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)

 

 

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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arteles Residency Outcomes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mikala Dwyer @ Hopkinson Mossman 2016

Last Friday I popped into Hopkinson Mossman gallery to enjoy the Mikala Dwyer solo show – I’m a big fan of her work but had never seen an entire gallery install. On entering the gallery there are three of her robe costumes on the lefthand side, with one of her hanging ‘necklaces’ on the right. On entering the main gallery space you encounter three large painted banners, a hanging mobile-type structure and a number of of her fetishistic ritual objects. There was no one else in the gallery which was quite nice because I could spend time with the works and get up close for a good look at the different objects.

The large draped banners immediately reminded me of sacred geometric designs, of mandalas and of the Tree of Life. They changed an became more three dimensional or more flat depending on the angle they were viewed from. The sculptural objects that sat on them seemed like chess pieces waiting to be moved activating the composition. i felt they had a potentiality about them in the sense that they could be performed – the costumes also have this but in a more obvious way because the viewer is quite aware that they could be worn. Perhaps the positioning of the robes and headwear at the entrance to the ain space signalled that an initiate could don the robes and activate the space?

Between 2 of the banners hangs a totemic mobile. It guards the space and the viewer feels that even though they could walk through to the other side, they probably shouldn’t if they know what’s good for them. Maybe donning the mask and robe would make it a safer journey? The feeling of a gateway or passage to another space is amplified by the use of semi-translucent material, translucent gauze and reflective mirror. The mirror does the trick of reflecting back the shapes and objects as well as the viewer and bouncing you around between the structures in the space.

Dwyer uses some wonderful objects in her assemblages. The weirdness and clashing nature of them activate the ritual totemic urgency in the work, creating a dialogue between the materials. In her large necklace piece I particularly enjoyed the lumpy clay weights that hung heavily from the ends of the chain. They served to make the other elements on the ‘decorative’ part of the necklace seem all the more special, magical and precious. On both the necklace and in the main room assemblages there are some of Dwyers trademark moulded pieces; some with other objects embedded in – or more accurately consumed by – the malleable substrate. The multi-hued metallic glaze she has used is like an oil slick over their lumpy surface.

Somehow the install manages to be both noisey and quiet at the same time. You could very  well sit and meditate on the geometric constructs, but you have to be prepared to deal with the cacophony of bold colour and clashing objects.

Wonderful.

Motoi Yamamoto

Motoi Yamamoto’s work has jumped out and caught my eye a few times over the last year so I thought I should have a look a bit deeper and record my thinking for future reference. I suspect his work is very easy for me to enjoy. Words like beauty, skill, time, duration and immersion can be applied to it, and these are words that I distrust because I’m easily seduced by them as concepts. I have to be harder on myself when it comes to analysing the conceptual and contextual ‘whys’ around the work I’m drawn to.

So, beyond the appealing aesthetic nature of pattern, geometry and form, how is the work speaking to me? Reading about Motoi’s practice I can see parallels with my practice and his interest in the ritual trance state he enters when creating his salt labyrinth works. There is a sense that he passes into something of an otherworldly state where nothing exists but the creation of the work. I imagine the experience of time and duration all but disappearing as the experience of the process takes over. It reminds me of the mandalas created by buddhist monks as a moving meditation, a ritual of creation and destruction where the intricate works are painstakingly constructed them swept away.

There is also the symbolic nature of the material; salt plays a big part in Japanese Shinto ritual with blessing, cleansing and purifying – Motoi talks about the salt creating connections to his sister who he lost to illness and how the material relates to memory for him. Salt transcends cultural symbolism by having worldwide connotations around purity, the sea, sanctity, cleansing, protection which allows non-Japanese viewers easy access to the work. I feel that his work is deeply personal and emotional, while at the same time being very relatable and accessible to viewers. To me, that is very successful.

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Sydney Biennale Part 2

On the secondary Justine and I caught the train out to Newtown for breakfast and wandered back into the city stopping at Biennale venues along the way. The Carriageworks hosts the Embassy of Disappearance.

“The Embassy of Disappearance addresses themes such as absence, memory, history and archaeology, and concerns in relation to natural resources, politics of spaces and questions of ownership of land.”
Rosenthal, S. (2016) The Guide. Sydney, Australia: 20th Biennale of Sydney.

IMG_2384Gerald Machona (2012) Uri Afronaut

The Afronaut works but Gerald Machona were both amusing and poignant. We see the outfits the Afronauts wear displayed as sculptural relics, as well as their journey in the form of a video piece. The costumes made of decommissioned currency parallel the state of the disenfranchised legal alien adrift in their own land. The Afronaut characters reference ‘Nyau’, a form of ritual dance incorporating masks that originates in Malawi.

IMG_2385Gerald Machona (2012) Uri Afrinaut

Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2016) Home Movie

Thai artist Apichatpong Weerasethakul creates film and experimental video works that address memory and representations of reality. He describes the work ‘Home Movie’ as being a ritual space in a cave-like environment where spectators gather to observe the light of the fire. I found this work mesmerising probably due to it’s elemental and ritual nature which are themes that appeal to me personally. I also spent a great deal of time watching the work and thinking about the way it was made; a ring of fire surrounded by fans that blow the fire in gusts and eventually become consumed themselves imitating a dying planet. Jus and I discussed how dangerous this would have been to make what with the electrical-powered fans slowly being consumed by flame. I was thinking about the kind of studio set-up you would require, what sort of fire regulations would need to be in place etc. It was much to our amusement that we discovered the piece is called ‘Home Movie”!

The Embassy of Disappearance is a huge gallery space and I’ve only choose 2 works to show here, but we spent several hours there looking at all the pieces. I got really tangled up with whether certain pieces functioned effectively or not and Jus had to bring me back to the present so we could make it on to the next stage because we were both dying of thirst. After stopping for a drink and a sit-down we continued on to the Embassy of Transition which is housed in the beautiful Victorian Mortuary Station.

“The Embassy of Transition is situated at the Mortuary Station, a former train station in Chippendale used until 1948 to transport coffins from the city to Rookwood Cemetery. Closely related to the Embassy of Spirits, this Embassy brings together two artists who each engage with cycles of life and death, and rites of passage more generally.”
Rosenthal, S. (2016) The Guide. Sydney, Australia: 20th Biennale of Sydney.

IMG_2417Charwei Tsai (2016) A Dedication to Those Who Have Passed Through Mortuary Station, Sydney

Charwei Tsai’s coils of incense have scripts written on them in different languages that contemplate the Bardo (the state between death and rebirth). During the course of the Biennale the coils will burn away and will not be replaced. Looking at photos of her incense coils installed in different environments I felt that the Mortuary Station was very ‘busy’ in its setting, it’s ornamentation and style so that the quiet contemplation of the installation was lost. The meaning was still there, but the feeling of that state of transition between worlds was nullified by the visual clutter of new-victorian architecture and the busy tiled floor. I spent some time talking to the woman who had been employed to look after the works in this Embassy (mainly as a zoologist to care for the birds in Marco Chiandetti’s works). Apparently the install had its own set of challenges that I was grateful to hear about; its easy to forget that well established artists deal with the same sorts of unanticipated questions and challenges that we do. Tsai had decided to install the objects lower than she at first envisioned because they would be lost in the rafters and it was definitely more engaging for us viewers to walk amongst them. There was also the challenge of the wind speeding up the burning process – will they last for the entire Biennale? The ash was being blown around the area rather than making circles on the floor, so the attendant was sweeping it up periodically rather than leaving it as it would be in an interior install.

IMG_2413Charwei Tsai (2016) A Dedication to Those Who Have Passed Through Mortuary Station, Sydney

Marco Chiandetti’s ‘The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where one ends and the other begins?’ was installed but not yet active. The large aviaries and birdseed objects were in place but the myna birds intended to inhabit the installation were not yet present due to a hold-up with animal welfare permits. I would very much like to see this work progress over the course of the next couple of months.

We continued on the the Gallery of New South Wales to visit the Embassy of Spirits. Along with the Museum of Contemporary Art, this was the most traditional gallery space.

“The early twenty-first century has seen a dangerous return to fats-based political conviction, with various belief structures becoming associated with extreme views, and violent and harmful acts that impinge on our everyday lives. A belief structure helps us to define what we think and believe about ourselves and the world. It is how we connect to the external world and environment in which we find ourselves. The Embassy of Spirits addresses the place in our lives of belief systems manifested in the form of religious and personal rituals.”
Rosenthal, S. (2016) The Guide. Sydney, Australia: 20th Biennale of Sydney.

IMG_2424Mella Jaarsma (2015-16) Dogwalk

Dogwalk by Dutch artist Mella Jaarsma is a set of performative outfits and a video showing performers wearing the costumes within the bounds of a ‘dog walk’. Initially I found the outfits and the video deeply disturbing; I think this could be because I don’t eat meat and am very concerned about animal rights? The costumes with the calf skin trailing it’s legs along the ground (above centre) upset me the most because it seemed like a small animal being dragged to death. For me the ‘Dogwalk’ spoke of the different relationships humans have with animals that are considered companions and those that are considered food. Reading about the artist’s intent it is a similar idea from a different viewpoint; the animal skins are those that have been slaughtered in Islamic ritual, but are being compared to dogs that are considered unclean. There is also the juxtaposition between cultural relationships to animals; in the west we consider dogs companions, in Islamic countries they are haram. She also delves into the idea of the trickster in folklore, the shaman wearing the skins of animals, human-animal hybrids etc. It’s interesting because I’m not repulsed by shamanic characters in animal skins, maybe because there is a reverence at play? I saw no reverence in this use of skins which is perhaps what gave me such a negative reaction? The soundtrack music was jarring yet hypnotic and I felt it was very effective… I’m still not sure how to feel about this work, I think it was the one that affected me the most in terms of repulsion, but at the same time drew me in because I was fascinated by my own reaction.

IMG_2426Nyapanyapa Yunupingu (2016) My Sister’s Ceremony

Walking through the door from ‘Dogwalk’ you encounter Nyapanyapa Yunupingu’s My Sister’s Ceremony which I found to be a soothing reprieve from the animal carcasses. A cool, dimly lit room is dappled with light and filled with a dream forest of marked and engraved wooden poles. She uses a meditative mark-making practice as a kind of ritual and an expression of the action of her hands.

IMG_2430Nyapanyapa Yunupingu (2016) My Sister’s Ceremony

IMG_2446Taro Shinoda (2016) Abstraction of Confusion 

I enjoy experiential environments and I feel they are a successful way to convey the subtleties of ritual otherworldly experience. ‘My Sisters Ceremony’ did this with darkness and quiet, a womb-like ambience. Taro Shinoda’s Abstraction of Confusion use’s space and bright light together with the cool scent of drying clay to create an environment that conjures the tranquility of zen contemplation. This is a place of stillness, abstraction and thought. The coolness and smell of the space are soothing and work to quiet the mind and promote introspection.

IMG_2445Taro Shinoda (2016) Abstraction of Confusion

IMG_2440Taro Shinoda (2016) Abstraction of Confusion

IMG_2458Yin-Ju Chen (2014/2016) Liquidation Maps

Finally, the ‘Liquidation Maps’ of Yin-Ju Chen. When Justine and I saw these we joked that they could be the unholy offspring of both of our art practices! We imagined my work and her work combining and giving birth to this show; detailed drawing, artefacts, alchemy, astronomy, macrocosm and microcosm, diagram-making and historical referencing all in one! In this installation Chen references important events in Chinese history then maps them as cosmic cartographies showing the position of the planets and the stars when the event unfolded. She references the interrelationships between cosmic events and human behaviour, the macrocosm and the microcosm. I appreciated how the works were displayed. Placing them in tables increased the cartographic and scientific presence, if they had been hung on the wall I feel they would have become more decorative and have held less weight.

IMG_2455Yin-Ju Chen (2014/2016) Liquidation Maps

IMG_2454Yin-Ju Chen (2014/2016) Liquidation Maps

IMG_2453Yin-Ju Chen (2014/2016) Liquidation Maps

 

 

Sydney Biennale Part 1

On the 15th March Justine and I spent 3 days at the Vernissage of the 2016 Sydney Biennale. We spent hours and hours each day walking and looking at artworks which was both exhausting and exhilarating. I’ve divided our viewing into 2 posts which just feature a few of the works I enjoyed the most. I’m not going to write too much about them, just shorts notes about the artist and a little about the work as a bit of a memory marker for me.

Our first stop was the ‘Embassy of Translation’ which was housed in the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia on the waterfront.

“The Embassy of Translation revisits historical positions, concepts and artefacts by means of current technologies and working methods, and reconsiders them in the light of contemporary concerns. The works in this Embassy address the question of how we can use our access to the vast past to translate and re-contexuralise history.”
Rosenthal, S. (2016) The Guide. Sydney, Australia: Biennale of Sydney.

I only recorded one work here; Céline Condorelli (2012-2013/2016) Structure for Communicating with the Wind
I enjoyed the idea of a device for communicating with the wind. The movement of the fabric plus the reflections onto the floor were silent and mesmerising.

We caught the ferry across the harbour to the ‘Embassy of The Real’ on Cockatoo Island. The island itself was very interesting, being both an ex penal colony and shipbuilding yard, so the buildings and overall feel of the island is unusual. We had a look around the large industrial buildings first.

“The Embassy of the Real poses a question central to the Biennale: If each era posits a different view of reality, what is ours?”
Rosenthal, S. (2016) The Guide. Sydney, Australia: Biennale of Sydney.

IMG_2322Lee Bul (2016) Willing To Be Vulnerable

Korean artist Lee Bul works with large scale, immersive installations. her site specific work on Cockatoo island deals with the memories, dreams and aspirations of humanity. This was one of many site-specific installations we saw at the Biennale. I really appreciated the artists’ use of space and site for the works shown on Cockatoo Island.

IMG_2328William Forsythe (2013) Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time No.2

We had a lot of fun with the William Forsythe work. Below is a video of Justine running through the moving pendulums. This work was originally developed to be part of a choreography performed by a dancer. In this case the work is activated by the viewers.

IMG_2333Chiharu Shiota (2009/2016) Flowing Water

Chiharu Shiota has constructed her installation Flowing Water within old prisoner barracks. The work explores the relationship between sleep and waking, between the body and the mind, the states of hypnogogia that are experienced between waking and sleeping. We spent time talking to the attendant who explained how long it took the multitude of assistants to create the work. The feeling within the work was cloying and unnerving with the black threads creating the illusion of a white mist – don’t ask me how that works!

IMG_2342Chiharu Shiota (2009/2016) Flowing Water

IMG_2338Chiharu Shiota (2009/2016) Flowing Water

IMG_2334Chiharu Shiota (2009/2016) Flowing Water

There was a very engaging sound-based work by Cevdet Erek called “Room of Rhythms – Long Distance Relationship”. I don’t have any photos because it wasn’t the kind of work that could be experienced visually. Within some ruining buildings on the island were large outdoors speakers pointing in different directions. As the participants moves around the site the rhythmic beat changes and morphs into new beats. It was very hot outside so we didn’t spend as long with this work as we would have liked to.

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Bahrti Kher (2013-2015) Six Women

Bahrti Kher’s ‘Six Women’ are cast from real women, who are also sex workers, in her New Deli studio. The casts are incredibly poignant portraits that show up the subtle bodily characteristics of the women even when displayed in cold, white plaster. They had a natural weight and fleshiness that gave the impression they could move a hand or adjust their posture at any moment. When I walked behind the women and looked over their shoulders I got a sense of intruding into another persons personal space.

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Bahrti Kher (2013-2015) Six Women

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Bahrti Kher (2013-2015) Six Women

In another sector of Cockatoo Island we found Emma McNally’s ‘Choral Fields’ installation. These giant cartographic drawings were displayed on either side of a constructed angular runway on big display boards. McNally’s works are described as inhabiting the overlap between the virtual realm and the physical world, of tracing the things that are sensed rather than seen. The works can be experienced as diagrams of data moving through unseen pathways, communicating between the real and virtual worlds.

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Emma McNally (2014-2016) Choral Fields 1-12

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Emma McNally (2014-2016) Choral Fields 1-12

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Emma McNally (2014-2016) Choral Fields 1-12

The comfort of irony

I was just reading this article The Biggest Art Trends of 2016 and having a chuckle at the predictions; Fake Clickbait is my personal favourite:

“The past decade saw the rise of news satire as a primary, viable source of news and information. As programs like The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight, and The Nightly Show grew in popularity, the general public became comfortable with “fake news” allowing sites like The Onion to explode in readership. So it should come as no surprise that the populous has reached the next level of meta-commentary. As everyone consumes gallons of clickbait from sites like Buzzfeed, another form of satire now has room to grow. Enter “fake clickbait”—especially ClickHole, from the minds behind The Onion—as a new form of acerbic social commentary. 2016 looks like the perfect storm for this trend, as a growing savviness from fake ‘bait creators coincide with a public quickly losing its taste for traditional, attention-grabbing clickbait.”

Imagine the performance art potential in fake clickbait!

I do really enjoy the bevy of artists working within the realm of social commentary and societal reflection. NZ has Simon Denny documenting and re-presenting our cultural climate, and I briefly talked about Amalia Ulman’s instagram project “Excellences and Perfections” (2016) in my last post. Both of these artists are reflecting back at us without bias and without too much irony. I feel there is an honesty in the way they reflect on a culture that has become so self-referential and absurd that the general public still get tricked by satire news sites and re-share their ‘news’ stories with abject outage.

The concept of irony is in many respects a safety net, a way to protect oneself from expressing personal views in a manner that could be criticised. Hipster culture is constantly lambasted, viewed as fake and ridiculous. But perhaps it’s a way for youth culture to protect itself from inevitable mockery which, with social media, now comes from every angle? If you genuinely enjoy a type of music that is viewed as uncool or embarrassing isn’t it safer to maintain that you enjoy it ironically? No one can laugh at you for liking something ironically – it provides a protection and a shield from mockery. Earnestness maybe be the opposite of irony but it doesn’t negate humour. In many respects the ability to earnestly express a view and still accept that others might mock it shows an ability to laugh at oneself.

Being a teenager in the 80s the youth subcultures I was surrounded by were earnest, un-ironic, but still filled with self-aware humour. Subcultures such as punk and goth are often viewed as po-faced teen rebellion, but once past the teenage years when, lets face it, nobody has a sense of humour about themselves, those who identify with these subcultures happily embrace their perceived ridiculousness with good humour. It is basically the antithesis of hipster culture where fear of ridicule creates a veneer of detached apathy. I look forward to a post-ironic world where irony can be utilised as a vehicle for humour rather than as protection against ridicule. It’s quite liberating to be freed from the safety of irony.