‘Occulture: The Dark Arts’ at City Gallery Wellington

Last weekend I flew down to Wellington for the day so that I could attend the opening of ‘Occulture’ at the City Gallery. I have never been at such a busy opening day with so many packed-out floor talks! It was seriously heartening for me to see so much interest in work with this kind of content as it is so close to my own heart and art practice. The success of this show is testament to the work of both curators Aaron Lister of the City Gallery and Robert Buratti of Buratti Gallery, Perth.

Robert showed some of my video work at his gallery last year so it was lovely to finally meet him in person. He is an erudite and well-considered speaker who brought the works of Aleister Crowley and Rosaleen Norton to life for the crowd, while orientating them in both a magickal and art historical context. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to properly hear the floor talks by all the artists due to the rather large crowds, meaning I was sometimes only partially in the gallery space or around a corner!

I had a good spot during Dane Mitchell’s talk so I was able to take a lot of notes which I can share here. The process involved in the works is very interesting: There are 3 different works within the larger grouping he has chosen to show; ‘Non Verbal Gestures 1, 2, 3 & 4’ a set of hanging silk banners, ‘Celestial Fields’ a series of metal stanchions and a set of 7 glass globes and ‘Ceramic Fields‘ a series of 12 ceramic objects.

 

The four banners depict mudras that can be seen in use throughout the world, often with magic, religious or superstitious meaning. They hang above a maze of metal stanchions that Dane Mitchell describes as a constellation rendered in a rational museum language. It describes a universal system of knowing or belief – in this case the stars – that charts a wayfaring system that then corrals visitors within the gallery space. Dane talked about his desire to explore the scope of the invisible and how he sees himself as an anthropologist or tourist navigating these realms with the assistance of practitioners. In the case of ‘Celestial Fields’ his guide was a Korean shaman who, it turned out, had some quite complex requests. Dane told us how the shaman had decided at one point that he would no longer communicate with him verbally and would now only work with him on the astral plane. In response Dane sent him an empty water bag into which the shaman passed his breath and sent it back. The glass objects were created by the co-mingling of the 2 breaths blown into glass and encapsulated within. The preparation of this kind of object is equally as important as the presentation of the ‘finished’ art work.

‘Ceramic Fields’ is comprised of 12 objects representing the zodiac. The clay objects were baked in an oven with hallucinogenic plant-matter provided by the shaman to imbue the works with it’s properties. There is something in this use of very organic materials that investigates the seeking of the supernatural through the natural, transcendence through the everyday. There is a groove running around each object that was made with a cast of the artist’s tongue. Dane talked about the nature of taste as exploration, and the way that children ‘stick the world in their mouths’ in order to understand it. I love this because I have quite an interesting relationship with taste myself. When I experience an object or a texture that I particularly enjoy I find that my mouth starts to water and I get an associated taste, or more accurately a ‘mouth feel’ to go with the texture. There is also often an accompanying ‘tone’ that goes with the texture and the mouth-feel. When I see an object I really like I have an overwhelming urge to taste it! Not something you can really get away with in a gallery or museum.

There was another comment that Dane made which I found related very closely to my own art practice; the exploration of revelation and concealment. This pairing of ideas follows me around everywhere and I think it must be due to the very meaning of occult; to be hidden or concealed. Exploration of the occult is a constant process of hiding and revealing, finding and losing. I find that in Dane Mitchell’s practice the conceptual thought and complexity of process within the work provides that depth of concealment and continued revelation that draws you in and keeps you curious.

Some of my favourite contemporary artists were also showing; Mikala Dwyer, Fiona Pardington and Yin-Ju Chen’s incredible ‘Liquidation Maps’ that I was raving about at the Sydney Biennale. Not to mention the Aleister Crowley and Rosaleen Norton works. My intention is to take more notes on my return in September so that I can write about the many other works and the show as a whole. Very much looking forward to a second viewing!

Matthew Barney: The Gesamtkunstwerk and Cosmology Creation

Gesamtkunstwerk: a total, ideal, comprehensive, universal work of art. A self-enclosed aesthetic system.

This term is German in origin and has been assimilated into the English language particularly in the realm of aesthetics. It can be seen in the work of artists such as Matthew Barney, who creates huge cosmologies from the linking, the relating and reimagine of concepts and mythologies. I think that it’s also easy to see this idea appearing within conspiracy theory where each smaller theory is added to the whole creating a continuous, seamless compound theory. Believers can be quite flexible in how their theories can mould and change in order to fit in with other, seemingly unrelated conspiracies. But it’s probably fair to say that those who are able to think in this way might not have a lot of practice with critical thinking.

In the novel, ‘Foucault’s Pendulum‘ (Umberto Eco, 1988) three publishers (Casaubon, Diotallevi and Belbo) become obsessed with reading about occult conspiracy theories. The idea of all the links and associations within the occult world is both fascinating and absurd to them so they decide that it would be fun to create their own grand theory (their gesamtkunstwerk?) which they will then release into the world. Unfortunately they become the target of some real occult societies who think they possess some secret knowledge (the whereabouts of the Templar treasure). The three creators start to wonder if their creation is not just something they dreamed up after all but have, in fact, stumbled upon a real conspiracy. Over time they become unsure whether what they are doing is just a game or whether they are in real danger.

The story looks at the links and associations that appear within occultism and how they can be manipulated to create new cosmologies. Seemingly absurd ideas and flimsy connections can be linked together to create new webs of meaning. In Foucault’s Pendulum the friends use a computer to create these connections in a way that they believe is completely random, but seems to create a cohesive whole that even the creators become hard-pressed to remember is a fabrication.

Matthew Barney creates huge, elaborate all-encompassing cosmologies with his long-running works “The Cremaster Cycle” and his latest “River of Fundament”. In River of Fundament Barney explores Egyptian mythology in relation to American mythologies (particularly industrial America) through the lens of Norman Mailer’s “Ancient Evenings“. The trials of reincarnation and rebirth are told as a journey down the shit filled currents of American waterways and the body of Mailer is reimagined as classic american cars whose bodies are pulled apart and reassembled, cast from metals and displayed as living sculptures. The work is huge in scope, incorporating live performance, video, sculpture, music, drawing and writing. His sculptural pieces for River of Fundament both appear and are created within the performance, are replayed in the video and displayed as sculptural artefacts (see previous entry on trace of performance). The richness and complexity of Barney’s cosmologies seems to allow them to take on a mythological position separate from Barnet’s narrative. Much like The Plan in Foucault’s Pendulum, Barney’s creations take on a life of their own which lives outside their creator.

6766994b-60dd-4442-ac2c-b7c379c6192f-2060x1236The Chrysler Imperial is dismantled (dismembered) and melted down to prepare for it’s rebirth

70e4e_nov21_ona_imgRouge Battery (2014) cast copper and iron

MB_Geuter_10_630x350_03Sekhu (2014) Cast sulfur, salt,copper, bronze and brass. These sculptural objects appear in the performance and film recording

“The melding of the self with the artistic figure, and the development of an entire complex of relations to the corporeal and the mythic, fit Barney’s retinue of allegorical codes.”
Enwezor, O. “Portals and Processions” in Enwezor, O. Matthew Barney: River of Fundament (2014) Neri, L. (ed) New York, USA: Kira Rizzoli Publications (P251)

“There is something Houdini-like in the way in which Barney weaves in and out of his narratives: now an actor; now an athlete; now a dancer; now a performance artist; now a mythological figure. To see these transformations as the assumptions of “roles” is to miss Barney’s crucial insight into the way in which the artist is both internal to the meaning and making of the work, and as a shaper or builder, hovers outside and around the work. Barney suggests that many artists are conscious of “being simultaneously present and absent, and how that feeling manifests itself in an object”.
Bhabha, H. “On the Changing Space of Things: Memory and Cartography in the Making of Narrative Sculpture” in Enwezor, O. Matthew Barney: River of Fundament (2014) Neri, L. (ed) New York, USA: Kira Rizzoli Publications (P270)

The above two quotes have caused me to think about ideas that were hovering around the periphery of my research. I’ve found that in my work over the last year and a half there has been elements of the performative in nearly everything I’ve made. Many of the pieces have elicited comments to the effect that, as the artist, I was somehow a director or guide to the viewer’s experience of the work. This is something that was never explicitly intended at the time, but that has started to more consciously manifest itself, particularly in performance work or work that requires the viewer to interact with it in a performative manner. With the work “Hive Oracle” I took on the role of the character in the video, but more that that, I felt that the character was a part of me, as the artist, rather than purely a role I was enacting. Adding to that, it was far from obvious that I, the artist, was the one playing this role. I see this also in Barney’s work; with him being quite famous now, it’s usually obvious that he is portraying the character (or characters) in the work. But from my viewing of his work I have always felt that it was more than just assumptions of roles and that the creation of the characters was a manifestation of aspects of the artist himself.

In my current work in progress I’m working with performative video again as I feel there is a lot for me to explore using that medium. I’m also still very interested in the way artists like Barney and Dwyer create works that weave together performance and object, so looking at the role of object as trace or artefact is ongoing for me. I can see the work building upon itself and reimagining aspects of previous work within new work to create that layering and linking of meaning found within this creation of cosmologies.

“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 between the two states of material”.
Matthew Barney quoted in Enwezor, O. Matthew Barney: River of Fundament (2014) Neri, L. (ed) New York, USA: Kira Rizzoli Publications (p271)


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Mikala Dwyer and The Language of Things

“Walter Benjamin understood the true collector’s collection as a ‘magic encyclopedia’. Such a collection is animated. It acquires a life of it’s own. What is more, when objects are added to it they undergo a rebirth as they are placed in this new context.”
Taussig, M. Art and Magic and Real magic. P26, Franzidis, E. (ed). (2014) Drawing Down The Moon. Brisbane, Australia: Institute of Modern Art.

“According to Benjamin this language of things is mute, it is magical and it’s medium is material community.”
Steyerl, H. (2006) The Language of Things, http://eipcp.net/transversal/0606/steyerl/en

Over the years I’ve had many collections; collections of objects that I felt were significant in some way, collections of images that I wanted to return to and put into order (these orders would change as I revisited them), collections of items I wanted to make something out of, to change into another object that becomes a new thing by the sum of it’s parts. In a way they were all potential collages, both two dimensional and three dimensional. Why do collections appear to have their own innate power? Adding or subtracting from them can change their very nature and the nature of the new addition or subtraction.

Benjamin suggests that objects have their own innate language that is expressed in their relationships to each other. (Steyerl, H. (2006) The Language of Things ). We, as humans, come along and name them, try to impose, vocalise, amplify their language with our own. Benjamin refers to this as the Language of Judgement which I suppose means that the Things (capital T!) allow each other to be content with their original thingness while we are unable to resist imposing our own language upon them.

I have seen these ideas expressed in the Mikala Dwyer’s ‘Additions and Subtractions’ works, the collections of objects that create a conversation between themselves and a magical space in which to exist and explore their ‘thingness’. The works are never the same and Dwyer is never sure what they are going to be, bringing large numbers of objects with her and then responding to the environment and the relationships of the objects to each other and their surrounds. The circles created in the ‘Additions and Subtractions’ works create an otherworldly space within their circumference that is created by their conversations with each other. Sometimes, as in ‘An Apparition of a Subtraction’ (2010) Dwyer will add other elements to the collections such as smoke and sound to create a ‘sonic object’ within the circle. She also utilises materials and forms that draw on her family history; blocks of stone from Cockatoo Island where her parents lived and shapes from her mothers jewellery making practice (see Goldene Bend’er, 2013).

Dwyer tries to limit her ‘language of judgement’ by allowing her Things to realise their own language.
“I try to get to a point where things can speak for themselves rather than having me impose my voice upon them.”
Mikala Dwyer in conversation with Robert Leonard. p57 Franzidis, E. (ed). (2014) Drawing Down The Moon. Brisbane, Australia: Institute of Modern Art.

002Mikala Dwyer ‘An Apparition of a Subtraction’ (2010).

_MG_2803Mikala Dwyer ‘Goldene Bend’er’ (2013).
Objects reminiscent of the shapes of her mothers rings

I really enjoy the variety of size and materials in Dwyers objects. The same form may be repeated over and over but take on a completely different life depending on it’s dimensions and materiality. I also appreciate the way they create windows and vignettes for each other, giving the viewer new perspectives and insight into the conversations between the Things.

“The circle then becomes a defined space of activity in which the conversations between forms matter far more than the forms themselves. This reversal of focus, from the installation’s positive solidity to the negative spaces it leaves, is similar to the experience of a séance, which invites participants to believe certain arrangements of objects and bodies in space will create electrical fields that enable spirits to transform or reappear.”
Byrt, A. Prism Break. P12, Franzidis, E. (ed). (2014) Drawing Down The Moon. Brisbane, Australia: Institute of Modern Art.

I would go so far as to say that the above idea can be related to much ceremonial ritual practice, where the gathering of specifically chosen Things creates an energy between both the Things and the practitioner that enables the experience of the otherworldly. The language of the Things imparts an importance to the ceremony that enables the practitioner to believe in the ritual and remove the conscious (and skeptical) mind from the proceedings. Michael Taussig suggests that Mikala Dwyer exhibits both scepticism and faith in equal measure (Taussig, M. Art and Magic and Real magic. P26, Franzidis, E. (ed). (2014) Drawing Down The Moon. Brisbane, Australia: Institute of Modern Art.) and this is an idea I relate to in my own work and, indeed, my own life. I’m an entirely skeptical atheist but at the same time inexplicably drawn to the occult, the esoteric, the otherworldly. I don’t see these stances as being oppositional to each other, indeed the flourishing of occult practice in conjunction with the emergence of Modernism around the turn of the last century brings together metaphysical thinking with the western scientific worldview in a strange amalgamation of the rational and the mystical. Friedrich Fröbel’s rather mystical thinking produced the Kindergarten movement which exerted a significant effect on certain Modernist schools. And Dwyer herself utilises a form of modernist, esoteric practice in the way she assembles her Things, using a Fröbel-esque approach to uncovering the objects relationships to each other.

It seems that the interplay between the Things is strongest and most ‘electric’ when the collection is heterogeneous, when the objects clash, confuse and challenge. This can be seen in Dwyers circle works as much as on in the collections of magical practitioners. The image below shows a West African Voudou altar where Catholic icons sit side by side with jewellery, traditional pottery, stones, snakes and offerings of food and drink.

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When looking at Dwyers collections of Things it’s easy to see them reflected in the magical collections of both traditional shamanic ritual and of western ceremonial tradition, as well as their relationship to the ‘magic encyclopedia’ that Walter Benjamin describes. Michael Taussig makes a connection between Things and the human relationship to the otherworldly:

“Could it be that magical practice through the ages needs things so as to maintain a relationship with the non-human, thing world?”
Taussig, M. Art and Magic and Real magic. P27, Franzidis, E. (ed). (2014) Drawing Down The Moon. Brisbane, Australia: Institute of Modern Art.

Maybe it does, especially if Things speak the language of creation, or as Benjamin described it, the residue of the word of god. (Benjamin, W. (1916) On Language as Such and on the Language of Man, http://users.clas.ufl.edu/burt/chaucer’swake/LanguageofMan.pdf

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.

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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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Sculpture for a possible future

Ashley Zelinskie works in a future where we have reached the singularity and machines live on par with humans. Her work examines the way machines and humans view the word differently and how works can be made that can be appreciated by both. Her laser cut and 3d printed objects are covered with hexadecimal code which, in the simplest sense, allows both human and machine to observe the object – if a computer were to read the code it would ‘see’ the object.

There are some interesting questions within her work around how to teach machines to see art, how to give them an appreciation of the subtle, the non-logical. But I’m not sure where the work goes from there? If this future she imagines is not reached then does the work become less? If machines do become able to read the work does it lose it’s place as an artwork and become utilitarian? What is the value in machines being able to appreciate art? Is it an attempt to make them understand the human experience? Why would they need to do that?

There are also some questions for me around the use of laser cut and 3d printed materials to produce work that has meaning beyond being an aesthetically pleasing item. I love the aesthetics of her work, but being seduced by aesthetics is an easy trap to fall into. I feel like the use of these new technologies is a very tricky area thats more complicated than, say, the use of fabricated works by the Minimalist sculptors, because it’s such a seductive method that allows the maker to easily create things that would have previously required intensive labour. But like Adobe software doesn’t necessarily create good design, a method like laser cutting doesn’t necessity make good art and, as artists, we need to be careful of being seduced by new technological methods unless our work specifically requires use of those methods. It seems to work for an object that can be appreciated my a machine to be machine-made, but what if it was handmade? What would that mean?

An Overly Optimistic Take on Our Post-Human Existence


http://www.ashleyzelinskie.com

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From left to right: Ashley Zelinskie, “Octahedron” (2014); “Dodecahedron” (2015); “Icosahedron” (2015), all 3-D printed nylon, various sizes

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Golden Ratio 2013, 6.5″ x 4″ x 1″  3d printed gold plated stainless steel

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Ashley Zelinskie, “US Hexahedron” (2013), laser-cut aluminum, 5’x 5’ x 5’

The Expanded Field

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Rosalind E. Krauss’s “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” (1978) (Krauss, R. “The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths” (1985) The MIT Press; London, England) is a really useful essay that I have read three times and will probably read again. It examines the emergence of Postmodern sculptural practices and how they can be quantified when their expression is so varied.

The category of ‘sculpture’ becomes infinitely malleable and comes down from (or absorbs) it’s classical place on the pedestal. Krauss argues that in order for the new to be more palatable and acceptable it needs to have a historical evolution. Where sculpture once had a fairly linear art historical narrative, as it pushes the boundaries into new areas then historical provenance is expanded to include genealogies of millennia incorporating the likes of stonehenge, the nazca lines and neolithic mounds – none of which were ever intended as sculpture!

Modernist practice initially pushed the boundaries by removing the pedestals and moving the place. Modernist sculpture became somewhat nomadic. A new boundary needed to be established; if it’s NOT architecture and it’s NOT landscape, then it must be sculpture.

The 1960s welcomed in the postmodernist approach and the boundaries of sculptural practice were pushed to their outer limits.

“Sculpture is no longer the privileged middle term between two things it isn’t. Sculpture is rather only one term on the periphery of a field in which there are other, differently structured possibilities.” P284

Krauss put forward the Expanded Field theory and quarternary field diagram.

I have identified some examples of works that fit into the new fields:

Marked Site: both landscape and not-landscape

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Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970
mud, salt, basalt rocks, water, 460m x 4.6m, Great Salt Lake, Utah

 

Site Construction: both landscape and architecture

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Mary Miss, Perimeters, Pavilions, Decoys, 1978
Long Island, New York

Axiomatic structure: this uses existing structures and works with them or upon them. The structures can be architectural and not-architectural.

Untitled 1965, reconstructed 1971 by Robert Morris born 1931

Robert Morris, Untitled, 1965 (reconstructed 1971)
Mirror glass and wood, 914 x 914 x 914 mm, Tate Gallery, London

 

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