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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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)

 

 

Albedo Presentation Box

The Albedo video installation is an edition of 2, with one sold to a collector last year. This is what the artwork looks like when presented, it also includes prints of stills from the videos on archival paper.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arteles Residency Outcomes

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Cyrill Schlepper’s “UR Musig” documentary about Swiss Folk Music Traditions. “Wilde Chlausen” from Urnäsch in Appenzeller Land.

Stay tuned for a lot more images of traditional ritual costume that I have been researching over the last few weeks!


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/181855510″>&quot;UR Musig&quot; documentary about Swiss Folk Music Traditions. &quot;Wilde Chlausen&quot; from Urn&auml;sch in Appenzeller Land.</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/marymacgregorreid”>Mary MacGregor-Reid</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

 

Sydney Biennale Part 2

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

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

IMG_2384Gerald Machona (2012) Uri Afronaut

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

IMG_2385Gerald Machona (2012) Uri Afrinaut

Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2016) Home Movie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_2424Mella Jaarsma (2015-16) Dogwalk

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

IMG_2426Nyapanyapa Yunupingu (2016) My Sister’s Ceremony

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

IMG_2430Nyapanyapa Yunupingu (2016) My Sister’s Ceremony

IMG_2446Taro Shinoda (2016) Abstraction of Confusion 

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

IMG_2445Taro Shinoda (2016) Abstraction of Confusion

IMG_2440Taro Shinoda (2016) Abstraction of Confusion

IMG_2458Yin-Ju Chen (2014/2016) Liquidation Maps

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

IMG_2455Yin-Ju Chen (2014/2016) Liquidation Maps

IMG_2454Yin-Ju Chen (2014/2016) Liquidation Maps

IMG_2453Yin-Ju Chen (2014/2016) Liquidation Maps

 

 

Performing to camera/Performing for camera

There is a new exhibition on currently at the Tate Modern called “Performing for the Camera”. I had a look through the works on display and it got me thinking again about some of the ideas I’d grappled with last year when making my first performative videos, as well as my dabble in live performance.

In my mind, the statements ‘performing to camera’ and ‘performing for camera’ are two very different propositions. The first denotes a connection with the camera (and therefore the audience behind the camera) that is likely to be realised through direct dialogue in some form; not necessarily speech or eye contact, but an obvious angling of the performance to the viewer. All actions are performed ‘to’ the camera – the audience is the camera. The second suggests the performer has an awareness of the presence of the camera and, therefore, of a potential audience. But the performance might not include any direct dialogue with the camera in the form of gaze, gesture or speech. A performer could quite well perform in the distance with their back to the camera and still be performing ‘for’ the camera. When creating my pieces last year I made the decision that the performances would be ‘to’ the camera. In Hive Oracle (2015), Sublimation (2015) and Albedo (2016) there is direct eye contact from most of the performers. Some performers in Albedo do not make eye contact with, or address the camera, but their pose and gesture is angled to the camera’s presence.

Working with performers I found many differences in the way still photography and moving image recognises tone and gesture. An expression that might be captivating in a still image becomes overwrought and overacted as soon as the image is moving. This is equally noticeable in my barely-moving tableaus which straddle the line between image and moving image. It was imperative for the work that I did not end up with performers who looked like they were Performing (capital P). I’ve seen this happen before with performers who, no matter what role they are taking on, are always, intrinsically themselves. In certain circumstances this is a strength, but it’s not what I needed for this work. Then the other side of the coin is hoping to work with inexperienced performers to find a naturalness in the work, but they can be too anxious to relax. Luckily I was able to work with some great performers who were able to relax into the roles and give an understated, natural performance.

There is a set of new work by artist Amalia Ulman showing in this exhibition that interests me particularly. Her Excellences & Perfections series appeared on instagram as what at first glance seemed to be the heavily curated selfies of a preening millennial. It was infact a scripted and well-planned performance of three consecutive tropes of young female internet celebrity existence.

“It’s more than a satire,” she explains. “I wanted to prove that femininity is a construction, and not something biological or inherent to any woman. Women understood the performance much faster than men. They were like, ‘We get it – and it’s very funny.’ ” What was the joke? “The joke was admitting how much work goes into being a woman and how being a woman is not a natural thing. It’s something you learn.”
Ulsan, A. quoted in Sooke, A. (2016) Is this the first Instagram Masterpiece? Sourced from http://www.telegraph.co.uk

There are layers of performance going on within this work: the performance of Ulman as the women in the work, the performance of Ulman as a woman in everyday life, the performance of Ulman in the art world as a young artist, the performance of Ulman as the artist performing the art; it just goes on and on, bending back upon itself. Very interesting. I was wondering how much of Ulman herself exists as parts of the tropes she was performing? How often is she knowingly or unknowingly drawn into playing those roles?

With my next filing session I have some ideas around testing the performance of the actors to camera and around how much of themselves becomes present/not present. Hopefully there will be some curious outcomes.

Photo credit: Amalia Ulman Excellences & Perfections (Instagram Update, 8th July 2014), (#itsjustdifferent) 2015 © Courtesy Arcadia Missa and The Artist​

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