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.

Artboard 1-100

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!

 

Advertisements

Notes on Nigredo

“In the ash that lies at the bottom of the grave, there lies the king’s diadem…”
– Livre de Arthéphius, Bibliothéque des Philosophes Chimiques, Paris, 1741

  1. Nigredo – the earthly aspect, the shadow, the dark night of the soul, corruption, charring, putrefaction. To be reborn the spirit must die and decay, then rise again in a new form.
  2. The raven symbolises the Nigredo process; death, night, putrefaction. The dove is the spirit which reunites with the body once the long night has passed. Likewise the scarab, the dungroller, moves from the night of Nigredo into the light of the sun.
  3. Relating to Saturn who would eat his children, but was tricked by Jupiter into eating a stone instead. The stone Saturn vomits up becomes an alchemical catalyst.
  4. The Philosophical (Orphic) Egg is the the Prima Materia destroyed in the putrefaction of Nigredo.
  5. Caput Mortum: Dead Head – hematite iron oxide, a deep purple pigment produced by the Nigredo process and used for painting the robes of religious figures.

 

 

 

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.

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

Work in progress Jan 17

I’ve been working to create a durational video using small stylised bird objects that are informed by my research into Finnish bird mythologies. I have 2 benches set up in my studio; one for wax-working and the other for drawing and latex mould-making. I have a rather ad-hoc jewellers peg attached to the bench which is a bit wobbly but does the job! The below pictures show some of the process for making bird-shaped moulds for later casting.

Works for Art Ache event

Creating some work suitable for the Art Ache event has been useful and an interesting experiment in pitching the work specifically to an audience. The Art Ache events are aimed at the general public who enjoy art, aren’t part of the art-buying connoisseurs, but would like the opportunity to buy and enjoy contemporary art. I’ve usually been working with video and object but for this project I needed to have prints that could be purchased and put on people’s walls – not something I usually consider with my art-making! I also had to consider how these pieces would reflect on my wider practice, but I like the idea that the public can have access to work and be able to find an entry point into contemporary art.

The thinking behind these pieces is that I wanted to create something that is accessible and that people could feel a connection to without having too much contemporary art knowledge. I want to make something they would want to spend time with. As well as being related to the Albedo work I have been creating this year, each piece references a famous art historical work that has been of inspiration to me. I hope that they will lead viewers to search out the originals and to see the relationships between contemporary and art historical work where they might not have looked before. Connecting to my interest in human experience of the otherworldly, the works that I drew on for the images are all depictions of moments of mystic experience; the Virgin at the moment of Annunciation, the swooning saints of Bernini and Caravaggio. I also love the obviously earthly pleasure on the faces of Saint Teresa and Mary Magdalene; is it the ecstasy of mystic experience or, as my model put it, “the ultimate O face”! Perhaps they’ve just been stuffing themselves with heavenly honey.

When creating these images I was well aware that there are plenty of photos out there drawing inspiration from classical and pre-modernist artworks. I’ve seen a lot of these sorts of images done for fashion magazines and while they are ‘pretty’ they don’t do much but provide high-gloss decoration. I didn’t want my work to stray into that area if I could avoid it! These fashion images are usually very heavily retouched, very glamorous, use fashion models and have a focus on beauty and perfection. I deliberately stayed away from any retouching (apart from a few stray hairs that had escaped from the models headwear) and left her pores, uneven make-up etc plainly visible. I hope that using the stark tonal palette keeps the images sculptural and austere rather than decorative.

They are printed A3 size on archival matt 300gsm art stock (and will not have the titles printed at the bottom as in these pics, instead they’ll have my sig )

Prints-01 Prints-02 Print Prints-04

Art Ache

I’ve been creating some new images and video especially for a show called Art Ache that is happening this Thursday. They are in some respect companion pieces to Albedo, but a little different. The Art Ache show aims to allow people who are interested in contemporary art to be able to afford pieces they enjoy. These include a series of prints, one from each artist, that are part of an ongoing series
Art Ache event page
Art Ache website
Idealog article

Here is a my kitty helping with the shoot in my make-shift home studio. I can’t create large video pieces here, but smaller photoshoots are surprisingly effective.

13086895_10154206890728413_3270124782455074032_o

Installation Strategies

Working with moving image produces it’s own specific range of display challenges. As well as thinking about the method of display you also have to consider the installation in the space and the experience of encounter. I have a number of moving images that I can include in my installation in January and I’m thinking around which ones to use, which ones to edit out, how they should be encountered, what size they should be. I’m working with an AV company to come up with the best method for the work, the best method for the space and the best method for my budget! I looked into technology that was way beyond what I can afford right now (like fog screen technology) but it’s good to have that in my arsenal for when I have works that might suit those display techniques and I have budget to make it happen.

I’ve spent some time researching methods of display using projection and LCD displays as these are the 2 most likely display methods I would use. I have also built a 1/20 scale model of the gallery space with removable internal walls so I can have a look at the size of LCD monitors in the space, positioning of projectors, which images could go where. This has been incredibly useful for me as well as for my collaboration with the AV hire company. Yolanda and I had a look at some of the images projected in the lecture room and I feel that the large-sized presentation is definitely right for 3 of the images at least. My challenge then is to create a darkened space for the projection by building a lightweight false ceiling over the back half of the gallery space. My thinking then would be to have 2 more moving images in the entry spaces on either side of the doorway and to display those slightly differently on large LCDs. I like that order of encounter and the size difference – the areas of moving image are related but different with speed, movement and composition.

16-01(152)Frecklier, D (2014) Littoral (single channel video installation, paper strip screen, electric fan)

I like this simple projection strategy that uses a paper strip screen and movement from a fan. It’s a god way to break away from the traditional screen and bring movement into the work. I thought about these sorts of unusual screen ideas for my work but I felt that the content and detail of the imagery was too integral to the work to be split apart and diffused in this way.
20141112_beijing_faurschou_foundation_bill_viola_00003_hi-resViola, B (2014) Inverted Birth (projection)

Martyrs_(Earth,_Air,_Fire,_Water)Viola, B (2014) Earth Martyr; Air Martyr; Fire Martyr, Water Martyr (Screens)

bill-viola2-600x399Viola, B (2008) Small Saints (Screens)

It’s useful for me to look at Bill Viola’s installation strategies as he is also using singular iconic figures, performing to camera against an amorphous background. The single, large projected image in Inverted Birth is impressive in it’s size and looming position of the viewer. The 4 martyrs are displayed like a modern altarpiece which is a nice conceit but I feel they are a bit small at this size and would benefit from being more imposing. The Small Saints series is a different approach, making the images more intimate and photographic, like something you might have on your mantelpiece at home. It’s a really different approach from what Viola usually takes and I’m keeping it in the back of my mind for future consideration when I have works that might suit a more intimate approach.

transmigrations1Alexopoulos, Y. (2012) Transmigrations (Screens)

I love Yorgo Alexopoulos’s use of multiple changing screens. The above work Transmigrations uses screens grouped into clusters. It made me think about using screens of differing sizes, orientations and placements.

Enrich, P. and Harper, B. (2008) Crude Carrier (3 channel video installation)

This is an interesting method of installation, creating an enveloping ‘room’ from the video. In Crude Carrier the video moves around the 3 screens so it can be viewed as a continuous movement. The images can be viewed from within and without of the ‘room’. The screens are moveable and can also be opened out or mounted flat onto a wall. There is a naturalistic soundtrack with the sounds of water, boats, seagulls and traffic. I’m looking into this sort of installation strategy for my current work although it may not be possible or right for the work.


conical_meri+ross_06Turnbull, M. (2009) From and Into the Light (double projection video installation)

Projecting onto sculptural objects or uneven surfaces (rather than the traditional screen) is another option I have considered. I think that for this series of works, much like with the moving paper screen, the content of the videos would be broken up and distorted too much with this method but it’s something I could consider for future work.

Chronogram_Malena_Szlam-03Szlam Salazar, M. (2014) Chronogram of Inexistent Time (Multi projector video/stills installation)

I was interested in the chaotic nature of this work, from the multitude of randomly hung screens and frames on the walls so the overlapping and changing projections. Obviously this isn’t a suitable strategy for my current work, but it’s so different to what I would usually think of doing myself that I got really drawn into it.

So here are some examples of the strategies I’m considering using my scale model. I have more videos than I need which gives me scope to change and edit the installation.

Option1

 

Option2

 

option3

 

Option4