“Throughout the history of art the role of the artist has been compared to the role of the shaman. This is because the artistʼs role has always been one of mediator, transformer and most prominently visionary. The role of both the artist and shaman has always been to stand between two worlds: that of the visible and the invisible. The viewers, or the community in the case of the shaman, entrust the artist to go forth into the realm of the invisible and return with a gift: the invisible transformed into the visible.” 
– Clare Milledge
The occult is the knowledge of the hidden. It is the power to foresee, to read the stars and harness energy of the planets. With these secrets one can transform the basest of matter into gold and connect to the spirit world. This apparent revival does not reflect a momentary trend in contemporary art practice motivated by such mysticisms. Rather, it is the innate allure of the unknown that ultimately belies this resurgence.
Occultism is the “study of a deeper spiritual reality that extends beyond pure reason and the physical sciences”. Built upon ritual practice and shrouded in secrecy, the wisdoms of alchemy and the spirit world were passed down from teacher to initiate. Elitist and transcendental, these esoteric epistemologies and techniques are the foundations upon which latter-day alchemist Nick Dorey’s practice is built. Dorey’s preoccupation with alchemy is an activity of introspection. Alternately, Clare Milledge and her artist-shaman friends Mikala Dwyer and Hany Armanious utilise concepts of the spirit and ritual elements of the occult to present multiple realms of possibility.
The 2014 edition of Primavera, the Museum of Contemporary Art’s (MCA) annual survey of the young and up-and-coming in Australian art featured Dwyer as curator and Dorey as exhibitor. Dwyer’s selection was a reflection of our age, exploring philosophical notions around speculative realism and critiques of the Anthropocene’s relationship to human finitude. With humanity no longer at the centre of the universe, new relations and states of matter arise: object-to-object, nature to machinery and interactions of the unseen. Primavera presented an investigation into these unfamiliar relations through occult processes: spiritual, alchemic and ritual. Artspace (Sydney) has become a crucible for this sorcery, and has granted each of these four artists a space in their 2015 residency program. It seems elements of occultism are undergoing resurgence in contemporary installation practice, and Artspace has become the melting pot.
On first view Nick Dorey’s installations seem unintelligible. A jumble of found objects arranged to resemble a ritual offering. Logic however, is the driving force. Far from superficial, Dorey’s sets are complex, interrelated stratifications of meaning, steeped in philosophical enquiry. They are dialogical codes that both invite and repel deciphering. Whilst the artist offers these foreign systems to the viewer, he doesn’t care if you understand them or not. His alchemy is entirely personal.
The study of alchemy runs deeper than purely materialistic concerns. It is not confined to the transformation of lead into gold. It incorporates philosophical and religious beliefs of the Hermetic tradition that are embedded within all Western forms of occultism. These understandings provide the foundations for a path of spiritual growth that will ultimately lead the practitioner to return to a state of unity with the Divine. In Dorey’s case, a sum of psychedelic experiences had left him with a particular understanding of how nature, the universe and the Divine functioned. These found resonance in the teachings of alchemy and, as a process based practice, it became a guide for his own artistic journey.
The teachings of Hermeticism are drawn from a number of writings attributed to the ancient god Hermes Trismegistus. The Emerald Tablet of Thoth, one cryptic piece of Hermetica, is comprised of thirteen tablets that ambiguously inform the alchemists practice. The tablet’s symbolic structure encodes meaning on multiple levels. This textual depth enables a multitude of interpretations not limited to literal readings. The individual inadvertently informs their own journey through interpretation. Dorey plays on this ambiguity through an installation practice based entirely upon the symbolic value of objects. Where the Emerald Tablet is open to interpretation Dorey’s works are not. Everything has been assembled with a specific reference in mind.
His practice is research with a dash of artistic intelligent design. He will follow a path of ideas; both theoretical and historical until enough associations are made that the dynamic network solidifies. At this point some serendipitous thing will appear, an object, or piece of junk that signals he is on the right track. Dorey experiments with theosophical elements through making, and once the connections hit a critical mass the work spontaneously takes form.
In the case of his exhibition Ulysses V. Streisand (2014) at 55 Sydenham Road gallery, the serendipitous object was a bottle of amyl nitrite. ‘Amyl’: the high, the head spinning giddiness that makes you laugh like a maniac and feel hot all over. The rush of blood as your face burns red. It’s thirty seconds of euphoria, out-of-body escapism. Amyl’s scent is enveloping: an ethereal fruity odour, chemical at first and then almost sweet. Infused into the air, the concentrated vapour’s invisible presence saturated Dorey’s installation. He had found a bottle in a park. “Divine inspiration” he calls it. This semi-illicit article became the work’s foundation.
The alchemist utilizes the four elements (fire, earth, air, water) throughout the seven stages of the Great Work, each stage of transformation occurring on psychological, physiological, societal and planetary levels. “The alchemist transmutes themselves spiritually, as the matter acts as a manifested symbolic proxy.” The presence of the elements in their volatility is evident in Dorey’s practice through object combinations. Different objects pose their own tensions and poetics and Dorey constructs them to disrupt or defer to each other.
In Ulysses V. Streisand a tiki torch was stuck into a clay bowl of kitty litter and filled with rosemary spirit.
“The kitty litter functioned as an elemental earth in that it is something that fixes more volatile elements. The tiki torch coming out of it was also filled with a rosemary spirit corresponding to the alchemic pantheon of plants to solar energy and the Christ archetype. In that little dynamic of the burner, the litter, the bowl and the torch, you have a little atomic system which references both sublimation and fixation, the higher and lower realms, and functions as a kind of diagrammatic representation of the forces they exert on one another.”
The ‘little atomic system’ was incorporated into the installation to achieve a form of dynamic equilibrium, an antidote to the instability of the amyl nitrite. Ulysses V. Streisand was an exhibition that subverted the idealised dynamic forms for which alchemy strives, instead acting as a developmental exercise through which Dorey explored the displacement in dynamic systems.
The completion of the alchemist’s journey is marked by the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone. This equates to spiritual purification and a resurrection of being. The alchemist is reborn as a hermaphroditic child, both enlightened and divine.
Dorey’s work then exists as the material representation of his own psychological introspection. His alchemical practice is one of entanglement. The majority of his installations are dismantled post exhibition, the materials reincarnated through new sculptural, spatial or conceptual dynamics, or broken down to create something entirely new. Each phase of the process draws on the last. Dorey and his work echo one another: as a state of mind and self-generative process. Its currency lays in his use of occult practice to examine human existence in a world of impermanence.
The Artist – Shamans
Clare Milledge writes of an emerging group of artist-shamans. They present their audience with the vision, the ‘gift of sight’ but with no sense of certainty. The viewer journeys into the otherworld alongside the artist-shamans, into occult rituals and transformations, only to be left with no finite explanation of what they have seen. It is this mystery that drives occult practice and aligns with an idea posed by speculative realists that privileges subjectivity over the real being of things. Within the speculative realist philosophy lays object-oriented ontology, a belief that objects exist independently and possess their own power. Dwyer and Armanious frame their examination of the possibilities of objects through the mystical elements of the occult.
We tend to find mystery in absence. In a dark room or an empty space, silence creates a void. It is in absence that we question, for in the space of nothing our imagination has no choice but to project. Mikala Dwyer taps into this negative space. She uses it to explore human behaviours and transport her audience across thresholds and into the unknown. In The Hollows (2014) there was an absence of matter. The air sculptures seemed fragile in their transparency: transient beings heated and twisted into existence. Exhibited at the 2014 Biennale of Sydney, they haunted the Docks Precinct of Cockatoo Island. Defying reason and gravity they floated in a shared realm, a place occupied by humans and spirits alike.
In-situ, the air sculptures formed their own circle: a holding pattern commonly used by Dwyer to contain disparate objects and articulate the voids they frame. It is what happens within these voids that keeps her on edge, “the poetic possibility that just maybe something will appear”. The circle is a symbolically loaded shape. In alchemy it marks the centre point of focus. A site of incantation and séance, the ‘spirit circle’ is both whole and empty, a negative space calling to be filled. Dwyer invites her audience to move through them, to interact or communicate with the otherworld in the ritual space she has constructed.
Dwyer’s “negative zeros”, as she terms them, were prominent in the abstract form of the empty sculptures: a space where content should be but is not. The floating forms were flooded in light from the side windows of the Naval Store building. The play of luminescence creates possibility: in the gleam you might catch a glimmer of something. Their insides were a vacuum, a space of nothingness and yet the potential for so much. Here we become part of the forming process, Dwyer allows us to give form to what has deliberately been left in flux.
Hany Armanious also explores the energy embedded in the inanimate. He is a magician of sorts, harnessing the banality of the everyday and creating an illusion of its grandeur. He achieves this through casting, a fascination which began in 1993 when he discovered ‘hot melt’, a ‘liquid petroleum based-vinyl’ that allowed him to colour, cook and quickly cast his chosen forms. Over the past decade he has mastered the process of casting, extending his practice in textures and forms. Just as Dorey’s installations are played out through a material poetry and cryptography, Armanious’ casting creates a system of witty symbolisms and allegory. This process offers an approximation of the thing that is more evocative than the thing itself. Like Dwyer, Armanious attributes a sort of animism to objects, “I looked at it and it looked at me,” he says when referring to a 1970’s office petition pin board that he cast for his work The Golden Thread (2011). He speaks of objects in terms of their energy and the qualities that emanate from them once cast. It is through the act of reproduction that everything becomes precious.
The communion of Armanious’ work and that of his peers at Artspace is difficult to ignore. Materials are reused; pieces are taken from old works to become part of something new. Like Dorey’s materials and Dwyer’s circular formations, Armanious’ matter is recycled from one exhibition to the next, the objects becoming prone to a phenomenological haunting. They assume a metaphysical existence: imprinted by a past that reflects upon their present and will inform their future.
Speculative realism ventures further in an attempt to examine allure in the inanimate sphere. Objects occupy this sphere, a level of reality humans can never infiltrate but one that drives revolution through the fission of sensual objects. Upon separation the distant real object signals from beyond. Thus allure is concerned with an interaction between objects and alternate levels of reality. Similarly, occultism is concerned with an exploration of phenomena unknown, of modes of enlightened existence and magical realms. They both insinuate the existence of something deeper, something that is hidden and unable to the displayed. “To be allured is to be beckoned into a realm that can never be reached”. Nick Dorey, Clare Milledge, Mikala Dwyer and Hany Armanious are playing upon these uncertainties. Alluring their audiences with the mystical possibilities of the occult.
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Katie Milton is a Sydney based emerging writer. In 2013 she graduated from The University of Technology, Sydney with an Undergraduate degree in Communications majoring in...