Written in invisible ink.

Co-authorship and the esoteric in the work of several contemporary artists from the Southern Hemisphere. 

I would like here to reflect on the implications and possibilities of co-authorship with elemental and esoteric forces in the making of an artwork. The sense of a collaborative process, a co-authoring with the site and materiality of my subject matter has real currency for me in relation to aspects of my own process. What I hope that the work gains by this process is a degree of agency; a sense of purpose and impact that does not merely eventuate from my own set of concerns and aesthetics. This is something that I feel to be of importance when considering the relevance of any art practice in what is a time of impending ecological and sociological crisis.

Agency in art; this term infers a sense of artwork as verb; perhaps what Tanya Ecclestone refers to as experiential work, where the work and the viewer experience and in some way act upon each other. I would like to suggest that this agency can be triangulated between the subject, the artist and the viewer through mindful aspects of the making and presenting of the work.

In the following text I consider in particular the process by which this agency or impact is invoked; a process that has implications for the work, the artist and the viewer. There are a number of contemporary artists for whom there is a degree of mystery, secrecy and performance invested in the making of the work; some or all of this process remains purposely obscured from the art audience.

Dane Mitchell talks about his process in terms of the “ritualizing of production”, and describes his collaborative practice as containing “an aspect of co-authoring, and a letting-go of the aesthetic, actuated by the practitioners.”[i]

Here he refers in part to the rituals, usually not revealed to the public, performed by shamen, witches and other practitioners of the occult that are embedded into the production of his installations. Mitchell describes how this sets up a sometimes uneasy friction with his own strong minimalist aesthetic, in such works as Gateway to the Etheric Realm 2011. Here, within the crisp lines of the artist’s trademark barrier structures lies scattered the physical traces of the witch’s spell; “dragons blood, herbs, owls blood, blessed water and salt.” It is left to the viewer to feel out any traces of an encounter with the 4th dimension, and certainly here, as in the rest of Mitchell’s work, no clue is given as to the kind of invocation made, or what its intended effects on the viewer might be.

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Radiant Matter II, 2011

Dunedin Public Art Gallery

This to me seems to raise the possibility of a twin or double work; a secret, ritualized aspect to the art making that happens in private and that is not fully enunciated to the viewer. The visible twin is the viewing of the “art experience”, and here Mitchell mediates his ideas into elegant vessels that conjure up traces of the earlier invocations. If the real agency of the work exists at its point of making then in Mitchells’ work there are no substantive clues given as to the possible outcomes of the magick wrought.

Artists have long drawn upon spirits or knowledge of the esoteric to heighten their creative powers.  Photography, entwined as it is with scientific revelation, has been perfectly placed to explore and exploit such external forces.

The advent of the Age of Reason eroded traditional views of the order of the universe, with God at its apex and man and his earth at its centre. Artists fell upon the new practice of photography to fill the void. These artists harnessed the twin abilities of photography to create apparently indisputable evidence of the real, and to simultaneously “fix’ what could not be seen by the eye. Spirit photography of the 19th Century may seem implausibly clunky to our eyes, but as Webster points out, its iconography was not dissimilar to, and indeed provided a bridge towards the Surrealist iconography of the bizarre.

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William Hope, 1860s

In 1894 August Strindberg, a playwright and poet, was collaborating with the cosmos to create his Celestographs; Hubble-like images created by leaving photo-sensitive paper overnight in a chemical bath beneath the stars. Chris Webtser describes this collaboration as a “chemical wedding of photography and the esoteric.”[ii] The outcomes are a mesmeric merging of earth and sky, a presentiment of what we now know; that all matter is derived from the stars.

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Recovered from http://cabinetmagazine.org/issues/3/celesographs.php

This reaching out to an esoteric force to co-author art is evident in processes espoused by the Dadists and Situationists and in particular the by ‘Pataphysicists of the 20th Century. Trance, voodoo, somnambulism and the use of psychoactive drugs have all been used to varying degrees in order to access these forces.

This French school of thought known as ‘Pataphysics explored, among other things, “an intuitive extension into the abstract or the transcendental or the less known aspects of experience…. One of the characteristics would be their drawing of inspiration from dream states and a kind of somnambulistic meditation…another would be the idea that everything has a psychic history. This is related to “the cult of the found object” in modern art, the discovery of “the given.” [iii]

‘Pataphysics allows that every object has a psychic life, and that the object will “speak” to the artist, thus becoming re-incorporated and re-animated through the artwork. This idea of communication emanating from the natural or supernatural realm reaches across hemispheres and cultures; Maori indigenous art and spiritual practice places extreme importance on the reading of such messages when working with place and material. Once any kind of encounter with the spiritual or the supernatural has been acknowledged there is a need to engage with protocols and their potential breach. In the Maori world this concept is expressed by “tapu” and “noa”, the sacred and the earthly, and the dynamic and fluid energy that flows between these two states. Implications exist for the spiritual wellbeing of those who, knowingly or otherwise, err in these matters. On the macro level the ever-deepening effects of ecological breaches of tapu can clearly be seen, in climate change, polluted environments and in the diminishing of natural resources and habitats. Passing between the states of tapu and noa on a micro scale, and in each of our daily lives, is something that requires a degree of mindfulness to observe. Dane Mitchell’s recent work Threshold of Beckoning, from the Conservation of Mass show 2013 in RaebervonStenglin, Zurich, Switzerland stages and illuminates clearly such a transition. Here a plaque set into the cobblestones outside the gallery space alerts viewers to the fact that over the threshold an occult ritual has taken place, summoning the ghosts of past inhabitants of the erstwhile stables. The artist plays on a trope from the vampire genre, the idea that a vampire must be invited over the threshold in order to enter. He also underlies for the viewer that an altered state awaits, and thus allows them to prepare to encounter it. Similarly to his earlier works however, the true purpose for summoning these ghostly presences is not revealed, so at the heart of the work lies the possibility for malevolence; for something unwished for to somehow to adhere to the viewer.

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Dane Mitchell. Threshold of Beckoning, from Conservation of Mass show 2013 RaebervonStenglin, Zurich, Switzerland

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Dane Mitchell. Threshold of Beckoning, (detail) Conservation of Mass show 2013 RaebervonStenglin, Zurich, Switzerland

Preparatory ritual and invocation therefore can create states of tapu and noa within the artwork for the viewer to consider and navigate. This territory is being explored in the work of other contemporary artists.

Michaela Dwyer uses performance and ritual as an important aspect of her practice, often preparing an installation by performing a documented gestural ritual while masked. Her sculptural installations have totemic and pagan properties, frequently being assembled in circles, and utilizing organic and constructed materials. Dwyer refers to these circles as “psychic fortresses”[iv]

She works in a site-specific way, responding to the previous lives of the spaces in which the work is shown. A 2010 show on Cockatoo island, BSydney, included one of these circle works (Dwyer usually titles them “Additions and Subtractions”) and referenced the islands violent and traunmatic past as a prison and a remand home.

As part of her “Goldene Bend’er” show at ACCA in 2013 Dwyer painted a large “spell” in the corner of one room, this room serving as a threshold for a performance space. Within the next space Dwyer and a group of dancers performed a public ritual involving excrement. The “Spell for Corner” work very clearly signals that a shift in consciousness and mindfulness is required of the viewer in order for them to fully and safely engage with the ‘archaic” nature of the remaining works.

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Mikala Dwyer, Spell for Corner, 2013[v]

Fiona Pardington weaves complex esoteric subtexts together in her prolific Vanitas still-life works. Layering hermetic and arcane subject matter and referencing them in her titles, with each composition she seems to cast a new spell. Earlier works balanced between typology and elegy; her series of heitiki and extinct huia feathers, articulated through the 19th century visual language of the view camera and black and white film, breathed life into those taonga. A series of head casts, taken from indigenous peoples of the South Pacific during one of French explorer Dumont d’Urville’s nineteenth-century voyages telescopes time and allows the long-dead a photographic presence.

In my own practice I am very aware of the “charge” that these taonga carry. Time spent in photographing them is meditative, removed from the now somehow, and the work requires the artist to “hear” the object. I sense this process operating strongly in Pardington’s images.

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Fiona Pardington.Slave collar, kowhai and precarious absinthe cuillerie 2013

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Fiona Pardington. Still life with moon-charged crystal, snuffed candle and Grandma’s incense burner. 2013

A deep undercurrent of the uncanny resides also at the heart of the work of contemporary New Zealand photographer Yvonne Todd. Often Todd’s images seem to conjure up a coven or cult, containing elements of the grotesque wrapped in a catalogue fashion aesthetic from an indefinable era.

Her pictures exist in a strange twilight world between the post-modern construct of the studio space and the Stepford Wives suburbs. Her female characters gaze out from the frame with a vampiric vacuousness, channeling both Sharon Tate and her grisly end simultaneously.

A sense of the private and arcane processes behind the scenes is hinted at in her mysterious and compelling titles. These offer hints of contextual information, while also firmly keeping the viewer at a remove from the true artistic purpose for the work.

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Yvonne Todd. Moon Sap from Wall of Seahorsel show, 2012

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Yvonne Todd Glue Vira from Wall of Seahorsel show, 2012

Each of these artists makes their own terms with the supernatural and esoteric forces that collaborate and conspire in the making of their work. The viewer must navigate a complicated and fraught path through the work, understanding that engagement with it may on some level bring an exposure to conditions, benign or otherwise, that cannot be completely controlled or even understood. Herein lies for me the real frisson of the work; a sense of hidden possibility and revelation that elevates the art experience beyond the material plane of art shows, galleries and catalogues and into a more magical space.


[i] Presentation, Whitecliffe College, July 2013

[ii] Dark Materials – The chemical wedding of photography and the esoteric. Chris Webster. Recovered from Academia.Edu http://www.academia.edu/3152814/Dark_Materials_-_The_chemical_wedding_of_Photography_and_the_Occult

[iii] Arts and the Occult: An Interview with Michael Bertiaux

http://fulgur.co.uk/artists/michael-bertiaux/

[v] Mikala Dwyer, Spell for Corner, 2013. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery Sydney and Anna Schwartz Gallery Melbourne. Photograph: Andrew Curtis