Dissecting symbolism and intention in my latest works

Often when I’m exploring new work I come up against questions that I struggle to answer. In the current series of photos and videos I have been creating I started wondering about some of the symbolism I was drawn to and also the intention behind the desire I have to use women as the protagonists in this particular set. I’m very lucky to have a wealth of thoughtful advice to draw upon in the form of my art peers who don’t mind sitting down with me and having a ponder. In this case I called upon the brains of my friends Justine and Anita to think through with me some of these questions.

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Mary MacGregor-Reid, 2018, Still from video “In the ash that lies at the bottom of the grave, there lies the king’s diadem…”

I have found myself fascinated with the act of pouring. In previous videos I have used the pouring of beeswax, of honey, of carbon and I still have a desire to work with this action. I discussed the symbolism of pouring with Jus and Anita who had some similar thoughts to my own and also expanded upon them with some ideas I hadn’t come to on my own – highlighting the importance of having other thinkers to talk with!

Jus related the act of pouring to having tea with friends, of pouring out a cup for a guest as an act of friendship, of bonding and of interpersonal ritual. She also related it to the act of her mother washing her hair in the bath as a child. I relate to both of these actions as I am an avid tea-drinker and my mum also used to rinse my hair in the bath by pouring water over my head in a sort of bath-time baptism. There is a connotation of caring to these acts and we both mentioned the release of scent and the experience of the sound of water rushing into water. They also seem to be quite feminine acts, things that are often done between women and in the act of caring for others.

The act of pouring can be a sort of gift, as the substance leaves one vessel to then be contained in another, as in the pouring of tea.

It can also signify blending as 2 or more elements are brought together to create a new substance, as when cooking or in chemistry.

There is the cleansing or consecration aspect, as in baptism or ritual anointing.

There is also an idea of a substance transforming, which I think is particularly experienced in the release of scent through the movement of the substance from one place to the next. When pouring non-liquid substances like ash or carbon there is an explosion of dust that comes with the action.

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Mary MacGregor-Reid, 2018, Still from video “In the ash that lies at the bottom of the grave, there lies the king’s diadem…”

I talked to Anita extensively about my use of women as the protagonists in these new works and why I felt that it was important to the work, but could be a problem. This work is not specifically about gender, it isn’t a political statement, but at the same time I felt that my use of female characters could be interpreted in that way, bringing in content that I didn’t really want to be there. This took us around to the symbolism of pouring again and whether in classical art this is seen as a female gesture. Outside neoclassical concrete garden sculptures, we weren’t really sure if this was true, but we were reminded of the fact that the cup is very definitely a symbol of the female.

Both water and the cup or chalice are recognisable as symbols of the feminine. This gives me a bit more insight into where the pouring symbolism along with female protagonists is coming together in this work. Now that I’ve unpicked my unconscious decision-making a bit it has made me very interested to go back and reshoot all the scenes with male protagonists once I’ve finished shooting with women to see how that would affect the work and the viewer’s experience of it. I’ve also started thinking about the sound and scent aspects of the action of pouring and how this could work within the context of these or future pieces. I’ve worked with both sound and scent previously so it seems quite natural to think about how these experiential elements could integrate.

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Mary MacGregor-Reid, 2018, Still from video “In the ash that lies at the bottom of the grave, there lies the king’s diadem…”

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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!

 

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)

 

 

An Alchemical Explosion

(Image:Artist’s illustration of two merging neutron stars. The rippling spacetime grid represents gravitational waves traveling out from the collision, while the narrow beams show bursts of gamma rays expelled just seconds after the gravitational waves. Ejected clouds of glowing, neutron-rich material swirl around the merging stars. Credit: NSF/LIGO/Sonoma State University/A. Simonnet)

Scientists at LIGO have detected, for the first time, spacetime ripples known as gravitational waves from the collision of two neutron stars. This phenomenon was predicted by Einstein but had not been observed until August 17 2017. All of the previously detected gravitational waves came from merging pairs of black holes which are so dense that light cannot escape their grasp, making such mergers essentially invisible to normal telescopes. While neutron stars appear to create less extreme gravitational force than that generated by black holes, these super-dense stars created by the collapse of supernova, have gravitational fields strong enough to squeeze and break down an entire sun into a ball of neutrons the size of a small city. Unlike a black hole, a neutron star’s gravity is too weak to trap light, meaning the huge burst made from two of them slamming together can be bright enough to be observed from Earth.

The collision of these two neutron stars likely produced a black hole, allowing the observation of the birth of one of these phenomena. It also provides evidence that it is neutron star collisions that forge the universe’s heavy elements including uranium, platinum and gold. The bulk of the universe’s hydrogen and helium was produced in the first moments after the big bang, and most of the lighter elements—oxygen, carbon, nitrogen etc—were formed from nuclear fusion in stars, but scientists were unsure as to the origin of the heavier elements. This new cosmic observation provides evidence that the collision of the universe’s densest stars is the true alchemical forge.

“If you think about it, the universe is sort of a cosmic particle collider, with neutron stars as the particles,” O’Shaughnessy says. “It throws them together, and we now have the opportunity to see what comes out…. This event is a Rosetta stone, giving us real data to connect disparate threads of astrophysics that previously only existed in the mind of theorists or as bits in a supercomputer simulation. It allows us to understand the cosmic abundance of heavy elements. It allows us to probe the squishiness of nuclear matter at extreme densities. It allows us to measure the expansion of the universe…. We are now reaping the reward, a mountain of gold 10 or a hundred times the mass of the Earth, that the universe just gave us.”

Richard O’Shaughnessy, an astrophysicist and LIGO team member at Rochester Institute of Technology quoted in Scientific American. (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/gravitational-wave-astronomers-hit-mother-lode1/)

How to survive as an artist who doesn’t make enough money from their work. Yet. (Eternally optimistic.)

(Cartoon from The Oatmeal. The expression on the guy’s face is exactly the same expression I have when sitting in my studio, although my feet tend to reach the floor www.theoatmeal.com)

I’ve read a number of times the advice that an artist without an established art career needs to have another source of income for a) practical reasons b) to keep them free from making art decisions based on the hunt for money to pay the bills. Unless you have family money or a huge repository of savings this means that you are going to have to get a job. This is especially true if you live in one of the expensive cities where all the art stuff happens. I say ‘job’ because you don’t want to accidentally end up with a ‘career’. A job can be part-time and can be left behind at the end of the day, a career requires your full commitment which means you’ll have nothing left for your art.

I spent 20 years with a ‘career’, in fact I did my MFA while holding down not just a ‘career’ but also a career in my own business! If you think a career in someone else’s business sucks you dry, then multiple that by 10 to experience the dedication and commitment required to ownership of a business where you are the sole director. No, what an artist needs is a job. Somewhere you can go that you enjoy, or at least don’t detest, that has flexible hours, pays you enough money to live and that will also take you out of your own head for a while so that you don’t go crazy spending hours worrying that you have all this time but aren’t making enough art.

I’m lucky enough that I’ve found what appears to be a very good balance: because I have so much experience from my design career I’m able to work on-call as a contractor in ad agencies. The very problems with the creative industry that have made it increasingly difficult to run a small design business (eg the fluctuation and uncertainty of clients and income) have created the perfect niche for someone like myself to be flexible high-end staff resource for other companies. I have an agent who finds me work, negotiates my rate and who is well aware of my art practice and the fact that I don’t want to work full time. I can go into agencies and take an ‘all care, no responsibility’ approach to the job where I aim to do the best possible job for them, but at the end of the day I don’t need to deal with the clients or chase unpaid invoices.

There was a month or two after I closed my design business and before I started getting regular contract work that I had a lot of spare time to work on new art. Instead of rushing into a frenzy of art production I froze up and became overwhelmed with the fact that I had all this precious, precious time and I wasn’t using it properly! Now that I am working part time I’m somehow more productive, I don’t worry about not making any money and going to work takes me out of myself so that I don’t get stuck in a loop, sitting in my little studio wondering why I’m so useless. I also feel that because I’m not desperate for income I can make the choices with my work that I want to rather than feeling I am grasping at every straw.

There is the other issue of needing money for making and and for travelling to do art things. After speaking at City Gallery Wellington I was invited to speak at Steinhardt NYU! How exciting! Problem was that I only had a month to organise the trip and NYU weren’t paying all my airfares etc Getting anywhere from New Zealand is an exercise in being bled dry, so it’s important to have a fund that you can draw on when you get unexpected awesome invites and opportunities. I now have one.

So go forth artists! Find non-life-consuming-part-time jobs!

Carl Sagan: A Glorious Dawn

The NASA announcement today of their new solar system discovery immediately made me wonder how Carl Sagan would have felt on hearing this news. There are 7 Earth-sized planets orbiting a small star 40 light-years away in the constellation of Aquarius, they could hold life, they could even support our life. Sagan said it was time for us to ‘venture to the stars’ if we manage not to destroy ourselves.

Because of my interest in working in the zone where science and mysticism overlap, I find Sagan a continuing source of inspiration.

We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.
Sagan, Carl (1990). Cosmos: A Personal Voyage

Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.
Sagan, Carl; Druyan, Ann (1997). The Demon-Haunted World.

We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it is forever.
Sagan, Carl (1980). Cosmos

Something about remembering your own tininess and insignificance along with acknowledging that you have the ability to create something wonderful despite only ‘fluttering for day’ is infinitely liberating. A bit hippie, but there you go.

 

The Finnish Sauna

Saunatonttu – the spirit of the sauna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Thank you to Sam Dollimore for the article link.