I constantly collect images that interest me, then several times a year I go through them, sort them into rough groups, stick them in my workbook and write notes on why I chose them underneath. From there I’m able to pull out possible areas of interest, recurring themes or ideas I hadn’t recognised before. I try not to self-censor and I keep anything that catches my eye even if I worry that it’s a bit far from ‘art’ or my practice as such. Fashion, pop culture etc can all have useful take-outs.
Just when I was getting into finding out about the contemporary Western relationship to esotericism and the occult, a friend sends me a selection of facebook screenshots he thought I might enjoy. I did enjoy it immensely, not just because peoples reactions are so great, but because it provided a nice little insight into exactly what I was curious about.
From digging around online I’ve come to the conclusion that a sort of vague ‘witchiness’ is very popular right now. As long as it’s got some connections to nature and you can indulge in some enjoyable consumerism in the form of sage smudge sticks or sliver pentacle necklaces, it seems reasonably acceptable by the (non-religious) western mainstream. I don’t think the same can be said for things that lean in a more ‘occult’ direction though.
What fascinates me is the fear induced by geometry; namely any geometry that appears in-situ within a building (one could almost say an installation). Ritual circles on the floor really get the blood pumping, then add a five-pointed star, or a hexagon, or similar and satan is on the loose! It’s quite wonderful that geometric shapes have so much power over otherwise jaded and skeptical adults. The excitement of finding a couple of circles under the carpet of an old house was so exhilarating that it migrated from facebook and onto the front page of the NZ Herald – I bet the owners didn’t expect that much curiosity! Is this the last real bastion of true superstitious fear in western culture?
I was thinking that you could perhaps chuck hauntings in there as well, but the reaction to ghosts vs floor-geometry does appear a bit different. Hauntings, as well as offering the exhilaration of fear, also offer answers; the possibility of an afterlife or existence in another place and the chance to connect with it. Occultism only puts forward questions. Find some fancy floor-geometry under your carpet and you’re just going to be left with more questions than you started with even if you can find someone to tell you what it is and who made it.
Just quietly, I suspect that either someone who lived in the house 30 years ago wanted spooky rooms for fun (bunch o goths) or there was someone who did some general non-specific ritual work and wanted a circle for it. There is certainly nothing in either of those circles that tells you much about what they might have been used for. I’ve included screenshots of the original post and some of my fave comments. These were shared on a public forum, but I have removed all names.
If anyone has any thought’s about contemporary western society’s relationship to the occult, please do leave me a comment as I’m very curious…
Last Saturday I attended a perfume workshop at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki taught by Samantha Copland of Perfume Playground
I’ve been using scent on and off in a my work to create an immersive environment, speaking to the kinds of all-encompassing environments creating in Ceremonial magick ritual practice. I find the effect of scent on our mood and memory to be fascinating. For myself – and I believe for many others – scent has a stronger memory link than that of sight, sound and touch combined. For example there is a smell of cooking that I first experienced on the street in Hong Kong at 8 years old that, if I happen to smell it on the street, will jolt me right back to that time and place even 36 years later. The smell of jasmine at night instantly transports me to my first few weeks in NZ when we were staying in a strange old dilapidated house in Remuera. I don’t think I’d ever smelled jasmine flowers before and this house had a huge rambling vine right outside the window that perfumed the whole house at night.
We were all working with a middle-note scent of cinnamon which meant we needed to choose a base-note scent and a top-note scent. I wanted to make something different to what I would usually choose and not pick my obvious favourite scents. I was trying to find scents that would work with the cinnamon to enhance it, but what I got in the end is most and reacts to my skin in a very strange way.
Firstly I should note that there is no alcohol or other solvents in the mix. I used
Blood orange 1/28
Long Pepper 2/28
Tobacco Absolute 5/28
So it is very heavy on the cinnamon, which is what I wanted. Away from the skin it is VERY strong smelling and almost alcoholic. I even find it a bit unpleasant. But once it’s applied to my skin and it settles down and all the harsh aspects completely disappear and it becomes spicy and sweet.
The earlier versions I mixed with less cinnamon and more of the tobacco and pepper smelled very strange in the mixing containers, but when applied to my skin the whole fragrance just vanished!
I’ve been delving into the fragrance I chose to get some insight into their use and their symbolism:
Cinnamon is very much a solar fragrance in western esotericism and is a main component of ‘Oil of Abramelin’, a ceremonial oil blend with it’s roots the anointing oil described in the Hebrew Tanakh. It’s associations are with orange/red/gold, with Apollo and Ra, with Tiphereth, with Resh (the conscious mind/the front of the head), the sun and with Iron.
Cinnamon was highly prized in the ancient world, along with incenses such as frankincense and myrrh which are also derived from trees, but the sap rather than the bark. The Ancient Egyptians used cinnamon as part of the embalming process and the Romans would use it on the funeral pyres of the very wealthy.
Tobacco is attributed to Horus and Mars. It is also associated with orange and red colours, with iron, sulphur and ruby, with the element of fire and also, strangely, with gold. These are strong, martial attributes for a strong fragrance.
Indigenous American peoples extensively saw tobacco as a ceremonial plant for use in negotiations, treaties and as a means to carry ones prayers to the Creator. It is part of the nightshade family and originated in South America before spreading around the globe.
Pepper is another fiery red fragrance associated with Horus, Mars and Ares. It is also associated with Pe (the mouth) and the tarot trump ‘The Tower’. Long Pepper (also known as Pipli or Pippali) is a hotter variant of pepper than that used for culinary black/white/green pepper. It’s medicinal uses are described in Ayurvedic texts and was also used medicinally by the Greek ands Romans as early as the 5th or 6th Centuries BCE.
Blood Orange isn’t listed anywhere in western esoteric correspondences that I can find. Obviously, as it’s name would suggest, the flesh is a distinctive orangey red and it is apparently a natural mutation of the orange caused by anthocyanins. The fragrance is sweet and heady as the name implies.
Overall, looking at my findings, it seems clear that I have chosen a whole set of fiery, strong, orange/red fragrances without consciously intending to. The videos I currently have in the works are based on the alchemical ‘Rubedo’ process and will be shot entirely in red – it seems that this perfume I’ve created could work well as an accompaniment to the next show!
Now I have to finish putting together my fragrance for the Nigredo show in 1.5 weeks….
(Header photo from Perfume Playground instagram)
Often when I’m exploring new work I come up against questions that I struggle to answer. In the current series of photos and videos I have been creating I started wondering about some of the symbolism I was drawn to and also the intention behind the desire I have to use women as the protagonists in this particular set. I’m very lucky to have a wealth of thoughtful advice to draw upon in the form of my art peers who don’t mind sitting down with me and having a ponder. In this case I called upon the brains of my friends Justine and Anita to think through with me some of these questions.
Mary MacGregor-Reid, 2018, Still from video “In the ash that lies at the bottom of the grave, there lies the king’s diadem…”
I have found myself fascinated with the act of pouring. In previous videos I have used the pouring of beeswax, of honey, of carbon and I still have a desire to work with this action. I discussed the symbolism of pouring with Jus and Anita who had some similar thoughts to my own and also expanded upon them with some ideas I hadn’t come to on my own – highlighting the importance of having other thinkers to talk with!
Jus related the act of pouring to having tea with friends, of pouring out a cup for a guest as an act of friendship, of bonding and of interpersonal ritual. She also related it to the act of her mother washing her hair in the bath as a child. I relate to both of these actions as I am an avid tea-drinker and my mum also used to rinse my hair in the bath by pouring water over my head in a sort of bath-time baptism. There is a connotation of caring to these acts and we both mentioned the release of scent and the experience of the sound of water rushing into water. They also seem to be quite feminine acts, things that are often done between women and in the act of caring for others.
The act of pouring can be a sort of gift, as the substance leaves one vessel to then be contained in another, as in the pouring of tea.
It can also signify blending as 2 or more elements are brought together to create a new substance, as when cooking or in chemistry.
There is the cleansing or consecration aspect, as in baptism or ritual anointing.
There is also an idea of a substance transforming, which I think is particularly experienced in the release of scent through the movement of the substance from one place to the next. When pouring non-liquid substances like ash or carbon there is an explosion of dust that comes with the action.
Mary MacGregor-Reid, 2018, Still from video “In the ash that lies at the bottom of the grave, there lies the king’s diadem…”
I talked to Anita extensively about my use of women as the protagonists in these new works and why I felt that it was important to the work, but could be a problem. This work is not specifically about gender, it isn’t a political statement, but at the same time I felt that my use of female characters could be interpreted in that way, bringing in content that I didn’t really want to be there. This took us around to the symbolism of pouring again and whether in classical art this is seen as a female gesture. Outside neoclassical concrete garden sculptures, we weren’t really sure if this was true, but we were reminded of the fact that the cup is very definitely a symbol of the female.
Both water and the cup or chalice are recognisable as symbols of the feminine. This gives me a bit more insight into where the pouring symbolism along with female protagonists is coming together in this work. Now that I’ve unpicked my unconscious decision-making a bit it has made me very interested to go back and reshoot all the scenes with male protagonists once I’ve finished shooting with women to see how that would affect the work and the viewer’s experience of it. I’ve also started thinking about the sound and scent aspects of the action of pouring and how this could work within the context of these or future pieces. I’ve worked with both sound and scent previously so it seems quite natural to think about how these experiential elements could integrate.
Mary MacGregor-Reid, 2018, Still from video “In the ash that lies at the bottom of the grave, there lies the king’s diadem…”
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.
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!
“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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The Philosophical (Orphic) Egg is the the Prima Materia destroyed in the putrefaction of Nigredo.
- 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.
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!
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!
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!