Review: Occulture: The Dark Arts

Occulture: The Dark Arts, City Gallery, Wellington, Curated by Aaron Lister, 12 August - 19 November 2017

Light’s Black Majesty: Midnight Sun: Lord of the wild and living stars:

Soul of Magic and master of Death; Panther of Night…enfold me (1)

 

Snape is dead, Harry, Hermione and Ron have moved on with their lives, Voldemort seems to be conquered and my dreams of attending Hogwarts, meeting the sorting hat and being assigned Ravenclaw are left in longing on account of reality not quite being able to reach that magical wonderland, and now, I find my self drawn to City Gallery standing in front of Occulture: The Dark Arts. Most people associate sorcery, witches, and magic as phenomena that exist only in fantasy, that ghosts are not ‘real’ and if spirits exist they are separated from us, banished to another world. Here artists and their works explore such conjuring as a legitimate possibility. The exhibition curated by Aaron Lister includes historical pieces alongside contemporary works by artists from New Zealand, Australia and further abroad. Occulture: The Dark Arts sits on the ground floor and is presented in three spaces, the first holding the majority of works; the second, Dane Mitchell’s installation of cosmic sculptures and spatial interventions Non Verbal Gesture, 2015 and Celestial Fields, 2012; the third containing Mikala Dwyer’s Charm for Wall, 2017, David Chaim Smith’s The Blazing Dew of Stars, 2013 and Yin-Ju Chen’s Liquidation Maps, 2014.  

The first chapter is the most thought provoking and sets up high expectations for the rest of the exhibit. The darkness starts with Simon Cuming’s photograph Untitled, 2010; an unnamed gravestone planted in a forest is accompanied by eerie echoing from speakers above. An over exposed tree branch illuminates the burial like a lighting strike—a picture reminiscent of a crime only Allison DuBois’ psychic vision can solve. The intrigue continues as varied timelines of the works push and pull histories. Henry Fuseli’s painting Study for the Three Witches in Macbeth, 1783 is partnered with Thomson & Craighead’s perfume Apocalypse, 2016, a fragrance more akin to a witch’s potion than a floral bouquet. Ingredients are determined by biblical means and include dirt, thunder and burnt flesh straight from the Book of Revelation. The incantations continue with colourful paintings by the notoriously spooky, occultist, ceremonial magician and Thoth Tarot card creator Aleister Crowley, his works The Sun, 1920, The Hierophant, 1921, Beauty. Portrait de Ninette Shumway, 1922, and Sans Titre (Cute autour de Cefal), 1922 have outsider art qualities, representing his subconscious and magical worlds. These works are significant historical documents, namely due to the fact that most of Crowley’s images were destroyed upon his banishment from Italy in 1923. During Mussolini’s regime there were raids conducted across the country targeting occult practices, enforcing the closure of Crowley’s Abby of Thelma in Cefalú, Sicily. Mikala Dwyer’s multi-coloured geometric wall painting Balancing Spell for a Corner (Aleister and Rosaleen), 2017 reaches out like butterfly wings, drawing the eye into varying understandings of perspective and space, following the ocular like a ghost as Dwyer’s spell is mirrored in the glassy surface of Crowley’s works and in Rosaleen Norton’s (colloquially known as the Witch of Kings Cross) paintings and drawings, Hecate, 1960, The Magician, 1970, The Vision, 1970 and Lucifer and the Goat of Mendes, 1970.  Dwyer’s site-specific work is not only a spatial intervention but also a historical one, connecting Norton’s fellowship in Crowley’s pagan practices whilst ‘balancing’ in literal terms their compositions and metaphorically the potentially encoded power within these pictorial planes.

John Milton’s Paradise Lost manuscripts from 1866, 1870 and 1882, are displayed with illustrations by Gustave Doré in editions from 1870 and 1882. This epic poem has an ambiguous reading history, leaving Milton scholars in a moral and aesthetic head spin due to Milton’s reputation as a fervent critic of authoritative powers; the battle of good and evil can be interpreted as a conflict between religion and politics, namely in relation to the dispute between Catholic, Protestant and Anglican denominations arising in early to mid 16th Century England. Doré’s prints are dark, moody and although small in scale, theatrical. Angels and demons both have wings; to distinguish moral symbolism becomes near impossible, and Fuseli's illustrations in Paradise Lost, 1688, snakes morph into tree roots, humans are naked, muscular and miniaturise other beings imaged on the page. Beside the bookish vitrine a portrait made from real moth wings, Inner Wing, 2012, by Brendon Wilkinson, may contain witches’ and angels’ souls. Some people will never kill moths as they say they are angels, while witches are said to send their souls out of their bodies and into moth form.(2) Where Milton’s narrative and Doré’s images contain high drama, so much so that you can almost hear the heavens, earth and the underworld screaming, Wilkinson’s smoky grey portrait is a quiet flutter containing another sort of battle—life and death. Here a moral stance is not implied instead it portrays the fine thread by which existence in corporeal form hangs.

Another poetic text is The Art of Rosaleen Norton with Poems by Gavin Greenlees, 1952, proffering countercultural themes, black panthers, gleaming green eyes possessed with black magic and prowling spirits condemn humanity. Greenlees writes to a spiritual world describing a mortality so spoiled that the better existence is an engulfing by darkness: ‘hatred and heaven are blending within me, they beat in the pulse of the stars… child of the shadow, I hate all humanity! Night, freakish night, sets me free.’(3) This release mediates the voids between a holy trinity of sorts: human existence, heaven and hell, and places ‘evil’ as an earthy grievance, foul play is no longer the Devil’s game but a human characteristic. The combination of Paradise Lost and The Art of Rosaleen Norton with Poems by Gavin Greenlees complicates the exhibition’s theological themes as they show the borrowings of Christian doctrine in occult practices. The binary battle of heaven and hell still exist in witchcraft and/ or pagan ideologies, only here the Christian model is borrowed, not followed.

Unfortunately, this agile conversation between history and contemporaneity was countered by a sense of disappointment due to curatorial decisions that drive the narrative to a rushed and less considered end, one being the placement of Dwyer’s Charm for Wall, 2017, and Chaim Smith’s The Blazing Dew of Stars, 2013.  Neither of these works is dreary or problematic in and of themselves, instead an awkward treatment of space makes the works appear superfluous.  

More problematic though, is the exhibition’s claim to ‘culture’. What culture is being expressed and represented here? It appears a predominantly Anglo one. This would not particularly be a problem if there was some specificity in Occulture: The Dark Arts’ assertion of culture, as the exhibition stands, however, the term ‘culture’ embedded in the title is used far too broadly. Here what is broad is not all-inclusive, instead, this umbrella term colonises an area of research, leaving what could be an interesting investigation diluted. Most cultures around the world exhibit the signs of witchcraft, shamanism, mysticism and pagan ritual in some form or another, whether it be ancient or ‘new age’, not just English or English-colonized nations. And where the perspective of an Anglo-flavoured nation is expressed, then, what about the Indigenous voices? There was an opportunity to represent in greater detail Maori perspectives on the occult and feminist trajectories. If culture is undefined then accountability is lost in lethargy. This lassitude only repeats the dominating tropes of historicisation and the archiving of cultural phenomena. An investigation into magical worlds must necessarily trace the histories and also, very importantly, HERSTORIES of paganism and or other alternative belief systems. Aside from the direct definition of pagan meaning a person holding religious beliefs outside of any standardised ideology, translated more widely this definition could be interpreted as a person who reasons critically, acting outside of or perhaps as a counterweight to the set modes of indoctrination, political or social habituation.

Whilst Occulture: The Dark Arts was successful in representing work from diverse periods, the exhibition fell short of embodying diverse localities. When addressing ‘culture’ there is a responsibility in recognising the specificity and, conversely, the diversity of it. The ideas that the exhibition is trying to explore are the influences of the occult on contemporary art, and, more broadly, the effect of a countercultural movement on mainstream culture. There could have been much more depth and in 2017 (and of course before now) we should expect more accountability and attention to the nuances of cultural and historical representation. Despite these criticisms, Occulture: The Dark Arts is timely in revisiting these histories and ideas in a contemporary framework, given the current geo-political state of things, where conservatism is like a plague, ushering humanity into another ‘Dark Ages’. An enquiry into the ‘dark arts’ may provide us with alternative ways of thinking and being in the world.

 

 

 

(1) Text exhibited in Occulture: The Dark Arts, Poem by Gavin Greenlees, 1952, Walter Glover Publishing, Sydney.

(2) Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore and the Occult Sciences, 1903 and curatorial image caption text.

(3) Text exhibited in Occulture: The Dark Arts, Poem by Gavin Greenlees, 1952, Walter Glover Publishing, Sydney.

 

 

 

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Henry Fuseli, Study for the Three Witches in Macbeth, 1783, oil on canvas, 42 x 53cm, Image courtesy of City Gallery, Wellington and Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.

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Mikala Dwyer, Balancing Spell for a Corner (Aleister and Rosaleen), 2017, acrylic paint on wall, Image courtesy of City Gallery, Wellington, Hopkinson Mossman, Auckland and Hamish McKay Gallery, Wellington.

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Simon Cuming, Untitled, 2010, photograph and audio, Image courtesy of City Gallery Wellington.

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Thomson & Craighead, Apocalypse, 2016, perfume, Image courtesy of City Gallery, Wellington and Carroll/Fletcher, London.

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Aleister Crowley, The Sun, 1920, The Hierophant, 1921, Beauty. Portrait of Ninette Shumway, 1922, oil on board, Image courtesy of City Gallery, Wellington, Buratti Fine Art, Perth and Ordo Templi Orientis, Perth.

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Aleister Crowley, Sans Titre (Cute autour de Cefal), 1922, ink on paper, Image courtesy of City Gallery, Wellington and Ordo Templi Orientis, Perth.

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Rosaleen Norton, Hecate, 1960, oil on board, Image courtesy of City Gallery, Wellington and Buratti Fine Art, Perth.

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Rosaleen Norton, Lucifer and the Goat of Mendes, 1970, oil on board, Image courtesy of CIty Gallery, Wellignton and Prince Charles Edward Stuart, Sydney.

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Rosaleen Norton, The Magician, 1970, pencil on paper, Image courtesy of City Gallery, Wellington and Buratti Fine Art, Perth.

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Rosaleen Norton, The Vision, 1970, pencil on paper, Image courtesy of City Gallery, Wellington and Buratti Fine Art, Perth.

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John Milton, Paradise Lost: A poem in Twelve Books, illustration by Henry Fuseli, Satan Rises from the Burning Lake,1688, Alexander Turnbull Library, Alexander Turnbull, Rare Books & Fine Printing Collection, Image courtesy of City Gallery, Wellington.

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Brendan Wilkinson, Inner Wing, 2012, moth wings, archival glue on paper, Image courtesy of City Gallery Wellington.

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John Milton, Paradise Lost, 1866, 1870, 1882, installation shot, Image courtesy of City Gallery, Wellington and Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. 

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Mikala Dwyer, Charm for Wall, 2017, ceramic, wood, modelling clay, moonstone, philosopher's stone, turquoise, Midori, acrylic, brass wire, string, perspex, glass, chain, Image courtesy of City Gallery, Wellington, Hopkinson Mossman, Auckland and Hamish McKay Gallery, Wellington.

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David Chaim Smith, The Blazing Dew of Stars, 2013, published by FULGUR, Image Courtesy of City Gallery, Wellington.

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Yin-Ju Chen, Liquidation Maps, 2014, charcoal and pencil drawings, video, text, Image courtesy of City Gallery, Wellington and Chin-Wei Gallery, Taipei.

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John Milton, Paradise Lost; illustrated by Gustave Dore, 1882, edited with notes by Robert Vaughan, London: Cassell & Co, 1882, Image courtesy of City Gallery, Wellington. 

Caitlin Patane is a practicing artist living and working in Melbourne and Research Assistant at Art+Australia. Her work focuses on writing, drawing, and an engagement with text and texts. She is interested in publication and editing as artistic practice, and the space between literature and conceptual art are investigated. Her practice is concerned with ideas around translation, history and social potentials of language in its many forms.