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.

IMG_3832
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.

 

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.

motoi-yamamoto-floating-garden-and-labyrinth-salt-aigues-mortes-designboom-02

motoi-yamamoto-floating-garden-and-labyrinth-salt-aigues-mortes-designboom-013

156-salt-Motoi-Yamamoto-yatzer

 

Performing Cosmologies

In 1966 The British Museum acquired an object of strange and convoluted provenance. It was a shiny black obsidian disc with a small looped handle that enabled it to be held. The object was said to be a scrying stone used by Elizabethan magician, and advisor to the Queen, John Dee. The black mirror was Aztec in origin and was said to allow Dee to view the spaces outside the material world.

As a scholar and a scientist, the performance of ritual experiments was considered a part of his job description. Because experience of the otherworldly encompassed both scientific and spiritual research, scientists of the time had a great deal of interest in the secrets of occult ritual: of alchemy, astronomy, sacred geometry and the hermetic arts of the ancient classical world.

Over time, especially in the West, this sort of experimentation has mostly been relegated to the realm of quackery. This doesn’t mean that our experience of these liminal spaces has disappeared – they still have the power to elicit both wonder and discomfort in even the most pragmatic observer.

I would say being an artist or a performer or a director is also being a magician, and very often you need to use every trick you have in your pocket to make the show stronger.
(Noé, 2014)

Within my own practice I have been exploring otherworldly spaces in the context of performance and the performative. I have experienced the role of the artist as both creator, director and performer – building a cosmology through the linking of objects and ideas, a cultivated web of interrelationships. My method of working has been flexible; spanning object, live performance and video, but always with a focus on the performative. Ritual as performance seemed an appropriate space to interact with the otherworldy, while also allowing the work to quite naturally manifest across a range of media.

This approach to creating work can be seen in artists like Matthew Barney, who creates complex cosmologies through linking, relating and reimagining concepts and mythologies. Barney’s work interacts with the otherworldly and the mythological through seemingly absurd ideas and flimsy connections, which link together to create new constellations of meaning. With each project Barney exhibits an array of works and accompanying pieces – film, live performance, objects, drawings, writing, photographs. Often the works themselves are huge installations, like his Cremaster 3: The Order (2002) work at the Guggenheim, where the whole spiral gallery became a stage for the ascension of the initiate.

In this section of Cremaster 3 we see his role as the Entered Apprentice interacting with tools, regalia and other performers. These objects are presented to the viewer not just as props within the live and recorded performance, but also as sculptural pieces in their own right. Barney utilises and sometimes even creates the objects within the performance. They then become available for the viewer to experience as sculptural performative objects, with the provenance of having been performed and the potential to be performed again, thus giving them an ongoing performative life.

The language between objects, action and idea builds upon itself and becomes more than the sum of it’s parts. The richness and complexity of Barney’s cosmologies allows them to take on a mythological position that lives and grows outside of their creator.

Because of his grandiose, esoteric and often confusing methods Barney attracts controversy and sometimes hostility from both critics and the viewing public. While on the one hand works that are too didactic can lack depth and interest, on the other, works that are too inscrutable can be equally frustrating. Taking and reorganizing historical and cultural symbols of importance calls into question his right to do so. Is he genuine or just being sarcastic? (Surga, 2015).

The creation of a cosmology as an expressive framework can be as confusing for the creator as it is for the audience, particularly when built from heterogeneous parts that clash, confuse and challenge. Does each symbolic item work within the framework? As I have been working with both object and performance I have often had to ask myself questions when adding to my cosmology; should I be second guessing myself when something seems to fit? How do I avoid being didactic? How can I include some recognisable symbolic markers that allow access to the work without being overly trite? But when both the artist and the viewer are open to the experience there is a richness that surprises, as it unfolds into a more cohesive map. These are constellations that can be built, dismantled, added to and rearranged within a mythological cosmology.

I see an interrelationship between the objects used in Barney’s performance and with the ceremonial ritual tools used in occult or shamanic practice. Ritual often utilises magical objects and theatrical performance as a way to access and experience otherworldy spaces. A gathering of specifically chosen tools or objects, a specially chosen environment, along with costume and adornment create an energy that enables the removal of the conscious, analytical mind from the ceremony.

Anthropologist Michael Taussig made a connection between magical objects and the human relationship to the otherworldly, postulating that objects created a necessary conduit between humanity and the non-human world.
(Taussig, 2014, p.26)

When objects are performed by the practitioner (or artist) they can influence the method of performance. Performative objects speak their own language and require the performer to pay heed to their requirements. Sometimes they might require a subtle movement, sometimes a grand gesture. The performer becomes apart of the object’s conversation with it’s environment and the viewer is drawn into the experience.

Australian artist Mikala Dwyer works across a wide range of media – utilising object, installation and performance to give life to her work. She creates her personal cosmologies within her collections of objects, costumes and performers. Dwyer’s Additions and Subtractions works are powerful examples of the magical potentiality created by collections of objects and their environment. The circles created in the works imbue an otherworldly space within their circumference – the objects are the performers and perform themselves without the need for human interaction. Adding or subtracting from the collection can change it’s very nature and the conversations between the objects create a constellation of linked meanings that form their own symbolic language.

For me, working has been an evolutionary process, with branches on my ‘cosmology tree’ growing and joining to create a scaffold of ideas and symbols. This has been a process of uncovering, or discovering, these interrelationships as much as it is of creating. Much like Barney and Dwyer with their constellations of ideas and objects, the objects and materials being performed in the videos I have made in 2015 were recurrent from previous sculptural object-based works. The meaning and materials of my objects have followed me into the more performance-based work and have started to create an extended constellation of ideas that is building upon itself as a cosmology.

Barney states about the creation of objects for performance:

I think it is a fascinating model for object making; this way of working, where things that have nothing to do with each other are placed together as if a form of alchemy could happen and a material transformation could take place. (Enwezor, 2014, p.271)

It was not always clear to me at the beginning of the process that I was referencing tropes of Western art history – it’s mythology and archetypical characters. However, as I expanded the work I could see patterns emerging and giving strength to the work. Through consciously developing the references to this familiar imagery I am creating anchors for the viewer to gain clues and waypoints within the work’s cosmology. By using gesture and stylistic conceits from western art history I create a pathway into the otherworldy space. Using a certain amount of posed and unusual gesture in my work I reflect the gestural tone of classical painting and sculpture. Often the gesture and pose in these works is expressive rather than natural, they are poses you could make but probably wouldn’t. The gestures create a theatricality within the work – an elegant exaggeration of reality which pushes it further into the otherworldly space.

The use of art historical anchoring is also apparent in work by video artist Bill Viola. In almost direct contrast to Matthew Barney, he has stated that he’s not interested in conveying narrative in his work. (Wroe, 2014) This has much in common with my own current practice. I’ve thought of the performative video work I have been creating as ‘the infinite moment’ – the endless experience of a time outside our own. Viola draws on the collective experience by using recognizable art historical and religious tropes. He draws on symbols and experiences familiar to us as human beings to devise a visual language that can be recognized by us all. I also appreciate his flagrant embrace of filmic techniques and technological methods, such as speed and duration, high definition filming, and engineering of special effects, to benefit his work.

Through exploration I have discovered that a recorded performance allows for a higher level of control than live performance. I have been able to more accurately set the tone of my current work through using video format. An otherworldy space is by it’s very nature ‘not of this world’ and therefore hard to convey in a live, real world setting. When experimenting with live, participatory work I discovered that the amount of the experience outside of my control made the successful engagement of an otherwordly space difficult and unconvincing. For my current practice recording performance and then working with the moving image is a better way to maintain control over the tone of the work and for me, as the artist, to mediate the relationship between artwork and viewer.

I have found value in the use of theatrical and filmic tropes and conceits within my own video work. I believe it is because the theatrical exists in a separate space to the ‘real world’, so it can be drawn upon to create references and anchors for the viewer. In Yang Fudong’s work The Coloured Sky: New
Women II
(2014) he films within theatrical, constructed environments designed to mimic the exterior world but with no attempt to disguise their artifice; artificial light, artificial sound, artificial worlds that mimic our own. Costumes and characters that are unashamedly being ‘played’ and filmic techniques manipulating duration and speed, all work together to call into question notions of authenticity. The world he has created is a slightly warped mirror held up to our own.

Working with the performative – particularly recorded performance – I have discovered a method that allows for the sublime, the unnerving and the amusing to exist side by side in a contemporary art context. It’s a bit of a fine knife edge to walk because it’s very easy to go too far, be too earnest, and for things to get a bit silly. But isn’t that always the way with ritual and magic? As I have worked through my practice over the last two years I have seen it growing and the same symbolic language ebbing and flowing throughout the works. Sometimes it is a complete surprise when and element or an idea pops up again or I find a new symbol that unexpectedly relates to something I was investigating previously.

When dealing with realms of the otherwordly, sometimes, it is necessary to suspend doubt, even if not to admit belief, so that you can fully engage with the experience. Maybe sometimes art can be used like Dee’s black mirror, to reflect ourselves and our world, let us look through into the unknown and see what we might bring back.

References

Noé, G. & Barney, M. (2014). Matthew Barney and Gaspar Noé.  Bomb Magazine 127. Retrieved from http://bombmagazine.org/

Surga, A. (2015). Matthew Barney: The Enigma of a Performative Practice. Retrieved from http://theculturetrip.com/

Taussig, M. (2014). Art and Magic and Real Magic.
In E. Franzidis, (Ed). Mikala Dwyer: Drawing Down The Moon. Brisbane, QLD, Australia: Institute of Modern Art.

Sagan, C. (1980). Cosmos. [Television series]
Arlington County, VA: PBS

Crowley, A. (1917). Moonchild. (1991 Reprint) York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser.

Enwezor, O. (2014). in Matthew Barney: River of Fundament.
Neri, L. (Ed.) New York, NY: Kira Rizzoli.

Wroe, N. (2014) Bill Viola: People thought I was an idiot and that video would never last.
Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/

Language of the Birds: Occult and Art

There is an exhibition on at present in New York at 80WSE gallery called ‘Language of the Birds: Occult and Art curated by Pam Grossman http://www.languageofthebirds.org. I’ve constantly got my eye out for any exhibitions or articles involving the occult or esoteric in art and this one kept popping up in reviews that I was reading. This is a collection of work by both contemporary and historical artists spanning both practicing contemporary artists, outsider artists and ‘sometimes artists’ (e.g. people who are better know for other pursuits such as writing, music or generally being notorious). It’s interesting to see Carol Bove included and expected to see Jesse Bransford, Austin Osman Spare, Margery Cameron, Kenneth Anger, Barry William Hale, Rosaleen Norton and Aleister Crowley.

IMG_9911Carol Bove “Legal Status of the Moon,” 2015 (Photo: Nicole Disser)

The title ‘Language of the Birds’ refers to a symbolic heavenly language revealed to the initiated. Thats a very poetic idea and it appeals to me deeply on a personal level but, much as I love esoteric symbology, I’m trying to move away from any sort of language that is available only to the initiated. I’ve discovered through my practice over the last 2 years that delving too far into occult symbology marginalises pretty much all of your audience! Unless you are creating work that is purely for the initiated, or those that have a particular interest in that area, it tends to create a barrier between the work and the viewer. This is something I’ve spent a lot of time struggling with and trying to overcome. I want the work I create to be available to the viewer and create a dialogue for them rather than excluding them.

I found some descriptions in the writing of two of these articles resonated with me in my continual contextualisation of my own practice:

“At its core, Grossman explains, the occult is about experiencing an immaterial realm, whether through a performed ritual, an altered state, a path of learning, or a work of art.”
Grossman, P. referenced in Frank, P. (2016). Emphasis my own.

“…“the occult” is not any one thing– it’s not an organized religion, there’s no definitive occult bible, nor is there a precise agreement on practice, folklore, or morality. Instead, it’s simply the unknown trying to be known.”
Disser, N. (2016) Emphasis my own.

Frank, P. (2016) Delving into the Shadowy World of Occult Art. Retrieved from www.huffingtonpost.com

Disser, N. (2016) A Little Bird Told Me: Aleister Crowley and Genesis P-Orridge in Occult Art Show. Sourced from http://www.bedfordandbowery.com

platonic-solids-and-elements

“There can be an infinite number of polygons, but only five regular solids. Four of the solids were associated with earth, fire, air and water. The cube for example represented earth. These four elements, they thought, make up terrestrial matter. So the fifth solid they mystically associated with the Cosmos. Perhaps it was the substance of the heavens. This fifth solid was called the dodecahedron. Its faces are pentagons, twelve of them. Knowledge of the dodecahedron was considered too dangerous for the public. Ordinary people were to be kept ignorant of the dodecahedron. In love with whole numbers, the Pythagoreans believed that all things could be derived from them. Certainly all other numbers. So a crisis in doctrine occurred when they discovered that the square root of two was irrational. That is: the square root of two could not be represented as the ratio of two whole numbers, no matter how big they were. “Irrational” originally meant only that. That you can’t express a number as a ratio. But for the Pythagoreans it came to mean something else, something threatening, a hint that their world view might not make sense…”.

Carl Sagan – Cosmos ‘Episode 7, Backbone of Night’

Wolfgang Laib

A friend of mine saw the work I’ve been doing with beeswax, honey and, most recently, bee pollen and suggested I take a look at Wolfgang Laib.
“Informed by the purity and simplicity of Eastern philosophies, he employs natural materials, most notably milk, pollen, beeswax, rice and marble. His works are more complex than being just about nature and the natural world. They involve ritual, repetition, process, and a demand for contemplation.”

I can’t believe I hadn’t seen his work before! His exploration of the ephemeral and eternal through a minimalist approach is very appealing to me. His choice of materials obviously resonates, but also exploration of duration of time, ritual, repetition and symbolism of material. His pollen works, wax room works and milkstones are of particular interest to me. His use of white, yellow, gold, black reflects the colour palettes and materials I have been using, especially in my sculptural pieces, but it has reached a place that I obviously never did. My works in progress videos at present have a set that uses the very same colour palette and similar symbolic materials, drawing on work I created earlier this year and last year. Probably for the best that I didn’t see this body of work earlier, because I might have been either too influenced by it, or scared away from working with the materials I had chosen for fear that I wouldn’t be able to avoid steering too close to Laib. I feel that if I wasn’t working the way I am now, that this would be the kind of direction I might be moving in. It can be so difficult deciding what direction is right for the work, especially when there are potential directions that are formally very different but could still produce the outcome the work requires. I’ve identified my work as NOT minimalist and NOT formalist, but I still have a big place in my heart for that way of working, so who knows?

 

Art historical context – a brief overview

I’ve been looking back at art historical references over the last few weeks. There is an obvious nod in my video work towards religious iconography, baroque painting (particularly the Italian Baroque) and to symbolist artists. In my last series viewers noted the references to classical beauty ideals; high foreheads, white faces, wrapped head coverings and the fact that the figures appear austere and devout like an ‘abbess’ or a ‘monk’ (those words were put forward as descriptions).

I have taken a look at different areas of art history that are referenced in my work and tried to pick apart a little of why this is the case and how I can work with it more fully to consciously use these references rather than them being somewhat unconscious decisions on my part. This isn’t an in-depth analysis of these works, but more of an overview of some of the stylistic influences that I have been exploring and that have been expressed in my work.

Starting off with painters from the Baroque period who use a similar tenebroso technique. This is an extreme form of chiaroscuro where there is a violent contrast between light and dark, with the darkness being a dominating feature of the image. These dark shadows and deep foreground colours have come through in my video pieces “Hive Oracle” and the “Sublimation” series. Figures emerge out of the darkness with no fixed setting. The figures often have intense or unusual expressions and the action in the paintings has a viscerality that was not present in works from the Renaissance. Women have action and agency that was previously absent from most artwork.

IMG_7460 large retouch small An outtake from my Hive Oracle (2015) series where the figure emerges out of a formless, dominating blackness.

103 Caravaggio, Saint John the Baptist in the WildernessMichelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1604) St John the Baptist
St John emerges out of a black background into stark contrast where his skin takes on an almost deathly pallor.

judith-beheading-holofernes-1598Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1598 – 1599) Judith Beheading Holofernes

Looking at Caravaggio’s “Judith” the pose and gesture are quite awkward, the image focusses more on getting everyone in shot and making sure the composition is pleasing than of the realities of actually cutting someone’s throat in this way. Judith isn’t exerting much force, so even though the image is visceral, it misses the violence of how a scene like this would play out in reality. Skip forward a few years and we see an artist I love, Artemisia Gentileschi, taking on the story in a much more believable way. The beauty of the gesture and composition is sacrificed to realism and violence, the women are powerful, determined and dominant.

judith-beheading-holofernes-1620Artemisia Gentileschi (1614-1620) Judith Slaying Holofernes
The figures are foreshortened and stacked behind each other – very different from the ideal composition at the time. I like examining this painting in contrast to the Caravaggio so wanted to include it here.

This links to another aspect of my video work I have discussed with faculty and peers; the subject of gesture. I use a certain amount of posed and unusual gesture in my work that reflects the gestural tone of classical painting and sculpture. Often the gesture and pose in these works is expressive rather than natural, they are poses you could make but probably wouldn’t. The gestures create a theatricality in the work, an elegant exaggeration of reality.

bernini_st_teresa_avilaGian Lorenzo Bernini (1447-1652) Ecstasy of St Teresa
In this flowing marble work St Teresa swoons in ecstasy as her heart is pierced by a beatific angel.

Susanna_and_the_Elders_(1610),_Artemisia_GentileschiArtemisia Gentileschi (1610) Susanna and the Elders
A very early work by Gentileschi that has not yet adopted the intense chiaroscuro of her later paintings. The figures make exaggerated, theatrical gestures.

doublewhitePose and gesture in my own work Sublimation Fig. 3 (2015) The austere appearance of my central figures draws on ideals of the sacred, of dedication and otherworldliness.

jan_van_eyck_21_ghent_altarpieceJan van Eyck (1430-1432) Ghent Altarpiece (Interior) One of the most famous examples of the the altarpiece with christian iconography. The imagery covers both the interior and exterior of the tri-fold screen.

I spent a bit of time revising the stylistic conceits of religious icons and altarpieces. The set’s of 1 or 3 central figures and the ability for a narrative to be told across a presentation that can be viewed all at once have some parallels to what I have been working with in video. The central figures are often realistically imagined (in line with the stylisation of the era) but with ornamentation behind them in gold and this is something that I have also observed in my more modern influences.

2753371959_e3f5cd2bc8_oWilliam-Adolphe Bouguereau (1875) Virgin of Consolation
A more modern approach to the religious icon and one of a series of paintings of the Virgin Mary by Bouguereau. She displays the exaggerated gesture, the ornamentation in gold behind the central figure and the central, vertical composition seen in earlier icons.

QueenofWax TriptychMary MacGregor-Reid (2015) Hive Oracle (still shot)

maitreya_altarpiece63717dab48b2e7941b95Maitreya Altarpiece  5th year of the Zhengguang era, dated 524; Northern Wei dynasty (386–534)
Hebei Province, China. Gilt bronze; H. 30 1/4 in. (76.9 cm)

White-Tara-(fine-art-)-faceTibetan White Tara thanka (section) Date and artist unknown.
Bhuddist iconography in sculpture and painting for comparison. Elegant symbolic gesture, ornamentation and central placement of figure.

This use of ornamentation and gesture appears to have influenced some of the Symbolist artists and unsurprisingly they are a movement that I have always enjoyed. My favourite painter, right back from when I was still in school, is French Symbolist Gustave Moreau. I had the chance to see some of his work in the flesh, so-to-speak, a few years ago and was entranced by his use of colour and brushwork. Works that I thought were probably quite tight and formal in their painting style were actually wildly expressive and loose. Many of them utilise the stylistic elements I have picked up on in this post – the use of chiaroscuro, the prominent central figure, the mix of realism and stylised ornamentation, the expressive gesture. He painted Salome many times, 2 variations are below:


moreau_apparitionGustave Moreau (1875) L’apparition

800px-Gustave_Moreau_Salomé_1876Gustave Moreau (1876) Salomé
I’ve been fascinated by the use of overlaid ornamentation in this work for a long time. It’s so unusual and it creates a a film or screen over the subject that sets them apart from us – definitely ‘otherworldly’. Moreau’s women tend to be voluptuous and bejewelled rather than austere.

Another artist from this era that has been useful for me to revisit is Gustav Klimt. His work has unfortunately been aped by a lot of contemporary decorative artists and so it almost looks cliched, but observing the real Klimt it becomes obvious that the imitators can’t come close.

Gustav Klimt Judith I, 1901 Öl auf Leinwand 84 x 42 cm

Gustav Klimt (1901) Judith and the Head of Holofernes
Oh look, it’s Judith and Holofernes again! The symbolist artists loved depicting the strong, passionate women with a touch of darkness about her. Here Klimt is riffing off the stylistic elements of icons with the rich, gold, flattened ornamentation setting off painterly naturalistic figures.

Gustav_Klimt_046 Gustav Klimt (1907) Adele Bloch-Bauer
The patterned ornamentation also calls to mind Japanese kimono design and woodblock images. I love the juxtaposition of flat pattern with 3 dimensional flesh.

Recently I have been considering my use of black backgrounds in video and wondering how the work might fair with other colours or tones. The use of white on white appeals to me because it retains the otherworldly strangeness but loses the usually dark connotations that go with magic and the occult. Looking back on all my work over the last 2 years there is a funny switching from dark to light to dark to light, in that my work both stylistically and literally switches black and white! I enjoyed working with the white and gold/yellow of the first honey/wax works and the live performance ritual so would like to explore that further. I’m intending on shooting the same sequences on different backgrounds to see how the change from the black tenebroso effect to the white on white effect plays out.

cess-tilda-swinton-tim-walker-las-pozas-05-lTim Walker (2011) Tilda Swinton, W Magazine

Matthew Barney: The Gesamtkunstwerk and Cosmology Creation

Gesamtkunstwerk: a total, ideal, comprehensive, universal work of art. A self-enclosed aesthetic system.

This term is German in origin and has been assimilated into the English language particularly in the realm of aesthetics. It can be seen in the work of artists such as Matthew Barney, who creates huge cosmologies from the linking, the relating and reimagine of concepts and mythologies. I think that it’s also easy to see this idea appearing within conspiracy theory where each smaller theory is added to the whole creating a continuous, seamless compound theory. Believers can be quite flexible in how their theories can mould and change in order to fit in with other, seemingly unrelated conspiracies. But it’s probably fair to say that those who are able to think in this way might not have a lot of practice with critical thinking.

In the novel, ‘Foucault’s Pendulum‘ (Umberto Eco, 1988) three publishers (Casaubon, Diotallevi and Belbo) become obsessed with reading about occult conspiracy theories. The idea of all the links and associations within the occult world is both fascinating and absurd to them so they decide that it would be fun to create their own grand theory (their gesamtkunstwerk?) which they will then release into the world. Unfortunately they become the target of some real occult societies who think they possess some secret knowledge (the whereabouts of the Templar treasure). The three creators start to wonder if their creation is not just something they dreamed up after all but have, in fact, stumbled upon a real conspiracy. Over time they become unsure whether what they are doing is just a game or whether they are in real danger.

The story looks at the links and associations that appear within occultism and how they can be manipulated to create new cosmologies. Seemingly absurd ideas and flimsy connections can be linked together to create new webs of meaning. In Foucault’s Pendulum the friends use a computer to create these connections in a way that they believe is completely random, but seems to create a cohesive whole that even the creators become hard-pressed to remember is a fabrication.

Matthew Barney creates huge, elaborate all-encompassing cosmologies with his long-running works “The Cremaster Cycle” and his latest “River of Fundament”. In River of Fundament Barney explores Egyptian mythology in relation to American mythologies (particularly industrial America) through the lens of Norman Mailer’s “Ancient Evenings“. The trials of reincarnation and rebirth are told as a journey down the shit filled currents of American waterways and the body of Mailer is reimagined as classic american cars whose bodies are pulled apart and reassembled, cast from metals and displayed as living sculptures. The work is huge in scope, incorporating live performance, video, sculpture, music, drawing and writing. His sculptural pieces for River of Fundament both appear and are created within the performance, are replayed in the video and displayed as sculptural artefacts (see previous entry on trace of performance). The richness and complexity of Barney’s cosmologies seems to allow them to take on a mythological position separate from Barnet’s narrative. Much like The Plan in Foucault’s Pendulum, Barney’s creations take on a life of their own which lives outside their creator.

6766994b-60dd-4442-ac2c-b7c379c6192f-2060x1236The Chrysler Imperial is dismantled (dismembered) and melted down to prepare for it’s rebirth

70e4e_nov21_ona_imgRouge Battery (2014) cast copper and iron

MB_Geuter_10_630x350_03Sekhu (2014) Cast sulfur, salt,copper, bronze and brass. These sculptural objects appear in the performance and film recording

“The melding of the self with the artistic figure, and the development of an entire complex of relations to the corporeal and the mythic, fit Barney’s retinue of allegorical codes.”
Enwezor, O. “Portals and Processions” in Enwezor, O. Matthew Barney: River of Fundament (2014) Neri, L. (ed) New York, USA: Kira Rizzoli Publications (P251)

“There is something Houdini-like in the way in which Barney weaves in and out of his narratives: now an actor; now an athlete; now a dancer; now a performance artist; now a mythological figure. To see these transformations as the assumptions of “roles” is to miss Barney’s crucial insight into the way in which the artist is both internal to the meaning and making of the work, and as a shaper or builder, hovers outside and around the work. Barney suggests that many artists are conscious of “being simultaneously present and absent, and how that feeling manifests itself in an object”.
Bhabha, H. “On the Changing Space of Things: Memory and Cartography in the Making of Narrative Sculpture” in Enwezor, O. Matthew Barney: River of Fundament (2014) Neri, L. (ed) New York, USA: Kira Rizzoli Publications (P270)

The above two quotes have caused me to think about ideas that were hovering around the periphery of my research. I’ve found that in my work over the last year and a half there has been elements of the performative in nearly everything I’ve made. Many of the pieces have elicited comments to the effect that, as the artist, I was somehow a director or guide to the viewer’s experience of the work. This is something that was never explicitly intended at the time, but that has started to more consciously manifest itself, particularly in performance work or work that requires the viewer to interact with it in a performative manner. With the work “Hive Oracle” I took on the role of the character in the video, but more that that, I felt that the character was a part of me, as the artist, rather than purely a role I was enacting. Adding to that, it was far from obvious that I, the artist, was the one playing this role. I see this also in Barney’s work; with him being quite famous now, it’s usually obvious that he is portraying the character (or characters) in the work. But from my viewing of his work I have always felt that it was more than just assumptions of roles and that the creation of the characters was a manifestation of aspects of the artist himself.

In my current work in progress I’m working with performative video again as I feel there is a lot for me to explore using that medium. I’m also still very interested in the way artists like Barney and Dwyer create works that weave together performance and object, so looking at the role of object as trace or artefact is ongoing for me. I can see the work building upon itself and reimagining aspects of previous work within new work to create that layering and linking of meaning found within this creation of cosmologies.

“I think it is a fascinating model for object making; this way of working, where things that have nothing to do with each other are placed together as if a form of alchemy could happen and a material transformation could take place between the two states of material”.
Matthew Barney quoted in Enwezor, O. Matthew Barney: River of Fundament (2014) Neri, L. (ed) New York, USA: Kira Rizzoli Publications (p271)


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Horus

A very specific symbolic language

This is an excerpt from an email conversation I had with one of the performers in “Mysterion Mellisius”. It is a nice little look into a very specific form of symbolic link making; the languages that are built up within cosmologies that join images to images, thoughts to thoughts, ideas to ideas, but then, perhaps, cease to function meaningfully outside that cosmology. The symbolic language creates a web that enables the link-maker to find a trail through his or her own thoughts.

An artist like Simon Denny works with link-making in a wider context with a symbolic language that is accessible and understood by a greater audience. This gives his link-making the ability to travel and be read by a large audience, but in many respects it’s the same sort of pattern recognition process being brought forth. A targeted net is cast and the relevant ideas are pulled together for the viewer to discover and question.

Obviously the below quote is rather ‘occulty’ because it’s dealing with that particular symbolic language, but it’s interesting to see how T.P. drew correlations between ideas:

“…the more I thought about C’s divination of the 8 of Disks for the rite the more I thought it was especially fitting…. From the surface level: where the figure 8s we did in the great Disk that was the hive befits the card… To the idea of storing the harvest, which is the traditional “sun in virgo” attribution (and the essential meaning of the word ‘prudence’ in this respect) – the harvest of course being the honey, but also the idea that honey can be used as a preservative for storing other foods. (Indeed, the very life of bees depicts this idea of prudence, in how they work so hard to build hives and store food for their fellows.)… The picture on the card is of 8 whirling red flowers, to suggest the activity of the bees… Even the yellow background of the card suggests honey!” -T.P.

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