Taking place this October – just in time for Hallowe’en – is a two-week festival of esoteric art, entitled I:MAGE 2014, that promises to explore the fertile relationship between artists and spirit entities.
If the world of the esoteric can often seem closed off (almost by definition) then I:MAGE 2014 goes some way towards breaking out of these traditional boundaries. The exhibition is supplemented by a packed events programme, which includes a performance by Turner Prize nominee Mark Titchner, a full day of film screenings and a lecture by activist-anthropologist David Graeber.
Subtitled “Travelling with Unfamiliar Spirits”, I:MAGE 2014 is organised by Fulgur Esoterica, who, as publishers of the scholarly and beautiful Abraxas Journal, as well as other books and editioned art, are at the forefront of the promotion of the esoteric. But this is their biggest foray yet into the world of events.
We spoke to Livia Filotico, production manager at Abraxas Journal and the exhibition curator of I:MAGE 2014 to find out more.
The Learned Pig: How did the idea for I:MAGE first come about? Why have you decided to extend its scope from 2013?
Livia Filotico: The idea was Robert Ansell’s [who founded Fulgur in 1992] and it stemmed from a desire to represent a group of talented artists whose voices were not being heard as well as a movement that was not being recognised. I suppose he thought it was time somebody did something, especially as the interest in esotericism has grown so much in the last ten years.
Looking at Fulgur, I guess in one way or another it has always been about art – first it was about Austin Osman Spare, then it expanded and began representing contemporary artists in book form, so perhaps a physical exhibition was the obvious next step. And it went well! People were interested in what we had to say so we thought, why not do it again, but, this time, bigger.
TLP: Why do you think the spirit world has proved such a longstanding and fertile area of interest for artists?
LF: There are several reasons, some of which can be broken down whilst others are so closely related to individual narratives that they really are difficult to analyse. I think one common mistake critics make, and this is not just in art but in anthropology, sociology and social sciences in general, is to reduce personal experiences to a set of political, social and economical circumstances. But I think it’s more important – and more interesting! – to look at these experiences in terms of how they make us feel and how they help us transform.
Communication with spirits is a transformative act because it allows artists to perceive the world through new eyes and in so doing it gives them access to new worlds. At the same time, communicating with spirits is a way through which artists can externalise experiences which would otherwise remain latent. In this sense, esoteric ideas and symbols provide a language through which these experiences can be articulated. I am thinking here of what Blake called the “poetic genius” and where that comes from.
Esoteric artists are not the only ones to perceive inspiration as often coming from “somewhere else”, but different groups articulate similar concepts in different ways, and spirit entities happen to belong to the esoteric language. So I think the spirit world serves a double purpose: it gives artists the ability to create new worlds and to express their inner ones all at the same time.
TLP: Looking at it the other way round, what is it that art can contribute to discussions around the esoteric that, say, academia or literature might struggle with?
LF: Art is direct in a way that neither academia nor literature can be. Esoteric culture has always been associated with knowledge, learning and the intellect. But of course the other side of the coin is intuition, imagination and the impulse of creation. And the latter is as important as, and complementary to, the former. Artistic creativity can do that.
In many ways, an artist is a magician at work.
Another important aspect of esoteric art is that it helps bridging the gap between high and low culture, reminding people inside the esoteric community that the topic they are engaging with is about lived experiences as much as a good tome of symbols is. Leonora Carrington expressed this perfectly when she asked her nephew to stop intellectualiing her work and to just focus on what it makes you feel. In many ways, an artist is a magician at work. But whilst with rituals there is often a very thick layer of performance involved – which inevitable veils the meaning – with art the working is open for all to see.
TLP: The show seems to be quite broad in scope and there are lots of very different artists involved. Are there common threads running through the exhibition and events?
LF: Absolutely. And if it seems broad it’s because we are trying to say a lot: that the relationship between artists and spirit entities is a longstanding one and that it goes beyond the remit of fine art to encompass performance, music, film etc. Which is why we have so many events. Each one of them attempts to fulfill that purpose by adding a piece of the puzzle.
The conference taking place at the Warburg Institute focuses on esoteric artists of the past and aims to show how esoteric symbols and ideas really have been flirting with the world of art for quite some time (think of symbolism, modernism or surrealism). Similarly, Jesse Bransford’s workshop explores the history of colour through an esoteric lens and makes us look at characters like Goethe and think, “no way, an occultist!”
Jesse’s second event is a lecture on a collaborative art project that he carried out with Max Razdow – and it offers a perfect example of how art and magical practices extend way beyond the canvas to include blogging, writing and performance. Mark Titchner’s performance shows a connection between performance art and the occult and it gives us a glimpse of how academia is also engaged with these topics.
Personally, I think it’s quite rare for a movement to keep resurfacing in history and to take so many different forms within culture, and that really should make us think about its relevance today. You may also have noticed that the artists represented look very different in terms of style. And that is an effect we sought too in order to demonstrate how communication with spirits and esoteric ideas in art are about a particular sensibility which permeates the work rather than about a set of prefixed aesthetic rules (and hence, a fashion).
It makes us look at characters like Goethe and think, “no way, an occultist!”
To top it all off, we decided the exhibition should take place at the end of October because traditionally, in paganism, folklore and esoteric traditions, this is the time of year when spirits cross the veil between their world and ours.
TLP: It seems that there are lots of animals in many of the works. Plus potentially a rethinking of the natural through the supernatural. Is that something you’d agree with? If so, might you be able to elaborate on the relationship between the natural and the supernatural in the works on show, and in the esoteric tradition more generally?
LF: I would definitely agree with both points. In most esoteric philosophies nature is considered to be the main conduit to the divine and is seen as divine itself. It makes us think about the proposition “as above so below”, meaning that what we perceive as divine in the spheres of the celestial bodies is also within us and in the natural world that surrounds us. In this sense, nature is both a spirit itself and it is populated by them (animals, humans, plants). Francesco Parisi’s work [beloe] plays on this idea. The work he’s exhibiting portrays an Italian landscape enchanted and divine in its own rights. He doesn’t need to portray fauns, nymphs and demi-gods. They’re there, we feel their presence through the canvas.
Similarly, Arrivabene’s work bears a very strong relationship with the passing of time and the cycles of the seasons as represented through myth. He works with Persephone and Hades because these two figures impersonate life and death both in the natural world and in our inner landscape (so the harvesting of the crops corresponds an internal shift, a change of perspective and a constant fluidity of what we call reality).
Animals are an important aspect of esoteric work for similar reasons. On the one hand they represent our instincts, our passions, and complementary to this, they are the purest side of what we are. That’s one of the reasons why they are often associated with the concept of spirit guides, an esoteric version of “follow your instinct”. There is a long tradition of familiars in western esotericism from witchcraft to shamanism to the shape-shifting abilities of most pantheons. With I:MAGE artists, I think we see that most clearly in Arrington de Dyoniso’s work. His animals are an embodiment of spirit and a talisman all at the same time.
TLP: The esoteric is sometimes viewed as something of only historical interest, with limited applicability in today’s s-called age of science. How would you counter this? What does I:MAGE (and the work of Fulgur more broadly) have to offer to a sceptical public?
LF: The greatest strength of esoteric ideas is that they don’t require a choice in order to be appreciated. It’s not an either/or between science and esotericism. Magical thinking refuses absolutes. It isn’t a paradigm that works by exclusion and it does not require faith to be useful. In its purest form it is meant to embody a lifestyle, which lets the explorer focus on pressing contemporary issues such as a holistic view of nature, care and love for the self and a true sense of embodiment. Which I think it’s partially why it’s proving so popular as a response against our increasingly disembodied, technological and automated selves.
Esoteric art questions pure intellectualisation by asking the viewer to step in and feel.
As for esoteric art specifically and for the works I do for Fulgur, I believe one of the reasons it is gaining momentum in this particular historical period is as a response to a barren art world. Esoteric art aims to shift the focus back from social context and critique to feelings, emotions, instincts and embodiment. It questions pure intellectualisation by asking the viewer to step in and feel.
TLP: What are you most looking forward to about I:MAGE 2014?
LF: Probably the conference on esoteric art taking place at the Warburg Institute on October 25th. I am extremely grateful to those who have agreed to speak as they truly are some of the most talented scholars in the field. But perhaps even more, I’m looking forward to the moment when we all meet at the gallery to hang the show. We are a very strong team who rarely get the opportunity to be together in the same room mostly because of geographical constraints. It takes a very special occasion for that to happen and I guess that’s what I:MAGE is.
I:MAGE 2014 is at The Cob Gallery, London from 21st October to 1st November 2014.
Image credits, from top to bottom:
Agostino Arrivabene, Corteo Macabro
Sara Hannant, Honouring the Ancestors
Max Razdow, Dragon’s Coil
Francesco Parisi, Valle di Grottarossa