Language of the Birds: Occult and Art

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 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.

IMG_9911Carol Bove “Legal Status of the Moon,” 2015 (Photo: Nicole Disser)

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

Disser, N. (2016) A Little Bird Told Me: Aleister Crowley and Genesis P-Orridge in Occult Art Show. Sourced from

Experiencing the unknown

Since embarking upon an exploration of participatory performance art my research and thinking has been centred around the new concerns this medium throws up for me. A large part of that has been around audience engagement and participation, how levels of consent and safety affect the appreciation of the work and how this can be achieved for your audience without compromising the work.

Invariably there is work in the contemporary artworld that shocks, disgusts and creates discomfort in the viewer. When responding to an image or an object, the viewer has distance and a level of detatchment from the artwork, so if the discomfort is too great the viewer can turn away. How does this function within an immersive environment? Even when an artist may not intend discomfort, an audience member may still experience it and the artist needs to take this into consideration.

Olafur Eliasson’s “Your Blind Passage” (2010) requires the audience take a bold step into the unknown by entering a passage with no prior knowledge of it’s interior. Once inside, the viewer has to rely on senses other that sight to navigate as the density of smoke and coloured lights makes it impossible to see more than a short distance. In the gallery space the audience member has the option to enter or not enter the work depending on their level of comfort and they do not have to enter the space alone. Once inside the work the viewer could choose to leave if the experience was unpleasant for them. This allows audience members to give themselves over to full engagement with and experience of the work without feeling uneasy about their place in the environment.



Olafur Eliasson ‘Your Blind Passage’ (2010)

Other works offer the option for engagement or observation. “Imponderabilia” (1977) Marina Abramovic and Ulay, creates a doorway from two naked bodies facing each other. If an audience member squeezes through the gap they must choose which body to face. This piece gives the audience the option of either participating in the work or watching others participate in the work. The experience will be different depending on which option the viewer chooses, but the ability to make that choice is given and that allows the viewer to feel comfortable in their decision.



Marina Abramovic and Ulay ‘Imponderabilia’ (1977)

A work such as Tino Sehgal’s “This Progress” (2010) requires a far more active participation from the audience. Rather than being explorers (Your Blind Passage) or having a brief but potentially intense interaction with the work (Imponderabilia) ‘This Progress’ envelops the audience fully into the work for an extentended performance. Although the experience of passing up the spiral gallery of the Guggenheim talking with performers doesn’t sound confrontational or discomforting, there is still the aspect of venturing into the unknown that has to be overcome by the audience. Their trepidation would certainly be allayed by the fact that the travellers can journey through the work in small groups, they can also see ahead of them and behind them, there are also no uncomfortable situations to be faced except for questions around the nature of progress.



Tino Sehgal ‘This Progress’ (2010)

Apart from discomfort related fear of the unknown the other aspect of my work I need to contend with once again is the issues around dealing with exclusionary subject matter. I went back to looking at Kara Walker and the way she addresses racism in the Antebellum South. Her large installations are quite enveloping so a viewer could be well within the artwork before noticing that the charming silhouettes dancing around the walls are not so charming after all. There are bound to be viewers who are disturbed and upset by the scenes, but the nature of the work means that they have enough distance from the images that they may just move away and leave the installation.



Kara Walker ‘Darkytown Rebellion’ (2001)

When working with the symbolic language of ritual one has to be very careful to strip away any excess symbolism that could have a negative effect on the work and only keep that which is truly useful. I’ve been creating some costumes for a performative piece and have changed them and rethought them several times to make sure that they retained the associations with ritual and mysticism while avoiding any problematic or unnessary connotations. I examined Mikala Dwyer’s use of ritual costuming in her work ‘ Goldene Bend’er’ (2013). She uses hooded robes which immediately evoke ritual and the occult, she even has some pointy hoods which can be a very difficult and potentially offensive choice. The way she changes the robes and creates her own ritual garb is to use unexpected materials such as gold lame, lurex and covering her mishapen hoods in strange material and textures. This way she effectively maintains the associations she wants to keep and removes those she does not. This has been a very valuable observation for me and something I need to keep pushing in my own work. Dwyer maintains a distance between audience and ritual performance, they are observers not participants so they maintain a level of detachment.



Mikala Dwyer ‘Goldene Bend’er’ (2013). Ritual garb hanging on wall

Each of these artists have strong, well known practices. This gives them a bit of freedom to push the boundaries because viewers have some preconceptions around what to expect; they know that a Kara Walker work is going to contain some racially provocative images, that an Abramovic piece is likely to be confronting and that Tino Sehgal will probably have some audience participation. As these works are on display in public spaces the options for viewers to choose to engage with the work are totally open. For my work, in an educational setting, where I benefit from feedback from my peers, I need to make sure that the work is accessible and viewers are comfortable in engaging with it without taking away from the experience of the performance.

Work from September 2014

I realised that I hadn’t posted progress photos of my work from September last year and January this year.

Looking back on this work is curious… it’s interesting and it seems like a step towards what I’m trying to create, but just and experiment with materials and ideas. I went from the very clinical, minimalist object work in July to using much more natural materials and attempting a more active work. I say ‘attempting’ because it was an attempt and an experiment rather than a success.

I found a great deal of enjoyment working with wax, wood and resin. I also found that scent and some sort of sensual experience is an important part of the work I want to create.

Artist’s Statement:


“Examining the role of boundaries and thresholds in establishing areas of safety and discomfort.
Creating ritual ‘happenings’ that instigate a transformation and leave behind a residue or resolution.
I have started to push into areas I discovered in both semester one and two; working through viewers reactions to exclusionary subject matter.
When an event happens inside a performative space how does that affect the viewer? What if it breaks out of that space? What if the viewer has to step inside a delineated boundary? Can a threshold be captured inside a boundary and diffused or made ‘safe’?”

Holy Smoke: An Adoration of Our Star (2014)
(pine, copper, beeswax, glass, obsidian, charcoal, benzoin resin, kauri gum, frankincense, Abramelin resin, voice.) 

Fools Gold (2014)
(pine, beeswax, salt, pyrite, myrrh resin)

This work set me up to look at trace and residue of rituals or other performative happenings. It got me thinking about performance as a viable practice for me and it pushed me to acknowledge that my work was too ‘poised’ and therefore lacked the legitimacy of a real happening, even when one had occurred.  It also made me think about the positioning of elements within a space and how the viewer experienced them. Does performance occur in the space? How is it documented? What does it leave? Could the happening be about to occur rather than have finished? Could it be occurring during viewing? It also got me thinking about using the elements of esoteric ritual in a less obvious way; e.g. beeswax can say what it needs to say without being a candle.






Holy Smoke: An Adoration of Our Star (2014)
(pine, copper, beeswax, glass, obsidian, charcoal, benzoin resin, kauri gum, frankincense, Abramelin resin, voice.) 

I constructed a natural pine platform/altar with an enclosing glass and copper box on top. Using the idea from John Dee’s Enochian system of using wax as an insulator I filled the base of the platform with beeswax and sat the feet on 4 beeswax disks to keep it from touching the ground. Charcoals were set on 4 pieces of obsidian and lit to burn 4 types of resinous gum. A ritual adoration for the sun was performed (necessity meant it had to be performed outside due to fire alarms which meant the ritual was not in the gallery space and also a lot of the smell was lost). The ritual was then enclosed in the box where the the smoke pooled and finally died leaving only melted wax, charred carbon and a lingering scent.


The altar during the ritual adoration.


A test of the work at home showing the smoke-filled case.


Fools Gold (2014)
(pine, beeswax, salt, pyrite, myrrh resin)

This work was a broken ring of salt and basalt with a ‘popped’ box shooting resin crystals outside the confines of the circle. I used the same materials for this work as for the previous one, but although I really enjoy the objects  and the overall idea, I think this work mostly failed. It was a good test for me to experience what would happen if I made a work like this and let me see how much further it needed to be pushed.






Thoughts about works by Tracey Tawhiao and Tiffany Singh at Te Uru

Justine and I visited Te Uru gallery last weekend to have a look at the current exhibitions. There were 2 that were of particular interest to me due to their intersection with, differences and similarities to my own work.

Tracey Tawhiao’s work is part of a group show called  IOIOIOIOIOIO that examines the hidden order unifying our Universe. She examines the language of sacred geometry,the names of the Māori Creator IO and the simple but unifying language of binary code. In her work she is exploring the same sort of esoteric language that I enjoy and is taking both a universal and local approach by combining both western mysticism (in the form of ideas such as the Metatron Cube and the Tree of Life) with her ancestral understanding through mātauranga Māori. I related to this work because of her interest in sacred geometry and western mysticism and I enjoyed the relationship between the languages of the different traditions that resulted in a very universal work.



Tracey Tawhiao (Ngai te Rangi, Whakatohea, Tuwharetoa), IOEAU (God and I), 2014, acrylic paint on paper, Te Uru Gallery [there is a material not listed in the artist’s statement which is the acrylic disks overlaying the painted words]

Tiffany Singh was also exhibiting at Te Uru with an exhibition called “Life is But a Vapour” that concerns itself with the grieving process and art as a process to come to terms with grief, death and dying. Over a three month period members of the public were invited to visit Singh’s studio and create memorial string which were incorporated into the work. The work displayed at Te Uru was a combination of this piece and several other in collaboration with other artists. The wall itself was a jumble of objects and symbols, the memorial strings combined with many other items of cultural significance. It felt overwhelming and despite being a participatory artwork I felt it did not invite the viewer to participate. Many of the objects incorporated into the wall were already loaded with heavy religious and cultural meaning so instead of being an inclusive collaboration from many different people it seemed more like a clash of cultures with the viewer being left wondering whether the artist could actually speak for and to all of these peoples who sign their scared items. It felt like a rather cavalier display of symbolic items that the artist might not fully comprehend, rather than a genuine and thoughtful enquiry.


Tiffany Singh, I Have Died Many Times But Your Breathe Makes Me Alive Again, Ongoing collaborative work, Te Uru Gallery 2015

Tiffany Singh had another piece in the gallery that was concerned with a similar idea but was very different in the way it approached the subject matter. “Earth Air Fire Water Ash” is a suspended glass ash receptacle holding charred remains and suspended above a shallow bowl. There is none of the blatant religious and cultural symbolism in this work, but the materials and their display make it very clear what the viewer can explore in the work. It has a quiet poignancy that speaks to me of grief and death far more than the cluttered wall. The work is open ended, the elemental nature of the materials is understandable to all, it invites the viewer to experience it and it doesn’t block the reading through complex, and potentially exclusionary, symbolism. This was very useful for me to observe because its something I have been grappling with in my own practice.


Tiffany Singh, Earth Air Fire Water Ash, 2014, Glass and ash, collaboration with Isaac Katzoff Monmouth Glass studio, Te Uru Gallery

These two exhibitions gave me a clarity about my own practice that I had understood to some extent before, but now have SEEN in the work of others. I can now understand exactly why work like this can be exclusionary and ways to approach subjects to make the art interesting for a wider range of viewers; to make the work better. I am going to hold these images and my realisations about them in my mind when creating my own work so that I move one way and not the other.

Otherworld Thresholds in Popular Media: True Detective





True-detective-1x02-7Rust sees The Sign in the flight of birds. The viewer is never sure whether he is experiencing hallucinations or seeing beyond the borders to the world behind our own.

I’ve been trying to think about how to frame this thinking because it’s a bit outside the box but I thinks really relevant to the themes and ideas I’ve been exploring. It’s interesting to me how the layers of meaning and the handling of otherworldly thresholds is dealt with in True Detective. Being a ‘mainstream’ TV series it is working with some fairly dark and unusual subject matter that can be experienced on several different layers. Despite the popularity of ‘the supernatural’ in mainstream media – numerous vampires, zombies etc – these monsters can be approached by the viewer in relative safety because they have become so familiar and have a web of pop culture tropes around them that ‘de-fangs’ (pun!) them to some extent. Viewers are unlikely to feel excluded by the characters and stories because they are so cliched.

True Detective functions on another level with themes that are less familiar, more transgressive and potentially more exclusionary. On the one hand it is a pulp noir detective story dealing with strange ritual occurrences in the Deep South, on the other it is a look into the fragile mind of a man crossing the threshold between this reality and another. The character of Rust sees between the worlds and is something of a watcher on the threshold – never quite in one reality, never in the other, but allowing access to the Otherworldly for both his partner Hart and for the viewer. His role is not that of the trickster or magician, as he is an unwilling participant and appears to be damaged and traumatised by his experiences rather than in control of the situation, manipulating the outcomes as the trickster figure would be.

The storyline is saturated with references to early supernatural ‘weird tales’, in particular the 1895 short story collection The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers. Because I  had read these stories I was immediately aware of the references to ‘Carcosa’, ‘The King’ and ‘The Yellow Sign’. This gave me early insight into the nature of the occurrences in the series and acted as a code available only to initiates allowing access to information and understanding that those who had not read this formally obscure set of stories would not have possessed. The fact that most viewers would not have read these stories was actually irrelevant and would not have excluded them from enjoyment of the show or made them walk away feeling they were being left out or made fun of at the expense of the ‘initiated’. Rust acts as the ‘guide’ and conduit of this otherworldly knowledge and his partner Hart takes the position of the viewer with little to no understand on the meaning behind the symbols, words and happenings that leave clues to the nature of the other world lurking just beyond the borders of our own.


A disturbing ritual murder; the naked body of the dead woman is crowned with antlers, her skin is daubed with The Sign and constructed ritual artefacts of unknown significance surround her. The scene dwells uncomfortably on the threshold of our reality.


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!


Working with exclusionary subject matter

When working with subject matter that could be considered exclusionary to a wider audience there is a big question around how to include the viewer in the work rather than causing them to feel alienated so that they become disinterested and don’t bother to engage. Many artists might have subject matter within their work which is personal and not necessarily understood by the viewer, but the work itself is inclusive enough and the subject matter abstract enough, that the viewer still feels comfortable questioning the work rather than feeling excluded.

Kara Walker is an artist who deals with potentially exclusionary subject matter in a very successful manner. Her common narrative is a whimsical yet brutal portrayal of slavery in the Southern USA. As an African American woman she is in a particular position that allows her to work with this subject matter in a very powerful way. The narratives are direct rather than oblique, the themes are blatant, there is no question what is being portrayed. For anyone other than an African American, this experience could be not only somewhat alienating, due to lack of experiential understanding, but could also be deeply uncomfortable, due to potential feelings of complicity in the fate of the slaves being depicted.


Kara Walker. (1997) Slavery! Slavery! (section). Brooklyn Museum. Cut paper silhouettes.

Kara Walker has created an almost fairytale quality to the narratives using strangely postured figures cut from paper and arranged in staged scenes. She has claimed the use of the Victorian silhouette portrait, so popular with the white upperclass, and used it to tell her stories of conflicted interactions between the black and white populous of the antebellum south. The silhouettes have a playful quality that makes the viewer initially feel at ease, until the scenes are observed more closely and the brutality of some of the actions is made clear. In her 2000 work Insurrection! she also uses projections which create a life-size environment for both her paper figures and the viewer. The projectors are set in such a way that the viewer will walk in front to view the work and their silhouette is captured and added to those on the wall, transporting them into the narrative as their own shadowy caricature.


Kara Walker. (2000) Insurrection! (section). Guggenheim. Cut paper silhouettes and projections.

Walker’s work is provocative in it’s use of racial stereotypes, antebellum ‘minstrel’ characters and perverted fairytale capering. But it’s this twisted humour that allows viewers to become involved in and question the work rather than feeling it is ‘not for them’. Addressing the issue of slavery in such a gregarious way has the potential to be very controversial and alienating to large sections of the public. But Kara Walker’s approach not only invites the viewer into the work, it also makes the viewer become a part of the work and gives them the opportunity to engage with her subject matter and her visual language.

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