The Ritual of the Mass & the difficulties of portraying esoteric ritual practice in contemporary art

Image: The main iconostasis in St Kazan Cathedral, St Petersburg, Russia.

I’ve been discussing the idea of filmed ritual with Josephine who has collaborated with me in my video work. We were wondering about how have to have a more active ritual aspect to the work and how this would translate. The main issues I see around filmed ritual are as follows:

  • Much ritual; western ceremonial magick in particular; just looks daft when viewed from ‘the outside’. It’s a participatory practice and rarely works as a spectator sport. Ritual is experiential in nature and there are few forms that can be viewed and appreciated without most of the active ingredients being completely lost.
  • It can look truly hokey. The trappings of ritual (again, especially western ceremonial) are so loaded with pre-existing cultural and pop-cultural meaning that use of them is very difficult unless it’s in a deliberately self-aware way, which lends itself more to the glib and ironic. Candles, incense, swords, robes? Pile all those together and you’ve got yourself a bad amateur horror movie.
  • Blatantly utilising the ritual language of cultures that are not my own for the sake of my art smacks of appropriation and the arrogant surface skimming of something I can’t truly understand. In a personal ritual setting experimentation with new practice is enriching, but for something like my video art I think it is gauche. The best way for me to work with non-western ritual language would be to collaborate with a practitioner who understands the deeper context and for me to take more of an ‘outsider’ position. This is something to consider for future works.

Ritual as a live performance piece is fraught with many of the same problems, especially the ‘cringe factor’ that comes with the cultural loading mentioned above. For both video and performance I’m inclined to remove most of the symbolic aspects that the audience is familiar with and, if I keep any (eg the kind of robed dress I’ve been using), angle it away from the ‘witchcraft and sorcery’ connotations. I’ve been leaning in the direction of historical art in gesture and form so that the work alludes to Renaissance or Baroque art which I hope lends it a different symbolic texture.

Looking again at Mikala Dwyer’s treatment of esoteric themes in her work I’ve been influenced by the way she has subverted and also utilised the loading of the forms she has used. Her robes and costumes for example still retain the connections to magical dress but they use fabrics and forms that have different connotations and so take the symbolism to a new place. Likewise her performance piece Goldene Ben’der (2013) which sees hooded participants robed in golden lamé attempt to defecate publicly into clear perspex seats which are later displayed. While this work may seemed to have a humorous aspect, it also captures both the seriousness and visual ridiculousness of ceremonial magick in one go. Very clever I think!

I spent some time pondering the kinds of rituals that are meant to be viewed as well as experienced and I came to the concept of the Mass. Aleister Crowley created a Gnostic Mass as a ceremonial ritual that I believe is the only example within his canon that is intended to be viewed by non-participants, although that’s an interesting point to play with as truly the congregation are also participants through the aspect of the Priest.
(Side note: he did also create his interpretation of the Rites of Eleusis, but to my mind they are theatre more than active ritual. Others might beg to differ.)

Crowley was hugely influenced by a Russian Orthodox Mass he witnessed, so while in St Petersburg I attempted to attend one to get a feel for what impressed him. I wasn’t able to attend a Mass, as I was not there on a Sunday, but I did attend a Russian Orthodox liturgy at Kazan Cathedral. Obviously I took no photos at the time of the service.

The cathedral has a central altar and 2 side altars, the Evening Liturgy was at one side and was cordoned off for worshippers. In order to be part of it I needed to wear a scarf over my head and I paid attention to everyone else to try and make sure I was doing the right thing. There is an awful lot of genuflecting, but apart from that it was actually quite relaxed with people coming and going.

Here are some interesting things that I noticed:

  • The altars are not visible to the congregation at all. There is a three part divider in front of each of the three altars called an iconostatis. Only the high clergy can go behind this to the altar and I believe it is only ever opened at Mass.
  • There are three clergy involved and they move around a lot; in and out of the 2 side doors in the iconostasis (but not the central door, they adored this but did not open it). There is a small altar within the congregation in front of the altar steps. This gives the chapel a three-point area of movement for the clergy: 1 behind the iconostatis (at the high altar), 2 in front of the iconostatis on the dais and 3 in the congregation on a lower level. One of the clergy takes incense around the whole perimeter of the chapel area and everyone turns towards him as he walks.
  • The congregation stand for the whole time. I had no idea how long the liturgies would go but I realised after an hour that they were actually looping round and it didn’t seem like they were going to stop any time soon. They genuflect a lot: head, base, right, left, touch the floor.
  • The loveliest part is the continual chanting and singing. The clergy chants the liturgies and an invisible choir up behind us sang in a call and response with the clergy. It’s worth having a listen to a Russian Orthodox service if you are interested because it truly is spine-tingling.

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Once again the viewer is still a part of the experience; you are THERE, you are not watching it play out on video. I find the placement of objects and people, plus the necessity to move through the area and be in certain places at certain times, to be a concept I could work with. I have created a diagram of the layout of a Russian Orthodox service versus Crowley’s Gnostic Mass. You can see the clear similarities between the too and the way movement through space would function in both rituals as the various clergy (or officers in the case of the Gnostic Mass) move around the chapel/temple. The 2 rituals above are very different but have strong similarities in movement, pacing and interactions. I feel that perhaps movement through space with gesture and interaction is intrinsic to a lot of ritual practice and could be included in my video while still allowing the work to remain free of the problems I outlined above. Something to think about further…

I find this whole quandary of portraying active ritual very interesting to think about. I find it very difficult but a great challenge. There are going to be some serious failures coming up, but a good ‘art fail’ is the best thing to point you in the right direction!

 

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Saya Woolfalk and Psychedelic Shamanism

I came across Saya Woolfalk last year when I was looking at an article on the Artsy site about shamanism and contemporary art. I’ve thought about her work quite a bit since then and how to express my reaction to it, because that reaction is also deeply connected to how I feel about my own work. As different to hers as it is visually, there is an underlying similarity in intent I think and also in medium and execution.

I was initially drawn to a video loop on the header of the article showing a triple-blue-faced creature with multiple arms and white felt feathers floating through some kind of alien dreamscape.

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It brought up a lot of feelings and sensations for me – things I associate with the early 90s and attending the Goa-trance parties that were popular at the time. The quasi-shamanic costuming and facepaint, the ‘trippy’ computer graphic landscapes, the allusions to futuristic shamanic practices and the unabashed psychedelia. These dance parties were full of people painted with fluorescent paint, in wild costumes and immersive environments often created and elaborated on by the attendees themselves.

Saya Woolfolk describes much of her work as being woman-centric – She has created a virtual world inhabited by the Empathics, a race of hybrid futuristic women who are able to fuse with their environment. This also reminds me of these dance parties where people tended to ‘get in touch with their higher selves’ and men were able to express a more feminine aspect. She works with many people to create collaborative pieces: dancers, videographers, animators, and it appears that she allows them the freedom to add their own expression to the work rather than it being solely directed by the artist. Much of her work is multimedia multidimensional in not just the sense that she is exploring other dimensions but also in the sense that she works within multiple dimensions in the ‘material world’ too, allowing viewers to experience a fully immersive environment.

 

 

Saya Woolfalk, An Empathic Preparing to Paint Images from the Book Empathetic Plant Alchemy (Jillian), 2011. Copyright Saya Woolfalk, courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York.

Installation view of Saya Woolfalk, ChimaTEK Life Products Virtual Chimeric Space (Detail View), 2015, in Seattle Art Museum: “Disguise: Masks and Global African Art.” Photo by Nathaniel Wilson. Copyright Saya Woolfalk, courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York.

I wondered how Woolfalk examines cultural appropriation in her work in relation to the cultural shamanic cues she is using and their usage within the work of a Japanese-born New Yorker? She speaks of ‘cultural hybridity’ which I think is an interesting flip side to cultural appropriation; the coming together of cultures and creation of new culture rather than one taking from another. I know I personally get paralysed sometimes in my own work with worrying about the privilege of being a middle-class European in a developed country and whether I am appropriating culture that is not mine. Sometimes I stop making because I start to overthink the materials I’m using and the form it is taking. It’s probably more useful for me to just make the things THEN analyse how they fit within the cultural landscape rather than not making them at all!

In relation to my own work I’m also fascinated with what Woolfalk can ‘get away with’ when it comes to the otherworldly – probably not the best phrasing, but this is in relation to me and my practice rather than a critique of her work, as I’m really impressed with the passion and the gusto with which she executes her practice. Another learning from Woolfalk’s practice for me; it’s much more constructive to unapologetically embrace the work you want to make and look for it’s place within the current contemporary art landscape than to quash is out of nervousness of negative critique.

As ever when dealing with subject matter that is emotional, spiritual, non-ironic there is a line to be walked – fall too far in one direction and the work can become mawkish and kitsch. But if you don’t step over the line, then you don’t know where it is, so I think it’s perfectly ok to go there and then draw yourself back – as I have done on a number of occasions. There is a lot to learn from overstepping the mark and finding out where the boundaries are.

This brings me back to those Goa trance parties I used to go to. I think at their best these parties were living works of art; beautiful, full of life and raw creativity. At their most banal, they were the desperate posturing of modern kids wanting to take drugs and have some sort of empty spiritual epiphany. Art is at risk of being like that too.

(Top image: ChimaTEK Virtual Chimeric Space Seattle Art Museum)

 

 

Part 1 – The alter-egos of Ayu Subhadra

Over the last few years I have been gathering together information about my great grandfather with the help of other interested in parties in the UK and the US. It’s starting to come together into something that might make an interesting book, but I’ve got some holes in the story that still need filling.

While working on it I’ve been trying to link it into my art practice because there are many elements within the story that are useful for creating a more anchored approach. I discovered while studying that there was a desire by many viewers (who were familiar with my work, being faculty, peers etc) to know *why* I was interested in the topics I was exploring. Saying “because they interest me” didn’t appear to fulfil the need for a more solid base of understanding and legitimacy. When I brought up my family history it seemed to create an instant anchor for the viewers that allowed them to investigate the work rather than spending time trying to ascertain my motivations.

Looking at the life of my Great Grandfather George Watson MacGregor-Reid (who I will from here refer to as GWMR) I have found access points into my own practice and into my own personality. There are some interesting aspects of GWMR’s interactions with the worldly and the ‘otherworldly’ that strike a chord.

In many ways his era was the beginning of a huge upheaval in western thinking in regards to british relationships with other humans and to the natural world. There was a greater understanding of human rights and liberties, the rise of archeology and of interest in non-european cultures (although at this stage it also went hand-in-hand with cultural theft and appropriation), the ideas that workers have the right to fair working conditions and pay, the beginnings of gradual decay of the class system and the rise of the middle class, interest in health, medical science, diet, exercise as well as a revival of interest in the ‘occult’ or mystic sciences.

The artistic disciplines also saw a boom time with Art Nouveau and Symbolism seeing out the Victorian Era and the birth of Modernism heralding the new century. These people, the ones at the forefront of this change of attitude and age of exploration in Britain, were GWMR’s friends and peers.

I’ve been spending a lot of time looking at the ritual costume and magical artefacts of different cultures. I really love these images but I’m also aware that I need to be careful of cultural appropriation issues. This issues follow me around constantly as other cultures have such rich histories in these areas and I’m easily seduced by them. But they aren’t ‘mine’ and  I need to take inspiration from the fact that many of these ritual practices are a universal means to interact with the otherworldly, but avoid aping them or stealing from them.

Microsoft Word - MH LECTURE 5GWMR as ‘The Dastur’ – one of his many spiritual altar-egos, taking on the mantle of a Zoroastrian high priest (Stonehenge approx. 1912)

GWMR lived in a time when cultural appropriation wasn’t recognised as problematic in any sense, and this, of course, is tied in with my british ancestors only starting to recognise the humanity of other cultures. GWMR had a great passion for quashing human rights abuses wherever he saw them. He was fascinated by the Senussi Sufis in North Africa and their struggles against the French colonial expansion into their land. (He even claimed to have fought along side them, although I have yet to verify this story.) He was also a committed Tibetan Buddhist and maintained that he had lived with monks in Tibet (Another, so far, unverifiable tale) where he adopted the name ‘Ayu Subhadra’ for his spiritual writings.

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Page from “The Path That Is Light” kindly copied  from the library of Adam Stout

He adopted personas that fit with the ideas he wanted to convey, and wore costume that allowed him to exist and impress as these magical characters. To me this reflects the use of ritual costume to communicate with the other world and to cross thresholds or barriers.

• Ritual dress can be used to accentuate certain parts of the body, certain characteristics or traits.

• It can be used to assume the powers of another being or archetype.

• The wearer becomes a moving, breathing assemblage of symbols or visual language. The body and the wearer become the magical language.

To go with this ritual dress are the ritual objects imbued with the power to allow the practitioner communication with the other world. These objects might offer a symbolic language, they might off protection, the might hold within then the secrets to crossing the threshold. Often the objects might be incorporated into the dress; hidden in pockets or sewn into the very fabric of the costume. The objects might be carried or moved by the practitioner, placed on an altar, moved across a map or diagram.

I have a map/diagram of ideas that I created at the residency in Finland that I am revisiting. The concepts I wrote down in January closely mirror the subjects I am now working through in regards to GWMR and my large collection of found images from the last few months.

I need to mull this over some more tonight and will continue tomorrow.
END PART 1.

 

Stories from my Papua New Guinean friend

When I started my design business I met a man living next door to my little office who grew up in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. I would go round and sit in his shed and talk to him and get him to tell me stories of his life before he came to NZ. He wouldn’t tell me how old he was, but I suspect he must have been in his 60s as he told me that cannibalism was still practiced by his tribe when he was a child. (It’s not quite what most of us think it is, the reasoning is very interesting, so perhaps I will write something about that another time.)

130131013His tribe is a part of the Huli group of tribes and this is how they look in ceremonial dress performing at a Sing-sing at Mt Hagen

I have so many interesting stories from him, it’s rare to be able to spend so much time with someone who grew up in such a remote place where life is still so different to anything I’ve experienced. The winters were brutal, food was hard to grow – plain kumara was the bulk of their diet, pigs were worth everything and were treated like members of the family; you couldn’t kill and eat your own pigs, you had to swap them with another tribe so that you were eating pigs you didn’t ‘know’. When the family pigs had piglets that was some of the most exciting times he remembers as a child.

He was there when the first missionaries came to their village and told me how the idea of a single god was not so different to their idea of a god that resided in everything, so they absorbed the christian faith with relative ease. This didn’t mean that their forests weren’t still haunted with strange beings and that they weren’t always under threat from the possibility of malevolent sorcery.

The highland people are very afraid of sorcery practiced by other tribes. I asked him about the Asaro; the ‘mud people’ from the Eastern Highlands, because they had always interested me and it was hard to find anything about them except photos. He said that his tribe never ventured near them or traded with them because they were very powerful sorcerers who could steal your heart right out of your body or a baby out of a woman’s womb. He also seemed very wary of the lowland Sepik tribes for similar reasons. I think this idea of sorcery is quite different to the current problem with women being accused of witchcraft and murdered in PNG; to me that seems to be the christian influence seeping into traditional culture that creates religious witch hunts.

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Asaro ‘mudman’

He also told me about some terrifying tiny people living in the mountains (and this is probably true because there are a tribe of cannibal pygmies called the Yali who are absolutely tiny) and that there was also a tribe of giants (I haven’t been able to clarify this one). Not only that but he claimed that there were ‘hairy men’ in the forest which I guess are the Papuan version of sasquatch. He had so many amazing stories that even the ones about everyday life were fascinating. If you can tell me more about the Asaro or would like to hear more of my friends stories, leave me a comment 🙂