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.
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.
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.
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.
Dane Mitchell. Threshold of Beckoning, from Conservation of Mass show 2013 RaebervonStenglin, Zurich, Switzerland
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.
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.
Fiona Pardington.Slave collar, kowhai and precarious absinthe cuillerie 2013
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.
Yvonne Todd. Moon Sap from Wall of Seahorsel show, 2012
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
[v] Mikala Dwyer, Spell for Corner, 2013. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery Sydney and Anna Schwartz Gallery Melbourne. Photograph: Andrew Curtis
Ruminations on an interview with Alec Soth and Roe Etheridge at ParisPhoto L.A. 2013
This conversation, facilitated by ParisPhoto LA and MC’d by Douglas Fogle, seemed to frame much of what is up for debate in contemporary photography today. While Soth makes a plaintive case for fraternity (via facial hair and similar age brackets) it seems clear that Etheridge and Soth are in fact poles apart; underlying schisms revealed in everything from their differing approaches to beards (hipster vs. unkempt), through their presentation prep (PDF vs PowerPoint) to their real motivation for image making. For Soth this is an attempt to push back the overwhelming tide of images that threaten to wash away any sense of specificity; it is a return to the centrality of the narrative. Etheridge, however, plays his cards relatively close to his chest throughout the piece, in contrast to Soths’ thoughtful and soul-baring contributions. For him form, and what he describes as a sort of “synesthesia” seem to be the key dictators of his design.
Etheridge enjoys masking meaning. His juxtapositions seem willfully obtuse, as if the meaning hinted at by their sequencing is there to be read only by those with a special code. He allows that he subscribes to the Jasper Johns mantra of “take a thing, do something to it, do something else to it, then stop”, and tells us that he applies this formula to aspects of design such as the organizing of background colors. Beyond that, any motivation to shape the content, be it personal, political or aesthetic is consciously withheld. Etheridge asserts that a level of frustration with the image-overload may be a motivating force, as could the desire framed by John Gossage to simply make something that annoys people. In an intriguing segment Etheridge talks about the conflicted and co-dependent states of his existence as a commercial and fine-art photographer, and one senses that a level of contempt may also feed the juxtapositions and appropriations in his work.
It may come as no surprise that I rate Soth’s work. I have long been a fan of his ability to make pictures that communicate complex human situations, and that unfold in sequences that layer and complicate meaning without ever obfuscating it. His main direction in this interview, framed as a question he posed Etheridge and that he constantly poses himself, is “why this picture?” Though Etheridge never really furnishes an answer beyond describing editing as the cooking of a good casserole, Soth spends a lot of time elucidating his reasons for making the bodies of work he has made, and one of the points that resonated strongly with me was his need to go out and have a ‘real-life experience’ in the process of making the pictures. This ultimately is what I feel invests Soth’s work with a depth and relevance that Etheridge’s lacks; this desire to connect, to head out into the world and to bring something back that ultimately reaches beyond the self.
From the ground up.
The making of this work has relied on a series of visits to a single place and a process of co-authorship; an openness to what has been offered up at each visit.
Drilling back into the timeline of this place reveals a series of excavations, modifications, transgressions and re-purposings.
Verdant valley, consecrated ground, multi-laned highway, stoner retreat, vagrant shelter.
In this place I am at once observer and catalyst, forager and witness.
A leap of faith, the animistic magnetism of the objects themselves, the willingness to use the Force – elements that are all at play in these exchanges.
A second layer of co-authoring occurs when the objects are re-visioned and re-presented. Here these taonga are offered as meditative totems. The book provides some insight into their provenance and the ways in which they orbit and intersect each other.
Fragment (Midden I)
Fragment (Midden II )
Fragment (Midden III)
Inkjet digital prints, various sizes
Becky Nunes, 2013
Hash said he’s had a dream telling him to come and live under Grafton Bridge. His first camp was under the big Rimu. He shared it with Allen, and they called it Base Camp One. The Government moved them on so they set up Base Camp Two further down the slope. One evening as they sat visiting with the gang girl in the Penthouse they saw a glow through the trees. Someone had stolen their stuff and set fire to the camp. Now Hash lives down the bottom, at Fantail Cove. His dad wants him to come and stay with him at Snell’s Beach, but Hash reckons that he’s on a mission here, so he’s not going.
Hash dreams of developing that lower area. With its fresh water and sloping gully sides he can imagine a fantastic water park, with a flying fox and big swings. He’s going to make a film about it.
“If I continued with still photography, I would try to be more honest and direct about why I go out there and do it. And I guess the only way I could do it is with writing. I think that’s one of the hardest things to do—combine words and photographs. But I would certainly try it.”
Robert Frank 1977
This quote is referenced by Alec Soth in his latest LBM blog post.
Alec constantly references and is inspired by writers; this post weaves beautifully between the words of about three other writers and those of Soth himself.
No hay camino, say hace camino el andar
(There is no road, the road is made by walking)
Antonio Machado from “Proverbios y cantares” in Campos de Castilla. 1912
My current investigations are taking me on foot through the centre of the city, something I used to do extensively years back and which, I now realise, I have done less and less as I have got older. As I head into the city I am being confronted by the inaccessibility of some seemingly public urban areas.
While it seems as if traversing the city as a pedestrian should be the easiest and most extensive of modes of transport, our city planning has methodically been removing access for walkers to many areas over the years simply by building roads with no pavements, and fencing off any scrub or wasteland areas. Added to this is the insalubrious nature of some of these areas, leaving a solitary female feeling a little vulnerable at times. These barriers to access heighten awareness of potential political and ecological aspects to civic planning: This planning, overtly or not, emphasises the use of the car and creates an inexorable impetus to move people on and through. A desire to linger, to wander and to walk in these places thus is imbued with a sense of transgression and of resistance, somehow pushing the urban walker to the margins.
Alongside this renewing of my acquaintance with my local neighbourhood I have been extending my reading into the many connections between walking and art, walking and resistance, walking and thinking. Beyond the idea of the derive, so beloved of the Situationists, there is a wealth of writers, poets, painters and lens-based artists for whom walking has been the method and the meditation on which they have based their practise.
W.G Sebald, in his Rings of Saturn, wrote a seminal and circular novel, describing at it’s centre the minutiae of a journey by foot through Suffolk, while at the periphery, and always tangentially, writing really about the horrors of the second WW and the holocaust.
Robert McFarlane writes in poetic prose of his encounters with the remaining wild places and fringe-dwelling people that he has encountered on foot. In The Old Ways McFarlane charts his encounters with shamen, artists, activists and sailors along the old roads and waterways of England, Scotland and abroad. Simultaneously he pulls together strands of literature from other writers and other times, making explicit a rich seam of connections from pre-history to the present, all acknowledging the centrality of walking the land to human experience.
(McFarlane, R. (2012)The old ways, a journey on foot Penguin Group)
Richard Mabey, 8 years after I was born, published The Unofficial Countryside.
Written over four seasons he charts the myriad ways that flora and fauna adapt and survive in the modified, polluted environment of greater London. He writes endearingly of the problems, both physical and emotional, of walking through inner city streets wearing binoculars, or chasing pigeons so that they would drop their food scraps for inspection, and I have a strong sense of how odd he must have appeared to many; I have felt a similar sensation many times when setting up a camera in the direction of a subject eminently unworthy or bemusing to the general passer-by. His ability to remain non-judgemental and undespairing when confronted by examples on a massive scale of the ecological havoc we were already wreaking on our environment is inspiring. Nothing is black and white when closely examined; gravel-pits and industrial waste-land are colonised by sand martins and grebes, the strafed patches of London post-World War II turn out to be the ideal breeding ground for the previously rare rosebay willowherb.
(Mabey, R (1973) The Unofficial Countryside. Little Toller Books)
Rebecca Solnit has written extensively on walking, and its engagement with politics, gender, art and history. I have recently begun to read Wanderlust-a history of walking. In this book 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.
Her thoughts underline and reinforce my own half-articulated feelings when walking the Auckland city streets recently.
When writing of these problems she states that “in some places it is no longer possible to be out in public, a crisis both for the private epiphanies of the solitary stroller and for public spaces democratic functions”
(Solnit, R. (2001)Wanderlust-a history of walking. Verso)
At times it seems like a strange kind of self-inflicted torture, reading books about walking when in fact I can only really get out and address my work in this way one day a week; a pilgrimage of any distance is a pipe-dream at present. Finding my material closer at hand is thus a part of the criteria for this work, necessitated by the realities of my life at present.
In strange ways however this circumscription puts me directly in contact with some of the themes I am coming to understand as important in the work.
Dealing with the local is becoming key, and so are questions of access and its attendant issues as well as a more careful and layered sense of “seeing”.
The derive, the pilgrimage, the meditative “mind at three miles an hour” (Solnit, R as above) All are aspects of pre-production and process, and are also bound up in the outcomes.