Candid shots from the Nigredo show

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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)

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!

 

Noticing things: what artists do

“Recently a friend told me about a child she encountered in an education programme she was working on at Whitechapel Art Gallery. At the beginning of the project she asked the children, “What do you think a contemporary artist does?” And this particular child rather precociously put her hand up and said, “They sit around in Starbucks and eat organic salad.” And I imagine that is a pretty accurate assessment of many artists’ behaviour in the fashionable parts of the city. At the end of the course, after they had spent some time looking at what contemporary artists did, my friend asked them, “What do you now think a contemporary artist does?” And the same child said, “They notice things.” And I thought, wow, that’s a really short, succinct definition of what an artist does. My job is to notice things that other people don’t notice.”
Grayson Perry (2014) Playing to the Gallery. Penguin. p116

I’ve just finished reading “Playing to the Gallery” by Grayson Perry. It’s a lovely read and is absolutely perfect as a ‘plane book’: the kind of book that is interesting and entertaining enough to hold your attention during strong turbulence, but short enough that you can read it in a couple of hours and give it to a friend who also has a flight coming up. I love this sort of book because I find that so many books these days are just too long. At 135 pages this is the sort of book you can read once and then almost immediately read again to make sure you remember all the good bits for later when you want to tell someone about it.

There were lots of things in the book that made me think, made me laugh and made me nod in agreement. The section I’ve quoted above about what contemporary artists do was a bit I liked so much that I bookmarked it so I could come back and think about it some more. What struck me personally about the statement “They notice things” is that this is something people have said about me since I was a child.

My mum has said for as long as I can remember, “Oh, Mary notices all these things that I never even see.” This is particularly tied to my ability to find four leaf clovers everywhere as they seem to jump out at me as being the ‘wrong pattern’. (It freaks people out a bit to be honest).

My partner, Dan, thinks I’m hilarious because he imagines I just wander the streets pondering life and getting engrossed in noticing things while being oblivious to where I’m supposed to be going. He calls this ‘Puffining’ because he thinks I resemble a thoughtful puffin, especially when I wear my backpack on the bus; “What were you doing outside? Just puffining around I bet!”

I’ve discovered that even as a contractor I notice far more about the physical aspects of the office environment than the people who work there full time, so when I ask them questions about things I invariably get the answer, “Oh, I don’t know… I never noticed that.”

I always thought this was just a quirk of my personality, but now I’m coming to realise that this is what it is to be a contemporary artist. We all do this – wandering around noticing things and annoying other people. Grayson Perry has made me feel that my noticing ability is actually a boon to my art practice and not just something that my family thinks is amusing. As he said above: my job is to notice things that other people don’t notice!

‘Occulture: The Dark Arts’ at City Gallery Wellington

Last weekend I flew down to Wellington for the day so that I could attend the opening of ‘Occulture’ at the City Gallery. I have never been at such a busy opening day with so many packed-out floor talks! It was seriously heartening for me to see so much interest in work with this kind of content as it is so close to my own heart and art practice. The success of this show is testament to the work of both curators Aaron Lister of the City Gallery and Robert Buratti of Buratti Gallery, Perth.

Robert showed some of my video work at his gallery last year so it was lovely to finally meet him in person. He is an erudite and well-considered speaker who brought the works of Aleister Crowley and Rosaleen Norton to life for the crowd, while orientating them in both a magickal and art historical context. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to properly hear the floor talks by all the artists due to the rather large crowds, meaning I was sometimes only partially in the gallery space or around a corner!

I had a good spot during Dane Mitchell’s talk so I was able to take a lot of notes which I can share here. The process involved in the works is very interesting: There are 3 different works within the larger grouping he has chosen to show; ‘Non Verbal Gestures 1, 2, 3 & 4’ a set of hanging silk banners, ‘Celestial Fields’ a series of metal stanchions and a set of 7 glass globes and ‘Ceramic Fields‘ a series of 12 ceramic objects.

 

The four banners depict mudras that can be seen in use throughout the world, often with magic, religious or superstitious meaning. They hang above a maze of metal stanchions that Dane Mitchell describes as a constellation rendered in a rational museum language. It describes a universal system of knowing or belief – in this case the stars – that charts a wayfaring system that then corrals visitors within the gallery space. Dane talked about his desire to explore the scope of the invisible and how he sees himself as an anthropologist or tourist navigating these realms with the assistance of practitioners. In the case of ‘Celestial Fields’ his guide was a Korean shaman who, it turned out, had some quite complex requests. Dane told us how the shaman had decided at one point that he would no longer communicate with him verbally and would now only work with him on the astral plane. In response Dane sent him an empty water bag into which the shaman passed his breath and sent it back. The glass objects were created by the co-mingling of the 2 breaths blown into glass and encapsulated within. The preparation of this kind of object is equally as important as the presentation of the ‘finished’ art work.

‘Ceramic Fields’ is comprised of 12 objects representing the zodiac. The clay objects were baked in an oven with hallucinogenic plant-matter provided by the shaman to imbue the works with it’s properties. There is something in this use of very organic materials that investigates the seeking of the supernatural through the natural, transcendence through the everyday. There is a groove running around each object that was made with a cast of the artist’s tongue. Dane talked about the nature of taste as exploration, and the way that children ‘stick the world in their mouths’ in order to understand it. I love this because I have quite an interesting relationship with taste myself. When I experience an object or a texture that I particularly enjoy I find that my mouth starts to water and I get an associated taste, or more accurately a ‘mouth feel’ to go with the texture. There is also often an accompanying ‘tone’ that goes with the texture and the mouth-feel. When I see an object I really like I have an overwhelming urge to taste it! Not something you can really get away with in a gallery or museum.

There was another comment that Dane made which I found related very closely to my own art practice; the exploration of revelation and concealment. This pairing of ideas follows me around everywhere and I think it must be due to the very meaning of occult; to be hidden or concealed. Exploration of the occult is a constant process of hiding and revealing, finding and losing. I find that in Dane Mitchell’s practice the conceptual thought and complexity of process within the work provides that depth of concealment and continued revelation that draws you in and keeps you curious.

Some of my favourite contemporary artists were also showing; Mikala Dwyer, Fiona Pardington and Yin-Ju Chen’s incredible ‘Liquidation Maps’ that I was raving about at the Sydney Biennale. Not to mention the Aleister Crowley and Rosaleen Norton works. My intention is to take more notes on my return in September so that I can write about the many other works and the show as a whole. Very much looking forward to a second viewing!

Mikala Dwyer @ Hopkinson Mossman 2016

Last Friday I popped into Hopkinson Mossman gallery to enjoy the Mikala Dwyer solo show – I’m a big fan of her work but had never seen an entire gallery install. On entering the gallery there are three of her robe costumes on the lefthand side, with one of her hanging ‘necklaces’ on the right. On entering the main gallery space you encounter three large painted banners, a hanging mobile-type structure and a number of of her fetishistic ritual objects. There was no one else in the gallery which was quite nice because I could spend time with the works and get up close for a good look at the different objects.

The large draped banners immediately reminded me of sacred geometric designs, of mandalas and of the Tree of Life. They changed an became more three dimensional or more flat depending on the angle they were viewed from. The sculptural objects that sat on them seemed like chess pieces waiting to be moved activating the composition. i felt they had a potentiality about them in the sense that they could be performed – the costumes also have this but in a more obvious way because the viewer is quite aware that they could be worn. Perhaps the positioning of the robes and headwear at the entrance to the ain space signalled that an initiate could don the robes and activate the space?

Between 2 of the banners hangs a totemic mobile. It guards the space and the viewer feels that even though they could walk through to the other side, they probably shouldn’t if they know what’s good for them. Maybe donning the mask and robe would make it a safer journey? The feeling of a gateway or passage to another space is amplified by the use of semi-translucent material, translucent gauze and reflective mirror. The mirror does the trick of reflecting back the shapes and objects as well as the viewer and bouncing you around between the structures in the space.

Dwyer uses some wonderful objects in her assemblages. The weirdness and clashing nature of them activate the ritual totemic urgency in the work, creating a dialogue between the materials. In her large necklace piece I particularly enjoyed the lumpy clay weights that hung heavily from the ends of the chain. They served to make the other elements on the ‘decorative’ part of the necklace seem all the more special, magical and precious. On both the necklace and in the main room assemblages there are some of Dwyers trademark moulded pieces; some with other objects embedded in – or more accurately consumed by – the malleable substrate. The multi-hued metallic glaze she has used is like an oil slick over their lumpy surface.

Somehow the install manages to be both noisey and quiet at the same time. You could very  well sit and meditate on the geometric constructs, but you have to be prepared to deal with the cacophony of bold colour and clashing objects.

Wonderful.

Motoi Yamamoto

Motoi Yamamoto’s work has jumped out and caught my eye a few times over the last year so I thought I should have a look a bit deeper and record my thinking for future reference. I suspect his work is very easy for me to enjoy. Words like beauty, skill, time, duration and immersion can be applied to it, and these are words that I distrust because I’m easily seduced by them as concepts. I have to be harder on myself when it comes to analysing the conceptual and contextual ‘whys’ around the work I’m drawn to.

So, beyond the appealing aesthetic nature of pattern, geometry and form, how is the work speaking to me? Reading about Motoi’s practice I can see parallels with my practice and his interest in the ritual trance state he enters when creating his salt labyrinth works. There is a sense that he passes into something of an otherworldly state where nothing exists but the creation of the work. I imagine the experience of time and duration all but disappearing as the experience of the process takes over. It reminds me of the mandalas created by buddhist monks as a moving meditation, a ritual of creation and destruction where the intricate works are painstakingly constructed them swept away.

There is also the symbolic nature of the material; salt plays a big part in Japanese Shinto ritual with blessing, cleansing and purifying – Motoi talks about the salt creating connections to his sister who he lost to illness and how the material relates to memory for him. Salt transcends cultural symbolism by having worldwide connotations around purity, the sea, sanctity, cleansing, protection which allows non-Japanese viewers easy access to the work. I feel that his work is deeply personal and emotional, while at the same time being very relatable and accessible to viewers. To me, that is very successful.

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156-salt-Motoi-Yamamoto-yatzer

 

‘The Hive’ by Wolfgang Buttress and Tristan Simmonds in Kew Gardens

Continued interest by artist and designers in the wonders of bees; Wolfgang Buttress and Tristan Simmonds create a giant hive installation that responds to the activities of Kew Garden’s resident bees. LED lighting within the structure responds to the hum within the nearby hives giving visitors insight into the activities and moods of the gardens residents.

http://www.thisiscolossal.com/tags/installation/

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Wolfgang Buttress and Tristan Simones (2015) The Hive
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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 )

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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.

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