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Limbo – the unsettling feeling of being neither here nor there, of fence-sitting, of feeling alienated by both past and future. It’s a state we can all relate to – from the existential angst felt between graduation and employment, to the loneliness experienced after uprooting and trying to settle into a new community. 2020, especially, brought about unrest, confusion and a sense of limbo for many, with a lockdown enforced against a backdrop of political uncertainty and accelerated social change. Businesses lay dormant, weddings were placed perpetually on hold, and young people, particularly, were left at a loss as to what their futures might look like.
In his book ‘Rites de Passage’ (1909), French anthropologist and folklorist Arnold Van Gennep coined the term ‘liminality’ to describe a period of transition occurring during the middle stage of a rite of passage, such as the initiation of adolescents into adulthood. In his theory, the liminal phase is preluded by the ‘preliminal,’ which is the ‘death’ of an old way of life; and followed by the ‘postliminal,’ which marks reintegration back into society with a new identity. Over the years, the concept has been revisited by many writers and artists, and its usage broadened to encompass a variety of meanings and applications – for example, to describe periods of political and cultural change faced by large-scale societies, or even specific points in space and time.
A liminal period, whilst often dark, confusing and marked by a sense of not belonging, is also an opportunity for progression and positive change. It can force us to learn more about the world we occupy, paving the way for necessary growth whilst helping us to reconnect to nature and, perhaps most importantly, each other. Often, there’s a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.
But what about the individuals for whom limbo, or liminality, is not simply a fleeting phase, but a more chronic state of affairs? The people who occupy a permanent state of impermanence, marginalised and misunderstood by the prejudiced society in which they exist? As a civilisation, we are conditioned to be very binary-driven; to operate by splitting things into polarised, distinctive ways of being – male/female, gay/straight, native/immigrant, liberal/conservative, good/evil, right/ wrong. The result of this outlook is that the people who do not fall into these narrow, prescribed ways of being are often condemned to occupy a place of permanent liminality at the fringes of society, where they may feel a sense of social exclusion and enduring ‘in-between-ness’ due to their sexuality, gender identity, heritage, cultural values or religious beliefs.
In her recent project, ‘Limen’ (from the Latin for ‘threshold’), Brazilian-born photographer Gabriela Silveira uses the changeable Scottish landscape to reflect her own personal experience with liminality.
“I think for me, liminal is the state of being neither-this- nor-that or, sometimes, both-this-and-that… of not truly belonging to one group or another. I feel like this in many aspects of my life including my sexuality, race and mental/ physical health. Living in this state of not truly belonging to this or that can feel really lonely, although I’ve never felt it so strongly as I have since I moved to Scotland,” explains Silveira.
“I moved here when I was nineteen with my mother to help her with the grieving process following the death of her daughter (my sister). The first ten years of being here were truly liminal due to the whole ordeal of being reliant on visas in a country that doesn’t really want immigrants. You never know if you’ll be granted another visa once your current one expires, so for me it felt like a constant waiting game during which I was unable to make long-term plans. I received permanent residency last year, but somehow the liminal feeling still remains with Brexit taking place. And then there’s the whole thing about belonging. I think it’s somewhat common amongst immigrants that after a while you feel you lose your place in the world; you stop belonging to where you were born but you also don’t belong to the country you chose to move to. You live between two cultures.”
Photographed on a road trip around the Scottish Highlands on the cusp of the autumnal equinox, Limen is an exploration of natural textures and layers against Scotland’s ever- fluctuating weather. By tightly framing the landscape in her images, Silveira’s series is closer to abstraction than many conventional landscape works; this creative choice in itself perhaps alluding to the sense of isolation and dislocation.
The result is at once achingly melancholic yet quietly hopeful. Gauzy clouds swirl across tempestuous skies at dusk. Sparkling river water froths and bubbles vigorously. In amongst rock pools, sunlight reflections dance and distort. On the land, small signs of life on barren cliff-faces are visible in the form of defiant, hardy wildflowers and grasses. The interplay of dramatic landscape against the changing elements can be interpreted as a metaphor not just for a constant state of impermanence or uncertainty, but also for perseverance against the odds.
“I wanted to capture the beauty that can exist in this very intense barrage of changes that can happen in the liminal space,” says Silveira. “As we drove further north and west, the sky would change so quickly – a constant dance of the clouds which brought rain and sun interspersed throughout the days. I concentrated on the shifting clouds a lot and how the constant uncertainty of the weather would completely change the landscape. Then there is the interplay between water and rocks, rapid change and slow change.”
Silveira is no stranger to using nature as a vehicle for ideas surrounding identity and vulnerability. Her ongoing series explores sex, love, beauty and death, often using flowers or nude bodies as ephemeral symbols for fragility and the transience of life. Cut flowers – neither dead nor alive, but somewhere in between – are propped starkly in unusual vessels, or draped against bare skin. “I think, like many other creatives, a lot of what I create comes from a need to process grief – itself a liminal space – be that of death, the end of a relationship or of ‘waning beauty’ as we age in a largely ageist society.”
Reflecting on her work over the years, Silveira acknowledges that liminality is a theme that runs through much of it, although she only recently delved into researching the concept. “I understand now that it is a connecting thread between my work, even though I didn’t have the vocabulary to express it at first,” she explains.
With the images from Limen as hopeful as they are melancholic, does Silveira think that her own liminal experience will ever culminate in a personal sense of resolve? She replies that she is unsure. “When I first started thinking about this project, I explored the liminal as a precursor to resolve, with resolve being the postliminal in Van Gennep’s concept. However, if I am in permanent liminality, then I can’t get to that place, but understanding this feels, paradoxically, a kind of resolve in itself.”
“With Limen, I sought to highlight the beauty of fluidity – the idea of staring so deeply into the abyss that you see light. In this sense, the images are also about resolve – a resolve to embrace the liminal moment as something which can be channelled into positive change.”
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