‘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!

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Accessing the Otherwordly

One of the issues within my practice that I am still working through is the problem of exclusionary subject matter. This is something I researched through looking at Kara Walker’s treatment in her work and I have continued to research in artists working with mystical or occult ideas.

Australia artist Mikala Dwyer also deals with this issue of the viewer as outsider in her work. Because of the esoteric strangeness of the work, there is the possibility of the viewer feeling that taking the time to engage is too difficult, and that maybe some sort of complex trick is being played on them, the nature of which is only privy to a select cabal of initiates. What is actually going on? Should we be scared? It this really something other than what it seems?

“Concealment of one sort or another is clearly a feature of the artist’s work. It is tempting to reject the quality of strangeness outright – on the one hand because interpretation proves to be too difficult and time consuming, and on the other because it is a reminder of our own relative ignorance, coming to the gatherings, as we do, as outsiders.” (Hansford, P.  Enigma Machines p48)
Clemens, J. Colless, E. Hansford, P. Long, D. Mathews, H. Michael, L. Ross, T. Campbell, K (2013) Mikala Dwyer: Goldene Bend’er. Southbank, Australia: Australian Centre for Contemporary Art.

dwyer_2008_detail11-mDwyer, M. Swamp Geometry (2008) various materials, Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne, Australia

Dwyer uses formal elements to allow the viewer not just access to the work, but the opportunity to be part of it. In his talk “Frontier Spirits: Ghosts, Magic, and Colonial Half-Truths” (2013). Cranbrook Academy of Art, [Video], Anthony Byrt describes the use of circular spaces as choreographic parameters which restrain the work and create an area of invocation in which the work can be experienced. This appears to give the viewers access and permission to step inside a liminal space which might otherwise make them uncomfortable. Dwyer acts as a guide into the otherworld and leads the uninitiated across the borders; thanks to the artist the spectator can see.

“In Dwyer’s work, both artist and spectator find a way to connect through a second skin in the artist layer itself.” (Hansford, P.  Enigma Machines p48)

Dane Mitchell also deals with viewer suspicion in his work, “namely the ever present suspicion that a work of art is concealing something, that it’s not all there, indeed that some crucial, occult element can only be gleaned by a very small coterie of superhuman initiates. Either that, or it is what the French bluntly call ‘fouteage de gueule’ (roughly translatable as a spit in the face).” (Sharp, C.  Trajectories of Immateriality p61)
Mitchell, D. (2012) Radiant Matter I/II/III. Berliner Kunstlerprogramm DAAD and Govett-Brewster Art Gallery (New Plymouth), Dunedin Public Art Gallery (Dunedin), Artspace (Auckland). New Zealand

dane-mitchell_dpag3Mitchell, D. Gateway to the Etheric Realm (2011) Powder-coated steel, spell, spell materials. 6000 x 6000 x 3250mm approx. Radiant Matter II, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Dunedin, New Zealand.

Much the same as Dwyer, Mitchell acts as an artist on the threshold of worlds, using boundaries as parameters to contain liminal spaces. In his work “Gateway to the Etheric Realm” (2011) Mitchell uses a delineated space to contain a conjured spell. It is only the borders of the space that enable the viewer to know that the spell exists in this world at all. His use of vitrines, blown glass and mirrored boxes create boundaries within which his otherworlds exist and can be accessed.

It’s noteworthy how much this feeling of being excluded can irritate the viewer rather than making them curious. Perhaps it’s an extension of the perceived inaccessibility of the art world itself where only the academic, the members of an elite art world can fully understand the work!