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.
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!
“In the ash that lies at the bottom of the grave, there lies the king’s diadem…”
– Livre de Arthéphius, Bibliothéque des Philosophes Chimiques, Paris, 1741
- Nigredo – the earthly aspect, the shadow, the dark night of the soul, corruption, charring, putrefaction. To be reborn the spirit must die and decay, then rise again in a new form.
- The raven symbolises the Nigredo process; death, night, putrefaction. The dove is the spirit which reunites with the body once the long night has passed. Likewise the scarab, the dungroller, moves from the night of Nigredo into the light of the sun.
- Relating to Saturn who would eat his children, but was tricked by Jupiter into eating a stone instead. The stone Saturn vomits up becomes an alchemical catalyst.
- The Philosophical (Orphic) Egg is the the Prima Materia destroyed in the putrefaction of Nigredo.
- Caput Mortum: Dead Head – hematite iron oxide, a deep purple pigment produced by the Nigredo process and used for painting the robes of religious figures.
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!
I’ve been having a couple of those months where I feel so stuck when it comes to making work. It’s a normal part of the process, but it’s hard not to get angry and frustrated with yourself. I have set up a studio space at home – it’s small but it will allow me to get ideas out and I can shoot them later with a better set-up.
In lieu of art-making I’ve been researching and writing, mainly around my Great Grandfather and the book I am putting together about him. In June I gave a 1 hour lecture in Wellington – only to a small room of people – but it went down well and got a lot of interest. Tonight I am talking again at the Circuit critical forum and I’m going to give a cut-down version with two points that I want to use to generate discussion in the group. The first one is around the ownership of sacred spaces and I will use his protesting of access to Stonehenge and clashes with government and landowners as my jump-off point. The second is around the assuming of personas to carry a message or enact an expression of will. My Great Grandfather had quite a number of characters he assumed and several of them could be considered cultural appropriation/Orientalism. While I don’t want to go so far into that aspect, I’m sure it will come up and is an interesting subject to address. What I would very much like to discuss is how artists utilise personas within creation of their work, both in public and private.
In a couple of weeks I’m flying down to Wellington again for the opening weekend of the ‘Occulture’ exhibition. This is very exciting to me and not something I expected to see here in NZ (although the ‘Mystic Truths’ show at AAG in 2007 does set some precedent). I very much look forward to seeing some of this work for the first time and some of it for a repeat viewing!
Over the last few years I have been gathering together information about my great grandfather with the help of other interested in parties in the UK and the US. It’s starting to come together into something that might make an interesting book, but I’ve got some holes in the story that still need filling.
While working on it I’ve been trying to link it into my art practice because there are many elements within the story that are useful for creating a more anchored approach. I discovered while studying that there was a desire by many viewers (who were familiar with my work, being faculty, peers etc) to know *why* I was interested in the topics I was exploring. Saying “because they interest me” didn’t appear to fulfil the need for a more solid base of understanding and legitimacy. When I brought up my family history it seemed to create an instant anchor for the viewers that allowed them to investigate the work rather than spending time trying to ascertain my motivations.
Looking at the life of my Great Grandfather George Watson MacGregor-Reid (who I will from here refer to as GWMR) I have found access points into my own practice and into my own personality. There are some interesting aspects of GWMR’s interactions with the worldly and the ‘otherworldly’ that strike a chord.
In many ways his era was the beginning of a huge upheaval in western thinking in regards to british relationships with other humans and to the natural world. There was a greater understanding of human rights and liberties, the rise of archeology and of interest in non-european cultures (although at this stage it also went hand-in-hand with cultural theft and appropriation), the ideas that workers have the right to fair working conditions and pay, the beginnings of gradual decay of the class system and the rise of the middle class, interest in health, medical science, diet, exercise as well as a revival of interest in the ‘occult’ or mystic sciences.
The artistic disciplines also saw a boom time with Art Nouveau and Symbolism seeing out the Victorian Era and the birth of Modernism heralding the new century. These people, the ones at the forefront of this change of attitude and age of exploration in Britain, were GWMR’s friends and peers.
I’ve been spending a lot of time looking at the ritual costume and magical artefacts of different cultures. I really love these images but I’m also aware that I need to be careful of cultural appropriation issues. This issues follow me around constantly as other cultures have such rich histories in these areas and I’m easily seduced by them. But they aren’t ‘mine’ and I need to take inspiration from the fact that many of these ritual practices are a universal means to interact with the otherworldly, but avoid aping them or stealing from them.
GWMR as ‘The Dastur’ – one of his many spiritual altar-egos, taking on the mantle of a Zoroastrian high priest (Stonehenge approx. 1912)
GWMR lived in a time when cultural appropriation wasn’t recognised as problematic in any sense, and this, of course, is tied in with my british ancestors only starting to recognise the humanity of other cultures. GWMR had a great passion for quashing human rights abuses wherever he saw them. He was fascinated by the Senussi Sufis in North Africa and their struggles against the French colonial expansion into their land. (He even claimed to have fought along side them, although I have yet to verify this story.) He was also a committed Tibetan Buddhist and maintained that he had lived with monks in Tibet (Another, so far, unverifiable tale) where he adopted the name ‘Ayu Subhadra’ for his spiritual writings.
Page from “The Path That Is Light” kindly copied from the library of Adam Stout
He adopted personas that fit with the ideas he wanted to convey, and wore costume that allowed him to exist and impress as these magical characters. To me this reflects the use of ritual costume to communicate with the other world and to cross thresholds or barriers.
• Ritual dress can be used to accentuate certain parts of the body, certain characteristics or traits.
• It can be used to assume the powers of another being or archetype.
• The wearer becomes a moving, breathing assemblage of symbols or visual language. The body and the wearer become the magical language.
To go with this ritual dress are the ritual objects imbued with the power to allow the practitioner communication with the other world. These objects might offer a symbolic language, they might off protection, the might hold within then the secrets to crossing the threshold. Often the objects might be incorporated into the dress; hidden in pockets or sewn into the very fabric of the costume. The objects might be carried or moved by the practitioner, placed on an altar, moved across a map or diagram.
I have a map/diagram of ideas that I created at the residency in Finland that I am revisiting. The concepts I wrote down in January closely mirror the subjects I am now working through in regards to GWMR and my large collection of found images from the last few months.
I need to mull this over some more tonight and will continue tomorrow.
END PART 1.
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.
“The first impression of the savage about the universe is of a great mysterious jumble of things which come upon him without rime or reason, usually to smite him down.
Long later, man developed the idea of connecting phenomena, at least a few at a time. Centuries elapse; he begins to perceive law, at first operating only in a very few matters.
More centuries; some bold thinker invents a single cause for all these diverse effects, and calls it God. This hypothesis leads to interminable disputes about the nature of God; in fact, they have never been settled. The problem of the origin of evil, alone, has quite baffled theology.
Science advances; we now find that all things are subject to law. There is no need of any mysterious creator, in the old sense; we look for causes in the same order of nature as the effects they produce. We no lounger propitiate ghosts to keep our fires alight. Now, at last, I and a few others are asking whether the whole universe be not illusion, in exactly the same way as a true surface is an illusion.
Perhaps the universe is a four-dimensional object, or collection of objects, quite sane, and simple, and intelligible, manifesting itself in diversity, regular or irregular, just as the cone did to the water…
….It’s perfectly simple. I, the fourth-dimensional reality, am going about my business in a perfectly legitimate way. I find myself pushing through to my surface, or let us say, I become conscious of my surface, the material universe, much as the cone did as it went through the water. I make my appearance with a yell. I grow. I die. There are the same phenomena of change which we all perceive around us. My three-dimensional mind thinks all this ‘real,’ a history; where at most it is a geography, a partial set of infinite aspects…”
Crowley, A. (1917) Moonchild, York beach: USA, Samuel Weiser, Reprint 1991, P61