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September 25, 2017 | by  | in Visual Arts | [ssba]

Occulture: The Dark Arts

“Art and the occult draw powers, rituals, and symbols from one another to re-enchant the world and refine human experience,” explains the City Gallery Wellington in introduction to the exhibition Occulture: The Dark Arts. Although the gallery does not explicitly explain what the occult might be in this instance, the works offer clues: the occult is in conversation with nature in a way contemporary society is not; the occult mixes potions from plants, consults astrological charts, embraces the night. Speculative philosophies of intersubjectivity and animacy have, as exhibited, a rich tradition in the West. They also have an often unacknowledged debt to indigenous thinkers for, as Zoe Todd writes, “their millennia of engagement with sentient environments, with cosmologies that enmesh people into complex relationships between themselves and all relations, and with climates and atmospheres as important points of organisation and action.”

The occult, in the vaguest sense, refers to a power that is not necessarily our own but might be harnessed. Whatever power is present at Occulture, it keeps to its own company; anything prepossessing of influence clings to it tightly. What service can the gallery do magic, beyond canonise it’s aesthetic? “Without access to power’s hidden manifestations, visibility is tantamount to reality, a possible explanation for the authenticity of images,” writes Lynne Tillman, speaking to the difficulty I feel trying to explain how the white walls of the gallery have a tendency to dehistoricise anything they swallow. The light that envelops the works seems pertinent in an exhibition that beckons someplace darker. In Occulture, whiteness is allowed to slip from the norm only to a place with slightly more shadowy corners; which is not to say whiteness per se has ever been defined by anything but what it isn’t. I’m not speaking for the all the works — some, Fiona Pardington’s, Lorene Taurerewa’s, Yin-Ju Chen’s, speak to histories that are not strictly of a Victorian Gothic strain — but rather the vague notion of the occult, defined principally by the more historical works, which is presented as a particularly Pākehā mysticism.

The Tohunga Suppression Act was passed by the New Zealand legislature in 1907. It declared that:

“2. (1.) Every person who gathers Maoris around him by practising on their superstition or credulity, or who misleads or attempts to mislead any Maori by professing or pretending to profess supernatural powers in the treatment of cure of any disease, or in the foretelling of future events, or otherwise, is liable on summary conviction before a Magistrate to a fine not exceeding twenty­five pounds or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding twelve months in the case of a second or any subsequent offence against this Act.”

Mamari Stephens suggests that the Act was passed less out of genuine concern for Māori health and more as a means of asserting certainty and dominance during an anxious and confusing period in our history. The stigmatisation of tohunga it encouraged remains: in 2003 Heather Roy, an ACT Member of Parliament, asked the Minister of Health in the House whether there was “any clinical evidence that such healing is effective; or is this funding just political correctness gone mad?”

Occulture engages more with a mysticism that insists, as Alistair Crowley did, that “To practice black magic you have to violate every principle of science, decency, and intelligence. You must be obsessed with an insane idea of the importance of the petty object of your wretched and selfish desires,” than it does with the holism that is engaged with the history and suppression of “superstition” here and in the wider Pacific. The distinctions between what is “magic”, what is “superstition”, what is “holistic”, what is “occulture”, and so on, are interesting for their malleability — as often tied to slippery legacies of cultural dominance and subordination as any basis of fact.


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