City Gallery Wellington
12 August – 19 November 2017
Within the City Gallery Wellington there is a portal to another realm. Measuring an invisible radius of no more than half a metre, it occupies only a small amount of space in our dimension but is powerful enough to transmit an audible signal from the astral plane. It sounds like a radio dropped down a drainpipe with the tuner dial stuck between stations, but listen closely and you might hear the pained drone of a spirit entity calling out amongst the electronic static. This wormhole to the other side is actually a work of art, Untitled (2010) by artist Simon Cuming, and features in the exhibition Occulture: The Dark Arts curated by Aaron Lister.
Occulture canvases the complicated terrain that thinly connects aspects of contemporary art, popular culture and spiritual belief. The term “occulture” is a catch-all category encompassing all forms of beliefs and cultural pursuits that range from stereotyped representations of the occult through to corporatised new age spirituality and the search for paranormal activity. By opening up the breadth of this topic, the exhibition brings into question the different roles and personas of artists ranging from the allure of the artist as a bohemian mystic, avant-garde shaman, sceptic and carnie-style trickster. The exhibition also questions the bias of rational modernist narratives in art history by considering the more speculative spiritualist legacy of abstract painting and new media art.
The latter is present in Cuming’s work and while only a modest contribution it is one of the most compelling in the exhibition. The portal radio static is created by a directional speaker and is placed to draw your attention to a photograph of a gravestone at night. There is nothing really to see in the image. It is hard to see what lingers in the dark behind the tree-encircled grave but it is hard to resist being drawn in to look closer just to make sure. Coupled with the audio there is certainly a suspense created that is similar to the thriller like anticipation that typified the low budget 1990s horror film The Blair Witch Project famed for its POV camcorder and flashlight aesthetic.
I learn later that the sound and image in Cuming’s work are documentation of a ghost hunting expedition within the Bolton Street Cemetery in Wellington. The cemetery is the city’s oldest and was established in 1840 for Pākehā settlers and notable colonial figures. Today the flow of traffic cuts through this hallowed ground due to a 1960s motorway project that required many graves to be exhumed. Perhaps the unholy portal Cuming has tuned into is one of Pākehā colonial guilt or the demons of modernity.
This combination of sound and image also references the history of photography and electronic technology as pseudo-objective tools for recording the intangible. As early as the 1850s, spiritualists were quick to manipulate photographic processes to insert ghosts, levitating figures, auras and ectoplasmic energies. The contemporary equivalent is the use of electromagnetic field devices, as used in TV programmes such as Ghost Hunters, that are also easily manipulated.
The claim of detecting or communing with spirits via electronic technology is also addressed by Tony Oursler in his work Incandescence (1999) but with a large measure of sarcasm. Located at the far end of the gallery in a type of utility cupboard a single bulb pulses in synch with a disembodied voice spouting a nonsensical monologue. The voice changes in register from a lost soul communing with the living to the booming voice of God or a spaced-out meditation instructor and its message ranges from descriptive visualisations to portentous statements and brainwashing repetitive mantras:
Space-time energy . . . look into the light, it may affect the workings of your mind . . . these are fantasies that will become a reality . . . visibly altered states of awareness, a reality, within a reality, within a reality, within a reality . . . impaired reasoning or decision making, [whispering] invisible, iiin-viiis-aaable.
It is difficult not to compare the possessed light bulb as a parody of the current corporate trend of mindfulness and self-care – a fashion that reeks of neo-liberal and capitalist agendas and wholesale appropriation of Eastern philosophy and spirituality twisted into a cult of individualism.
To capitalise further on the spiritual as a postmodern characteristic of occulture, for the work Apocalypse (2016) Thomson & Craighead have bottled a fragrance said to capture the aroma of the Book of Revelations. The perfume’s packaging reads like a perturbed wine review using the surreal fear and shame-inducing imagery of fire and brimstone, fornication and blood, as odour descriptors. The biblical theme in the context of the exhibition also links into the birth of the occult, which stems from the ability of Christianity to group other religions and beliefs into one unified underground force of evil. People labelled satanists and witches became convenient scapegoats to persecute anyone who appeared to be a threat to those in power or the social conventions that control them.
This history of persecution as a form of social correction and oppression is most notably present in the exhibition through the work of New Zealand-born Rosaleen Norton a.k.a the “Witch of Kings Cross.” In 1950s Sydney, Norton ran a coven of Pan worshippers at a time when witchcraft was illegal. She is pictured in a photograph flaunting the stereotyped persona of a charismatic occult leader. Norton claimed that her artworks, picturing elaborate geometry fused with mystical elemental deities, were made through a spiritual trance. Through other similar figures – Aleister Cowley who was a devotee of Rosaleen is another example – the exhibition highlights how in the “occultural turn” artists and other alternative thinkers co-opted the ostracised caricature of the occult and turned it into a countercultural force.
Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising (1970–81), a half hour film as one hallucinogenic dream sequence, is another example of popular culture appropriating the occult anti-hero legacy. This film was made amidst the hype of US serial killer sprees and mass murder cults. Anger collaborated with musician Bobby Beausoleil who was convicted of a murder in association with Charles Manson. The film and its wave of Hollywood neo-satanists also set the ground for an American Pentecostal Christian retaliation leading to the “satanic panic” of the 1980s and 1990s.
A slightly different facet of occulture suggested in the exhibition is a feminist agenda to subvert witch stereotypes and reclaim the validity of herbalist medicine and alternative healing. Inklings of this are present in Fiona Pardington’s work Altar (2017) which displays an intriguing arrangement of occult figurines, tarot cards, a human skull and herbalist literature. It has also been suggested that Pardington’s work explores Māori animism.
While this subject is certainly present within the breadth of Pardington’s practice, the link to a Māori worldview is not overtly apparent in this specific work. Māori perspectives are not explicitly explored elsewhere in the exhibition but are subtly inferred. Another example of this is the inclusion of All the places no one has ever been (2016) by Eleanor Cooper which can be appreciated as an elegant bronze divining rod, but takes on new significance once learning that it was inspired by the discovery of an ancient Māori flute.
Other works emphasise the artist as medium and the magical power of geometric abstraction as a tool for revealing cosmic truths. Reuniting the spiritual relationship between Aleister Crowley and Rosaleen Norton is Mikala Dwyer's large wall work Balancing Spell for a Corner (Aleister and Rosaleen)(2017). It is impossible to ignore and perhaps this is the magic at play. The work’s presence casts a spell over human perception through eye-catching shards of colour that collide across the corner of the gallery. Dwyer's work is also reminiscent of other early-twentieth century abstract mystic painters such as Emma Kunz and Hilma af Klint.
Two other standout installations are by Dane Mitchell and Yin-Ju Chen both of which concern celestial geometries. In Mitchell's installation Celestial Fields (2012), an array of blue stands, similar to museum stanchions, are used as nodal points joined to create star constellations that visitors can walk around and through. On the periphery of this interstellar labyrinth is a collection of exquisitely crafted ceramic ovoid forms. The cloudy ash-coloured surfaces of each object are inscribed with constellation-like markings. The wall label informs that these objects were made in collaboration with a Korean Shaman for Mitchell’s contribution to the 2012 Gwangju Biennale and were created through a process of incantation by imprinting markings derived from Mitchell's tongue.
Another component of Mitchell’s installation is a series of banners featuring what appear to be hands engaged in sign language but are apparently gestures derived from various belief systems to achieve astral perception. While the people or cultures that these gestures are appropriated from are not disclosed, the banners do come with extensive artwork titles. The titles describe the feeling of receiving and transmitting elemental energies and powers. Evidence of this transmutation is expressed as tingling and prickling sensations as well as thoughts described as if they have a telekinetic influence on reality. Mitchell’s installation is intriguing due to its ability to resist any one specific reading.
The spiritual relativity suggested in Mitchell’s work is contrasted by Yin-Ju Chen's installation Liquidation Maps (2014) that is explicitly didactic. Liquidation Maps revolves around five large intricate graphite drawings of concentric geometries that chart of planetary orbits. On the walls are information panels decoding the drawings astrological meanings, specifically their insight into historic humanitarian atrocities that have occurred in Asia. There are five significant massacres that the drawings are said to focus on ranging from the 1942 Sook Ching Massacre in Singapore during World War II to the 1975–79 mass killings by the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.
In each analysis the idiosyncratic descriptions are hard to follow logically. For instance, the Cambodian atrocities are attributed to the alignments of Mercury and the sun. This correlation is said to have caused the Khmer Rouge to “gain more power and become egocentric.” The killing of Cambodian intellectuals is claimed to have been caused by the alignment of Mars which apparently presides over foreign cultures –inferring that by simply being academics these people are assumed to be educated by a foreign culture and therefore targeted.
Chen’s work could be understood as speculative fictions made to provoke people to question the version of history and politics they are being fed. These astrological readings might also be deciphered as an attempt to shift away from an anthropocentric bias to viewing humans as just one small cog in much larger holistic cosmic machinery. The other conclusion is that the work's spurious correlations are an offensive distraction from a hard-to-accept reality—the reality that only humans are to blame for these horrific acts and not the meddling of evil forces or celestial movements.
For this reason, Liquidation Maps ventures into ethically problematic territory at a time when misinformation abounds and science is so easily dismissed. This is not just a concern for the current post-truth situation in the United States. Fanciful distortions of reality are also an issue in New Zealand. In 2011, a man named Ken Ring claimed he could predict earthquakes by studying the lunar cycle and following beliefs supposedly derived from ancient cultures. His potentially dangerous pseudoscience gained public popularity and media attention at a time when Christchurch quake trauma was still raw and people were desperate for a certainty that scientists were not prepared to give.
Occulture confidently ventures into a broad and wild subject matter with healthy amounts of sincerity and humour. There are many more works worthy of discussion, especially an intriguing collection of artist books, a surreal film work by Curtis Harrington, a peculiar portrait made of moth wings by Brendon Wilkinson and a suite of cosmic drawings by Leo Bensemann. And, even though the exhibition underplays some concerning aspects of occulture, what is gained is a well-researched exhibition that rewards multiple visits.
- ^ Aaron Lister, “Off the Devil’s Party: Contemporary Art and Occulture,” in Occulture: The Dark Arts, Wellington: City Gallery Wellington, 2017.
Bruce E. Phillips is a writer and curator based in Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand