Into the Mystic

As secularisation grows at an unprecedented rate, one might assume a steady decoupling of art and spirituality. However, a pulse of counter-cultural, mystical interest has gradually worked its way from the outer to the inner, having reached a point of critical mass in the present landscape of contemporary art.

Pippa Mott, in conversation with Katy B. Plummer, Kate Mitchell, Byzantia Harlow and Shana Moulton, explores the artist as oracle, and the intersection of magical thinking with society at large.

Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings opened at the Art Gallery of New South Wales on 12 June 2021 to incredible critical acclaim and fervent public interest. The escalating Delta crisis in Sydney led to the exhibition’s premature closure after just fourteen days, but during its brief but brilliant moment in the light, artists Katy B Plummer and Nicole Barakat presented a performance-based public program entitled LET THIS MOMENT WATER YOU, that drew on their shared interests in divinatory practises. Plummer described the work as being born out of a desire to introduce af Klint’s practice to a general audience, whilst creating a “really lush and nourishing experience for people where they might put their critical, rational selves on mute and allow themselves to soak in something mysterious and lovely.” The experience asked members of the public to explore spirit drawing; cede control and submit to intuition. Participants were offered plant essences and oracle cards to respond to. Their creations were gathered and sealed in self-addressed envelopes, which they would receive in a year’s time. The artists were surprised to encounter only marginal cynicism or resistance to the method – Plummer describes a genuine openness to “the magic of the process.”  

 Driving her alternative spiritual inquiries, Plummer cites an uneasiness with the dominant mode of settler-colonial Christianity within Australia and its complicity in the horrors of patriarchy and imperialism. She adds that “our own folk traditions, our own ancestral, pre-Christian pathways into relationships with concepts such as ‘The Divine’ and ‘the Spirit World’ have been largely decimated and buried.” There is an inherent challenge to the reconstruction of these practises, which can often tend towards the reactive, fetishising, or anaemic (as Plummer puts it – “emptied of spiritual nutrition”). At the very worst, they are “consumptive of the traditions of the colonised and marginalised people of the world.” Through conversations with Barakat, Plummer came to understand the rich history of “Black, Indigenous and queer artists of colour who fiercely carved out space in a secularised art world to bring continuity to their spiritual traditions,” and acknowledges that any investigations within this terrain on the behalf of the white art world owe their freedom of expression and contemporary receptivity to these practitioners. 

 THE CALL, 2018, an installation and video work at Airspace Gallery, harnessed the supernatural and the spirit world as spaces to explore accountability. A cast of ghosts assert the need to override the colonisers’ narrative of “starting afresh” and “moving on from the past,” and confront the atrocities of “our forebears, descendants and comrades and the institutions that drain and sustain us.” Plummer expounds that “it feels like this cultural forgetting is a deeply deliberate and profound part of what I think of as the spiritual wound of whiteness. Our intergenerational histories have become haunted houses full of forgotten entities that are still active and even dangerous, ghosts that we can perhaps feel, but don’t necessarily know how to name, much less process, make amends for or lay to rest.” 

 The mystic is a fertile ground for the investigation of self and society. Kate Mitchell’s practice, which spans video, public intervention and objects, has recently intensified in its exploration of wellness and New Age practises in an ongoing meditation on the complex relationship between individuals, society, and capitalism, and the tension between the unknowability of the world versus the human desire for control and certainty. Drawing on various healing modalities, aura photography, oracle decks, and spirit communication, Mitchell is interested in the role that such observances play in the pursuit of self-knowledge and self-affirmation. She does not shy away from the intersection between the wellness industry complex and capitalism, which pressures individuals to constantly work on themselves so that they may conform to a model that equates the optimised individual with the optimised citizen, consumer and worker. Such a system ensures that “a ‘problem’ is then always defined as the individual’s own, whilst larger social structural issues can be sidestepped.” Mitchell remains optimistic, however, about society and community at large and in 2020, presented an ambitious work that sought to celebrate human interconnectedness. All Auras Touch, 2020, commissioned by Carriageworks, invited 1,023 members of the public (one person for each of the 1,023 occupations recognised by the Australian Census) to have their aura photographed. Using electromagnetic field imaging equipment, portraits were taken which formed part of an expansive installation. All Auras Touch forms a reminder that “humans are all energetic beings made up of the same matter.” 

A newly commissioned work, Open Channels, 2022, to be presented at the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, will take the form of a video conference call with the spirit realm. The work takes as its point of departure a collated list of eighty-three high frequency Google searches relating to questions on life and its meaning, reflecting Australia’s national existential interests throughout 2020 and 2021. Here, Mitchell considers the way in which the internet has usurped the augur, in that we turn to this ephemeral network with our most difficult, personal and mundane questions in search of answers, predictions and direction. Another work, The Communication Deck, 2020, commissioned by the Art Gallery of New South Wales for the Together in Art virtual platform, 2020, married the design of oracle decks with exercises in mindfulness. Cards included “Mixtape,” a prompt to create a soundtrack to one’s day, month or life; “Satellite,” which asked the beholder to reframe their perspective and visualise the present from twenty years in the future, through the eyes of a friend, or from space looking back on earth; and “Touch,” which encouraged individuals to feel the sun on their skin, pat a dog or cat, or caress a flower. The work was, of course, developed within the context of lockdown – a period throughout which physical connections were significantly restricted, and astrology and tarot experienced a groundswell of attention within popular culture (as if we could blame the entire catastrophe on a Mercury Retrograde). Mitchell is drawn to oracle decks for their capacity to “provide frameworks for self-understanding, self-awareness, connection, storytelling, path-finding and myth-making.”

 Byzantia Harlow, a London-based artist whose work spans sculpture, installation, performance and video, maintains a double life as a practitioner of tarot. Harlow explains that “the two practises are deeply interconnected and feed into each other,” with the archaic system of signs and symbols and broader supernatural subjects operating pertinently throughout her work. On the patrilineal side, Harlow is descended from an ancient Italo-Byzantine family with a long-standing interest in the occult. Her ancestors kept a library of arcane, Aramaic and alchemical texts, whilst her father trained in Jungian analytics. On her matrilineal side, Harlow has Bermudan and Cherokee heritage. Her grandmother had a deep interest in the paranormal, spiritualism, clairvoyance, and autosuggestion, whilst her mother’s cousin has authored several books on Bermuda hauntings. Harlow herself visited her first medium at twelve years of age, despite not personally knowing anyone who had died at that point in her life.

In a Soho Radio series entitled The Silver Stream, 2019–2021, Harlow explored her theological and philosophical interests with a range of guests. Several episodes discussed the way in which “today’s secular society is out of step with the majority of the human race’s time on Earth, in which magic and ritual were the norm.” She posits that humans have retained an inbuilt, latent proclivity towards magical thinking that exists despite the overwhelming secularisation of society. Despite her genuine commitment to the craft, Harlow’s work acknowledges the cognitive bias of belief – considerations around the constructedness of experience and the human potential for apophenia. Take What Resonates, 2021, incorporated over a year’s worth of observations from her own experiences with online psychics and reflected on the interpretation of messages and the making of meaning. The work included a soundscape with a distillation of recorded psychic predictions, centring on those that came to pass or felt accurate (enacting in a sense the phenomenon confirmation bias). The work, which more broadly featured performance and sculpture, consciously commented on the instinct to “weave meaning into object and encounter” and the oscillation between belief and scepticism.

 Intersecting with astrology and psychology is an interest in the application of mind-altering natural agents to reach an expanded consciousness. Organic elements make their way into Harlow’s sculptures and installations, whether modelled in bronze, clay or bio-resin, or present in the form of fungal spores, dried botanical specimens and live plants. Mushrooms, with their expansive subterranean mycelium networks, connect Harlow’s interest in psychonautics with the chthonic – that of the underworld. Psilocybin (The Sediments of Sentiments), 2020, is a mixed media work with a surface that appears alive and teeming, erupting with breasts, lips, poppies, crushed crystals and the eponymous magic mushroom. Harlow evokes the alchemical, mixing materials “to create a sort of sensuality and this idea of forms shifting from solid to liquid, human to botanical.” Harlow’s 2018 exhibition From the same source I have not taken featured a performative, interactive element – The well is being lined – which involved a concoction of psychedelic Absinthe and Salvia tonic, healing Maitake and Shiitake mushrooms, and edible Dianthus and Viola flowers, served by maenad-like attendants.

 Santa Barbara-based artist Shana Moulton produces video works with a distinctly dream-like logic, influenced in part by early surrealist films and experiences with psychedelics. She cites the influence of the writer Erik Davis, who described the desire not so much to do drugs as to “think drugs, and simulate their hyper-connections, magical causality, and the semiotic drift as much as possible.” Moulton revels in forming connections between seemingly disparate things, and “making meaning where none exists” – a method that infuses her Whispering Pines series, 2002–ongoing, with enchantment and pure absurdity. The hyper-connectivity and sense of cosmic order is palpable but stands in equal measure with themes of loneliness and detachment. Moulton’s alter-ego, Cynthia, characterised by the New York Times as a “hot mess,” is an introverted, hypochondriac, white middle-class woman on a mission for wellness and spiritual awakening. Her inward focus sees her largely withdrawn from the outside world, surrounded by an ever-expanding arsenal of crystals, New Age knick-knacks and health and beauty products that promise to unlock her best self. 

The Whispering Pines series, begun in 2002, was named after the mobile-home park for senior citizens near Yosemite, California, where Moulton grew up. Perhaps as a result of a childhood spent in proximity to the elderly, the series is infused with a rhetoric around anti-ageing ritual and a tension between seeking change and stopping it in its tracks. Many of the objects that appear with totemic potency seem drawn from home shopping channels – awash with snake-oil promise. Moulton envisions Cynthia as being engrossed in a search for the fountain of youth: “That search is equal to her quest for spiritual salvation. They are almost one and the same for her.” The video installation Personal Steam Interface, 2019, featured Cynthia entombed within a shrine-like portable steam sauna (available via Amazon with claims of immunity-boosting, weight-loss, and detoxifying powers). Projected upon its surface, her Google search history reveals a series of enquiries into the ages of various eternally youthful stars – Dolly Parton, Alicia Keys, and Jennifer Lopez. In Moulton’s world, self-care becomes a radically transcendental act. 

In Whispering Pines 8, 2006, Cynthia prepares a glass of “Crystal Light” – a diet beverage in powdered form – in a manner suggestive of alchemical ritual. Adequately primed, she busies herself with homecrafts that border on witchcraft, and proceeds to attend a rave in the attic set to a pulsing remix of Enya’s “Orinoco Flow.” The episode was inspired by the night terrors experienced by Moulton’s mother, that ceased when she stopped drinking aspartame-enhanced diet beverages. Moulton explained that she had read Carl Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy, 1944, right before making Whispering Pines 8 – “I started to see some of the alchemical symbolism he describes in the found objects I had lying around my studio, like the mechanical peacock and the glass orbs and vases. It made me wonder about the alchemical potential of home decor, if the act of decorating activated energies, unseen processes or spiritual geometries.” 

Thinking upon the mystic within the contemporary art world and society at large, Moulton considers its movement from the periphery to the mainstream: “I grew up in a small Christian town where mysticism was sort of taboo when I was a kid. Weirdly it also felt slightly taboo in the art world twenty-plus years ago when I was a student. Nowadays, most of the Christians from my town don’t mind mysticism or are embracing it (in the form of things like QAnon), perhaps for the same reasons that the art world is? Less dogma, more freedom, or more desperation?” Of this particular moment in time, Plummer suggests that “engaging with the transrational feels perfectly logical when order is crumbling.”

 Speaking more broadly about art and magic, Harlow muses that “I think all art making is about constructing realities, building universes. I love the sensation of entering a complete world with an artist, that there is an internal logic, mythology and system of symbols at play.” Plummer echoes this view, offering that “[magic] has always been a core part of art’s function. I often think of the Magician card in the Rider Waite tarot deck as being analogous with the figure of the artist. The Magician has one finger pointed at the sky, receiving pure information from the cosmos, and one finger is pointed at the earth, giving that pure information material form through the power of their Will and Word. The Artist and the Witch both function in this way: they bring a thing into existence, point at it, name it, and it Becomes.”

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 58, 2022. 
Images courtesy the artists.

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