Below is a condensed and reworked incarnation of some of the thinking that has fed into my current MFA show, Co-orbital. This essay is included in the exhibition catalogue. Images from the exhibition will be uploaded soon.
In these early years of the new millennium, we are in the midst of a paradigm shift. Our intellectual emancipation from established belief systems and subjective desires is the direct result of the critical reflexivity and questioning at the core of post-modern thinking. This growing self-awareness is the culmination of a long period of breathtaking scientific, democratic and individuated evolution in the West. However, philosopher and astrologer Richard Tarnas suggests that this brilliant trajectory has a fatal flaw, which he describes as the “shadow of the Enlightenment”[i]. He describes this shadow in the following way:
In its primordial condition, humankind had possessed an instinctive knowledge of the profound sacred unity and interconnectedness of the world, but under the influence of the Western mind, especially its modern expression, the course of history brought about a deep schism between humankind and nature, and a de-sacralization of the world….in this perspective, both humanity and nature are seen as having suffered grievously under a long, exploitative, dualistic vision of the world, with the worst consequences being produced by the oppressive hegemony of modern industrial societies empowered by Western science and technology.[ii]
The Promethean progress man has made in the sciences and in technology has simultaneously emptied the world of its numinous aspects; its gods and goddesses, archetypal ideas and taboo or tapu states of being. As the self has become the site of all knowledge and experience, the world
“is viewed as a neutral domain of contingent facts and potential means to our secular purposes.”[iii]
A purely scientific understanding of the laws of the physical universe has placed man at the outer edge of the cosmos; its sole sentient inhabitant. Empirical modernity has riven us from the world, setting the self apart from the disenchanted universe it inhabits. This fragmentation of the psyche, away from the collective anima mundi, or world soul, establishes a view of the world as simply a container for resources to be mined, tilled, dammed and drained. Our post-modern consciousness exposes all states of being as constructed sets of experiences, thus devoid of authenticity or integration. As a consequence the 21st century Western mind is in a stage of “advanced deconstruction”[iv]; the outcome of which is a profound sense of alienation.
Strategies for moving beyond this state of spiritual and intellectual disenchantment lie on the fringes of our Western thinking. Many cultures still carry at their heart an awareness of tapu, a sacred or unearthly state, a framework of protocols and covenants with the animus mundi. In conventional Western thinking these ideas can easily be relegated to historical or religious spheres of interest. The disenchanted mind holds that a heightened esoteric dimension cannot co-exist with our modern daily life.
But states of tapu and noa (the sacred and the earthly) are not side-notes to our lives. Knowingly or unknowingly, we can breach the fragile covenants that exist both within human relations and between humans and the world. These covenants exist in cultural, spiritual, and environmental realms. They need not be acknowledged by us in order to affect us. If, as has been suggested, tapu and noa are not fixed states, but fluid and non-lineal, then human action and ritual are essential in achieving a balance between them.
In modern psychology and art practices, many strategies have been developed to move beyond the fragmented individual consciousness and to close the circle of the self and the anima mundi. These aspirations for collaboration and participation with alternate dimensions align strongly with photography’s historical connections to the esoteric and occult; what could be termed the alternative history of the camera.
Dark boxes, light, silver and chemicals have close alliances with alchemy and the arcane. Edwardian and Victorian photographers felt keenly that this new way of seeing could offer perspectives into the esoteric realm, and offer a counterbalance to the demystification of the burgeoning Age of Reason.
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.”[v] 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.
Similarly, a group of philosophers and artists known as the Pataphysicists sought meaning, connection and resonance between human and object states.
Operating on the margins of the new sciences of psychology and metaphysics, this early 20th century school of thought asserted that objects have a psychic life, an animus, and can speak to the artist. In an attempt to communicate with an esoteric dimension, the Pataphysicists embraced trance, psychoactive drugs and voodoo as aids; tools that allowed artists to draw on the spiritual energy of the occult and re-invest that energy into their art. The movement counted Duchamp among its practitioners, and was instrumental in establishing the central position of the readymade in contemporary art practice.
Author and voodoo practitioner Michael Bertiaux states that:
One of the characteristics (of the school) would be their drawing of inspiration from dream states and a kind of somnambulistic meditation. Another would be that everything has a psychic history. This is related to the “cult of the found object” in modern art, the discovery of “the given.” We know that many artists go around looking for what they call a “found object”- actually they wouldn’t have to look very hard. According to the theory the object would “speak” to them and indicate to them that this was what was needed.[vi]
Brion Gysin and William Burroughs developed techniques in the 1960s to circumvent conscious thought and open up pathways to esoteric influence.
Gysin introduced Burroughs to the idea of the “cut-up”; a text-based practice that allowed synchronicity to intervene in the cutting and rejoining of written texts. This technique could be used in conjunction with ritual and occult practice, such as that set out by Aleister Crowley in his Book of the Law and espoused by Genesis P-Orridge and other radical shamans of the music and art worlds. Gysin also created a system for producing trance-states, which he called the Dreammachine. Using optical flicker at certain ratios, this rotating cylinder operated on the closed eyelids to induce trance-states and heightened creativity.
While these practitioners concentrated their experiments on the sub-conscious and the inner self, other art movements proposed that a relationship with place could also activate relationships with the esoteric. Guy Debord and the Situationists of the mid 1950s, for example, introduced the idea of a psycho-geographic landscape. This was accessed via the derive, or an aimless wander, guided by instinct. The Situationists used these non-planned urban wanderings to break out of societal norms and access the intersections between the psyche and the site.
German Author W. G Sebald traverses the present and past landscapes of Europe in his novel Austerlitz; the eponymous character moves towards an inexorable self-knowledge triggered by the retracing of his journey as a child, away from the Nazi invasion of Poland and into the valleys of Wales, where he lived for many years with no memory of his past or his real name. At the heart of his enigma lies the Holocaust. Sebald lays bare the landscape as both protagonist and catalyst for the trauma of collective experience.
Increasingly, as pedestrian access in cities is reduced to clearly demarcated parks and public spaces, walking takes on subversive undertones. A desire to linger, to wander and to walk in these places is thus imbued with a sense of transgression and resistance, somehow pushing the urban walker to the margins. Rebecca Solnit writes about the meditative and connective powers of walking, and also views walking as a political act. In her book Wanderlust, Solnit flags the myriad threats and barriers to walking in 21st century life, counting the architectures of fear and commerce and the dictatorship of the automobile as among the worst. She states that: “in some places it is no longer possible to be out in public, a crisis both for the private epiphanies.”[vii]
Contemporary artists and writers utilize walking as the tool to set up the conditions for psycho-geographic discoveries. These two-way transmissions and shifts into states of active collaboration with object and place can be accessed via portals encountered during the derive. Writer and walker Robert McFarlane walks the ancient chalk paths of England, and writes of the ways in which the path presses back upon the walker. He states that: “One need not be a mystic to accept that certain old paths are linear only in a simple sense…they are rifts within which time might exist as pure surface, prone to recapitulation and rhyme, weird morphologies, uncanny doublings.”[viii]
Object and environment can therefore still promise resonance and connection to the anima mundi for the active seeker of that dimension. As subject for a photographer, however the landscape sets many challenges. Here in Aotearoa the relentless glaring light delivers extremes of highlight or shadow, lush greens and cerulean blues. Boundless vistas are constantly reproduced in calendars, postcards, annual reports, billboards and commercials. The land is often depicted in a state of apparent Eden-like perfection, signaling an untouched wilderness with no clear reference to a human history enacted thereon.
In simpler times (pre. the billionth upload to Flickr perhaps), a Robin Morrison photograph of a shining wet road, or a Lawrence Aberhart mountain trailing its korowai of cloud could be made; sublime responses to the landscape via the lens. It is still a hard thing to resist, this framing of the land through the viewfinder, the wait for the good light, for that perfect cloud.
It is no longer sufficient however to allow oneself to be seduced into making these images. Acquisition and distribution, conservancy, dairy run-off, mono-cultural approaches to the farming of the land – these and many other problems demand to be addressed in any contemporary contemplation of our environment. Our visible environment has been politicized; it carries the marks of its repeated modifications and translations.
Emily Apter identifies and describes an approach to these challenges as the “radical pastoral:”[ix] a kind of geo-poetics. She highlights the morphing of media and environment via globalization, and calls on an “ecologically engaged conceptualism” [x] that can operate as a “margin of critique inserted in the space where this translation process occurs”[xi] This critique, Apter suggests, explores the links between environment and the interior life of the self, exposing the interconnectedness of site and ideology, economy and ecology.
It is this interconnectedness, the inseparable fate of site and psyche, which I have been exploring. The subject that both proposes and supports the current body of work is the bounded area that divides the south from the north of the city, and is itself cut through with roads and infrastructure. This area is Grafton Gully, a transitional landscape that has registered our varying preoccupations with nature, death and the movement of people and things. As I have walked and thought my way through this site, objects and observances have offered themselves up. Here, place reveals our various preoccupations and shifting values. Here, tapu and noa coexist in a state of flux.
For me, there is the sense that rock and soil are at the heart of this work, and that if I look and listen closely and respond acutely, these fragments of matter can stand for the whole. Tarnas suggests that: “To encounter the depths and rich complexity of the cosmos we require ways of knowing that fully integrate the imagination, the aesthetic sensibility, moral and spiritual intuition, revelatory experience, symbolic perception, somatic and sensuous ways of understanding, empathic knowing.”[xii]Through the acts of walking, listening and seeing, I hope to be receptive to the synchronicities offered up by place and object. Through this active interaction with place and object, I make decisions about content and process.
This co-authoring of the image activates the outcome, creating an impetus that exists at the level of the personal, the ecological and the geographical. There is a triangulated authorship at work in the pictures, one that reverberates between photographer, subject and viewer. This process, when successful, invests the image with a degree of agency; a sense of purpose and impact that does not merely eventuate from my own set of concerns and aesthetics. To work in this way involves what Tarnas describes as “a disciplined alertness to significant pattern in the outer world as well as the inner.”[xiii] The images are literally offered to the photographer to be seen, and then to be re-seen by the viewer.
Finally Bertiaux, when talking of the magical found object, has this to say:
“…and again it goes back to what I said at the beginning. It is the found object that has communicated with the artist, not the object being communicated by the artist’s mind. So it is with opportunities. They open doorways and energies come to us.”[xiv]
[i] Richard Tarnas Cosmos and Psyche, intimations of a new world view. Plume 2007
[ii] Richard Tarnas Cosmos and Psyche, intimations of a new world view. Plume 2007
[iii] Richard Tarnas Cosmos and Psyche, intimations of a new world view. Plume 2007
[iv] Richard Tarnas Cosmos and Psyche, intimations of a new world view. Plume 2007
[vii] Rebecca Solnit. Wanderlust-a history of walking. Verso 2001
[viii]Robert McFarlane. The old ways, a journey on foot Penguin Group 2012
[ix] Emily Apter Critical Habitats October 99, Winter 2002. Pp21-44. © October Magazine Ltd
[x] Emily Apter Critical Habitats October 99, Winter 2002. Pp21-44. © October Magazine Ltd
[xi] Emily Apter Critical Habitats October 99, Winter 2002. Pp21-44. © October Magazine Ltd
[xii] Richard Tarnas Cosmos and Psyche, intimations of a new world view. Plume 2007
[xiii] Richard Tarnas Cosmos and Psyche, intimations of a new world view. Plume 2007