The Dark Arts come to City Gallery Wellington

by Sally Blundell / 20 September, 2017
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Balancing Spell for a Corner (Aleister and Rosaleen), 2017, by Mikala Dwyer. Buratti Fine Art.

Already undergoing a revival on screen, the occult has now conjured up its own major art exhibition. 

It is the season of the witch; of the mystic, the magician and the medium.

Agent Dale Cooper, now Dark Coop, is back, stalking Twin Peaks with his coal-black gaze. Dragons and prophecies have torn through the latest series of Game of Thrones.

A movie of Margaret Mahy’s witch story The Changeover is soon to bring the evil Carmody Braque to the big screen. One of last year’s biggest independent American hits was The Witch, set in Puritan New England. In the fashion world, Japanese label Comme des Garçons launched its 2016 summer season with a darkly adorned occultist collection. Around the world, galleries are turning over their orderly white walls to the arcane realms of magic and metaphysics. As a recent Guardian article declared, “The occult returns to the art world.”

“But,” says US “witch”, curator and teacher of magical history Pam Grossman, “the occult has never entirely gone away from the art world.

“Public interest waxes and wanes, but the occult has been influencing artists for as long as art has been made. The Symbolist movement, the abstract art movement – all those artists were trying to render the invisible visible, to take experiences that are metaphysical or sublime or ineffable and pull them into the visual space.”

Grossman is participating, through an appropriately disembodied Skype talk, in one of a series of events marking Occulture, City Gallery Wellington’s new exhibition of esoteric art.

The exhibition demonstrates the persistence of magical thinking in publishing, painting, videos, photography, sculpture and installation from the late 1700s to the present day.

Although largely ignored by the art-history establishment, the entanglement between art and occult practices has always been at play, says City Gallery curator Aaron Lister.

Scene from BBC 4 documentary Aleister Crowley: The Wickedest Man in the World

“If you think of the meaning of the word ‘occult’ as hidden or secret knowledge, art is also a form that tries to open up those alternative ways of thinking about our place in the world. At particular times in history, that connection between art and the occult becomes really direct, maybe through the breaking down of established power structures and the search for other ways of being.”

At the centre of the exhibition are three rarely seen works by notorious English occultist and self-taught artist Aleister Crowley. Once declared “the wickedest man in the world”, he made these works while establishing his Abbey of Thelema in Sicily (Mussolini threw him out of Italy in 1923 for sexual depravity). One is an image of the Hierophant, the masculine counterpart to the High Priestess in the tarot pack; another is Crowley’s scarlet-haired lover; another is a self-portrait as the Sun God – all flaming halo and blackened eyes.

The Sun (Autoportrait), 1920, by Aleister Crowley. Buratti Fine Art.

“For Crowley, magic was the science of understanding one’s self,” says Australian artist, curator and Crowley collector Robert Buratti. “He saw art as the pure expression of his spiritual life, as a medium for self-realisation and growth.”

Crowley’s work glares across the gallery at that of devotee Rosaleen Norton, a New Zealand-born, Sydney-based artist whose radical paganism (she saw herself as a disciple of Pan) and sexually graphic art earned her the sobriquet “the Witch of Kings Cross”. Reviled as a Satanist – a 1952 publication of her art, including an image of a naked Norton in the embrace of a black panther, was confiscated by US Customs – she was, says Grossman, a radical spiritualist, a fearless feminist creating “very erotic, powerful sacred work”.

From these two groups of works, the exhibition embarks on a time-travelling journey through the spiritual, the esoteric and the mythic.

A self-described tourist in the arcane world of secret knowledge, Auckland artist Dane Mitchell draws on the ritualistic practices of the shaman in his work. His elegant and questioning installation Celestial Fields includes midnight-blue museum cordons arranged as a grounded star map, hand-blown glass balls made with the fused breath of the artist and a Korean shaman, and a series of ceramic objects made with hallucinogenic plant materials and indented with a cast of the artist’s tongue.

The Vision, c1970, by Rosaleen Norton. Buratti Fine Art.

In a series of exquisitely crafted monoprints, thick with seductive gloom and glowering anguish, Christchurch artist Jason Greig uses The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as an analogy for the desperate impulsiveness of addiction and his own battle with alcoholism.

Further on, Fiona Pardington’s photographic work references the sumptuous drama of vanitas or memento mori painting – darkly lit skewered fruit, draped pearls, tarot cards and a split pomegranate presenting a deeply romantic evocation of memory, mourning and sensuality.

In Liquidation Maps, Taiwanese artist Yin-Ju Chen ties historic acts of state violence, including the 1975 Khmer Rouge capture of Phnom Penh, to astrological readings of each event, illustrated through large charcoal star charts suggesting a level of cosmic predetermination behind such acts of terror.

Where Crowley and Norton’s work is darkly ritualistic, others play up the staginess of the signs, symbols and processes of the occult.

Apocalypse, a lavishly presented bottle of viscous brown fragrance by London-based artists Jon Thomson and Alison Craighead, is an olfactory record of the Book of Revelations, including blood, earth, hail, “wine of her fornication” and a “grievous sore”. Simon Cumming’s visual and audio recording of Wellington’s Bolton St cemetery at night builds on the Victorian fascination with the paranormal, the very human impulse to find meaning in the random patterns of sound and video track.

Norton, known as “the Witch of Kings Cross”, in 1950.

In an unlined utility room, a bare light bulb, flickering in time with the gravelly voice of American artist Tony Oursler, simulates turn-of-the-century séances, here comically bereft of the shadowy spookiness of their candle-lit archetype.

Occulture draws a wide arc of loosely defined occult art, taking in the ritualistic and the irreverent (thankfully free of black walls or atmospheric music) and cheerfully anchored by two works by Sydney artist Mikala Dwyer: an oversized charm bracelet of glass and brightly coloured plastic amulets and a geometric splash of a spell radiating out in a blaze of light and benevolence.

The exhibition plays out and plays up our enduring fascination with the unseen world in a broad sweep of art forms across place and time. Some conceptually engaging, some truly haunting and some clearly haunted, the works all demonstrate the persistent appeal of other ways of thinking.

“The imagination is integral to any well-functioning society,” says Grossman. “If you don’t make room for dreams and mystery, then you risk being bound to a life of literalism, and literalism is not only boring – at its worst, it is dangerous.”

Occulture: The Dark Arts, City Gallery Wellington until November 19.

This article was first published in the September 23, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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