“Ordinary morality is only for ordinary people,” Aleister Crowley once said. That maxim echoes inside the walls of a new exhibit at 80WSE, Language of the Birds: Occult and Art. Even now, when dabbling in the occult has become morally ambiguous rather than universally derided, the work shown at NYU Steinhardt’s gallery is far from ordinary. Spanning the beginning of the last century to the present day, its authors range from avant-garde filmmakers (Kenneth Anger), to spiritual philosophers (Aleister Crowley), to industrial music makers (Genesis Breyer P-Orridge), and “just” plain artists (Kiki Smith). Somehow these varied participants share a similar worldview, which they’ve communicated (at various points in time) through symbols and talismans that have remained fairly static throughout.
At one end of the work, there’s the fin de siècle, when the occult was all the rage and mysticism saw a revival in the face of incredible scientific discovery and technological change (the Industrial Revolution). At the other is the present, the post-internet era, a time when once again an “alternative” kind of spirituality seems to be trending upward. These days, interest in the occult is almost banal (see David Bowie’s “Blackstar” video), and self-identified witches seem to be a dime-a-dozen in places like Bushwick (see: Catland).
Or did the occult ever really go out of fashion? The exhibit offers plenty of evidence from between these two time periods demonstrating that in certain circles, it didn’t.
This consistency is pretty remarkable, especially considering that “the occult” is not any one thing– it’s not an organized religion, there’s no definitive occult bible, nor is there a precise agreement on practice, folklore, or morality. Instead, it’s simply the unknown trying to be known. The closest thing to a universally communicable history of the occult, then, are images like the ones found at Language of the Birds.
The occult has made gains towards becoming almost mainstream (commodified, even– I mean, seriously, Urban Outfitters stocks Wiccapedia: A Modern Day White Witch’s Guide and plenty of witch-ready fashion). But it would be difficult to say the general public is totally down. I’m talking to you, North Face guy, who powered through the show and reaching the end, turned on his foot as if to say “poo poo” and ran out of there like a madman. Something definitely turned him off.
Of course you don’t have to be an actual practitioner of seances and pagan rituals to be inspired by the occult, but it doesn’t hurt. Case in point, one of the very first works I came across in “Gallery 1,” designated to the “cosmos: portals, systems, maps” and highlighting work dealing with “connections between the celestial and the self.” Peter Lamborn Wilson’s 2009 mixed-media piece, Esopus No. 1, takes the viewer on the artist’s own journey to the mysterious Esopus Island in the Hudson River, “a thin strip of land with rocky outcroppings and dense forestation” under the jurisdiction of State Parks. It’s accessible only by travelers’ own fruition, which is exactly how Aleister Crowley made it there in the summer of 1918.
Crowley had run into some trouble in New York City and was without a job or much cash when he absconded for Esopus Island, seeking a “great magical retirement” at the age of 43 (much farther along than most people I know who’ve decided it’s time for their own magical retirement). He took advantage of the isolation to meditate on Chinese philosophy and eventually reached a great spiritual awakening according to his own account:
In the light—momentary glimpse as it was—of this truth, all systems of religion and philosophy became absolutely puerile. Even the Law appears no more than a curious incident. I remain absolutely bewildered, blinded, knowing what blasting image lies in this shrine […] its freedom, in an utterly fascinating and appalling sense, is beyond my fiercest conception.”
Wilson’s piece consists of a map of the island, distant photos of Esopus from the water, and an account (in stylized, old-timey calligraphy) of the artist’s own journey to the island in 2008. He went there, along with some pals, to retrace Crowley’s footsteps, in search of some graffiti that, as legend has it, the spiritualist left behind on a rock. I bet you can guess that supposedly it read, “Do what thou wilt.” The artist’s own account ends with few answers. As “local folklore” has it, Crowley “performed black magic” on the island’s various mountain tops. “We investigated one such site, Indian Cave,” Wilson tells us.
As if beckoning the viewer to embark on their own spiritual quest to Esopus, jammed at the bottom of the piece is an address: “For info on membership, write: Esopus c/o box 568, Brooklyn NY, 11211.” The fact that Wilson traveled to this deserted island, an act of rugged individualism (hey, we live in New York City) isn’t all that surprising. After all, Peter Lamborn Wilson is a notable anarchist author.
Crowley’s longevity is apparent at several points in the exhibition. In fact one of his own works– a black ink drawing on paper, Kwaw (Idealized Self-Portrait)– is included in in Gallery 3, devoted to “Practitioners: Magicians, Witches, Seers.” (I googled “kwaw” to find that KWAW is a radio station, known as “Magic 100.3,” operating out of the Northern Mariana Islands– coincidence? Impossible.)
The piece, dated 1935, depicts a lumpy conehead with a distinguished fu manchu. It’s kind of childlike in its simplicity (it seems that drawing wasn’t Crowley’s forte) and goofy in its essence. Considering that everything Crowley did is often regarded as dangerous or devilish, this effort made me chuckle. Though, some of his writing confirms this present, tameness too– to be completely honest, Diary of a Drug Fiend borders on chaste.
Many of the older works included in the show are fascinating for the same reason. As similar as it can be to our own, their conception of the occult can be wildly different, bordering on innocent. Which is not to say occult imagery should be “scary,” necessarily, but generally the imagery seems to fall between two poles: the first is ethereal, Medieval, naturalism and the second is brutality, Satan, bondage, and blood.
Juanita Guccione’s 1948 painting, Three Women and Three Owls, stands closer to that first pole. It’s a muddy painting depicting, you guessed it, three pale women and three all-knowing owls. What’s so magical about that, you ask? Well the number three, first of all. Women, secondly– devilish beasts that they are. And thirdly (get it? three), animal wifery– there’s something profoundly suspicious about human (especially human women’s) closeness to animals. Have I convinced you yet?
What’s fascinating about Guccione, who traveled all over the world, including to Algeria in the 1930s, is her extraordinary approach to everything around her, an attitude that would simply be called “open-mindedness” today. But this was something that went against the grain of her contemporaries. Her worldview wasn’t reserved for her fascination with the occult. In fact, Guccione’s approached other humans with humanity and understanding at a time when Western Imperialism and Orientalism were a universal language. As her biography notes:
Guccione, then painting as Nita Rice, lived for four years among the Ouled Nail Bedouin tribe in eastern Algeria. Her paintings from this period are devoid of the flamboyant romanticism of the Orientalist painters. She painted the Bedouin as friends and neighbors, reflecting the anti-colonialist attitude of her native land. These paintings were shown in The Brooklyn Museum in 1935, receiving a good deal of press attention.
On the other end of the occult imagery present at Language of the Birds is a much sharper sadistic sort of reign-in-blood. Crowley definitely spoke enough about the unbridled pursuit of pleasure, but Genesis P-Orridge (who, as the author of Thee Psychick Bible: Thee Apocryphal Scriptures Ov Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and Thee Third Mind Ov Thee Temple Ov Psyhchick Youth, has long been vocal about her obsession with magic) contributes a piece that is much more explicit about what exactly this entails– namely, pain. The artist’s collage Burns Forever Thee Light (1986) incorporates S&M, bondage, and black metal imagery long before Burzum was a thing. Cloaked figures and blood-colored swathes imply endless suffering. These images are as potent as ever, and striking in the sense that they feel very “now.”
In fact, there’s a great deal of older material that translates to the here and now. Kenneth Anger’s three photographs, stacked one on top of another, are a perfect example of the durability of certain values and a particular (rebellious) aesthetic’s adaptability to present-day counterculture. It seems like so much art I’ve seen lately is trying desperately to be just like these highly saturated, neon-tinted photos (they’re actually film stills from the 11-minute Satanic classic, Invocation of My Demon Brother). Basically, Satan is still really, really cool.
As for the newer work, some of it simply imitated the symbology that has probably appeared throughout time to signal the occult: disembodied eyes, triangles, skulls, etc. More successful was the work made by artists who were clearly thinking about what these symbols actually mean for us today.
It was interesting to see nature, the very element that makes some of those earlier works seem like Occult Lite, take on a sinister new form. Or at least, in some way, nature has become alien. Anohni’s I Want To Help (2015), a “hand-stitched photographic reproduction on newsprint pages” depicts caribou trekking across a harsh tundra near the Arctic Circle. Behind the herd is a black sunrise or sunset, it doesn’t really matter– if that’s what our sky’s going to look like in the post-eco-disaster future, we’re freaking screwed.
Anohni, the brooding transgender musician and visual artist, presents us with a new kind of visual language for the occult: one that deals with our increasingly rapid disassociation from our own planet. How else could caribou, animals that should be familiar to us at least through photos, be rendered so haunting? With the looming force of climate change, symbols of nature have taken on a whole new sense of mystery, doom, and the supernatural.
“Language of the Birds: Occult and Art” runs through February 13 at 80WSE, located at 80 Washington Square East. Check the site for related events including a performance and panel discussion.