Of the Devil’s Party: Contemporary Art and Occulture

The term occult does not deserve its bad reputation. It simply means that which is hidden or concealed—like when the light cast by a star is blocked by an object passing in front of it, known in astronomy as ‘stellar occultation’. It’s our projection onto what happens in this state of darkness that grants such phenomena portentous possibilities, as well as the hubristic assumption that humanity observes this darkness from the correct vantage point. Throughout history, occult beliefs and practices have been shunned, banned, and driven (or have driven themselves) underground. Yet, certain moments have welcomed their alternative possibilities. We live in one such time that reaches into the dark.

British academic Christopher Partridge coined the term ‘occulture’ to account for this process of contemporary ‘re-enchantment’.[1] He argues that, as the influence of traditional religion wanes, a confluence of secularisation and sacralisation has seen western culture embrace the occult, and remake it in its own image. Occult, esoteric, and spiritualist practices have stepped out from behind the veil to take on new forms, devotees, becoming accepted, even respectable. They no longer represent, in occult historian James Webb’s classic formulation, ‘rejected knowledge’.[2]

Occulture is as secular as it is sacred and is largely disseminated through popular culture. It is fuelled by many things—political disenfranchisement and the rejection of existing power structures, systems, and binary identities. It’s propelled by cyber-culture’s access to alternative worlds, as well as to sources of knowledge long hidden. Many everyday activities are occultural, from eco-enchantment retreats (updating pagan nature worship) to notions of personal wellbeing (emphasising the discovery of holistic, spiritual pathways). Thomson & Craighead satirise this condition with their work in this exhibition, Apocalypse (2016)—a luxury perfume made from the olfactory materials listed in the Book of Revelation. What was once sacred, blasphemous, or countercultural is now commodified and marketed back to us. Kenneth Anger’s recent release of bomber jackets emblazoned with the logo from his film Lucifer Rising (1970–1981)—replicas of the one worn by the its titular character—plays into this new condition. This is countercultural occult merchandise reissued for the occultural moment. This is occulture.

Art and the occult have a long, intertwined history. There have been too many occult revivals to name. Key moments include nineteenth-century fin-de-siècle Europe, when the technological and scientific advances of the industrial revolution sent the symbolists and others scrambling in the opposite direction. Kandinsky, Mondrian, and other modernists famously sought ‘the spiritual in art’, but their explorations were often masked by their formal emphasis—just more squares and circles. Poet André Breton would call for ‘the profound, the veritable occultation of surrealism’ in the movement’s second manifesto of 1930.[3] Surrealism embraced the occult as a means to shatter the boundary between interior and exterior worlds, and was carried through into the shaman-based conceptualism of artists like Joseph Beuys. Sol LeWitt would later write, ‘Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.’[4] Led by Anger’s films and, later, by Genesis Breyer P-Orridge’s art and music, from the late 1960s to the 1990s countercultural practices harnessed the occult as a force of opposition to hegemonic cultural paradigms and bourgeois morality. Taking nineteenth-century occult artist Austin Osman Spare as a guide, P-Orridge coined the term ‘esoterrorism’ to explain the occult’s potential to ‘infect’ a corrupt mainstream culture.[5]

Contemporary occulture is not countercultural. Occulture has become a central, even clichéd dimension of the cultural landscape. If anything, contemporary culture has infected the occult. According to Partridge, pop culture is its chief propagator. Television, cinema and music are constantly feeding on, remixing, and disseminating it. Contemporary art is another agent of this process.

One sign of art’s current occultation are exhibitions exploring connections between contemporary art and the occult. Our show runs concurrently with As Above, So Below: Portals, Visions, Spirits, and Mystics at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin. Language of the Birds: Occult and Art (2015) at 80WSE Gallery, New York University offered art as a form of magic. Australia has given us Believe Not Every Spirit, But Try the Spirits (2015) at Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne, and Windows to the Sacred: An Exploration of the Esoteric (2013)at Buratti Fine Arts in Perth. Then there’s Hobart’s annual Dark Mofo festival, which unites art, film, performance, and music under the tag-line ‘new wonders, new horrors’—an artistic take on dark tourism, itself a product of the occultural turn.

As a small sample of this recent interest, these exhibitions map the overlapping territory of the occult and contemporary art. While sharing some artists and concerns, they represent a variety of approaches to the subject and its possibilities. Most of the curators are contemporary art specialists. We stand with Lars Bang Larson, co-curator of the MUMA exhibition, ‘as a non-expert whose fascination for the occult comes from popular culture rather than from the lore of initiated practices’.[6] Some are practitioner-curators—occult, rather than, or as well as, occultural. Robert Buratti, curator of Windows to the Sacred (and contributor to this publication) is a member of Ordo Templi Orientis and the A:.A:. He said, ‘I tend to keep my professional life apart from my personal, but this exhibition has seen a very happy and fruitful crossover.’[7] Pam Grossman, curator of Language of the Birds, is a writer, academic, and teacher of magical practice. She calls herself ‘a pragmatic witch’.[8] Both bring a deep understanding of esoteric practice to their curatorial projects. Both invoke exhibition making as a magical act, and build ritual into the experience. Far from speaking just to the initiated, Buratti and Grossman share the larger occultural interest in bringing esoteric art and culture into broader consciousness. By comparison, the objectives of (and marketing campaigns behind) the contemporary art curators can feel a touch more classically occult than occultural—playing into or hamming up the subversive promise of this art to confront visitors or upset the gallery experience, another brand of dark tourism.

The same goes for artists. Some artists in the esoterically generated exhibitions are unlikely ever to cross over to the contemporary art context. Similarly, some artists in the contemporary-art-focused exhibitions would be dismissed by the initiated as dabblers or tourists, stepping into sacred territory with ignorance or disrespect. While most of the Occulture artists are believers, some are sceptics; several were surprised by the invitation to participate. Such variance represents the vastness of occulture—it is a threshold where diverse practices meet and mix.

Contemporary art feeds occulture and feeds from it. Occulture not only plays a significant role in the type of art we now encounter but has shifted our understanding or appreciation of what has gone before. We are now likely, for example, to encounter surrealism through its lens.[9] Occult connections have become one of surrealism’s primary points of interest in the contemporary moment. In Language of the Birds, American esoteric artist Jesse Bradford recreated a magic chalk circle used by surrealist Kurt Seligmann in a 1948 performance to summon the dead.

The increased visibility of Aleister Crowley’s paintings represents another occultural attempt to expand art-historical traditions. The English ceremonial magician, writer and founder of the religion Thelema, started painting in the 1920s, seeking to integrate art and magick (Crowley spelled magick with a ‘k’ to distinguish his practice from ‘performance magic’).[10] His painting has long been considered derivative of Gauguin, of secondary importance to his writing, and only of interest to zealous followers, like Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, who as well as purchasing his art, acquired Boleskine House, his former Estate on Lock Ness Lake, Scotland. Renewed interest in Crowley’s painting and his magickal approach to it resulted in major exhibitions at the Palais de Tokyo and Pompidou Centre in 2008, and his inclusion in the The Encyclopedic Palace of the World, the curated exhibition at the 2013 Venice Biennale. Crowley’s new visibility has, in turn, made Gauguin and the art-historical traditions he carries feel a touch more vital. Crowley’s relevance is obvious. Where many contemporary artists get to magic through art, he gets to art through magick.

The occultural reconsideration of art history has also granted new prominence to several women artists, who, it can be argued, were partially overlooked since the values associated with the occult, such as interiority, superstition and the irrational, were opposed to the forward, masculine drive of the avant-garde. The Swedish painter and mystic Hilma af Klint knew the spiritual message carried by her large, theosophy-derived abstractions was not for her own time. On her death in 1944, she insisted that her work not be shown for twenty years. The wait would be even longer. Since resurfacing in the mid-1980s, her work has shaken art-historical wisdom—especially in her developing abstract form almost a decade before its accepted pioneers. The same can be said for late-Victorian spiritualist Georgiana Houghton whose automatic ‘spirit drawings’ were guided by the hands of dead artists, such as Michelangelo and Titian. Her work predates those celebrated moves into abstraction, and indeed af Klint’s, by decades.

The importance of af Klint’s art—and, to a lesser degree, that of Houghton’s—has been reasserted recently. A 2016 exhibition at London’s Courtauld Gallery was the first UK showing of Houghton’s work since 1871. While such reassessments are important, the emphasis on who did what first risks relitigating old art-historical debates and ignoring what is most interesting about these artists: their work and the higher forces that guided them. As art historian Briony Fer says of af Klint, ‘It is not anteriority—who came first in the history of abstraction—that matters, but interiority, here turned radically outwards onto multiple series of self-generating and hyper-sensitive geometries’.[11] Such geometries recur throughout this exhibition. Fer’s comment could equally apply to Eleanor Cooper’s sculpture which takes the central element from af Klint’s best-known painting, the golden triangle, and applies its ancient symbolism to other ends.

Occultural interest in historical artists like af Klint and Houghton is better conveyed through the various readings and projects that stress their contemporary relevance. Artists have returned to them. Mikala Dwyer’s spell paintings connect with this history of women artists and the occult. They particularly invoke nineteenth-century Swiss artist Emma Kunz, who used a divining pendulum to determine the geometric configurations in her abstractions. Her paintings were used as tools within healing rituals, where they were laid between Kunz and her patients. Dwyer seeks to establish a similar vibrational energy which can open portals to invisible realms.

Exhibitions are now built around these artists. As Above, So Below takes af Klint is the guiding presence. Believe Not Every Spirit, But Try the Spirits used Houghton’s drawings ‘as its departure point’ to chart the deployment of spiritualist methodologies in contemporary art, including the work of Dwyer and New Zealanders Dane Mitchell and Kathy Barry. The invocation of these historical figures is an occultural echo of Houghton’s earlier channelling of artistic spirits.

This exhibition has a key historical presence in artist and neo-pagan occultist Rosaleen Norton. Born in Dunedin in 1917, Norton moved with her family to Sydney, where she would gain notoriety as the ‘Witch of Kings Cross’. Norton was familiar with various occult and mystical belief systems, and was drawn to the Kabbalah, Theosophy, and western magic, particularly the writings of Crowley. This knowledge was directed towards the veneration of the ancient nature god Pan. Norton described herself as ‘the High Priestess at the Altar of Pan’ and led a small coven of followers devoted to the elemental deity.[12]

Norton’s drawings and paintings were made through a trance-induced mode of ‘extra-sensory perception’ that allowed her to leave her physical body, enter a ‘plasmic body’, and access the astral plane. From there, she could encounter the energies of various deities and transmit them through her art. Some of her works depict her encounters with the deities on the astral plane. Others convey their energies—often through heightened colour and a Vorticist-like fragmenting of the picture plane to breaks through the illusions of the material world.

Norton constantly battled, what she called, ‘the fig leaf morality’ of conservative, postwar Australia.[13] She only exhibited or published her work a few times and each time it brought controversy. In one case, the police saw the depiction of a woman coupling with a panther as ‘a carnal celebration of bestiality’. Norton countered, describing it as ‘the mystical experience of the union with the night’.[14] Obscenity charges were laid against Norton and the owner of the Kashmir café who displayed this and other ‘blasphemous’ paintings ‘likely to arouse unhealthy sexual appetites in those who saw them’.[15]

At a time when witchcraft was illegal in Australia, Norton, her libertine occult beliefs, and her sexually graphic work were hauled in front of the courts on several occasions. In 1955, she was charged with ‘performing an unnatural sexual act’, after stolen photographs showing her and poet Gavin Greenlees in a flagellation rite found their way into police hands. Later that year, New Zealand witch Anna Hoffmann told the courts that, guided by Norton, she had participated in a ‘black mass’ ceremony involving devil worship and orgies. Hoffmann later retracted her story, apologised, and was sentenced to two months in prison. In 1956, English composer Sir Eugene Goosens was arrested as Sydney airport, and charged with importing pornographic materials and ‘occult paraphernalia’. The cache included books, photographs, prints, ritual masks, and sticks of incense—some marked ‘SM’ for sex magick. It transpired that, after contacting Norton to express admiration for her work, Goosens had joined her coven and the two developed a relationship. While abroad, he would source occult items for her, including Crowley’s books. The high-profile trial destroyed his career and furthered cemented her notoriety. These controversies bolstered media interest, while hampering Norton’s reputation as an artist.

In recent years, Norton’s art has found a new prominence. We can see new trajectories for it, including an alignment with those of af Klint, Kunz, and Houghton, whose art was also channelled through higher powers and condemned by earthbound ones. It is in direct conversation with the vision-inspired paintings and drawings of Marjorie Cameron, another witch and Crowley follower. It was Cameron who introduced Kenneth Anger to Crowley. Anger would later bring the three artists together in a 2016 exhibition and he started but abandoned a film project on Norton (another is currently in production). It is not only Norton’s occult artistic achievements that are now admired. Her challenge to restrictive patriarchal cultural values is now seen as proto-feminist, while her worshipping of Pan makes her an early environmentalist.[16] She has returned as a key figure for the present.

This is the first time Norton’s work has been exhibited in the country of her birth. She has a central role in Occulture, where she is presented alongside paintings by Crowley (whose writings were so important to her) and Mikala Dwyer (a contemporary artist who sees Norton as a touchstone for her own practice). Dwyer’s wall painting reaches out across the exhibition space and across time to embrace the work of Norton (and Crowley), then follows its path in opening thresholds into other realms. Crossing thresholds is a recurrent theme in the exhibition. Voids and portals are opened up inside some works (like Norton’s) and through others (Dane Mitchell’s sculptural astrological charts as ‘wayfinding’ devices). Both modes offer the promise of the unknown.

Witchcraft is a constant presence in the exhibition. Eighteenth-century Swiss artist Henry Fuseli’s oil study illustrating Macbeth was instrumental in cementing the popular image of the witch as malevolent old crone, a danger to normative society. This stereotype carried through to the frenzied media response towards Norton. She embraced the trope, shaping her public persona as a witch. In one interview, she pointed out ‘the Devil’s marks’ on her body, including the ‘widow’s peak’ pointy ears, two blue dots on her left knee, and ‘the witches teat’—a pair of muscles reaching from her arm pits to her pelvic bone.[17]

Centuries ago, these signs were used to prove a pact with the devil. Now Norton’s persona looks performative, anticipating the flood of contemporary artists, musicians and others reclaiming the witch as a powerful, female occultural force. The old idea of the witch as evil crone, reworked for centuries in art, has been exposed as an expression of patriarchal fears surrounding female bodies and power. These fears resulted in women being persecuted throughout history—exemplified but not limited to fifteenth- and sixteenth-century witch hunts. Witches are now less visible as subject matter in contemporary art. They are more often invoked (or performed) as cultural agents, harnessing powers and energies to extend the boundaries of art and transform the experience of the physical world. In the exhibition, these possibilities pass between Dwyer’s spell painting and Fiona Pardington’s conjuring of unseen presences through the photographic still life. Both invest traditional art forms with occult powers. Both do so through the invocation of a maternal line—Pardington’s photographs connect with her grandmother, her first guide into the occult. Dwyer’s various references to jewellery speak to or through her mother who was a silversmith.

Witches, shamans, and magicians are present in this exhibition—sometimes as artists, sometimes engaged by them. Dane Mitchell has worked with various occult practitioners to test the cultural boundaries of art and the occult. His work in the exhibition developed out of communication with a self-proclaimed Korean shaman, who only sent and received ‘spiritual letters’ via the astral plane. Embracing this shamanic communication method opened the artist and his process to ritualistic elements, rather than just forcing these onto the experience of the viewer. Yin-Ju Chen collaborated with an astrologer in the making of the charts that form the basis of her work Liquidation Maps (2014), which looks to the stars and planetary movements in an attempt to understand recent atrocities in Asia. In her installation, Chen’s drawings and the astrologer’s writings are presented side by side as different forms of speculative enquiry—one rooted in conceptual art, the other in astrology.

Neither Mitchell nor Chen engage occult practitioners with irony or nostalgia, but as a means to invest the making and experience of contemporary art with alternative possibilities. Both leave the viewer uncertain as to where the power resides—whether the art guides the occult, or the occult is guiding the art. When pressed in an interview about whether her findings support or challenge the notion of free will, Chen replied ‘I don’t know.’ The follow-up question—‘Could we say that the role of the artist is to bring the unconscious into consciousness?’—was brushed off with, ‘That’s too much of a burden for an artist. That’s for Shaman to do.’[18]

Other artists in this exhibition seek out experiences with the unknown. For his photo-book Earth Magic (2014), Rik Garrett went deep into the woods to commune with witches. His use of anachronistic photographic processes draws on the long relationship between photography and spiritualism. The hints of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘Cottingley Fairies’ are not incidental. Garratt’s project is premised on the coincidence of the invention of photography and the final executions of witches in Europe, and delves into the forms of knowledge these beginnings and endings represent. Similarly, Lorene Taurerewa’s charcoal drawings lift the veil between worlds, allowing shadowy presences to pass between them. Simon Cuming offers up visual and audio field recordings from a ghost-hunting expedition to Wellington’s Bolton Street Cemetery.

Norton provides the opportunity to rethink elements of the local tradition, to render the familiar unfamiliar. Fiona Pardington’s still lifes are often understood as engaging with the possibilities of the photographic process, the objet trouvé, and Māori animism. All are integral to her practice, but tend to dominate discussions of her work over her avowed interest in pagan magic, ritual, and witchcraft. The story behind her making of the still-life photographs while living in a small house on Auckland’s Bethell’s Beach is often told. She would rise early, throw open the doors and windows to let the morning sun flood her arrangements of found and amassed objects, and then take the photograph. This is as much pagan sun worship as a conceptual engagement with ‘photographic light’. There are echoes here of Crowley’s Liber Resh ritual—an adoration of the Sun still practised on a daily basis by Thelemites such as Anger.[19]

For this exhibition, Pardington exhibits a photograph and an altar featuring various magical items used in her still lifes. The conventional logic of her work is reversed: the photograph anticipates the experience of the altar and its objects. A different kind of spell is cast. Both altar and photograph explicitly nod to the occult tradition and magical intentions with the inclusion of cards from Pardington’s first-edition Thoth Tarot deck, designed by Crowley and Lady Frieda Harris.

Leo Bensemann also looks different from an occultural perspective. His book Fantastica: Thirteen Drawings (1937) cannot be located within mainstream New Zealand art traditions. Its drawings and texts offer a web of allusions lifted from a variety of cultural sources. Here, magic, enchantment, and possession are more than themes–they are modes of invocation. Art historian Peter Simpson has been engaged in a lengthy, almost Faustian, struggle to break Fantastica’s code. Pointing out the visual similarities between some depicted characters and Bensemann himself, Simpson has ascribed an allegorical, self-portrait dimension to the book. This carries over to other Bensemann’s other work, notably the ‘Fantasy’ portraits where he and Rita Angus painted themselves and each other in various guises.

This element of Fantastica shares strategies of performance and possession with a broad range of occult art practices where identities are often shifted and exchanged. Anger appears (uncredited) as the spell-casting Magus in his film Lucifer Rising. This recalled French director Georges Méliès, who appeared as the devil, Mephisto, and Faust in is own films.[20] Both directors invest in film’s ability to transfix its audience—Anger has described himself as a magician casting a spell on his audience and the camera as his ‘magickal weapon’.[21] Similarly, Bensemann’s semi-veiled presence in Fantastica—as Dr Faustus (twice), the Mad Prince (likely based on a poem by occultist Walter de la Mare[22]), and the demonic Mask—can be taken as an invocation of art’s power to bewitch and transport his audience. This becomes another form of the possession magic that is a theme of the book.

Simpson suggests that Fantastica may also embody Bensemann’s complex relationship with Angus. Their relationship is often explained through the artistic and cultural context of 1930s nationalism. Yet, it also echoes the search for the unity of opposites found in magical and creative occult practices. This exhibition includes Crowley’s portrait of Ninette Shumway, one of his ‘scarlet women’—an embodiment of his belief in the magickal union of male and female principles. Marjorie Cameron was the ‘magickal-partner’ of rocket engineer and Thelemite Jack Parsons—a symbolic union of art, science, and the occult. Parsons wrote to Crowley that Cameron had been summoned through an invocation ritual.[23] Cameron would even play ‘the Scarlet Woman’ in Anger’s film Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1958). The creative and romantic relationship Norton shared and poet Gavin Greenlees also shared these characteristics. Magic and occultism play an underexplored role in both Bensemann’s and Angus’s works, and perhaps, as this occult lineage may suggest, in the transformative potential Bensemann saw its union.

Bensemann’s ‘Black Notebook’ from this time includes references to religious and magical practices, including quotes from J.W. Wickwar’s Witchcraft and the Black Art (1925). Bensemann, Angus, and their circle are said to have flirted with spiritualism, attending a spiritualist church and participating in séances. New Zealand nationalism may not have been as straight laced as we have been led to believe. Perhaps we could ask Angus? When he was artist-in-residence at the Rita Angus cottage in 2008, Dane Mitchell used a clairvoyant to commune with her spirit. She spoke in unusual ways—a squeaking door which seemed to utter the younger artist’s name. When alive, Angus also spoke to the dead. In a 1942 letter to composer Douglas Lilburn, she recounts a visit to the same cemetery frequented by Cuming fifty years later. She wrote of having ‘a pleasant time conversing with the dead, they tell me a lot about the living and are sometimes very amusing.’[24]

Norton, Bensemann, and Angus are key historical figures in the local occultural tradition. There is also Whare-Ra, the Havelock North house (with its hidden temple) built by noted architect (and professional astrologer) James Chapman-Taylor in 1915. It was made for ceremonial magician Robert Felkin, founder of Stella Matutina, an offshoot of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. There was also ‘The Blue Room’ in Dunedin; a centre of late nineteenth-century spiritualism, where medium Clive Chapman would conduct séances with his young niece Pearl.[25] Crowley never stepped foot in New Zealand, but it reached out to him. Katherine Mansfield smoked hashish with Crowley at a party in Chelsea in 1911.[26] While she was purportedly unimpressed by ‘the Great Beast’, there’s lingering speculation as to whether her writing manifests the encounter with the occult this meeting at least suggests.[27] She was a friend of Leila Waddell’s, another of Crowley’s ‘scarlet women’. An Australian-born violinist, who has been described as of Māori heritage, she was a magician in her own right. She performed rituals with Crowley, and also transcribed his writings. Another connection can be found in artist Lady Frieda Harris, who, before collaborating with Crowley on the design of the Thoth Tarot cards, had lived in New Zealand.

Such practices and connections can sit within an occultural tradition, as it’s a wilfully speculative, imaginative, and ahistorical one. Connections are forged across diverse works and practitioners, times and places. When artists are working on the astral plane, harnessing the powers of the astrological or communing with the dead, geographical and historical boundaries become less important, less interesting. In this sense, the occultural offers an alternative to the prevailing concept of the ‘New Zealand Gothic’, which internalises and localises these concerns, often by projecting them onto the landscape and its painful histories. One familiar device is the transplantation of gothic tropes and stories into a New Zealand setting—to bring them home, with added unease. The artists in Occulture, however, tend to project themselves outwards or upwards. Bensemann does it in Fantastica, as does Jason Greig in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a series of monoprints after Robert Louis Stevenson’s cautionary tale. In another echo of Méliè’s playing the devil, Greig inserts himself into the story, the streets of Victorian London, and especially into the titular characters—in this case to address his personal demons. Other artists have attempted to capture this transformation—with varying levels of success. Photographer Henry Frederick Van Der Weyde drew on current spiritualist techniques when commissioned to take a promotional shot of actor Richard Mansfield for the first stage adaptation of the story in 1888. He used a crude double exposure to show a deranged Jekyll almost climbing out of Hyde’s body.

Both Bensemann and Grieg have been claimed as key figures of the New Zealand gothic, but strive to locate their work within a longer and darker imaginative tradition—‘the creepy continuum’, as Greig describes it.[28] American artist Tony Oursler certainly resides there, and is even a card-carrying member of the official Méliès fan club.[29] Oursler has scoured Parisian film museums for Méliès’s surviving props, special effects, and film sets as inspiration for his equally phantasmagorical films and sculptural installations.

The book as form and source of hidden or magical knowledge plays a central role in Occulture. In 1992, Publisher Robert Ansell established FULGUR after encountering ‘the mesmeric qualities’ of Ahab and Other Poems (1903) by Crowley, and his belief in the book as a talismanic object charged with magickal powers. FULGUR has revived the esoteric book as a medium for esoteric artists.[30] Ansell’s ultimate quest, to capture ‘the genius libri—the spirit of the book’ by bridging ‘the gap between the book-subject and the book-object’, articulates how many of the artists in this exhibition approach the occult potential of their medium.[31] Leo Bensemann sought such a union with Fantastica. He used the photolithographic process to turn the drawings into metal blocks, which were inked up for printing. He printed texts to accompany each image as overlays on tissue which he passed by hand through the cylinder press. A technical marvel in its time and place, Fantastica pales next to the achievements of FULGUR publications, such as the epic cosmic maps presented as foldout diptychs, triptychs, and quadriptych in David Chaim Smith’s Sacrificial Universe (2012). Simpson calls Fantastica ‘a kind of proto-graphic novel’.[32] It can also be considered part of a long esoteric book tradition, based, like much of the art in this exhibition, on reviving ideas of craft, investing the act of making with extended powers.

John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost (1667) is central to the occultural tradition. Its star, Lucifer, is not the devil of Christian theology. He is the rebel angel, the angel of light, an archetypal modern anti-hero in whom humanity—and many artists from the seventeenth century until today—can see themselves and their world. His presence reverberates around the entire exhibition. He is depicted in the historical illustrations of Gustave Doré, Fuseli, and John Martin. Lucifer’s personal spiritual quest crosses over into Crowley’s Auto Portrait ‘The Sun’ (he had earlier written a ‘Hymn to Lucifer’ in honour of Milton’s poem). He is a key figure in Norton’s magical cosmology (appearing in one painting here with the Goat of Mendes) and is the source of inspiration for Lucifer Rising, where Anger relocates the rebel angel to countercultural America. The Light Bringer is invoked in many of the contemporary works. Jason Greig paints him. He’s a guiding presence in the photographic rituals of Pardington, and lurks in the dramatic shadow play of Taurerewa’s drawings. He is there when Brendon Wilkinson collects dead moths that flew too close to the lamp, and in Oursler’s luring of viewers towards a light bulb that illuminates a dark room while whispering secrets—perhaps the most demonic work in the exhibition. William Blake summed up the strange workings of this occultural tradition in his assertion that Milton ‘was of the devil’s party, without even knowing it’.[33]

The diverse works in Occulture share a set of touchstones and concerns, played out across different mediums, periods, and levels of belief. What is at stake here is the power we invest, or want to invest, in art—what we think art can be or do, and what impact it can have in shaping the experience of the material and immaterial worlds. Partridge argues that occulture is in the process of  ‘re-enchanting’ the West. Art is both an agent of this re-enchantment and a vessel for it.

Published in: Occulture: The Dark Arts (Wellington: City Gallery Wellington, 2017), 10–27.

[1] Christopher Partridge, The Re-Enchantment of the West: Alternative Spiritualties, Sacralization, Popular Culture and Occulture (London: T&T Clark International, 2005).

[2] James Webb, The Occult Underground (La Salle: Open Court, 1974), 191.

[3]André Breton, ‘Second Manifesto of Surrealism’ (1930), in Manifestoes of Surrealism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969).

[4] Sol Le Witt, ‘Sentences on Conceptual Art’, Artforum, Summer 1967: 79.

[5] Genesis P-Orridge, ‘Genesis P-Orridge,’ in V.Vale and John Sulak (eds.), Modern Pagans: An Investigation of Contemporary Paganism (San Francisco: RE/Search, 2001), 122.

[6] Lars Bang Larsen, ‘The Surface No Longer Holds: Affect, Powerlessness and Obscene Fluctuations of Meaning in New Occult Art’, Reading Room, 2008: 67.

[7] ‘Interview with Robert Buratti—Crowley, Art and the Esoteric’, https://magicoftheordinary.wordpress.com/2012/12/31/interview-with-robert-buratti-crowley-art-and-the-esoteric/.

[8] Jessica Caroline, ‘Pam Grossman’, The Brooklyn Rail, web exclusive, 1 April 2017, http://brooklynrail.org/2017/04/art/PAM-GROSSMAN-with-Jessica-Caroline.

[9] See the exhibition Surrealism and Magic, Cornell University: Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, 2014, and the book Tessel M Bauduin, Surrealism and the Occult: Occultism and Western Esotericism in the Work and Movement of André Breton (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

[10] This essay follows his convention when discussing Crowley and Crowley-derived practices.

[11] Briony Fer, ‘The Bigger Picture’, Frieze, 1 October 2013.

[12] Nevill Drury, ‘Rosaleen Norton’s Contribution to the Western Esoteric Tradition’, MA Thesis (University of Newcastle, NSW, 2008), 248.

[13] ‘She Hates Fig Leaf Morality’, People, 29 March 1950: 30.

[14] Nevill Drury, 55.

[15] Ibid, 41.

[16] Nevill Drury, Pan’s Daughter: The Magical World of Rosaleen Norton (Sydney: Mandrake, 1988), 33.

[17] Rosaleen Norton, ‘I Was Born a Witch’, The Australian Post, 3 January 1957:4.

[18] ‘Group thinking disgusts me the most: An interview with Yin-Ju Chen’, Platea Magazine, no. 3, Winter 2016, http://platea-magazine.com/group-thinking-disgusts-me-the-most-interview-with-yin-ju-chen/.

[19] Haromy Korine, ‘Kenneth Anger’, Interview, 13 June 2014, http://www.interviewmagazine.com/film/kenneth-anger#.

[20] Nikolas Schreck, ‘The Satanic Screen: An Illustrated History of the Devil in Cinema’, quoted in Alice L. Hutchinson, Kenneth Anger: A Demonic Visionary (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2004), 34.

[21] Kenneth Anger, ‘The Magick Lantern Cycle,Programme Notes’, 1968.

[22] Peter Simpson, Fantastica: The World of Leo Bensemann (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2011), 33.

[23] Hugh B Urban, Magia Sexualis: Sex, Magic, and Liberation in Modern Western Esotericism (Oakland: University of California Press, 2006), 137.

[24] Rita Angus, Letter to Douglas Lilburn, 12 June 1942.

[25] Artists have already been here. Curator/artist Pippa Sanderson commissioned twelve other artists to ‘join me in channelling the idea of the Blue Room’ for the exhibition The Blue Room at the Blue Oyster Art Project Space, Dunedin, 2008.

[26] Gerri Kimber, ‘Mansfield, Rhythm and the Émigré Connection’, in Janet Wilson, Gerri Kimber and Susan Reid (eds.), Katherine Mansfield and Literary Modernism (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), 20.

[27] This possibility is most obvious played up in the Mansfield with Monsters—The Untold Stories of a New Zealand Icon,  by Katherine Mansfield with Matt and Debbie Cowens,  Steam Press, 2012. This is a local take on the occultural genre of the ‘mash-up’ novel where literary classics are rewritten infected with horror and monsters.

[28] Interview with the author, Christchurch, 10 July 2016.

[29] ‘Tony Oursler by Maika Pollack’, Bomb Magazine, 18 July 2016.

[30] Avi Solomon, ‘Making the Book Talismanic: An Interview with Robert Ansell’, http://boingboing.net/2012/09/24/making-the-book-talismanic-an.html.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Peter Simpson: Fantastica: The World of Leo Bensemann (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2011), 33.

[33] David Quint, Inside ‘Paradise Lost’: Reading the Designs of Milton’s Epic (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2014) 135.