‘Occulture: The Dark Arts’ at City Gallery Wellington

Last weekend I flew down to Wellington for the day so that I could attend the opening of ‘Occulture’ at the City Gallery. I have never been at such a busy opening day with so many packed-out floor talks! It was seriously heartening for me to see so much interest in work with this kind of content as it is so close to my own heart and art practice. The success of this show is testament to the work of both curators Aaron Lister of the City Gallery and Robert Buratti of Buratti Gallery, Perth.

Robert showed some of my video work at his gallery last year so it was lovely to finally meet him in person. He is an erudite and well-considered speaker who brought the works of Aleister Crowley and Rosaleen Norton to life for the crowd, while orientating them in both a magickal and art historical context. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to properly hear the floor talks by all the artists due to the rather large crowds, meaning I was sometimes only partially in the gallery space or around a corner!

I had a good spot during Dane Mitchell’s talk so I was able to take a lot of notes which I can share here. The process involved in the works is very interesting: There are 3 different works within the larger grouping he has chosen to show; ‘Non Verbal Gestures 1, 2, 3 & 4’ a set of hanging silk banners, ‘Celestial Fields’ a series of metal stanchions and a set of 7 glass globes and ‘Ceramic Fields‘ a series of 12 ceramic objects.

 

The four banners depict mudras that can be seen in use throughout the world, often with magic, religious or superstitious meaning. They hang above a maze of metal stanchions that Dane Mitchell describes as a constellation rendered in a rational museum language. It describes a universal system of knowing or belief – in this case the stars – that charts a wayfaring system that then corrals visitors within the gallery space. Dane talked about his desire to explore the scope of the invisible and how he sees himself as an anthropologist or tourist navigating these realms with the assistance of practitioners. In the case of ‘Celestial Fields’ his guide was a Korean shaman who, it turned out, had some quite complex requests. Dane told us how the shaman had decided at one point that he would no longer communicate with him verbally and would now only work with him on the astral plane. In response Dane sent him an empty water bag into which the shaman passed his breath and sent it back. The glass objects were created by the co-mingling of the 2 breaths blown into glass and encapsulated within. The preparation of this kind of object is equally as important as the presentation of the ‘finished’ art work.

‘Ceramic Fields’ is comprised of 12 objects representing the zodiac. The clay objects were baked in an oven with hallucinogenic plant-matter provided by the shaman to imbue the works with it’s properties. There is something in this use of very organic materials that investigates the seeking of the supernatural through the natural, transcendence through the everyday. There is a groove running around each object that was made with a cast of the artist’s tongue. Dane talked about the nature of taste as exploration, and the way that children ‘stick the world in their mouths’ in order to understand it. I love this because I have quite an interesting relationship with taste myself. When I experience an object or a texture that I particularly enjoy I find that my mouth starts to water and I get an associated taste, or more accurately a ‘mouth feel’ to go with the texture. There is also often an accompanying ‘tone’ that goes with the texture and the mouth-feel. When I see an object I really like I have an overwhelming urge to taste it! Not something you can really get away with in a gallery or museum.

There was another comment that Dane made which I found related very closely to my own art practice; the exploration of revelation and concealment. This pairing of ideas follows me around everywhere and I think it must be due to the very meaning of occult; to be hidden or concealed. Exploration of the occult is a constant process of hiding and revealing, finding and losing. I find that in Dane Mitchell’s practice the conceptual thought and complexity of process within the work provides that depth of concealment and continued revelation that draws you in and keeps you curious.

Some of my favourite contemporary artists were also showing; Mikala Dwyer, Fiona Pardington and Yin-Ju Chen’s incredible ‘Liquidation Maps’ that I was raving about at the Sydney Biennale. Not to mention the Aleister Crowley and Rosaleen Norton works. My intention is to take more notes on my return in September so that I can write about the many other works and the show as a whole. Very much looking forward to a second viewing!

Continuing research and an exciting art show

I’ve been having a couple of those months where I feel so stuck when it comes to making work. It’s a normal part of the process, but it’s hard not to get angry and frustrated with yourself. I have set up a studio space at home – it’s small but it will allow me to get ideas out and I can shoot them later with a better set-up.

In lieu of art-making I’ve been researching and writing, mainly around my Great Grandfather and the book I am putting together about him. In June I gave a 1 hour lecture in Wellington – only to a small room of people – but it went down well and got a lot of interest. Tonight I am talking again at the Circuit critical forum and I’m going to give a cut-down version with two points that I want to use to generate discussion in the group. The first one is around the ownership of sacred spaces and I will use his protesting of access to Stonehenge and clashes with government and landowners as my jump-off point. The second is around the assuming of personas to carry a message or enact an expression of will. My Great Grandfather had quite a number of characters he assumed and several of them could be considered cultural appropriation/Orientalism. While I don’t want to go so far into that aspect, I’m sure it will come up and is an interesting subject to address. What I would very much like to discuss is how artists utilise personas within creation of their work, both in public and private.

In a couple of weeks I’m flying down to Wellington again for the opening weekend of the ‘Occulture’ exhibition. This is very exciting to me and not something I expected to see here in NZ (although the ‘Mystic Truths’ show at AAG in 2007 does set some precedent). I very much look forward to seeing some of this work for the first time and some of it for a repeat viewing!

The Occult Roots of Modernism

The Guggenheim are hosting a show called “Mystical Symbolism: The Salon de la Rose+Croix in Paris, 1892–1897” and The New Yorker ran a piece called “The Occult Roots of Modernism” that expands on the subjects of this show and it’s impact on the Modernist movement that followed.

This all coincides with the research I am doing into my great grandfather and his peers who were also part of the movement embracing mysticism and the occult. I looked briefly into the impact of this occult revival on the Modernist movement when I was researching for my MFA, particularly with the likes of Kandinsky and Ithell Colquhoun.

The exhibition is an homage to the Salon de la Rose + Croix art events held by eccentric writer Joséphin Péladan in fin-de-siécle Paris. He sounds like rather a histrionic and narcissistic man, but there is no doubt that he created an interesting movement with his salon happenings.

“…Greene argues that Péladan’s flamboyant manifestos and mixed-media happenings anticipated avant-garde trends of the following century—notably, the “conception of the exhibition venue as a space for multidisciplinary performance and as an immersive aesthetic environment.” The Salons de la Rose + Croix, which unfolded in various galleries and halls around Paris, were designed less to present a coherent group of artists than to demonstrate art’s ability to transform the daily world.”
Alex Ross, online article, New Yorker

Very much like members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (including my GGfather) the artists, musicians, poets and writers of the Salon de la Rose + Croix enjoyed dressing up, playing archetypes, exploring the occult and rather a large dollop of exoticisation of the East.

“Kenneth Silver expands on the connection in a thought-provoking essay in the “Mystical Symbolism” catalogue, entitled “Afterlife: The Important and Sometimes Embarrassing Links between Occultism and the Development of Abstract Art, ca. 1909-13.” The word “embarrassing” is taken from the art theorist Rosalind Krauss, who wrote, in 1979, that “now we find it indescribably embarrassing to mention art and spirit in the same sentence.” Yet in the early twentieth century Kandinsky, Pound, and other modernists absorbed what Silver calls “an amalgam of spiritual sources—Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, kabbalistic, alchemical, and just plain wacky.” Assuming the pose of a sorcerer or guru emboldened more than a few artists and writers in their quest to explode tradition and create a new order.”
Alex Ross, online article, New Yorker

The attitude in the passage I have highlighted above is still very much extant in the contemporary art world. I’ve always found this curious when taking into account the history of art that has drawn on the ‘spiritual’ for inspiration and expression over the course of humanity’s creative life. One doesn’t have to be ‘spiritual’ or be a ‘believer’ to find art exploring these ideas to be engaging and worthwhile. I enjoy working within this arena and consider myself a skeptic and an atheist (in the literal sense of the word, if not quite with the Dawkins attitude).

It is important to understand the effect the 2 World Wars in quick succession had on Europe’s attitudes towards creativity and decadence. Interest in turn-of-the-century exploration of occultism and other frivolous pastimes waned quickly when confronted with the cold reality of war and this, in turn, affected the arts. Still, the influence of this movement can be noted in the roots of Modernism even after the end of WWII but in a form that was less fantastical and more routed in emerging ideas around human consciousness and psychology.

Image; Jean Delville. La Morte d’Orphée (1893), oil on canvas, 79.3 x 99.2 cm

Part 1 – The alter-egos of Ayu Subhadra

Over the last few years I have been gathering together information about my great grandfather with the help of other interested in parties in the UK and the US. It’s starting to come together into something that might make an interesting book, but I’ve got some holes in the story that still need filling.

While working on it I’ve been trying to link it into my art practice because there are many elements within the story that are useful for creating a more anchored approach. I discovered while studying that there was a desire by many viewers (who were familiar with my work, being faculty, peers etc) to know *why* I was interested in the topics I was exploring. Saying “because they interest me” didn’t appear to fulfil the need for a more solid base of understanding and legitimacy. When I brought up my family history it seemed to create an instant anchor for the viewers that allowed them to investigate the work rather than spending time trying to ascertain my motivations.

Looking at the life of my Great Grandfather George Watson MacGregor-Reid (who I will from here refer to as GWMR) I have found access points into my own practice and into my own personality. There are some interesting aspects of GWMR’s interactions with the worldly and the ‘otherworldly’ that strike a chord.

In many ways his era was the beginning of a huge upheaval in western thinking in regards to british relationships with other humans and to the natural world. There was a greater understanding of human rights and liberties, the rise of archeology and of interest in non-european cultures (although at this stage it also went hand-in-hand with cultural theft and appropriation), the ideas that workers have the right to fair working conditions and pay, the beginnings of gradual decay of the class system and the rise of the middle class, interest in health, medical science, diet, exercise as well as a revival of interest in the ‘occult’ or mystic sciences.

The artistic disciplines also saw a boom time with Art Nouveau and Symbolism seeing out the Victorian Era and the birth of Modernism heralding the new century. These people, the ones at the forefront of this change of attitude and age of exploration in Britain, were GWMR’s friends and peers.

I’ve been spending a lot of time looking at the ritual costume and magical artefacts of different cultures. I really love these images but I’m also aware that I need to be careful of cultural appropriation issues. This issues follow me around constantly as other cultures have such rich histories in these areas and I’m easily seduced by them. But they aren’t ‘mine’ and  I need to take inspiration from the fact that many of these ritual practices are a universal means to interact with the otherworldly, but avoid aping them or stealing from them.

Microsoft Word - MH LECTURE 5GWMR as ‘The Dastur’ – one of his many spiritual altar-egos, taking on the mantle of a Zoroastrian high priest (Stonehenge approx. 1912)

GWMR lived in a time when cultural appropriation wasn’t recognised as problematic in any sense, and this, of course, is tied in with my british ancestors only starting to recognise the humanity of other cultures. GWMR had a great passion for quashing human rights abuses wherever he saw them. He was fascinated by the Senussi Sufis in North Africa and their struggles against the French colonial expansion into their land. (He even claimed to have fought along side them, although I have yet to verify this story.) He was also a committed Tibetan Buddhist and maintained that he had lived with monks in Tibet (Another, so far, unverifiable tale) where he adopted the name ‘Ayu Subhadra’ for his spiritual writings.

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Page from “The Path That Is Light” kindly copied  from the library of Adam Stout

He adopted personas that fit with the ideas he wanted to convey, and wore costume that allowed him to exist and impress as these magical characters. To me this reflects the use of ritual costume to communicate with the other world and to cross thresholds or barriers.

• Ritual dress can be used to accentuate certain parts of the body, certain characteristics or traits.

• It can be used to assume the powers of another being or archetype.

• The wearer becomes a moving, breathing assemblage of symbols or visual language. The body and the wearer become the magical language.

To go with this ritual dress are the ritual objects imbued with the power to allow the practitioner communication with the other world. These objects might offer a symbolic language, they might off protection, the might hold within then the secrets to crossing the threshold. Often the objects might be incorporated into the dress; hidden in pockets or sewn into the very fabric of the costume. The objects might be carried or moved by the practitioner, placed on an altar, moved across a map or diagram.

I have a map/diagram of ideas that I created at the residency in Finland that I am revisiting. The concepts I wrote down in January closely mirror the subjects I am now working through in regards to GWMR and my large collection of found images from the last few months.

I need to mull this over some more tonight and will continue tomorrow.
END PART 1.

 

Stories from my Papua New Guinean friend

When I started my design business I met a man living next door to my little office who grew up in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. I would go round and sit in his shed and talk to him and get him to tell me stories of his life before he came to NZ. He wouldn’t tell me how old he was, but I suspect he must have been in his 60s as he told me that cannibalism was still practiced by his tribe when he was a child. (It’s not quite what most of us think it is, the reasoning is very interesting, so perhaps I will write something about that another time.)

130131013His tribe is a part of the Huli group of tribes and this is how they look in ceremonial dress performing at a Sing-sing at Mt Hagen

I have so many interesting stories from him, it’s rare to be able to spend so much time with someone who grew up in such a remote place where life is still so different to anything I’ve experienced. The winters were brutal, food was hard to grow – plain kumara was the bulk of their diet, pigs were worth everything and were treated like members of the family; you couldn’t kill and eat your own pigs, you had to swap them with another tribe so that you were eating pigs you didn’t ‘know’. When the family pigs had piglets that was some of the most exciting times he remembers as a child.

He was there when the first missionaries came to their village and told me how the idea of a single god was not so different to their idea of a god that resided in everything, so they absorbed the christian faith with relative ease. This didn’t mean that their forests weren’t still haunted with strange beings and that they weren’t always under threat from the possibility of malevolent sorcery.

The highland people are very afraid of sorcery practiced by other tribes. I asked him about the Asaro; the ‘mud people’ from the Eastern Highlands, because they had always interested me and it was hard to find anything about them except photos. He said that his tribe never ventured near them or traded with them because they were very powerful sorcerers who could steal your heart right out of your body or a baby out of a woman’s womb. He also seemed very wary of the lowland Sepik tribes for similar reasons. I think this idea of sorcery is quite different to the current problem with women being accused of witchcraft and murdered in PNG; to me that seems to be the christian influence seeping into traditional culture that creates religious witch hunts.

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Asaro ‘mudman’

He also told me about some terrifying tiny people living in the mountains (and this is probably true because there are a tribe of cannibal pygmies called the Yali who are absolutely tiny) and that there was also a tribe of giants (I haven’t been able to clarify this one). Not only that but he claimed that there were ‘hairy men’ in the forest which I guess are the Papuan version of sasquatch. He had so many amazing stories that even the ones about everyday life were fascinating. If you can tell me more about the Asaro or would like to hear more of my friends stories, leave me a comment 🙂

 

How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (2013) Hito Steyerl

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My friend, Rupert following the instructional video and trying not to be seen at the Tate. I think his pixels are too big.

Hito Steyerl’s instructional video shows the viewer how to avoid detection by various digital surveillance technology. The title references Monty Python’s spoof Government Public Service instructional that showcases the benefits of not being seen e.g. not being shot or blown up, which is particularly important if you are a whole country avoiding nuclear annihilation.

The narrator in Steyerl’s video explains that visibility is dependent on resolution, whatever is lost by resolution becomes invisible. The videos are shot against a green screen at an old US airforce ‘resolution target’ that was used to test the resolution of aerial cameras and the artist (plus assistants) attempt to not be seen by the camera by employing various techniques that are explained in detail to the viewer.

The use of the .mov file extension and the exploration of very particular technologies sets this work firmly in a specific time and place where ideas around surveillance and our images being captured and held as digital images, with or without our permission, has become a topic of political, cultural and artistic conversation.

I read Steyerl’s essay “In defence of the poor image” a couple of years ago and found this piece to be a great accompaniment. They both examine how digital image quality – and degradation of quality – can be used within contemporary art to explore issues such as comprehension, visibility, passage of information and the place of perceived visual quality in value judgements.

Carl Sagan: A Glorious Dawn

The NASA announcement today of their new solar system discovery immediately made me wonder how Carl Sagan would have felt on hearing this news. There are 7 Earth-sized planets orbiting a small star 40 light-years away in the constellation of Aquarius, they could hold life, they could even support our life. Sagan said it was time for us to ‘venture to the stars’ if we manage not to destroy ourselves.

Because of my interest in working in the zone where science and mysticism overlap, I find Sagan a continuing source of inspiration.

We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.
Sagan, Carl (1990). Cosmos: A Personal Voyage

Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.
Sagan, Carl; Druyan, Ann (1997). The Demon-Haunted World.

We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it is forever.
Sagan, Carl (1980). Cosmos

Something about remembering your own tininess and insignificance along with acknowledging that you have the ability to create something wonderful despite only ‘fluttering for day’ is infinitely liberating. A bit hippie, but there you go.

 

Arteles Residency Outcomes

My stay at Arteles has been very rewarding; I have created many new ideas, the beginnings of new works and have made some fantastic friends from around the world. Among my new artist friends is a woman from the US, Ellery Royston, who works with sound. We have decided to collaborate on immersive sound and video installation, which is an exciting prospect.

Time moves slowly and silently out in the countryside in the middle of the Finnish winter. Long nights, short days and the sun low on the horizon create an environment very different to the one back home in NZ. I decided to explore time and duration in the context of a silent ordeal. I would invite my fellow artist’s to participate by enduring the slow melt of ice against their skin and to experience the thoughts and feelings this awakens.

I was informed by the old Finnish story of the Sielulintu, or soul bird, who visits the human body at birth and death. I gave the participants the chance to experience the cold of the bird melting into their skin on an area of their choice; perhaps where they felt they might experience the passage of their soul. The pain of the bird against their skin stretches time while it is being endured, but is a fleeting moment that quickly fades.

I discovered that the constraints of shooting the videos at Arteles actually created some unexpectedly interesting results. For example, I found it necessary to use natural light which created variations as the clouds shifted and the light changed. This gave an added dimension to the durational experience that I would not have discovered if I had been shooting in a studio with artificial light.

My intention is to continue working with the project to create a multi-channel video installation with accompanying soundtrack which, hopefully, I can show here in New Zealand.

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Ice bird melt on Ellery’s neck
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Ice bird melt on Marissa’s stomach
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Cast ice quartz crystal melting onto a mirror

Long distance travel and the artist

Right now I’m sitting in Hong Kong airport trying to drown out the sounds of yelling children, people coughing and sneezing, departure alerts and all the other hubbub of airports. There is a small child staring at me over the back of her chair with a spoon in her mouth but I’m too tired to even smile at her.

I’ve been travelling for a long time. Since I left my hotel in St Petersburg, took the train back to Helsinki and got here has been around 28 hours I think. It’s hard to know because I’ve forgotten which time zone I’m in. When I’m sitting still I feel like I’m still moving; a combination of the swaying high-speed Allegro train and the first half of my long haul flights.

It’s curious talking to people in Europe about travel. When the learn I’ve come from NZ they invariably say “That’s a long way” and then make some sort of guess about how long the flights are. Ten hours, that’s a long way isn’t it? Try doubling that and adding a bit. It’s the same with my friends at Arteles who have come from the Americas, they’ve come on a long international flight, but nothing in comparison to travelling from the other side of the world.

The thing that really hit home to me on this trip was how much more accessible things are for artists in Europe and the Americas. Most of the other artist’s at Arteles have done other residencies and plan to do more in Europe and they are quite blasé about it because it’s so much easier logistically, financially and it is expected of young artists.

A very positive aspect of modern technology is the ability to collaborate long-distance. This is especially true for artists working in new media. The amount of value I can get from going on a residency is, I think, amplified because I am so aware of the fact that I am unable to do this sort of thing very often and that it is actually a huge privilege. With that in mind I don’t waste my time, I work hard and I try to see how I can work with other international artists.