Submerging Psychedelia: She Could Lie on Her Back and Sink
Ann Shelton, 'i am an old phenomenon' (2022–ongoing). Pigment prints, handmade cedar stands. Courtesy the artist and Two Rooms, Auckland; Denny Gallery, New York; and Bartley and Company Art, Wellington. Exhibition view: Group exhibition, She could lie on her back and sink, Gus Fisher Gallery, Auckland (3 June–26 August 2023). Courtesy Gus Fisher Gallery. Photo: Sam Hartnett.
A new group exhibition at the University of Auckland's contemporary art centre Gus Fisher Gallery unravels the trope of the witch as a guiding figure through which dissidence is pinned.
Conceived by the gallery's director Lisa Beauchamp, She could lie on her back and sink (3 June–26 August 2023) features the work of Tai Shani, Ann Shelton, Jayne Parker, and Louie Zalk-Neale (with collaborators Adam Ben-Dror, Neke Moa, and Dr Tāwhanga Nopera), who each look at alternative forms of knowledge, in particular witchcraft, in a suite of installations and video works.
The artists zoom in on instances in history and culture where nature and women's knowledge of nature is perceived as a threat to an established order—whether patriarchal, religious, or colonial.
The exhibition's title is drawn from 'The Three Fates' (2022), a short story by New Zealand novelist Pip Adam commissioned by New Zealand photographer Ann Shelton to respond to her series 'i am an old phenomenon' (2022–ongoing).
Adam's story describes a witch who floats in the sea, rather than atop it, referencing the historic 'swimming' of witches—a practice in Europe from the medieval to early modern period that supposedly determined whether a woman was a witch. When submerging women underwater, their sinking signalled innocence while staying afloat confirmed the suspect a witch. She could lie on her back and sink deploys this practice as an ideological launchpad from which to examine the underlying misogyny that has led to the centuries-long persecution of women.
Beauchamp cites Italian theorist Silvia Federici, who has written on historic witch hunts from a feminist perspective: 'the witch-hunt destroyed a whole world of female practices, collective relations, and stems of knowledge that had been the foundation of women's power...' Federici contextualises the witch hunts as the precursor to the emergence of 'a new model of femininity... the ideal woman and wife—passive, obedient, thrifty, of few words, always busy at work, and chaste'.1
Shelton is known for her distinctly staged images, often of floral arrangements or natural settings with allegorical significance. Her interest in flora and fauna, with their associative and historic uses, continues here with 'i am an old phenomenon'.
The series comprises five large-scale photographic structures, each containing two individual photographs placed back-to-back within handmade cedar stands and arranged in a circular formation to mirror the positioning of the central space's art deco stained-glass dome ceiling. The compositions feature plant roots, yarrow, brugmansia, apple, cornflowers, ginger, hawthorn, fly agaric toadstools, rowan wood, and elder plant, each selected for its medicinal, spiritual, or ritualistic significance.
The titular She could lie on her back and sink (Ginger) features a closely cropped view of partially submerged robust, bulbous ginger roots, while an adjacent composition depicts a Brugmansia—commonly known as Angel's Trumpet—suspended unnaturally against a warm ochre backdrop, approximating the form of a witch's broom mid-air. Each composition is deliberately earthbound, submerged, or aerial.
Elevated at varying heights, Shelton's photographs stand level with the viewer and in their arrangement allude to the magic circle—a formation marked out by practitioners of magic or ritual. Beauchamp notes the significance of this sculptural mode of display, saying 'the scale is important—Ann wants them to feel more bodily. You're able to move between the works.'
In the alcove adjacent to Shelton's installation is British artist and filmmaker Jayne Parker's video The Whirlpool (1997), from which a high-tempo classical piece by German composer Robert Schumann emanates, establishing an unsettling tone for both Parker's and Shelton's installations and drawing attention to their confluences; 'Water is the unifying force between these works', says Beauchamp.
Over the nine minutes of The Whirlpool, we see a choreographed sequence of a ballet dancer (performed by Deborah Figueiredo) dancing underwater in a swimming pool. This is fractured with footage of a pianist (Katharina Wolpe) in a dark studio-like setting, playing Schumann's piece with increasing pace.
Figueiredo's ruby-red pointe shoes contrast against the blue pool—perhaps a reference to Dorothy's slippers, and another nod to women of magic—and the skirt of her pale pink leotard floats, trailing her movements. As she continues to dance, her movements become more vigorous, and the video culminates in her limp body floating towards the surface.
British artist Tai Shani's psychedelic CGI film The Neon Hieroglyph (2021) consumes Gus Fisher Gallery's largest room, dimly lit with neon-pink lighting. The Neon Hieroglyph is informed by Shani's research into Alicudi, the Sicilian Island mythologised for its unusual history of mass hallucination.
For hundreds of years, the island's inhabitants unknowingly ate bread made with ergot-infected rye—ergot a type of fungus containing lysergic acid, which can be synthesised to produce LSD. They experienced collective hallucinations, and legends emerged of Maiara—witches who would fly to the mainland to steal from the wealthy.
The nearly hour-long film unfolds nine hallucinogenic sequences, beginning with a confronting closeup of a figure's waxen face, staring blankly outward. She mechanically opens her mouth, blinks a little too deliberately, and what appear to be flowing bubbles spill steadily downwards. Her head jerks up and her eyes become beaming channels of light as the background is washed with a rainbow technicolour glow and grotesque snakes grow and coil out of her ears.
Subsequent sequences feature prosaic voiceover narration paired with visualisations of the solar system, interiors, and other scenes, with Shani adopting cinematic techniques that mimic the effects of being under the influence of psychedelics. Like Shelton's reverent visualisations for medicinal plants and ritualised botanics, Shani's poetic, pulsating film privileges alternative knowledge systems that inhabit the margins of society.
Shani jointly won the Turner Prize in 2019 alongside Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Helen Cammock, and Oscar Murillo, nominated for Dark Continent: Semiramis (2018), an expansive installation that was also the setting for an experimental 12-part performance series depicting an 'allegorical city of women', adapted from Italian-French poet Christine de Pizan's proto-feminist text The Book of the City of Ladies (1405).
The Neon Hieroglyph may be similarly understood as a feminist reinterpretation of lore that envisages a post-patriarchal world blending cosmology, myth, history, and allegory.
'The witch embodies an alternate or rebellious figure. For me, Tai's interpretation of this hallucinatory space captures this', Beauchamp says.
Bringing an embodied, collaborative approach to the exhibition is emerging Aotearoa artist Louie Zalk-Neale, who has collaborated with artists Adam Ben-Dror, Neke Moa, and Dr Tāwhanga Nopera for Beyond your tadpole stage // Your spinal cord dissolves (2023), an installation that merges strands of Indigenous Māori craft practices, body adornment, performance, and found and made objects.
Prefacing their installation is Zalk-Neale's plywood sandwich board, handwritten with the words 'Your warm hands ignite cold stone / Beyond your tadpole stage / Your spinal cord dissolves / where does your mauri go / Nau mai [welcome] / pls come in'.
In a darkened room, stones of various sizes sit in cushioned orbit around a central blue plastic barrel, umbilically linked with lengths of twisted taura tī kōuka (cabbage-tree fibre rope). The barrel is filled with softly bubbling water and other objects—floating pumice, a plastic bottle, a discarded plastic soy-sauce fish—and illuminated with a fluorescent tube lining the barrel's lip.
Among the stones is a weighty kōhatu—pounamu (greenstone) carved by Neke Moa, which viewers are encouraged to respectfully hold. Zalk-Neale writes, 'Mauri, a shared energy, can pass through this miniature landscape of rock, fibre, plastic, water'.
These stones were held by Zalk-Neale at their opening night performance, where they collaborated with Dr Tāwhanga Nopera to activate the gallery's spaces with bodily movement and audience engagement. Adorned with the woven cabbage-tree braid that now rests around the neck of the blue barrel, Zalk-Neale, with Nopera, passed the stones to the audience who were invited to carry them as they moved through the space, imbuing them with their collective energy.
Zalk-Neale's performance practice in part responds to the erasure of Māori customs and practices through Christianity and colonisation and their associated prescriptive understandings of gender identities.
Recounting the performance, Beauchamp says, 'The performance was the final part of completing the work ... People were invited to carry the stones as they moved around the space. Lots of different people have carried these stones. It's that participation that gives the work its energy.' —[O]