Mystic Truths

Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, Auckland
30 June – 14 October 2007

Dane Mitchell is responsible for a number of curses. For this group exhibition, however, he elected to collaborate with an initiated witch and a deceased artist to open a portal to the spirit world for the duration of the exhibition. He also set up a series of empirical devices for measuring the invisible spiritual resonance of the building: thermometers, microphones and the like.

The two aspects of Mitchell’s project encapsulate the dualism at work in the wider exhibition, between belief, faith, romanticism, the desire to experience the unknown on one hand and empiricism, rational thinking, scepticism, cynicism, on the other. Rather than set these positions up as opposites, exhibition curator Natasha Conland, set herself, the artists and viewers the much riskier challenge of getting up close to mystic truths without slippage into either side.

In an interview after the exhibition had closed, Conland explained that the show was an experiment, particularly in her approach to research. She asked herself, ‘“Can I take on a subject that is capable of undermining my sense of seriousness?” I found that [these mystic traditions or alternative practices] were affecting my empirical research, instead I adopted method research. I wanted to get myself into an uncomfortable situation, in a participatory way, to ask, just how magnetic are they?’

The exhibition and the accompanying catalogue were attractive in a particularly cerebral way. The project did not dwell on aesthetics. It celebrated scholarship, even when it was comprised of alternative research, and there was a distinct theoretical and philosophical cast to it. The project stemmed from a pure curatorial vision, no doubt sharpened by collaboration on New Zealand artist et al’s 2005 Venice Biennale project the fundamental practice. The project was conceptually tight, even while it raised a host of associations to other artists and activities. The catalogue resists the temptation to explain and describe the works with didactic texts and artist biographies, instead preferring interpretive, sometimes almost collusive, texts to accompany the images.

Taking as a signpost Bruce Nauman’s Window or Wall Signs neon of 1967, on loan from the National Gallery of Australia, which reads ‘The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truth’, the exhibition took the path of post-conceptual, post-pop art practice. In particular, ‘Mystic Truths’ tracked the corruption of conceptual art ideas through mysticism and romanticism.

‘Mystic Truths’ shook off the lure of abstraction in favour of new work (made in the last five years) that Conland believes represents a shift in the terms for politically realist work, a shift that allows for ethical positions to come into play; ‘cynicism balanced by belief’. The works in the exhibition by seventeen international artists each represent a ‘renewed hunt for the other’ and a search for an alternative relationship between mind and matter, where the mind can be a change agent in the physical realm. Mitchell’s curse is a tidy example. Freed from cynical or superstitious association, a curse is merely an idea. Add belief to this idea, and it has the power to affect change.

In a perverse twist of fate, ‘Mystic Truths’ had already closed when November’s news media was suddenly dominated by a homicide investigation launched into the death of a Maori woman in Wainuiomata. The woman’s family witnessed her drowning during what police describe as a ‘cultural ceremony’, more sensationally reported as an exorcism, to lift a makutu or curse. This event demonstrates the persuasive power of belief, and also highlights points of cultural and spiritual difference in local New Zealand culture.

At the same time police have been under intense scrutiny for arrests made of Urewera Maori under the newly created Terrorism Suppression Act. The treatment of domestic relations as terrorism is a new concept for New Zealand, and has created a distinct sense of disquiet. If these arrests indeed represent a suppression of voices ‘other’ from mainstream politics, then both these events shed new light on the importance of exhibitions like ‘Mystic Truths’ to question, provoke, suggest possibilities, provide alternatives and create space for radical action.

One of the preoccupations of the exhibition was a use of research, and the role of documentation and reconstruction of that research. Joachim Koester’s haunting photographs from the series Morning of the Magicians (2005), documents his journey to an abandoned house site in Sicily, the Abbey of Thelema, where cult activity had taken place during the 1920s. Koester uses ‘objective’ photographic documentation to show the remaining murals that date from that time, but also the vandalism and general decay of the current site.

Documentary techniques are also used to assess and question the superstitious haunting of a Thai beach hut in the work Too much reality (2003) by AP Komen and Karen Murphy. Truth and fiction, superstition and scepticism are elided as reality TV techniques become soap opera fodder. The one-to-one replica of the hut is on site for visitors to inhabit. It also presumably is to operate as a conduit for direct experience, another reality-style construct, leaving an open question for visitors to assess whether ‘the hut’ is haunted.

Omer Fast’s virtuoso video editing presents his primary research, of ten video interviews, in a complex weaving of time and place, set in Colonial Williamsburg. His two channel video ‘Godville’ (2005) distorts and conflates time and place, with his characters dressed in period costume but discussing contemporary events. Fast’s work is engrossing and compelling.

Los Angeles artist Mungo Thompson adopts Bruce Nauman’s oft-cited phrase and launches it from the neon sign into the realm of the bumper sticker. Capitalising certain words, the phrase ‘The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths’ oscillates wildly in the thirty-second sound bite of the bumper sticker without getting traction. If we are unclear about where Bruce Nauman stands in relationship to this phrase, Thompson exacerbates this uncertainty: as a bumper sticker is it a quasi-religious statement of belief, a political gesture or a humorous brain teaser?

Olivia Plender’s performances and installation recreate aspects of the Spiritualist church, reconstructed from her empirical research into that movement. The title of her work The Medium and Daybreak is borrowed directly from a nineteenth century Spiritualist newspaper. Her pseudo-sociological and academic historical research revealed that the spiritualist movement was contemporary with the development not only of the woman’s suffrage movement, but also the evolution of the romantic conception of a modern artist. These three impulses outside of social norms could be pure coincidence of course, but they provide a fascinating junction of ideas and theories.

The ways in which new age mysticism has provided a platform for women in particular to express other voices, was a thread picked up in public programmes to the exhibition. ‘Mystic Truths’ was a knowing, intelligent, prescient, thought provoking exhibition. The slippery territory of ceding ground neither to rationalist nor mystical thought has indeed created an oxymoron—we might never find a mystic truth but it might just provide a channel for alternatives.