I’m very fortunate to have the kind of friends who let me dress them up and make them do weird stuff for the sake of my art practice.
“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’
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?
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.
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.
Artemisia 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.
Artemisia 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.
Jan 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.
William-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.
Mary MacGregor-Reid (2015) Hive Oracle (still shot)
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:
Gustave 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 (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.
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.
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.
The Chrysler Imperial is dismantled (dismembered) and melted down to prepare for it’s rebirth
Rouge Battery (2014) cast copper and iron
“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)
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.
Since embarking upon an exploration of participatory performance art my research and thinking has been centred around the new concerns this medium throws up for me. A large part of that has been around audience engagement and participation, how levels of consent and safety affect the appreciation of the work and how this can be achieved for your audience without compromising the work.
Invariably there is work in the contemporary artworld that shocks, disgusts and creates discomfort in the viewer. When responding to an image or an object, the viewer has distance and a level of detatchment from the artwork, so if the discomfort is too great the viewer can turn away. How does this function within an immersive environment? Even when an artist may not intend discomfort, an audience member may still experience it and the artist needs to take this into consideration.
Olafur Eliasson’s “Your Blind Passage” (2010) requires the audience take a bold step into the unknown by entering a passage with no prior knowledge of it’s interior. Once inside, the viewer has to rely on senses other that sight to navigate as the density of smoke and coloured lights makes it impossible to see more than a short distance. In the gallery space the audience member has the option to enter or not enter the work depending on their level of comfort and they do not have to enter the space alone. Once inside the work the viewer could choose to leave if the experience was unpleasant for them. This allows audience members to give themselves over to full engagement with and experience of the work without feeling uneasy about their place in the environment.
Olafur Eliasson ‘Your Blind Passage’ (2010)
Other works offer the option for engagement or observation. “Imponderabilia” (1977) Marina Abramovic and Ulay, creates a doorway from two naked bodies facing each other. If an audience member squeezes through the gap they must choose which body to face. This piece gives the audience the option of either participating in the work or watching others participate in the work. The experience will be different depending on which option the viewer chooses, but the ability to make that choice is given and that allows the viewer to feel comfortable in their decision.
Marina Abramovic and Ulay ‘Imponderabilia’ (1977)
A work such as Tino Sehgal’s “This Progress” (2010) requires a far more active participation from the audience. Rather than being explorers (Your Blind Passage) or having a brief but potentially intense interaction with the work (Imponderabilia) ‘This Progress’ envelops the audience fully into the work for an extentended performance. Although the experience of passing up the spiral gallery of the Guggenheim talking with performers doesn’t sound confrontational or discomforting, there is still the aspect of venturing into the unknown that has to be overcome by the audience. Their trepidation would certainly be allayed by the fact that the travellers can journey through the work in small groups, they can also see ahead of them and behind them, there are also no uncomfortable situations to be faced except for questions around the nature of progress.
Tino Sehgal ‘This Progress’ (2010)
Apart from discomfort related fear of the unknown the other aspect of my work I need to contend with once again is the issues around dealing with exclusionary subject matter. I went back to looking at Kara Walker and the way she addresses racism in the Antebellum South. Her large installations are quite enveloping so a viewer could be well within the artwork before noticing that the charming silhouettes dancing around the walls are not so charming after all. There are bound to be viewers who are disturbed and upset by the scenes, but the nature of the work means that they have enough distance from the images that they may just move away and leave the installation.
Kara Walker ‘Darkytown Rebellion’ (2001)
When working with the symbolic language of ritual one has to be very careful to strip away any excess symbolism that could have a negative effect on the work and only keep that which is truly useful. I’ve been creating some costumes for a performative piece and have changed them and rethought them several times to make sure that they retained the associations with ritual and mysticism while avoiding any problematic or unnessary connotations. I examined Mikala Dwyer’s use of ritual costuming in her work ‘ Goldene Bend’er’ (2013). She uses hooded robes which immediately evoke ritual and the occult, she even has some pointy hoods which can be a very difficult and potentially offensive choice. The way she changes the robes and creates her own ritual garb is to use unexpected materials such as gold lame, lurex and covering her mishapen hoods in strange material and textures. This way she effectively maintains the associations she wants to keep and removes those she does not. This has been a very valuable observation for me and something I need to keep pushing in my own work. Dwyer maintains a distance between audience and ritual performance, they are observers not participants so they maintain a level of detachment.
Mikala Dwyer ‘Goldene Bend’er’ (2013). Ritual garb hanging on wall
Each of these artists have strong, well known practices. This gives them a bit of freedom to push the boundaries because viewers have some preconceptions around what to expect; they know that a Kara Walker work is going to contain some racially provocative images, that an Abramovic piece is likely to be confronting and that Tino Sehgal will probably have some audience participation. As these works are on display in public spaces the options for viewers to choose to engage with the work are totally open. For my work, in an educational setting, where I benefit from feedback from my peers, I need to make sure that the work is accessible and viewers are comfortable in engaging with it without taking away from the experience of the performance.
Lisa Reihana’s project Digital Marae is an ongoing conversation between the traditions of Maori marae carving and weaving with the use of digital techniques to create a modern visual language that honours the Atua and creates a space in which they can exist in a form outside of time on a continuum of past present and future. A digital marae with digital tukutuku panels, digital poupou, a whole digital wharenui.
Her large, singular portraits of import Atua are reminiscent of the carved poupou that hold up the roof, and the placement of her images plays around with conventions of both gender and importance of ancestors, determining their place within the wharenui.
In Devenport, R (ed) (2009) Digital Marae; Lisa Reihana. New Plymouth, New Zealand: Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. Reihana talks about the spiritual foundations of the marae and how she creates a welcome space within the wharenui by acknowledgement of the ancestors through the sacred karanga song;
“The karanga creates spatial form as the hosts and guests move through metaphysical zones of engagement.” (interview with Devenport, R. No page numbers)
The use of image, space and sound create an immersive installation space. I saw these works in Australia and found the size and luminosity of the works very powerful. There was a relationship between the atua and the human viewers through bodily connection – in my minds eye they were slightly larger than human, giving them an imposing otherworld quality. I appreciate the emergence of the figures out of the primeval darkness, the strong chiaroscuro effect and the richness of the colour and texture. I have always have an aesthetic fascination with the single figure portrayed in this way. They become a symbolic icon of an idea or archetype. It interests me how the Maori word ‘Atua’ is so similar to the word ‘Atu’; the term for the Tarot Trumps. Both are symbolic images that represent an archetype. I also see relationships to the work of Miria Kalman in the digital weaving; bright digital light, acidic, non-traditional colour, non-natural depiction of the weave.
There are certain Maori words I have picked up through my reading about Reihana’s work that I love;
ihi – powerful presence
wehi – awe
whare wanaga – house of esoteric learning
For me the images from Digital Marae with the most ihi are the 2 images where the Atua is facing front, is gazing at the viewer and has very little obvious digital manipulation.
Mahuika depicts an Atua who dwells in the underworld. She is fooled by the trickster Maui into giving him the fire that she carries at the tip of each finger (these powerful figures always seem to fall prey to the trickster!) Her dress smokes and runs with the lava of the underworld and her powerful gaze burns the viewer.
Dandy shows a rather otherworldly figure, dressed in the garb of the Victorian gentleman, who engages with the viewer directly. He is a representation of takatapui (the closest western term would probably be transgender or non-gender). Rhine wanted to recognise and honour this section of Maori society by including them in the esoteric ancestral pantheon.
Devenport, R (ed) (2009) Digital Marae; Lisa Reihana. New Plymouth, New Zealand: Govett-Brewster Art Gallery.
Curnow, W. Leonard, R (ed) (2010) Unnerved: The New Zealand Project. Brisbane, Australia: Queensland Art Galllery.
Smith, H. (ed) (2007) Taiawho II: Contemporary Maori Artists. Wellington, New Zealand: Te Papa Press.
Justine and I visited Te Uru gallery last weekend to have a look at the current exhibitions. There were 2 that were of particular interest to me due to their intersection with, differences and similarities to my own work.
Tracey Tawhiao’s work is part of a group show called IOIOIOIOIOIO that examines the hidden order unifying our Universe. She examines the language of sacred geometry,the names of the Māori Creator IO and the simple but unifying language of binary code. In her work she is exploring the same sort of esoteric language that I enjoy and is taking both a universal and local approach by combining both western mysticism (in the form of ideas such as the Metatron Cube and the Tree of Life) with her ancestral understanding through mātauranga Māori. I related to this work because of her interest in sacred geometry and western mysticism and I enjoyed the relationship between the languages of the different traditions that resulted in a very universal work.
Tracey Tawhiao (Ngai te Rangi, Whakatohea, Tuwharetoa), IOEAU (God and I), 2014, acrylic paint on paper, Te Uru Gallery [there is a material not listed in the artist’s statement which is the acrylic disks overlaying the painted words]
Tiffany Singh was also exhibiting at Te Uru with an exhibition called “Life is But a Vapour” that concerns itself with the grieving process and art as a process to come to terms with grief, death and dying. Over a three month period members of the public were invited to visit Singh’s studio and create memorial string which were incorporated into the work. The work displayed at Te Uru was a combination of this piece and several other in collaboration with other artists. The wall itself was a jumble of objects and symbols, the memorial strings combined with many other items of cultural significance. It felt overwhelming and despite being a participatory artwork I felt it did not invite the viewer to participate. Many of the objects incorporated into the wall were already loaded with heavy religious and cultural meaning so instead of being an inclusive collaboration from many different people it seemed more like a clash of cultures with the viewer being left wondering whether the artist could actually speak for and to all of these peoples who sign their scared items. It felt like a rather cavalier display of symbolic items that the artist might not fully comprehend, rather than a genuine and thoughtful enquiry.
Tiffany Singh, I Have Died Many Times But Your Breathe Makes Me Alive Again, Ongoing collaborative work, Te Uru Gallery 2015
Tiffany Singh had another piece in the gallery that was concerned with a similar idea but was very different in the way it approached the subject matter. “Earth Air Fire Water Ash” is a suspended glass ash receptacle holding charred remains and suspended above a shallow bowl. There is none of the blatant religious and cultural symbolism in this work, but the materials and their display make it very clear what the viewer can explore in the work. It has a quiet poignancy that speaks to me of grief and death far more than the cluttered wall. The work is open ended, the elemental nature of the materials is understandable to all, it invites the viewer to experience it and it doesn’t block the reading through complex, and potentially exclusionary, symbolism. This was very useful for me to observe because its something I have been grappling with in my own practice.
Tiffany Singh, Earth Air Fire Water Ash, 2014, Glass and ash, collaboration with Isaac Katzoff Monmouth Glass studio, Te Uru Gallery
These two exhibitions gave me a clarity about my own practice that I had understood to some extent before, but now have SEEN in the work of others. I can now understand exactly why work like this can be exclusionary and ways to approach subjects to make the art interesting for a wider range of viewers; to make the work better. I am going to hold these images and my realisations about them in my mind when creating my own work so that I move one way and not the other.