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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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)

 

 

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Last night I watched the Werner Herzog documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” showcasing the Chauvet Cave paintings. The paintings are from 2 periods between around 35,000 and 28,000 years ago and have been buried within the cave for over 20,000 years, untouched by the outside world and, as such, they are amazingly well preserved; incredible in their detail and beauty.

I found this film deeply moving. Imagining the people who painted the walls, I kept thinking about what they saw, how they saw it and what their lives were like. The paintings had so much animation and vibrancy! Comparing them to later ancient art from the area and further afield it would almost seem that this fluidity was lost for quite some time. Thinking about Egyptian and Near Eastern art from 25,000 years later and looking at the stylisation of form, it’s comparatively rigid poses don’t have the movement of the Chauvet animals (although obviously just as beautiful). These artists understood not just movement but also perspective and the fact that you can ‘stack’ objects behind each other to create a group.

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I love these rhinos – who knew there were wooly rhinos in southern France! I think the way they overlap is gorgeous as it allows you to see that there are a whole heard of them, that they are milling around and that they aren’t even all facing in the same direction. The rhino at the back shows a technique that the artist’s have used with other animals drawings within the cave. The multiple lines around the body and the horn indicate that it is moving, tossing it’s head, maybe charging. As soon as I saw this I thought of the Futurists! Duchamp’s ‘Nude Descending a Staircase‘ popped into my head immediately. Or Natalia Goncharova’s ‘Cyclist’.

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This herd of horses is one of the most stunning pieces of art in the cave. Archeologists believe that all the horses were painted by one person, with the lowest horse, with it’s mouth open in a whinny, the last to be completed. I really love the shading that gives the animals some weight and volume and they way each animal seems like an individual with distinct features.

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I can’t stop looking at this rush of lions. They appear to be running, leaping, pouncing after the aurochs. The aurochs on the top left looks like it is screaming in fear as it tries to escape the onslaught. The technique that the artists have used of scraping back the cave wall to expose the whiter stone underneath has allowed them to create a bright surface for the black medium and has added to the movement with the underlying scraping strokes.

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As well as animals, further into the cave there were also drawings that appeared to be large renderings of insects and butterflies. This interested me a great deal; the large animals are obviously very important to the artists as either food or predators, but insects don’t generally fit into either of those categories. That made me wonder whether the artist painted the insects purely because they thought the insects were interesting or beautiful. They would have been painted from memory, which means that the artist must have spent time observing the insects for no other reason than that they wanted to understand them.

I thought about the paintings in this film all day, trying to imagine those people from 30,000 years ago and what they were thinking about as they made them.

 

The Finnish Sauna

Saunatonttu – the spirit of the sauna

Last night I had my first opportunity to use the sauna at Arteles. It is a traditional  Finnish sauna with a wood-burning heater and water boiler. The sauna is a central part of Suomi life:

“After centuries of temporal use, the sauna acquired spiritual significance. The sanctity of the sauna was supported by ritual and strict propriety. “These stubborn people,” wrote an astonished Swedish economist in 1776, “even connect the sauna with their theology and think the sauna building is some kind of shrine.” An old saying, still heard in Finland today, says, Jokaisen on kayttaydyttava saunaaa samalla tavalla kuin kirkossa.” (“In the sauna one must conduct himself as one would in church.”) This strict reverence protected the Finnish sauna from the corruption that befell most other bathing institutions in Europe.”
(http://www.cyberbohemia.com/Pages/historyofnordic.htm)

The sauna provides an egalitarian venue for unencumbered discussion. It is a place to be yourself amongst others and to discuss deeper matters that might not be broached on a day to day basis.

The traditional wood-burning sauna at Arteles is a small wooden building off to one side at the edge of the forest. It is comprised of three rooms: the first is not heated and so is freezing in winter! This is where you undress and leave your clothes. The second room is the washing room which has a wood-burning boiler and basins to mix the hot and cold water to your tastes for bathing. You can use ladles to pour the water over your head and body before entering the sauna. You can also come out of the sauna into this room to cool off and re-wash, which is very refreshing.

The third room is the sauna itself and consists of several benches at various heights seating 4-5 people dependent on the heat that you can handle. The sauna is generally heated to 90-100c but can be intensified by ladles of water being poured over the rocks on the top of the stove to increase the heat and humidity, this steam is known as löyly.

Last night we spent around an hour in the sauna and in coming out to re-wash or stand in the snow. On our final round we came out into the snow and rolled around! It was amazing to me to see what the body can withstand when it is warmed up enough – last night was -22˚C and I was having trouble dealing with the cold even wrapped up in my snow clothes, but somehow the sauna allowed me to come out into the cold winter night completely naked and lie in the snow. The body has such a capacity for dealing with situations and adjusting it’s functions to cope. The sauna makes you feel somewhat superhuman in it’s ability to allow a human to withstand such extremes without pain or physical repercussions (eg shock or frostbite).

Arteles Creative Residency, Finland

I am staying in Finland for a month at the Arteles Creative Residency near Tampere. It’s a beautiful place, quite magical in the snow. Today there is a clear sky and sun. Sometimes there is a slight breeze which causes a flurry of snow to fall from the trees in cascading waves. It hangs in the air catching the light of the sun in a shower of glitter. I think it is perhaps one of the most delicately beautiful things I have ever seen. So far my attempts to capture in on video have been unsuccessful, but I suspect it’s the kind of phenomena that is too hard to get on film.

From Cyrill Schlepper’s “UR Musig” documentary about Swiss Folk Music Traditions. “Wilde Chlausen” from Urnäsch in Appenzeller Land.

Stay tuned for a lot more images of traditional ritual costume that I have been researching over the last few weeks!


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/181855510″>&quot;UR Musig&quot; documentary about Swiss Folk Music Traditions. &quot;Wilde Chlausen&quot; from Urn&auml;sch in Appenzeller Land.</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/marymacgregorreid”>Mary MacGregor-Reid</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

 

“Why are creative women dismissed as ‘quirky’?” – Eva Wiseman

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/feb/08/killer-word-quirky-eva-wiseman

That’s a very good question. My work has been called quirky on any number of occasions and every time I hear it I cringe internally and have to hold back from rolling my eyes. There is something very lazy and dismissive about the word which Eva Wiseman manages to articulate well in her article.

“When a creative man divides the critics he is called ‘surreal’ … while a woman is denigrated with the label ‘quirky’ – and that kicks the legs out from under us.”

I would feel a lot happier if my work was described as ‘surreal’. Surreal indicates that some thought has gone into it, that the artist is aiming for something, that if you look a bit harder there is going to be something interesting to see. ‘Quirky’ relegates the work to the realm of weird tics and 17 year old girls in stripey socks, with blue hair, who play the accordion.

“…in being named, you’re being rendered safe. She’s quirky, she’s harmless. Water is poured on your potential to shock.

Never has this been better articulated than with the term Manic Pixie Dreamgirl the supporting character of so many films, used to further the storyline of the male hero. She is the flighty muse whose quirkiness renders her charming but impotent. She’s not a woman (she doesn’t want a career, family, or anything scary) – she’s a girl.”

With all this in mind I also have to examine why the work is being tarred with the epithet ‘quirky’. What am I doing that is causing this word to be used as a descriptor? Is there something I can do that would steer the work away from quirkiness? Is that what I want to do? Am I even able to affect that change or are the descriptive terms used by some viewers outside my ability to influence? I want to take this opportunity to pull the work apart and examine what parts of it lends itself to this description. In the end, does it matter?

  • Thank you to Sam Dollimore for the article link. 

Performing to camera/Performing for camera

There is a new exhibition on currently at the Tate Modern called “Performing for the Camera”. I had a look through the works on display and it got me thinking again about some of the ideas I’d grappled with last year when making my first performative videos, as well as my dabble in live performance.

In my mind, the statements ‘performing to camera’ and ‘performing for camera’ are two very different propositions. The first denotes a connection with the camera (and therefore the audience behind the camera) that is likely to be realised through direct dialogue in some form; not necessarily speech or eye contact, but an obvious angling of the performance to the viewer. All actions are performed ‘to’ the camera – the audience is the camera. The second suggests the performer has an awareness of the presence of the camera and, therefore, of a potential audience. But the performance might not include any direct dialogue with the camera in the form of gaze, gesture or speech. A performer could quite well perform in the distance with their back to the camera and still be performing ‘for’ the camera. When creating my pieces last year I made the decision that the performances would be ‘to’ the camera. In Hive Oracle (2015), Sublimation (2015) and Albedo (2016) there is direct eye contact from most of the performers. Some performers in Albedo do not make eye contact with, or address the camera, but their pose and gesture is angled to the camera’s presence.

Working with performers I found many differences in the way still photography and moving image recognises tone and gesture. An expression that might be captivating in a still image becomes overwrought and overacted as soon as the image is moving. This is equally noticeable in my barely-moving tableaus which straddle the line between image and moving image. It was imperative for the work that I did not end up with performers who looked like they were Performing (capital P). I’ve seen this happen before with performers who, no matter what role they are taking on, are always, intrinsically themselves. In certain circumstances this is a strength, but it’s not what I needed for this work. Then the other side of the coin is hoping to work with inexperienced performers to find a naturalness in the work, but they can be too anxious to relax. Luckily I was able to work with some great performers who were able to relax into the roles and give an understated, natural performance.

There is a set of new work by artist Amalia Ulman showing in this exhibition that interests me particularly. Her Excellences & Perfections series appeared on instagram as what at first glance seemed to be the heavily curated selfies of a preening millennial. It was infact a scripted and well-planned performance of three consecutive tropes of young female internet celebrity existence.

“It’s more than a satire,” she explains. “I wanted to prove that femininity is a construction, and not something biological or inherent to any woman. Women understood the performance much faster than men. They were like, ‘We get it – and it’s very funny.’ ” What was the joke? “The joke was admitting how much work goes into being a woman and how being a woman is not a natural thing. It’s something you learn.”
Ulsan, A. quoted in Sooke, A. (2016) Is this the first Instagram Masterpiece? Sourced from http://www.telegraph.co.uk

There are layers of performance going on within this work: the performance of Ulman as the women in the work, the performance of Ulman as a woman in everyday life, the performance of Ulman in the art world as a young artist, the performance of Ulman as the artist performing the art; it just goes on and on, bending back upon itself. Very interesting. I was wondering how much of Ulman herself exists as parts of the tropes she was performing? How often is she knowingly or unknowingly drawn into playing those roles?

With my next filing session I have some ideas around testing the performance of the actors to camera and around how much of themselves becomes present/not present. Hopefully there will be some curious outcomes.

Photo credit: Amalia Ulman Excellences & Perfections (Instagram Update, 8th July 2014), (#itsjustdifferent) 2015 © Courtesy Arcadia Missa and The Artist​

Aleister Crowley and 4th Dimensional Space in the novel ‘Moonchild’ (1917)

“The first impression of the savage about the universe is of a great mysterious jumble of things which come upon him without rime or reason, usually to smite him down.

Long later, man developed the idea of connecting phenomena, at least a few at a time. Centuries elapse; he begins to perceive law, at first operating only in a very few matters.

More centuries; some bold thinker invents a single cause for all these diverse effects, and calls it God. This hypothesis leads to interminable disputes about the nature of God; in fact, they have never been settled. The problem of the origin of evil, alone, has quite baffled theology.

Science advances; we now find that all things are subject to law. There is no need of any mysterious creator, in the old sense; we look for causes in the same order of nature as the effects they produce. We no lounger propitiate ghosts to keep our fires alight. Now, at last, I and a few others are asking whether the whole universe be not illusion, in exactly the same way as a true surface is an illusion.

Perhaps the universe is a four-dimensional object, or collection of objects, quite sane, and simple, and intelligible, manifesting itself in diversity, regular or irregular, just as the cone did to the water…

….It’s perfectly simple. I, the fourth-dimensional reality, am going about my business in a perfectly legitimate way. I find myself pushing through to my surface, or let us say, I become conscious of my surface, the material universe, much as the cone did as it went through the water. I make my appearance with a yell. I grow. I die. There are the same phenomena of change which we all perceive around us. My three-dimensional mind thinks all this ‘real,’ a history; where at most it is a geography, a partial set of infinite aspects…”

Crowley, A. (1917) Moonchild, York beach: USA, Samuel Weiser, Reprint 1991, P61