears to be full of joy. What are you communicating through this contrast?
I think a lot of that comes from my research into the tarot figure of the Hanged Man, who has merged with some of the bog bodies in my head. He is suspended upside down, perhaps for punishment, and he has a serene look on his face.
Researching into the Hanged Man, I found that many interpretations believe he is there by choice, to transcend the physical realm and occupy an in-between space with the spirit realm, for spiritual growth and liberation. I believe there’s an ecstasy and joy to this process!
What makes the bog a sacred site, and what drew you to dance as a medium to connect with the landscape?
It seems from the Iron Age onwards people may have viewed it as a portal to other realms. This is evidenced by the presence of humans and valuable possessions, which appear to be ritual sacrifices. To me, it’s sacred because it’s so ancient; it moves slowly and transcends timeframes. I wanted to move in response to this after asking myself honestly: ‘What do I have to give to the bog that is a meaningful offering?’ And the only thing I could think of is myself, my dance.
Liminality, a sense of being on the fringes and crossing over into another world, is ever present in your work, and you’ve found many ways of exploring it, whether it’s sculpture, movement, words. As queer people we often find the in-between to be a place of solace and creativity, but also of isolation. Do you feel this to be true?
Yes, I think that’s spot on – there’s so much community and solidarity to be built, and it’s also lonely inhabiting a borderland. There are parts of queerness and transness that no one else can do for you or accompany you to: there are moments of deep self-searching. I think that’s why I’m keen to make friends with bogs and other landscapes that feel resonant with queerness: to build allies in the natural world who have ancient knowledge beyond these boundaries.
It’s interesting how the piece connects both body and land as landscapes to traverse, navigate, and how the boundary between the two becomes blurred. In a time when people often feel more estranged from the natural environment than ever, what significance does this profound connection have?
That’s well observed, I grew up in London, so a lot of this connection is quite new to me! I think for me personally, gender transition brought my mind and body so much more into connection, and through that process of embodiment, I experienced a deeper connection to the land. I think feeling the flow between the body and the natural environment is key to becoming present and healing.
Your piece really reminds me of the Romantic artists back in the day who were preoccupied with the ‘sublime’: the way nature is awe-inspiring, beautiful and terrifying in its power and expanse. Who are your influences, and do you feel that this comparison rings true?
That’s interesting, I do relate to the emotionality and intensity of the Romantics! My other influences are mostly people I’m in community with: people who are seeking some sense of truth. This could be through relation to the natural world, but also through alchemy, symbolism, and magic.
I did a little of my own research into boglands in Scotland and found that they are essential for our drinking water (which is, obviously, the most delicious water on earth). The peatlands also hold the majority of Scotland’s carbon store and are important for the health and nourishment of all living things, and yet 80 percent of Scotland’s peatlands are damaged. Does this come into play in your piece at all?
The first thing I do when I get back home after a trip is pour myself a big glass of tap water! It is the most delicious water. Yes, I feel very motivated to promote the ecological significance of bogs and the importance of their preservation and restoration. I also feel defensive now when people describe a landscape as ‘boggy’ and undesirable to walk through!
Peat also remains essential to life in some parts of Scotland: the peat I gathered in Shetland was excess from peat-cutting lines which are still in use. The friends I stayed with need it to heat their home in the winter. I want people to move more towards this careful relation to the land: taking only what you need and nurturing it in turn as you build an intimate connection with its gifts.
Finally, how do you want viewers to come away from the show feeling? Is the audience something you consider in your work?
Ideally, I would want people to come away feeling transformed, even if in some small way. I do consider how visitors will experience the work, and I want to craft environments that provide space for reflection and internal movement without being oppressive or prescriptive. There are also things I’ve done just for myself. though: secret rituals in making the work which are only for me and my close ones to know about.
DANCE IN THE SACRED DOMAIN is showing at Collective, Edinburgh, from 10th June till 27th August