Perfume Alchemy

Last Saturday I attended a perfume workshop at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki taught by Samantha Copland of Perfume Playground

I’ve been using scent on and off in a my work to create an immersive environment, speaking to the kinds of all-encompassing environments creating in Ceremonial magick ritual practice. I find the effect of scent on our mood and memory to be fascinating. For myself – and I believe for many others – scent has a stronger memory link than that of sight, sound and touch combined. For example there is a smell of cooking that I first experienced on the street in Hong Kong at 8 years old that, if I happen to smell it on the street, will jolt me right back to that time and place even 36 years later. The smell of jasmine at night instantly transports me to my first few weeks in NZ when we were staying in a strange old dilapidated house in Remuera. I don’t think I’d ever smelled jasmine flowers before and this house had a huge rambling vine right outside the window that perfumed the whole house at night.

We were all working with a middle-note scent of cinnamon which meant we needed to choose a base-note scent and a top-note scent. I wanted to make something different to what I would usually choose and not pick my obvious favourite scents. I was trying to find scents that would work with the cinnamon to enhance it, but what I got in the end is most and reacts to my skin in a very strange way.

Firstly I should note that there is no alcohol or other solvents in the mix. I used
Top-notes:
Blood orange 1/28
Long Pepper 2/28
Middle-note:
Cinnamon 20/28
Bottom-note:
Tobacco Absolute 5/28

So it is very heavy on the cinnamon, which is what I wanted. Away from the skin it is VERY strong smelling and almost alcoholic. I even find it a bit unpleasant. But once it’s applied to my skin and it settles down and all the harsh aspects completely disappear and it becomes spicy and sweet.

The earlier versions I mixed with less cinnamon and more of the tobacco and pepper smelled very strange in the mixing containers, but when applied to my skin the whole fragrance just vanished!

Ingredients

I’ve been delving into the fragrance I chose to get some insight into their use and their symbolism:

Cinnamon is very much a solar fragrance in western esotericism and is a main component of ‘Oil of Abramelin’, a ceremonial oil blend with it’s roots the anointing oil described in the Hebrew Tanakh. It’s associations are with orange/red/gold, with Apollo and Ra, with Tiphereth, with Resh (the conscious mind/the front of the head), the sun and with Iron.
Cinnamon was highly prized in the ancient world, along with incenses such as frankincense and myrrh which are also derived from trees, but the sap rather than the bark. The Ancient Egyptians used cinnamon as part of the embalming process and the Romans would use it on the funeral pyres of the very wealthy.

Tobacco is attributed to Horus and Mars. It is also associated with orange and red colours, with iron, sulphur and ruby, with the element of fire and also, strangely, with gold. These are strong, martial attributes for a strong fragrance.
Indigenous American peoples extensively saw tobacco as a ceremonial plant for use in negotiations, treaties and as a means to carry ones prayers to the Creator. It is part of the nightshade family and originated in South America before spreading around the globe.

Pepper is another fiery red fragrance associated with Horus, Mars and Ares. It is also associated with Pe (the mouth) and the tarot trump ‘The Tower’. Long Pepper (also known as Pipli or Pippali) is a hotter variant of pepper than that used for culinary black/white/green pepper. It’s medicinal uses are described in Ayurvedic texts and was also used medicinally by the Greek ands Romans as early as the 5th or 6th Centuries BCE.

Blood Orange isn’t listed anywhere in western esoteric correspondences that I can find. Obviously, as it’s name would suggest, the flesh is a distinctive orangey red and it is apparently a natural mutation of the orange caused by anthocyanins. The fragrance is sweet and heady as the name implies.

Overall, looking at my findings, it seems clear that I have chosen a whole set of fiery, strong, orange/red fragrances without consciously intending to. The videos I currently have in the works are based on the alchemical ‘Rubedo’ process and will be shot entirely in red – it seems that this perfume I’ve created could work well as an accompaniment to the next show!

Now I have to finish putting together my fragrance for the Nigredo show in 1.5 weeks….

(Header photo from Perfume Playground instagram)

Advertisements

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!