Text-based Research May 2019

To go along with my image collection I usually create mind maps examining certain themes and ideas within the work.

I wrote a statement that I think sums up much of what goes on in the work:

Communication of otherworldly experience requires a symbolic language due to the ephemeral and unexplainable nature of the phenomena. Often this communication is through artwork, story and performance, where material representations, in the form of object, symbol and gesture, can be used as to communicate the incommunicable.

My workbook gets a bit confusing at times with all my diagrams and scribbles, but I always go back to re-reference them, even those I made several years ago. Here I’ve started picking apart my interest in the occult, or esoteric, and how it functions within my art practice both positively and negatively.

I’ve then gone on the look at the place of Space, Body and Object in esoteric practice.

SPACE

MODIFIED SPACE
– Buildings or rooms dedicated to ritual or sacred practice.
– Symbols, maps, written and visual language applied to floors, walls, ceilings, furnishings.
– Furnishings (objects!) for use within practice.

NATURAL SPACE
– Areas that are ‘fit for purpose’.
– Often natural environments imbued with ‘the sacred’; natural occurrence of an elemental nature like water, air, fire, earth or to do with animals, trees etc.

UNINTENTIONAL SPACE
– Spaces that have a ‘received specialness’. For example they may have a historical significance to do with previous events, previous owners, previous usage.
– Haunted spaces.

OTHERWORLD SPACE
– Spaces that do not exist within the material world; internal space, astral space, extra dimensional space etc.
– The collective unconscious, spaces that exist within myth.
-‘Other’ worlds eg. the Enochian aethyrs.

OBJECT

RITUAL / TALISMANIC OBJECTS
– A symbolic representation of a non-corporeal element.
– A way to contain/control/transport.
– A way to make the intangible physical.
– The language of objects; the interplay between objects.
– Allows connection with the ‘other’.
– We imbue objects with power (just looks at what we do with mobiles phones!)
– Furnishings for a ritual space.

WEARABLE / SMALL OBJECTS
– Method of communication.
– Can be concealed.
– Can have a special connection with the owner’s body.
– Can be passed from one person to another.

REPURPOSED OBJECTS
– Turning one thing into another = object alchemy.
– The history of an old object can be brought into a new form, the power and meaning of objects can be combined and amplified.
– Conversations between objects and materials.

MAPPING (ONTO OBJECTS)
– A symbolic pathway, a way through.
– May require a symbolic language to communicate or to decipher.
– An instruction, investigation, journey, discovery, unveiling.
– A visual plan or language.
– A path for the seeker, an instruction for an ordeal.

BODY

BODILY ATTRIBUTES
– Emphasis on body part eg eyes, teeth, hands, genitals.
– Emphasis on symbolism ascribed to that body part.
– Ritualised movement or pose of body part or full body eg mudras.
– Fetishising body parts, making them talismanic or sacred.
– Making the body monstrous, godlike or humorous through distortion of characteristics.

RITUAL MARKING OF THE BODY
– Permanent or transitory marking eg tattooing or scarification versus painting or make-up.
– Status or right of passage.
– A personal ordeal vs a communal event.
– Language of the body. Marking the body as a vessel, talisman or sacred object.
– Becoming more than human.

DRESS
– Enacting a character or archetype.
– Giving form to the incorporeal.
– Using dress as part of a symbolic language.
– Becoming ‘other’; an animal, a spirit, an idea.

MOVEMENT
– Creating a language through moving and shaping the body.
– Communication without words.
– Sacred / ritual dances.
– Moving between worlds.
– Combine with dress, markings, objects and space to create a powerful method of communication and experience.

I also took a delve into my personal interest in the occult; the whys, wherefores and the problematic aspects that go along with it. Something I’m looking into right now is correlation between interest in the esoteric in times that are particularly turbulent in a socio-political sense.

The issue of anything to do with the occult seeming laughable, absurd, embarrassing, cheesy (the list goes on) is something I work with constantly. I’ve thought about choosing to embrace that in my work, but it doesn’t sit right, so I continue to balance on the tightrope of earnestness! I’m fully aware of appearing ridiculous, but it’s an interesting space to exist in. What I need to keep pushing towards is finding the place where viewers find relevance and connection in the work. It’s not about me.

I’m also curious about the general public’s acceptance (and even the commercial exploitation) of some aspects of what is widely considered ‘occult’ versus the fear of other aspects such as mysticism and esotericism. Aside from residual superstition around devil worship and that sort of thing, I suspect is due to it’s very nature; being occult = being hidden. Science-minded twenty first century people might not be scared of demons, but they want to know things straight away and in bite-sized form, even extremely complex ideas shouldn’t take longer than a standard podcast to explain. I wonder if the very thing that has always drawn me to esotericism is what repels many others; everything is hidden under layers of symbolism that can only be revealed over time. It’s non-didactic – everything is found through questioning, testing, exploring and finding. It’s a SLOW process that requires patience and commitment which are in short supply right now due to the way we interact with technology – and that’s another aspect of the whole thing that is worth exploring.

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Performing to camera/Performing for camera

There is a new exhibition on currently at the Tate Modern called “Performing for the Camera”. I had a look through the works on display and it got me thinking again about some of the ideas I’d grappled with last year when making my first performative videos, as well as my dabble in live performance.

In my mind, the statements ‘performing to camera’ and ‘performing for camera’ are two very different propositions. The first denotes a connection with the camera (and therefore the audience behind the camera) that is likely to be realised through direct dialogue in some form; not necessarily speech or eye contact, but an obvious angling of the performance to the viewer. All actions are performed ‘to’ the camera – the audience is the camera. The second suggests the performer has an awareness of the presence of the camera and, therefore, of a potential audience. But the performance might not include any direct dialogue with the camera in the form of gaze, gesture or speech. A performer could quite well perform in the distance with their back to the camera and still be performing ‘for’ the camera. When creating my pieces last year I made the decision that the performances would be ‘to’ the camera. In Hive Oracle (2015), Sublimation (2015) and Albedo (2016) there is direct eye contact from most of the performers. Some performers in Albedo do not make eye contact with, or address the camera, but their pose and gesture is angled to the camera’s presence.

Working with performers I found many differences in the way still photography and moving image recognises tone and gesture. An expression that might be captivating in a still image becomes overwrought and overacted as soon as the image is moving. This is equally noticeable in my barely-moving tableaus which straddle the line between image and moving image. It was imperative for the work that I did not end up with performers who looked like they were Performing (capital P). I’ve seen this happen before with performers who, no matter what role they are taking on, are always, intrinsically themselves. In certain circumstances this is a strength, but it’s not what I needed for this work. Then the other side of the coin is hoping to work with inexperienced performers to find a naturalness in the work, but they can be too anxious to relax. Luckily I was able to work with some great performers who were able to relax into the roles and give an understated, natural performance.

There is a set of new work by artist Amalia Ulman showing in this exhibition that interests me particularly. Her Excellences & Perfections series appeared on instagram as what at first glance seemed to be the heavily curated selfies of a preening millennial. It was infact a scripted and well-planned performance of three consecutive tropes of young female internet celebrity existence.

“It’s more than a satire,” she explains. “I wanted to prove that femininity is a construction, and not something biological or inherent to any woman. Women understood the performance much faster than men. They were like, ‘We get it – and it’s very funny.’ ” What was the joke? “The joke was admitting how much work goes into being a woman and how being a woman is not a natural thing. It’s something you learn.”
Ulsan, A. quoted in Sooke, A. (2016) Is this the first Instagram Masterpiece? Sourced from http://www.telegraph.co.uk

There are layers of performance going on within this work: the performance of Ulman as the women in the work, the performance of Ulman as a woman in everyday life, the performance of Ulman in the art world as a young artist, the performance of Ulman as the artist performing the art; it just goes on and on, bending back upon itself. Very interesting. I was wondering how much of Ulman herself exists as parts of the tropes she was performing? How often is she knowingly or unknowingly drawn into playing those roles?

With my next filing session I have some ideas around testing the performance of the actors to camera and around how much of themselves becomes present/not present. Hopefully there will be some curious outcomes.

Photo credit: Amalia Ulman Excellences & Perfections (Instagram Update, 8th July 2014), (#itsjustdifferent) 2015 © Courtesy Arcadia Missa and The Artist​

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