Gardens and Graves: treading carefully through three London exhibitions
In London, three exhibitions look obliquely at women’s agency in relation to the spiritual in ways that reveal as much of the present’s constraints as the hindrances of the past. Each exposes a different dilemma of visibility, stigma, and stereotype across historical eras. With unusual cultural slants, the exhibitions expose systemic exclusion and bias in emergent equality. As some museums and curators earnestly strive to realign inclusion with real demographics, the exhibitions indicate the ways ingrained ways of thinking entangle the marginalized in the arcane.
The most high profile show is the British Museum’s ‘Tantra: enlightenment to revolution.’ The exhibition presents Tantra in historical contexts, encompassing the Hindu and Buddhist groups whose drive for purity involved the expulsion of the feeling of disgust. To this end, devotees would live in charnel grounds, have sex in the company of corpses, and eat the flesh of the dead. They made creative use of bones as vessels, ornamentations, and musical instruments. To awaken Shakti, a primordial feminized cosmic energy, they used meditation, contemplation of mystical diagrams or yantra, and chanting of mantras. Shakti can transform consciousness when active in the body.
Enter goddess Kali, depicted with four arms, a long pointy tongue hanging out, laden with body parts. She holds a severed head, catching the blood dripping from it in a bowl fashioned from a skull. She is a mother of the universe who vanquishes evil to protect the innocent. In the exhibition, this figure emerges as a protector and unstoppable redemptive force. As the exhibition’s historical narrative reaches the 17th century, Kali is promoted by activists as a fearsome leader against colonial oppression. The goddess is also vilified, used by colonial powers to demonize the subaltern population, legitimising violent suppression. This ambiguity emerges from a somewhat partial account of Tantra, formed around artifacts already held by the Museum. The period dominated by the East India Company and The British Raj, with Kali as the pre-eminent deity, manifests approximately two-thirds of the way down the exhibition’s timeline. A strange and partial appendix of international cultural material influenced by Tantra or by Kali’s image follows. It is a diverse collection, including commercial art, such as the bulbous tongue and lips of John Pasche’s logo for the Rolling Stones (c.1971) and a poster for the Eden Hashish Centre in Kathmandu, once a highlight of the so-called Hippy Trail. Fine art, such as by Penny Slinger, who, pressing her body on a photocopier, adopted poses derived from Kali iconography, is part of the same group. Slinger had seen Kali imagery among tantric works on show at London’s Heyward Gallery in 1971. The selection of works in this section is a bit of a hotchpotch, occasionally, but inconsistently, also referencing Shakti. When you exit through the gift shop, you can choose between tote bags printed with an image of a yogini from around 1604 and a ‘Save the Earth Now’ design by trendy 60s collective Hapshash and the Coloured Coat, influenced by earlier tantric designs. The references are worlds apart. The pop aesthetic pervading the show oversimplifies centuries of religious history, the social politics of oppression, and cultural appropriation.
Had Kali been a male personification, would the exhibition have fetishized the imagery in the same way? Kali’s representations are romanticised and glamorised in a manner that may or may not be in keeping with their function in tantric sacred contexts. Artefacts are contextualised through a lens of western curiosity and cultural adoption. It promulgates the air of unpredictable irrationality favoured by colonial overseers around what is in-reality cogently defined historic ritual practices.
Where Tantra’s haphazard connections to the influence of Kali, goddess, and inspirational figurehead, are aggressive, The Botanical Mind centres around subtle mysteries of the natural world, transcendence in pictures of plants. In this exhibition, artists, not yogis, are the earthly mediators, sometimes also adopting shamanic roles as guides and conduits. The range of the exhibition is broad, from a nineteenth-century Brahmanda (Map of the Universe) from Rajasthan to Matt Mullican’s Untitled (Things Change in Heaven) (2020), a contemporary mandala-like diagram of a personal cosmology. The scope encompasses new commissions, such as a video studying the plants in the Art Centre’s garden, by Adam Chodzko, and curiosities, such as psychoanalyst Karl Jung’s symbolic images of inner growth collected in a lavish tome known as The Red Book (1915–30).
The physical exhibition follows an online presence, established due to postponement for coronavirus lockdown in the UK. This digital archive has been expanding since that time, with exhaustive content, considerably extending the bewildering wealth of material in the gallery. The whole enterprise is partitioned into twelve thematic sections, spread across online and gallery manifestations. Together these form a metaphoric narrative, staged in a sort of imaginary cosmic thicket with psychedelic mushrooms sprouting on the forest floor. The audience’s attention must switch back and forth between minutiae and the infinite and between works demanding slow contemplation and strobing projections. Image juxtapositions compare scientific observation, such as in Karl Blossfeldt’s intense photographic studies, with interpretations where objectivity is overwhelmed by a plant’s living aura, such as in Anna Haskel and Anna Zemánková’s colourful drawings of specimens, freely interpreted in crayon, pastels, and ball-point pen.
An introductory text claims that plant life is a misunderstood and underestimated force at work in human consciousness conceiving the exhibition as championing the esoteric. In fact, its conception connects to currently unfashionable, but hitherto dominant, ideas of Vitalism, Monism, and Pantheism. A hand-out informs visitors that spiritual principles were “abolished and…. driven underground — hidden for centuries in the arcane of the occult.” Vitalism was the philosophical orthodoxy of soul and life force that prevailed until the early modern period. Such ideas were ingeniously upended by Henri Bergson in his bestselling book Creative Evolution (1907), outlining his influential ideas of élan vital. Bergson concluded that the consequence of evolution is the growth of mental freedom. The same coordination between parts and the whole of a discrete organism exists between “each living being with the collective whole of all others.” The exhibition steers around these, not so underground, touchpoints. Texts also make little of theosophy, a popular movement bridging science and mysticism in the first half of the 20th century and more recent revivification of Bergson’s influence by Gilles Deleuze.
Unconformity prevails in place of the intellectual tradition of the western modernist canon. Certain artists lose out. Some are more susceptible, or amenable, to decupling from dominant intellectual movements, becoming affiliated with the archaic and cosmic. Unable to fit in with the norms of their times. In this respect, Eileen Agar and Ithell Colquhoun are presented almost as if they were outsider artists, too intense to be compatible with the Freudian urbanity of surrealism. This narrative feels like an apology for the historical obstacles that stood in the way of artists’ careers. Rather than questioning the systemic formations that may have ‘driven ideas underground,’ the exhibition text gravitates towards the personal, of ‘powerful connections to the spirit realm.’ In the 1920s and 30s, these could have been associated with hysteria and eccentricity. The The Botanical Mind’s presentation celebrates those not taken as seriously as their counterparts. Those who wait for recognition, often posthumous, when work separates from their person. It seems like there is a vast reservoir of the overlooked to be sifted and reconfigured in inventive exhibition contexts.
Ithell Colquhoun also appears in ‘Not Without My Ghosts: The Artist As Medium.’ The exhibition more closely focuses on artists working under the direction of spirits. Hilma af Klint was famously commissioned by higher powers to produce her work, and these artists too relinquish both sense and coordination to spirits. The practice is a leveler. Women and men equally enjoyed occult support — more encouragement than they received from the art establishment. Spiritualist artists were obliged to form private support networks. The exhibition connects the solidarity of women artists working in the 1920s, such as Anna Mary Howitt and Georgiana Houghton, with suffragist sisterhood. More recent artists such as Susan Hiller and Suzanne Treister with The Museum of Blackhole Spacetime Collective also worked in supportive groups, amplified by the solidarity of the other side.
Does the act of digging work out, configuring it in exhibitions, before reconsigning it to the archive, putting neglected figures in the light of powerful new curatorial perspectives, create new opportunities for artists? Or entrench a history where passivity and sensitive feeling for the world are attitudes of inferiority? The one-off artist whose work is forever relative to, rather than part of, the grand narrative of modernity, particularly the nearest touchpoint, abstraction, a dogged practice that does not countenance those who do not or will not conform. Too intense, too outré, visionary work spends much time in dark stores, unseen and unclassifiable.
Not Without My Ghosts: The Artist As Medium, The Drawing Room,
10 September — 1 November 2020
The Botanical Mind: Art, Mysticism and The Cosmic Tree, Camden Arts Centre,
24 September — 23 December 2020
Tantra: enlightenment to revolution, the British Museum,
24 September 2020—24 January 2021