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
Blood orange 1/28
Long Pepper 2/28
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!
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)
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″>"UR Musig" documentary about Swiss Folk Music Traditions. "Wilde Chlausen" from Urnäsch in Appenzeller Land.</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/marymacgregorreid”>Mary MacGregor-Reid</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>
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.
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
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.
In 1966 The British Museum acquired an object of strange and convoluted provenance. It was a shiny black obsidian disc with a small looped handle that enabled it to be held. The object was said to be a scrying stone used by Elizabethan magician, and advisor to the Queen, John Dee. The black mirror was Aztec in origin and was said to allow Dee to view the spaces outside the material world.
As a scholar and a scientist, the performance of ritual experiments was considered a part of his job description. Because experience of the otherworldly encompassed both scientific and spiritual research, scientists of the time had a great deal of interest in the secrets of occult ritual: of alchemy, astronomy, sacred geometry and the hermetic arts of the ancient classical world.
Over time, especially in the West, this sort of experimentation has mostly been relegated to the realm of quackery. This doesn’t mean that our experience of these liminal spaces has disappeared – they still have the power to elicit both wonder and discomfort in even the most pragmatic observer.
I would say being an artist or a performer or a director is also being a magician, and very often you need to use every trick you have in your pocket to make the show stronger.
Within my own practice I have been exploring otherworldly spaces in the context of performance and the performative. I have experienced the role of the artist as both creator, director and performer – building a cosmology through the linking of objects and ideas, a cultivated web of interrelationships. My method of working has been flexible; spanning object, live performance and video, but always with a focus on the performative. Ritual as performance seemed an appropriate space to interact with the otherworldy, while also allowing the work to quite naturally manifest across a range of media.
This approach to creating work can be seen in artists like Matthew Barney, who creates complex cosmologies through linking, relating and reimagining concepts and mythologies. Barney’s work interacts with the otherworldly and the mythological through seemingly absurd ideas and flimsy connections, which link together to create new constellations of meaning. With each project Barney exhibits an array of works and accompanying pieces – film, live performance, objects, drawings, writing, photographs. Often the works themselves are huge installations, like his Cremaster 3: The Order (2002) work at the Guggenheim, where the whole spiral gallery became a stage for the ascension of the initiate.
In this section of Cremaster 3 we see his role as the Entered Apprentice interacting with tools, regalia and other performers. These objects are presented to the viewer not just as props within the live and recorded performance, but also as sculptural pieces in their own right. Barney utilises and sometimes even creates the objects within the performance. They then become available for the viewer to experience as sculptural performative objects, with the provenance of having been performed and the potential to be performed again, thus giving them an ongoing performative life.
The language between objects, action and idea builds upon itself and becomes more than the sum of it’s parts. The richness and complexity of Barney’s cosmologies allows them to take on a mythological position that lives and grows outside of their creator.
Because of his grandiose, esoteric and often confusing methods Barney attracts controversy and sometimes hostility from both critics and the viewing public. While on the one hand works that are too didactic can lack depth and interest, on the other, works that are too inscrutable can be equally frustrating. Taking and reorganizing historical and cultural symbols of importance calls into question his right to do so. Is he genuine or just being sarcastic? (Surga, 2015).
The creation of a cosmology as an expressive framework can be as confusing for the creator as it is for the audience, particularly when built from heterogeneous parts that clash, confuse and challenge. Does each symbolic item work within the framework? As I have been working with both object and performance I have often had to ask myself questions when adding to my cosmology; should I be second guessing myself when something seems to fit? How do I avoid being didactic? How can I include some recognisable symbolic markers that allow access to the work without being overly trite? But when both the artist and the viewer are open to the experience there is a richness that surprises, as it unfolds into a more cohesive map. These are constellations that can be built, dismantled, added to and rearranged within a mythological cosmology.
I see an interrelationship between the objects used in Barney’s performance and with the ceremonial ritual tools used in occult or shamanic practice. Ritual often utilises magical objects and theatrical performance as a way to access and experience otherworldy spaces. A gathering of specifically chosen tools or objects, a specially chosen environment, along with costume and adornment create an energy that enables the removal of the conscious, analytical mind from the ceremony.
Anthropologist Michael Taussig made a connection between magical objects and the human relationship to the otherworldly, postulating that objects created a necessary conduit between humanity and the non-human world.
(Taussig, 2014, p.26)
When objects are performed by the practitioner (or artist) they can influence the method of performance. Performative objects speak their own language and require the performer to pay heed to their requirements. Sometimes they might require a subtle movement, sometimes a grand gesture. The performer becomes apart of the object’s conversation with it’s environment and the viewer is drawn into the experience.
Australian artist Mikala Dwyer works across a wide range of media – utilising object, installation and performance to give life to her work. She creates her personal cosmologies within her collections of objects, costumes and performers. Dwyer’s Additions and Subtractions works are powerful examples of the magical potentiality created by collections of objects and their environment. The circles created in the works imbue an otherworldly space within their circumference – the objects are the performers and perform themselves without the need for human interaction. Adding or subtracting from the collection can change it’s very nature and the conversations between the objects create a constellation of linked meanings that form their own symbolic language.
For me, working has been an evolutionary process, with branches on my ‘cosmology tree’ growing and joining to create a scaffold of ideas and symbols. This has been a process of uncovering, or discovering, these interrelationships as much as it is of creating. Much like Barney and Dwyer with their constellations of ideas and objects, the objects and materials being performed in the videos I have made in 2015 were recurrent from previous sculptural object-based works. The meaning and materials of my objects have followed me into the more performance-based work and have started to create an extended constellation of ideas that is building upon itself as a cosmology.
Barney states about the creation of objects for performance:
I think it is a fascinating model for object making; this way of working, where things that have nothing to do with each other are placed together as if a form of alchemy could happen and a material transformation could take place. (Enwezor, 2014, p.271)
It was not always clear to me at the beginning of the process that I was referencing tropes of Western art history – it’s mythology and archetypical characters. However, as I expanded the work I could see patterns emerging and giving strength to the work. Through consciously developing the references to this familiar imagery I am creating anchors for the viewer to gain clues and waypoints within the work’s cosmology. By using gesture and stylistic conceits from western art history I create a pathway into the otherworldy space. Using a certain amount of posed and unusual gesture in my work I reflect the gestural tone of classical painting and sculpture. Often the gesture and pose in these works is expressive rather than natural, they are poses you could make but probably wouldn’t. The gestures create a theatricality within the work – an elegant exaggeration of reality which pushes it further into the otherworldly space.
The use of art historical anchoring is also apparent in work by video artist Bill Viola. In almost direct contrast to Matthew Barney, he has stated that he’s not interested in conveying narrative in his work. (Wroe, 2014) This has much in common with my own current practice. I’ve thought of the performative video work I have been creating as ‘the infinite moment’ – the endless experience of a time outside our own. Viola draws on the collective experience by using recognizable art historical and religious tropes. He draws on symbols and experiences familiar to us as human beings to devise a visual language that can be recognized by us all. I also appreciate his flagrant embrace of filmic techniques and technological methods, such as speed and duration, high definition filming, and engineering of special effects, to benefit his work.
Through exploration I have discovered that a recorded performance allows for a higher level of control than live performance. I have been able to more accurately set the tone of my current work through using video format. An otherworldy space is by it’s very nature ‘not of this world’ and therefore hard to convey in a live, real world setting. When experimenting with live, participatory work I discovered that the amount of the experience outside of my control made the successful engagement of an otherwordly space difficult and unconvincing. For my current practice recording performance and then working with the moving image is a better way to maintain control over the tone of the work and for me, as the artist, to mediate the relationship between artwork and viewer.
I have found value in the use of theatrical and filmic tropes and conceits within my own video work. I believe it is because the theatrical exists in a separate space to the ‘real world’, so it can be drawn upon to create references and anchors for the viewer. In Yang Fudong’s work The Coloured Sky: New
Women II (2014) he films within theatrical, constructed environments designed to mimic the exterior world but with no attempt to disguise their artifice; artificial light, artificial sound, artificial worlds that mimic our own. Costumes and characters that are unashamedly being ‘played’ and filmic techniques manipulating duration and speed, all work together to call into question notions of authenticity. The world he has created is a slightly warped mirror held up to our own.
Working with the performative – particularly recorded performance – I have discovered a method that allows for the sublime, the unnerving and the amusing to exist side by side in a contemporary art context. It’s a bit of a fine knife edge to walk because it’s very easy to go too far, be too earnest, and for things to get a bit silly. But isn’t that always the way with ritual and magic? As I have worked through my practice over the last two years I have seen it growing and the same symbolic language ebbing and flowing throughout the works. Sometimes it is a complete surprise when and element or an idea pops up again or I find a new symbol that unexpectedly relates to something I was investigating previously.
When dealing with realms of the otherwordly, sometimes, it is necessary to suspend doubt, even if not to admit belief, so that you can fully engage with the experience. Maybe sometimes art can be used like Dee’s black mirror, to reflect ourselves and our world, let us look through into the unknown and see what we might bring back.
Noé, G. & Barney, M. (2014). Matthew Barney and Gaspar Noé. Bomb Magazine 127. Retrieved from http://bombmagazine.org/
Surga, A. (2015). Matthew Barney: The Enigma of a Performative Practice. Retrieved from http://theculturetrip.com/
Taussig, M. (2014). Art and Magic and Real Magic.
In E. Franzidis, (Ed). Mikala Dwyer: Drawing Down The Moon. Brisbane, QLD, Australia: Institute of Modern Art.
Sagan, C. (1980). Cosmos. [Television series]
Arlington County, VA: PBS
Crowley, A. (1917). Moonchild. (1991 Reprint) York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser.
Enwezor, O. (2014). in Matthew Barney: River of Fundament.
Neri, L. (Ed.) New York, NY: Kira Rizzoli.
Wroe, N. (2014) Bill Viola: People thought I was an idiot and that video would never last.
Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/
There is an exhibition on at present in New York at 80WSE gallery called ‘Language of the Birds: Occult and Art curated by Pam Grossman http://www.languageofthebirds.org. I’ve constantly got my eye out for any exhibitions or articles involving the occult or esoteric in art and this one kept popping up in reviews that I was reading. This is a collection of work by both contemporary and historical artists spanning both practicing contemporary artists, outsider artists and ‘sometimes artists’ (e.g. people who are better know for other pursuits such as writing, music or generally being notorious). It’s interesting to see Carol Bove included and expected to see Jesse Bransford, Austin Osman Spare, Margery Cameron, Kenneth Anger, Barry William Hale, Rosaleen Norton and Aleister Crowley.
The title ‘Language of the Birds’ refers to a symbolic heavenly language revealed to the initiated. Thats a very poetic idea and it appeals to me deeply on a personal level but, much as I love esoteric symbology, I’m trying to move away from any sort of language that is available only to the initiated. I’ve discovered through my practice over the last 2 years that delving too far into occult symbology marginalises pretty much all of your audience! Unless you are creating work that is purely for the initiated, or those that have a particular interest in that area, it tends to create a barrier between the work and the viewer. This is something I’ve spent a lot of time struggling with and trying to overcome. I want the work I create to be available to the viewer and create a dialogue for them rather than excluding them.
I found some descriptions in the writing of two of these articles resonated with me in my continual contextualisation of my own practice:
“At its core, Grossman explains, the occult is about experiencing an immaterial realm, whether through a performed ritual, an altered state, a path of learning, or a work of art.”
Grossman, P. referenced in Frank, P. (2016). Emphasis my own.
“…“the occult” is not any one thing– it’s not an organized religion, there’s no definitive occult bible, nor is there a precise agreement on practice, folklore, or morality. Instead, it’s simply the unknown trying to be known.”
Disser, N. (2016) Emphasis my own.
Frank, P. (2016) Delving into the Shadowy World of Occult Art. Retrieved from www.huffingtonpost.com
Disser, N. (2016) A Little Bird Told Me: Aleister Crowley and Genesis P-Orridge in Occult Art Show. Sourced from http://www.bedfordandbowery.com
I’m very fortunate to have the kind of friends who let me dress them up and make them do weird stuff for the sake of my art practice.