The Ritual of the Mass & the difficulties of portraying esoteric ritual practice in contemporary art

Image: The main iconostasis in St Kazan Cathedral, St Petersburg, Russia.

I’ve been discussing the idea of filmed ritual with Josephine who has collaborated with me in my video work. We were wondering about how have to have a more active ritual aspect to the work and how this would translate. The main issues I see around filmed ritual are as follows:

  • Much ritual; western ceremonial magick in particular; just looks daft when viewed from ‘the outside’. It’s a participatory practice and rarely works as a spectator sport. Ritual is experiential in nature and there are few forms that can be viewed and appreciated without most of the active ingredients being completely lost.
  • It can look truly hokey. The trappings of ritual (again, especially western ceremonial) are so loaded with pre-existing cultural and pop-cultural meaning that use of them is very difficult unless it’s in a deliberately self-aware way, which lends itself more to the glib and ironic. Candles, incense, swords, robes? Pile all those together and you’ve got yourself a bad amateur horror movie.
  • Blatantly utilising the ritual language of cultures that are not my own for the sake of my art smacks of appropriation and the arrogant surface skimming of something I can’t truly understand. In a personal ritual setting experimentation with new practice is enriching, but for something like my video art I think it is gauche. The best way for me to work with non-western ritual language would be to collaborate with a practitioner who understands the deeper context and for me to take more of an ‘outsider’ position. This is something to consider for future works.

Ritual as a live performance piece is fraught with many of the same problems, especially the ‘cringe factor’ that comes with the cultural loading mentioned above. For both video and performance I’m inclined to remove most of the symbolic aspects that the audience is familiar with and, if I keep any (eg the kind of robed dress I’ve been using), angle it away from the ‘witchcraft and sorcery’ connotations. I’ve been leaning in the direction of historical art in gesture and form so that the work alludes to Renaissance or Baroque art which I hope lends it a different symbolic texture.

Looking again at Mikala Dwyer’s treatment of esoteric themes in her work I’ve been influenced by the way she has subverted and also utilised the loading of the forms she has used. Her robes and costumes for example still retain the connections to magical dress but they use fabrics and forms that have different connotations and so take the symbolism to a new place. Likewise her performance piece Goldene Ben’der (2013) which sees hooded participants robed in golden lamé attempt to defecate publicly into clear perspex seats which are later displayed. While this work may seemed to have a humorous aspect, it also captures both the seriousness and visual ridiculousness of ceremonial magick in one go. Very clever I think!

I spent some time pondering the kinds of rituals that are meant to be viewed as well as experienced and I came to the concept of the Mass. Aleister Crowley created a Gnostic Mass as a ceremonial ritual that I believe is the only example within his canon that is intended to be viewed by non-participants, although that’s an interesting point to play with as truly the congregation are also participants through the aspect of the Priest.
(Side note: he did also create his interpretation of the Rites of Eleusis, but to my mind they are theatre more than active ritual. Others might beg to differ.)

Crowley was hugely influenced by a Russian Orthodox Mass he witnessed, so while in St Petersburg I attempted to attend one to get a feel for what impressed him. I wasn’t able to attend a Mass, as I was not there on a Sunday, but I did attend a Russian Orthodox liturgy at Kazan Cathedral. Obviously I took no photos at the time of the service.

The cathedral has a central altar and 2 side altars, the Evening Liturgy was at one side and was cordoned off for worshippers. In order to be part of it I needed to wear a scarf over my head and I paid attention to everyone else to try and make sure I was doing the right thing. There is an awful lot of genuflecting, but apart from that it was actually quite relaxed with people coming and going.

Here are some interesting things that I noticed:

  • The altars are not visible to the congregation at all. There is a three part divider in front of each of the three altars called an iconostatis. Only the high clergy can go behind this to the altar and I believe it is only ever opened at Mass.
  • There are three clergy involved and they move around a lot; in and out of the 2 side doors in the iconostasis (but not the central door, they adored this but did not open it). There is a small altar within the congregation in front of the altar steps. This gives the chapel a three-point area of movement for the clergy: 1 behind the iconostatis (at the high altar), 2 in front of the iconostatis on the dais and 3 in the congregation on a lower level. One of the clergy takes incense around the whole perimeter of the chapel area and everyone turns towards him as he walks.
  • The congregation stand for the whole time. I had no idea how long the liturgies would go but I realised after an hour that they were actually looping round and it didn’t seem like they were going to stop any time soon. They genuflect a lot: head, base, right, left, touch the floor.
  • The loveliest part is the continual chanting and singing. The clergy chants the liturgies and an invisible choir up behind us sang in a call and response with the clergy. It’s worth having a listen to a Russian Orthodox service if you are interested because it truly is spine-tingling.

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Once again the viewer is still a part of the experience; you are THERE, you are not watching it play out on video. I find the placement of objects and people, plus the necessity to move through the area and be in certain places at certain times, to be a concept I could work with. I have created a diagram of the layout of a Russian Orthodox service versus Crowley’s Gnostic Mass. You can see the clear similarities between the too and the way movement through space would function in both rituals as the various clergy (or officers in the case of the Gnostic Mass) move around the chapel/temple. The 2 rituals above are very different but have strong similarities in movement, pacing and interactions. I feel that perhaps movement through space with gesture and interaction is intrinsic to a lot of ritual practice and could be included in my video while still allowing the work to remain free of the problems I outlined above. Something to think about further…

I find this whole quandary of portraying active ritual very interesting to think about. I find it very difficult but a great challenge. There are going to be some serious failures coming up, but a good ‘art fail’ is the best thing to point you in the right direction!

 

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Notes on Nigredo

“In the ash that lies at the bottom of the grave, there lies the king’s diadem…”
– Livre de Arthéphius, Bibliothéque des Philosophes Chimiques, Paris, 1741

  1. Nigredo – the earthly aspect, the shadow, the dark night of the soul, corruption, charring, putrefaction. To be reborn the spirit must die and decay, then rise again in a new form.
  2. The raven symbolises the Nigredo process; death, night, putrefaction. The dove is the spirit which reunites with the body once the long night has passed. Likewise the scarab, the dungroller, moves from the night of Nigredo into the light of the sun.
  3. Relating to Saturn who would eat his children, but was tricked by Jupiter into eating a stone instead. The stone Saturn vomits up becomes an alchemical catalyst.
  4. The Philosophical (Orphic) Egg is the the Prima Materia destroyed in the putrefaction of Nigredo.
  5. Caput Mortum: Dead Head – hematite iron oxide, a deep purple pigment produced by the Nigredo process and used for painting the robes of religious figures.

 

 

 

Alchemical Symbolism and the Language of Dreams

 

I’ve been reading about alchemy again and it’s started creeping into my dreams with some pretty fantastical symbolism. There have been 2 dreams in a row featuring talking animals; the first a conversational peahen and the second a white fox who said “Goodbye”. Nice dreams when you can get them eh?

The alchemical symbolism of animals tends to be a little different and rather more interesting than your standard dream interpretation. Ask the internet about foxes and peacocks and you’ll get the usual hodgepodge of ‘foxes are crafty’ and ‘peacocks are proud’

The peacock’s tail appears in alchemy near the completion of the ‘work’ whether by an oily residue on the surface of the final liquid (the ‘wet path’) or as a colourful oxidation on metals (the ‘dry path’). The peacock itself denotes nobility, glory and holiness – a path to attaining the Great Work.

Foxes are always closely aligned with the trickster archetype. Alchemically they are linked to the sun along with lions, although I’m not sure what white foxes would relate to? Maybe an alchemical transformation related to the moon or maybe the albedo process. They were also believed that they are the keepers of Elixir of Life and that they assume human form at night to visit the sick.

My main research lately has been around the symbolism associated with the Nigredo process, that of burning, putrefaction, death and resurrection. The symbolism of the Black Madonna is associated with nigedo, the Prima Materia, the black earth (Kemi) and also with Isis, and she is another character that has popped up briefly in my sleep. The photo above is one I took of the Virgin of Montserrat “La Moreneta”. She is housed in the Benedictine Montserrat Abbey in the hills above Barcelona. She has become a site of pilgrimage for Catholics and the pilgrim is able to obtain her blessing by touching her exposed hand which is holding a globe representing the universe. She sit’s in a pose known as the Throne of Wisdom with the baby Christ making a traditional sign of benediction.

When I had the chance to visit the Abbey the weather was bad and the whole mountain was covered in mist. There was no view either up or down the mountains which meant that the tourist numbers were very low – lucky for me! I wasn’t fussed about the views and was most interested in seeing the monastery. The mist was so dense that it was impossible to see more than 50m ahead and the grottoes filled with votive candles flickered all around. Going into the buildings meant that the mist swirled with you into the dark interiors and getting photos was very hard. La Moreneta usually has a long queue of pilgrims waiting to see her and if that had been the case I would have kept away and let them have their time with her. But there was no one else there! I was able to walk up to her and touch her hand, which was incredibly smooth and seemed to have a static charge from the thousands of hands before me.

“Rosa d’abril, Morena de la serra…” (April rose, dark-skinned lady of the mountain…)
– el Virolai, Hymn to the Virgin of Montserrat

I enjoy my research popping up in my dreams as sometimes it will make certain aspects that I can use for future work stand out more clearly. I hadn’t thought about La Moreneta for a while and I can’t think of the last time I even considered white foxes!

 

Saya Woolfalk and Psychedelic Shamanism

I came across Saya Woolfalk last year when I was looking at an article on the Artsy site about shamanism and contemporary art. I’ve thought about her work quite a bit since then and how to express my reaction to it, because that reaction is also deeply connected to how I feel about my own work. As different to hers as it is visually, there is an underlying similarity in intent I think and also in medium and execution.

I was initially drawn to a video loop on the header of the article showing a triple-blue-faced creature with multiple arms and white felt feathers floating through some kind of alien dreamscape.

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It brought up a lot of feelings and sensations for me – things I associate with the early 90s and attending the Goa-trance parties that were popular at the time. The quasi-shamanic costuming and facepaint, the ‘trippy’ computer graphic landscapes, the allusions to futuristic shamanic practices and the unabashed psychedelia. These dance parties were full of people painted with fluorescent paint, in wild costumes and immersive environments often created and elaborated on by the attendees themselves.

Saya Woolfolk describes much of her work as being woman-centric – She has created a virtual world inhabited by the Empathics, a race of hybrid futuristic women who are able to fuse with their environment. This also reminds me of these dance parties where people tended to ‘get in touch with their higher selves’ and men were able to express a more feminine aspect. She works with many people to create collaborative pieces: dancers, videographers, animators, and it appears that she allows them the freedom to add their own expression to the work rather than it being solely directed by the artist. Much of her work is multimedia multidimensional in not just the sense that she is exploring other dimensions but also in the sense that she works within multiple dimensions in the ‘material world’ too, allowing viewers to experience a fully immersive environment.

 

 

Saya Woolfalk, An Empathic Preparing to Paint Images from the Book Empathetic Plant Alchemy (Jillian), 2011. Copyright Saya Woolfalk, courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York.

Installation view of Saya Woolfalk, ChimaTEK Life Products Virtual Chimeric Space (Detail View), 2015, in Seattle Art Museum: “Disguise: Masks and Global African Art.” Photo by Nathaniel Wilson. Copyright Saya Woolfalk, courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York.

I wondered how Woolfalk examines cultural appropriation in her work in relation to the cultural shamanic cues she is using and their usage within the work of a Japanese-born New Yorker? She speaks of ‘cultural hybridity’ which I think is an interesting flip side to cultural appropriation; the coming together of cultures and creation of new culture rather than one taking from another. I know I personally get paralysed sometimes in my own work with worrying about the privilege of being a middle-class European in a developed country and whether I am appropriating culture that is not mine. Sometimes I stop making because I start to overthink the materials I’m using and the form it is taking. It’s probably more useful for me to just make the things THEN analyse how they fit within the cultural landscape rather than not making them at all!

In relation to my own work I’m also fascinated with what Woolfalk can ‘get away with’ when it comes to the otherworldly – probably not the best phrasing, but this is in relation to me and my practice rather than a critique of her work, as I’m really impressed with the passion and the gusto with which she executes her practice. Another learning from Woolfalk’s practice for me; it’s much more constructive to unapologetically embrace the work you want to make and look for it’s place within the current contemporary art landscape than to quash is out of nervousness of negative critique.

As ever when dealing with subject matter that is emotional, spiritual, non-ironic there is a line to be walked – fall too far in one direction and the work can become mawkish and kitsch. But if you don’t step over the line, then you don’t know where it is, so I think it’s perfectly ok to go there and then draw yourself back – as I have done on a number of occasions. There is a lot to learn from overstepping the mark and finding out where the boundaries are.

This brings me back to those Goa trance parties I used to go to. I think at their best these parties were living works of art; beautiful, full of life and raw creativity. At their most banal, they were the desperate posturing of modern kids wanting to take drugs and have some sort of empty spiritual epiphany. Art is at risk of being like that too.

(Top image: ChimaTEK Virtual Chimeric Space Seattle Art Museum)

 

 

Noticing things: what artists do

“Recently a friend told me about a child she encountered in an education programme she was working on at Whitechapel Art Gallery. At the beginning of the project she asked the children, “What do you think a contemporary artist does?” And this particular child rather precociously put her hand up and said, “They sit around in Starbucks and eat organic salad.” And I imagine that is a pretty accurate assessment of many artists’ behaviour in the fashionable parts of the city. At the end of the course, after they had spent some time looking at what contemporary artists did, my friend asked them, “What do you now think a contemporary artist does?” And the same child said, “They notice things.” And I thought, wow, that’s a really short, succinct definition of what an artist does. My job is to notice things that other people don’t notice.”
Grayson Perry (2014) Playing to the Gallery. Penguin. p116

I’ve just finished reading “Playing to the Gallery” by Grayson Perry. It’s a lovely read and is absolutely perfect as a ‘plane book’: the kind of book that is interesting and entertaining enough to hold your attention during strong turbulence, but short enough that you can read it in a couple of hours and give it to a friend who also has a flight coming up. I love this sort of book because I find that so many books these days are just too long. At 135 pages this is the sort of book you can read once and then almost immediately read again to make sure you remember all the good bits for later when you want to tell someone about it.

There were lots of things in the book that made me think, made me laugh and made me nod in agreement. The section I’ve quoted above about what contemporary artists do was a bit I liked so much that I bookmarked it so I could come back and think about it some more. What struck me personally about the statement “They notice things” is that this is something people have said about me since I was a child.

My mum has said for as long as I can remember, “Oh, Mary notices all these things that I never even see.” This is particularly tied to my ability to find four leaf clovers everywhere as they seem to jump out at me as being the ‘wrong pattern’. (It freaks people out a bit to be honest).

My partner, Dan, thinks I’m hilarious because he imagines I just wander the streets pondering life and getting engrossed in noticing things while being oblivious to where I’m supposed to be going. He calls this ‘Puffining’ because he thinks I resemble a thoughtful puffin, especially when I wear my backpack on the bus; “What were you doing outside? Just puffining around I bet!”

I’ve discovered that even as a contractor I notice far more about the physical aspects of the office environment than the people who work there full time, so when I ask them questions about things I invariably get the answer, “Oh, I don’t know… I never noticed that.”

I always thought this was just a quirk of my personality, but now I’m coming to realise that this is what it is to be a contemporary artist. We all do this – wandering around noticing things and annoying other people. Grayson Perry has made me feel that my noticing ability is actually a boon to my art practice and not just something that my family thinks is amusing. As he said above: my job is to notice things that other people don’t notice!

How to survive as an artist who doesn’t make enough money from their work. Yet. (Eternally optimistic.)

(Cartoon from The Oatmeal. The expression on the guy’s face is exactly the same expression I have when sitting in my studio, although my feet tend to reach the floor www.theoatmeal.com)

I’ve read a number of times the advice that an artist without an established art career needs to have another source of income for a) practical reasons b) to keep them free from making art decisions based on the hunt for money to pay the bills. Unless you have family money or a huge repository of savings this means that you are going to have to get a job. This is especially true if you live in one of the expensive cities where all the art stuff happens. I say ‘job’ because you don’t want to accidentally end up with a ‘career’. A job can be part-time and can be left behind at the end of the day, a career requires your full commitment which means you’ll have nothing left for your art.

I spent 20 years with a ‘career’, in fact I did my MFA while holding down not just a ‘career’ but also a career in my own business! If you think a career in someone else’s business sucks you dry, then multiple that by 10 to experience the dedication and commitment required to ownership of a business where you are the sole director. No, what an artist needs is a job. Somewhere you can go that you enjoy, or at least don’t detest, that has flexible hours, pays you enough money to live and that will also take you out of your own head for a while so that you don’t go crazy spending hours worrying that you have all this time but aren’t making enough art.

I’m lucky enough that I’ve found what appears to be a very good balance: because I have so much experience from my design career I’m able to work on-call as a contractor in ad agencies. The very problems with the creative industry that have made it increasingly difficult to run a small design business (eg the fluctuation and uncertainty of clients and income) have created the perfect niche for someone like myself to be flexible high-end staff resource for other companies. I have an agent who finds me work, negotiates my rate and who is well aware of my art practice and the fact that I don’t want to work full time. I can go into agencies and take an ‘all care, no responsibility’ approach to the job where I aim to do the best possible job for them, but at the end of the day I don’t need to deal with the clients or chase unpaid invoices.

There was a month or two after I closed my design business and before I started getting regular contract work that I had a lot of spare time to work on new art. Instead of rushing into a frenzy of art production I froze up and became overwhelmed with the fact that I had all this precious, precious time and I wasn’t using it properly! Now that I am working part time I’m somehow more productive, I don’t worry about not making any money and going to work takes me out of myself so that I don’t get stuck in a loop, sitting in my little studio wondering why I’m so useless. I also feel that because I’m not desperate for income I can make the choices with my work that I want to rather than feeling I am grasping at every straw.

There is the other issue of needing money for making and and for travelling to do art things. After speaking at City Gallery Wellington I was invited to speak at Steinhardt NYU! How exciting! Problem was that I only had a month to organise the trip and NYU weren’t paying all my airfares etc Getting anywhere from New Zealand is an exercise in being bled dry, so it’s important to have a fund that you can draw on when you get unexpected awesome invites and opportunities. I now have one.

So go forth artists! Find non-life-consuming-part-time jobs!

‘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.