Performing Cosmologies

In 1966 The British Museum acquired an object of strange and convoluted provenance. It was a shiny black obsidian disc with a small looped handle that enabled it to be held. The object was said to be a scrying stone used by Elizabethan magician, and advisor to the Queen, John Dee. The black mirror was Aztec in origin and was said to allow Dee to view the spaces outside the material world.

As a scholar and a scientist, the performance of ritual experiments was considered a part of his job description. Because experience of the otherworldly encompassed both scientific and spiritual research, scientists of the time had a great deal of interest in the secrets of occult ritual: of alchemy, astronomy, sacred geometry and the hermetic arts of the ancient classical world.

Over time, especially in the West, this sort of experimentation has mostly been relegated to the realm of quackery. This doesn’t mean that our experience of these liminal spaces has disappeared – they still have the power to elicit both wonder and discomfort in even the most pragmatic observer.

I would say being an artist or a performer or a director is also being a magician, and very often you need to use every trick you have in your pocket to make the show stronger.
(Noé, 2014)

Within my own practice I have been exploring otherworldly spaces in the context of performance and the performative. I have experienced the role of the artist as both creator, director and performer – building a cosmology through the linking of objects and ideas, a cultivated web of interrelationships. My method of working has been flexible; spanning object, live performance and video, but always with a focus on the performative. Ritual as performance seemed an appropriate space to interact with the otherworldy, while also allowing the work to quite naturally manifest across a range of media.

This approach to creating work can be seen in artists like Matthew Barney, who creates complex cosmologies through linking, relating and reimagining concepts and mythologies. Barney’s work interacts with the otherworldly and the mythological through seemingly absurd ideas and flimsy connections, which link together to create new constellations of meaning. With each project Barney exhibits an array of works and accompanying pieces – film, live performance, objects, drawings, writing, photographs. Often the works themselves are huge installations, like his Cremaster 3: The Order (2002) work at the Guggenheim, where the whole spiral gallery became a stage for the ascension of the initiate.

In this section of Cremaster 3 we see his role as the Entered Apprentice interacting with tools, regalia and other performers. These objects are presented to the viewer not just as props within the live and recorded performance, but also as sculptural pieces in their own right. Barney utilises and sometimes even creates the objects within the performance. They then become available for the viewer to experience as sculptural performative objects, with the provenance of having been performed and the potential to be performed again, thus giving them an ongoing performative life.

The language between objects, action and idea builds upon itself and becomes more than the sum of it’s parts. The richness and complexity of Barney’s cosmologies allows them to take on a mythological position that lives and grows outside of their creator.

Because of his grandiose, esoteric and often confusing methods Barney attracts controversy and sometimes hostility from both critics and the viewing public. While on the one hand works that are too didactic can lack depth and interest, on the other, works that are too inscrutable can be equally frustrating. Taking and reorganizing historical and cultural symbols of importance calls into question his right to do so. Is he genuine or just being sarcastic? (Surga, 2015).

The creation of a cosmology as an expressive framework can be as confusing for the creator as it is for the audience, particularly when built from heterogeneous parts that clash, confuse and challenge. Does each symbolic item work within the framework? As I have been working with both object and performance I have often had to ask myself questions when adding to my cosmology; should I be second guessing myself when something seems to fit? How do I avoid being didactic? How can I include some recognisable symbolic markers that allow access to the work without being overly trite? But when both the artist and the viewer are open to the experience there is a richness that surprises, as it unfolds into a more cohesive map. These are constellations that can be built, dismantled, added to and rearranged within a mythological cosmology.

I see an interrelationship between the objects used in Barney’s performance and with the ceremonial ritual tools used in occult or shamanic practice. Ritual often utilises magical objects and theatrical performance as a way to access and experience otherworldy spaces. A gathering of specifically chosen tools or objects, a specially chosen environment, along with costume and adornment create an energy that enables the removal of the conscious, analytical mind from the ceremony.

Anthropologist Michael Taussig made a connection between magical objects and the human relationship to the otherworldly, postulating that objects created a necessary conduit between humanity and the non-human world.
(Taussig, 2014, p.26)

When objects are performed by the practitioner (or artist) they can influence the method of performance. Performative objects speak their own language and require the performer to pay heed to their requirements. Sometimes they might require a subtle movement, sometimes a grand gesture. The performer becomes apart of the object’s conversation with it’s environment and the viewer is drawn into the experience.

Australian artist Mikala Dwyer works across a wide range of media – utilising object, installation and performance to give life to her work. She creates her personal cosmologies within her collections of objects, costumes and performers. Dwyer’s Additions and Subtractions works are powerful examples of the magical potentiality created by collections of objects and their environment. The circles created in the works imbue an otherworldly space within their circumference – the objects are the performers and perform themselves without the need for human interaction. Adding or subtracting from the collection can change it’s very nature and the conversations between the objects create a constellation of linked meanings that form their own symbolic language.

For me, working has been an evolutionary process, with branches on my ‘cosmology tree’ growing and joining to create a scaffold of ideas and symbols. This has been a process of uncovering, or discovering, these interrelationships as much as it is of creating. Much like Barney and Dwyer with their constellations of ideas and objects, the objects and materials being performed in the videos I have made in 2015 were recurrent from previous sculptural object-based works. The meaning and materials of my objects have followed me into the more performance-based work and have started to create an extended constellation of ideas that is building upon itself as a cosmology.

Barney states about the creation of objects for performance:

I think it is a fascinating model for object making; this way of working, where things that have nothing to do with each other are placed together as if a form of alchemy could happen and a material transformation could take place. (Enwezor, 2014, p.271)

It was not always clear to me at the beginning of the process that I was referencing tropes of Western art history – it’s mythology and archetypical characters. However, as I expanded the work I could see patterns emerging and giving strength to the work. Through consciously developing the references to this familiar imagery I am creating anchors for the viewer to gain clues and waypoints within the work’s cosmology. By using gesture and stylistic conceits from western art history I create a pathway into the otherworldy space. Using a certain amount of posed and unusual gesture in my work I reflect the gestural tone of classical painting and sculpture. Often the gesture and pose in these works is expressive rather than natural, they are poses you could make but probably wouldn’t. The gestures create a theatricality within the work – an elegant exaggeration of reality which pushes it further into the otherworldly space.

The use of art historical anchoring is also apparent in work by video artist Bill Viola. In almost direct contrast to Matthew Barney, he has stated that he’s not interested in conveying narrative in his work. (Wroe, 2014) This has much in common with my own current practice. I’ve thought of the performative video work I have been creating as ‘the infinite moment’ – the endless experience of a time outside our own. Viola draws on the collective experience by using recognizable art historical and religious tropes. He draws on symbols and experiences familiar to us as human beings to devise a visual language that can be recognized by us all. I also appreciate his flagrant embrace of filmic techniques and technological methods, such as speed and duration, high definition filming, and engineering of special effects, to benefit his work.

Through exploration I have discovered that a recorded performance allows for a higher level of control than live performance. I have been able to more accurately set the tone of my current work through using video format. An otherworldy space is by it’s very nature ‘not of this world’ and therefore hard to convey in a live, real world setting. When experimenting with live, participatory work I discovered that the amount of the experience outside of my control made the successful engagement of an otherwordly space difficult and unconvincing. For my current practice recording performance and then working with the moving image is a better way to maintain control over the tone of the work and for me, as the artist, to mediate the relationship between artwork and viewer.

I have found value in the use of theatrical and filmic tropes and conceits within my own video work. I believe it is because the theatrical exists in a separate space to the ‘real world’, so it can be drawn upon to create references and anchors for the viewer. In Yang Fudong’s work The Coloured Sky: New
Women II
(2014) he films within theatrical, constructed environments designed to mimic the exterior world but with no attempt to disguise their artifice; artificial light, artificial sound, artificial worlds that mimic our own. Costumes and characters that are unashamedly being ‘played’ and filmic techniques manipulating duration and speed, all work together to call into question notions of authenticity. The world he has created is a slightly warped mirror held up to our own.

Working with the performative – particularly recorded performance – I have discovered a method that allows for the sublime, the unnerving and the amusing to exist side by side in a contemporary art context. It’s a bit of a fine knife edge to walk because it’s very easy to go too far, be too earnest, and for things to get a bit silly. But isn’t that always the way with ritual and magic? As I have worked through my practice over the last two years I have seen it growing and the same symbolic language ebbing and flowing throughout the works. Sometimes it is a complete surprise when and element or an idea pops up again or I find a new symbol that unexpectedly relates to something I was investigating previously.

When dealing with realms of the otherwordly, sometimes, it is necessary to suspend doubt, even if not to admit belief, so that you can fully engage with the experience. Maybe sometimes art can be used like Dee’s black mirror, to reflect ourselves and our world, let us look through into the unknown and see what we might bring back.

References

Noé, G. & Barney, M. (2014). Matthew Barney and Gaspar Noé.  Bomb Magazine 127. Retrieved from http://bombmagazine.org/

Surga, A. (2015). Matthew Barney: The Enigma of a Performative Practice. Retrieved from http://theculturetrip.com/

Taussig, M. (2014). Art and Magic and Real Magic.
In E. Franzidis, (Ed). Mikala Dwyer: Drawing Down The Moon. Brisbane, QLD, Australia: Institute of Modern Art.

Sagan, C. (1980). Cosmos. [Television series]
Arlington County, VA: PBS

Crowley, A. (1917). Moonchild. (1991 Reprint) York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser.

Enwezor, O. (2014). in Matthew Barney: River of Fundament.
Neri, L. (Ed.) New York, NY: Kira Rizzoli.

Wroe, N. (2014) Bill Viola: People thought I was an idiot and that video would never last.
Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/

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2 thoughts on “Performing Cosmologies

    1. Really glad this was enjoyable! It was actually one of the two pieces of writing in my final MFA catalogue. I wrote this piece to contextualise my practice and Justine Giles wrote me a companion piece on the nature of alchemy. It came together really well

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