Part 1 – The alter-egos of Ayu Subhadra

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.

Microsoft Word - MH LECTURE 5GWMR 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.

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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.

 

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Arteles Residency Outcomes

My stay at Arteles has been very rewarding; I have created many new ideas, the beginnings of new works and have made some fantastic friends from around the world. Among my new artist friends is a woman from the US, Ellery Royston, who works with sound. We have decided to collaborate on immersive sound and video installation, which is an exciting prospect.

Time moves slowly and silently out in the countryside in the middle of the Finnish winter. Long nights, short days and the sun low on the horizon create an environment very different to the one back home in NZ. I decided to explore time and duration in the context of a silent ordeal. I would invite my fellow artist’s to participate by enduring the slow melt of ice against their skin and to experience the thoughts and feelings this awakens.

I was informed by the old Finnish story of the Sielulintu, or soul bird, who visits the human body at birth and death. I gave the participants the chance to experience the cold of the bird melting into their skin on an area of their choice; perhaps where they felt they might experience the passage of their soul. The pain of the bird against their skin stretches time while it is being endured, but is a fleeting moment that quickly fades.

I discovered that the constraints of shooting the videos at Arteles actually created some unexpectedly interesting results. For example, I found it necessary to use natural light which created variations as the clouds shifted and the light changed. This gave an added dimension to the durational experience that I would not have discovered if I had been shooting in a studio with artificial light.

My intention is to continue working with the project to create a multi-channel video installation with accompanying soundtrack which, hopefully, I can show here in New Zealand.

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Ice bird melt on Ellery’s neck
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Ice bird melt on Marissa’s stomach
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Cast ice quartz crystal melting onto a mirror

Work in progress Jan 17

I’ve been working to create a durational video using small stylised bird objects that are informed by my research into Finnish bird mythologies. I have 2 benches set up in my studio; one for wax-working and the other for drawing and latex mould-making. I have a rather ad-hoc jewellers peg attached to the bench which is a bit wobbly but does the job! The below pictures show some of the process for making bird-shaped moulds for later casting.

Art Ache

I’ve been creating some new images and video especially for a show called Art Ache that is happening this Thursday. They are in some respect companion pieces to Albedo, but a little different. The Art Ache show aims to allow people who are interested in contemporary art to be able to afford pieces they enjoy. These include a series of prints, one from each artist, that are part of an ongoing series
Art Ache event page
Art Ache website
Idealog article

Here is a my kitty helping with the shoot in my make-shift home studio. I can’t create large video pieces here, but smaller photoshoots are surprisingly effective.

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Earlier this year I created a diagram to examine the performative from the point of view of the artist. I had the challenge of creating a second diagram from the perspective of the viewer/participant. I might need to do a bit more work on this so any feedback is welcome! Here is where I have got to so far; the top diagram is my original, the bottom diagram is my new viewer’s perspective.

Performance Diagram

Wolfgang Laib

A friend of mine saw the work I’ve been doing with beeswax, honey and, most recently, bee pollen and suggested I take a look at Wolfgang Laib.
“Informed by the purity and simplicity of Eastern philosophies, he employs natural materials, most notably milk, pollen, beeswax, rice and marble. His works are more complex than being just about nature and the natural world. They involve ritual, repetition, process, and a demand for contemplation.”

I can’t believe I hadn’t seen his work before! His exploration of the ephemeral and eternal through a minimalist approach is very appealing to me. His choice of materials obviously resonates, but also exploration of duration of time, ritual, repetition and symbolism of material. His pollen works, wax room works and milkstones are of particular interest to me. His use of white, yellow, gold, black reflects the colour palettes and materials I have been using, especially in my sculptural pieces, but it has reached a place that I obviously never did. My works in progress videos at present have a set that uses the very same colour palette and similar symbolic materials, drawing on work I created earlier this year and last year. Probably for the best that I didn’t see this body of work earlier, because I might have been either too influenced by it, or scared away from working with the materials I had chosen for fear that I wouldn’t be able to avoid steering too close to Laib. I feel that if I wasn’t working the way I am now, that this would be the kind of direction I might be moving in. It can be so difficult deciding what direction is right for the work, especially when there are potential directions that are formally very different but could still produce the outcome the work requires. I’ve identified my work as NOT minimalist and NOT formalist, but I still have a big place in my heart for that way of working, so who knows?

 

100 Images

Caroline gave me a very useful exercise to do which involves taking 100 images and sorting them. I had several folders of images that I’d been collecting from over the course of the last year and a half – some of them are images of contemporary art but a lot of them are just images I liked and felt drawn to.

I did a first sort where I used all of the images and found places for them.
Then I did a second and third sort where I looked for specific aspects relating to my practice and content for my oral presentation. I added in a few of my own works so I could find their place in the image groupings.

FIRST SORT

IMG_1810ARTEFACT


IMG_1808ENVIRONMENTAL

IMG_1806EXPERIENTIAL

IMG_1809DIAGRAMATIC

IMG_1812UNNERVING / OTHERWORDLY

IMG_1813COSTUME AND RITUAL

IMG_1811ANCESTRY

IMG_1807ICONOGRAPHY

SECOND SORT

IMG_1815PERFORMANCE

IMG_1816PERFORMATIVE

IMG_1817BOTH PERFORMANCE AND PERFORMATIVE (I actually wondered whether the Ren Ri hive work should be in this group because the bees themselves are actually performing while the viewer observes the work)

THIRD SORT

IMG_1818PERFORMANCE TO CAMERA

IMG_1819OBEJCT CONVERSATIONS, BOTH HETEROGENEOUS AND HOMOGENEOUS

I’m going to keep these images, add to them and continue my sorting process to distill further ideas. I find the sorting and thinking to be really useful and I wonder if I’ll come back and move some of the images out of the groups I’ve placed them in? There are a number of images that appear over and over in my sorts and I feel those ones are important to my practice.

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.

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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.

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The altar during the ritual adoration.

smokebox

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

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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.

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The Artist is Present – Marina Ambramovic

“When you perform it is a knife and your blood, when you act it is a fake knife and ketchup.”

Tanya and Yolanda suggested I take a look at some women performance artists and Marina Abramovic immediately sprung to mind. I was aware of her work at MoMA “The Artist is Present” but I hadn’t watched the documentary or really delved into her work in general. I was taken by surprise by how impressed and involved I became in the piece. I hadn’t thought of myself as being someone who was interested in performance art, but it’s always a mistake to make these assumptions about yourself or pigeonhole your interests and influences in that way!

Performance art is often thought of, and parodied, as the most pretentious and pointless of artistic practices. I always laugh every time I watch British comedy ‘Spaced’ when the tortured abstract expressionist Brian talks about his performative work done with artistic collaborator Vulva (whose look was inspired by Leigh Bowery). “We did valuable work” he says while a montage of them in absurd scenes is shown. I found ‘The Artist is Present’ to be stripped bare of any pretence.

Abramovic impressed me with her strength, resiliance and uncompromising honesty. I think it’s rare to see someone so fully committed to what they do – how many of us could handle 3 months of unmoving, seated eye contact with a revolving cast of strangers? The artist wasn’t just present in a physical sense, she was fully present in all senses and fully engaged with those who came to sit with her. You could see the power of the piece in the reactions of the sitters; tears, joy, confusion, elation. Abramovic talked about herself as being a mirror to every sitter where they were able to fully see themselves, so their reactions were an overflowing of those feelings coming to the surface.

The quote at the top of this blog entry is something which was said during the documentary that rang very true with me. There is a gulf between ‘performing’ and ‘acting’ that is not always recognised; performing strips away the masks, where acting creates them. I performed for years as a dancer and this is something I have discovered myself. The pieces I did that were the most successful and caused the biggest reactions from the audience (usually emotional reactions like tears) were those where I might have been dressed as a character, but I was performing an aspect of myself, not acting a character. I would need to prepare for the performance beforehand and it would be as if a much more intense aspect of myself came forward to connect with the audience. In that sense I understood a great deal of what Abramovic was doing but on a lesser level, like I had just scratched the surface of what was possible. I also used a lot of theatrics and costuming to influence the viewer, which is something I have witnessed in the work of both Abramovic (her later work mores than her earlier work with Ulay) and Matthew Barney. This has opened up a new avenue of potential practice for me that I had mulled over previously but not delved into. I didn’t have a proper outlet, venue or audience for what I wanted to create so I had to shoehorn it into the avenues that were available meaning that I couldn’t take the performance to the place I wanted it to go. Watching Abramovic has given me some insight into what could be possible.

Abramovic, M. The Artist is Present (2012) Akers, M. Dupre, J. (Directors)