Pop Paganism

Rituals without myth and liturgy within the occultist underground

The Ritual Without Myth exhibit - currently on display in London - gives Javier Calvo the opportunity to explore certain connections between liturgy, ritual, and witchcraft in certain groups and audiovisual projects of the most elusive underground.

I was interested to read about the group exhibit curated by the final-year students of London’s Royal College of Art, entitled Ritual Without Myth. (For those who aren’t familiar with it, the RCA is an elite art school with a spectacular roster of former students ranging from Frank Auerbach to Ian Dury, including Ridley Scott and countless recipients of Turner Awards. It occupies a spectacular 60s building on the southern edge of Hyde Park, next door to the Royal Albert Hall). Ritual Without Myth is on display this month of March and takes its title from the idea formulated by Lygia Clark that art is a rite without myth; that is to say, that a work lacks representative meaning beyond its interaction with the participants/viewers. According to Clark, the participant interacts with the work using his or her senses, and these ritual interactions, or “live experiences” - along with the affective transformations that they produce in the participant - become the “therapeutic” goal of the work.

One of Lygia Clark’s most well-known ritual performances, “Baba Antropofágica”:

Taking Clark’s notion, the group exhibit Ritual Without Myth “deals with the potential of ritual as a catalyst for transformative experience”; furthermore “it explores artistic practices that combine cultural repertoires (that is to say, collections of actions and symbols that structure social systems), liberating them in this manner from the authority of a single dominant myth”. Quoting Brazilian cultural critic Suely Rolnik, a specialist in Clark’s work, the exhibit defends that “the absence of an absolute, stable identification with any repertoire is a condition from which hybrid cultural forms may emerge, undermining a dominant ideology”. One of the things about the exhibit that most caught my eye was its Barcelona connection. RWM not only displays the work of Mexican artist settled in Barcelona Erick Beltrán, but it is also the first time that samples of the work of José Pérez Ocaña have been shown in England. Specifically, Ocaña’s filming of carnival processions in the centre of Barcelona.

This idea of ritual without myth seems very useful to me in understanding some recent transformations in live music performance. One of these transformations consists of the live music show having lost certain aspects of the traditional live rock show (the sexual aspect, sweat, dance) to take on others of occultist or religious liturgy. Jhonn Balance’s use of secrecy and psalmodies, Sunn O)))’s tunics and sacerdotal gestures, Jaz Coleman’s evangelising speeches, Fever Ray’s liturgical disguises, or even symbolic elements on the stage with a mainstream artist like Bat For Lashes. If the movement of these ritual elements onstage is obvious, it is much more so in music videos. Here there are just too many examples to even mention them.

There are thousands of bands that organise the contents of their music around “single dominant” myths. Look at the Nordic mythology in Burzum, for example, or the Pacific North-Western animism in Wolves In The Throne Room, or the pagan England of almost any group on the Canterbury scene. What interests me here is the opposite phenomenon. Let’s take the American musician Burial Hex. His best-known videos are remixed scenes from films in which rituals appear. This is the case with the videos for “The Tower” (the scene from the phallic dance in Derek Jarman’s “Sebastiane”); “Book Of Delusions” (the scene of the ceremonial fashion show before the Pope in Fellini’s “Roma”) and “Hunger” (which uses images from “Divine Horsemen”, Maya Deren’s documentary about voodoo in Haiti). This gesture of borrowing images of rituals from different sources alludes to another phenomenon typical of pop paganism, which is the syncretism of its imagery. Burial Hex’s project is defined as “a chthonic cycle” of compositions inaugurated “on All Hallows’ Day of 2004” and intended to “prepare oneself for the final mysteries of this Kali Yuga”. As tends to happen, the most habitual thing in the world of pop paganism is for a single band to allude to Mesopotamian mythology, Nordic mythology, Lovecraft, Crowley, and a thousand other things. One gets the impression that the more spontaneous the crossbreeding is, the further it goes.



The famous Cosmotropia de Xam videos for Mater Suspiria Vision are a strange case of symbiosis between video and music artists - starting with the fact that they can easily be interpreted the other way round, as MSV soundtracks for Cosmotropia. When the association began, two or three years ago, Cosmotropia was making “video-collages” or remixes of 70s erotic, horror, and exploitation B-movies. The “soundtrack” of those experiments - which were presented as “non-profit promotional video collages” - was the trademark sound of Mater Suspiria Vision. It could be classed as electronic Goth with trance and psychedelic elements; stuffed with film sampling and musical allusions to projects as disparate as the Italians Goblin, British Alien Sex Fiend, or the Psychic TV of yesteryear. Their videos to the song from the film “Picnic At Hanging Rock” or the song “Das Haus der Hexe” date from this period.



Liturgy without content? Rather, it is liturgy as content.

The later evolution of the collaboration between Cosmotropia and MSV gradually abandons the “clean” remounting of scenes from films, to cross over into all sorts of psychedelic resources - clouds of ink, Rorschach tests, kaleidoscopes and distorted mirror images. The contents of the “sampled” scenes leave behind the Giallo, Lucio Fulci-type of thing and shift towards witchcraft, exorcism, and black masses. Rituals filmed in a grainy way, using tapes in bad condition, coming from home recordings or documentaries, which the artists themselves mention proudly when they are removed from YouTube because of the contents. This is how in the three years of their collaboration, Cosmotropia/MSV have already constructed a voluminous archive (over seventy video pieces on MSV’s Vimeo and even more on Cosmotropia’s blog) around the subject of witchcraft.



It is very surprising that an audiovisual project so focused on quotes and on found footage would have recently begun to introduce original material. This is the case on “A Giant Snake That Eats Itself”, where a series of priestesses dance languidly around with secrecy, possessing mirrors, and pieces of fruit. It is particularly true on “Seduction Of The Armageddon Witches”, whose starring couple find themselves involved in the consecration of a magical object (a pagan version of the Sacred Heart) based on rituals with fruit, ice, blood, and earth. Although this last video is produced by Cosmotropia de Xam, a Colombian video artist residing in Madrid, Diego Barrera appears in the directing credits. Barrera had already introduced the symbolism of nature and the transformation of reality in liturgy to his short film “Síntesis De Amor Orgánico”, which premiered a couple of years ago in Madrid’s Casa Encendida.


Obviously, the idea of ritual that we find in Lygia Clark is almost opposite to that dealt with by Barrera, whose baroque composition refers most obviously to Peter Greenaway, Alejandro Jodorowsky or Matthew Barney. In her text, “A Modern Myth: The Instant A Nostalgia Of The Cosmos” (1965), Clark finds the source of all transcendence precisely in immediacy.

“It is necessary to find a new meaning that returns to man his integrity. This meaning cannot be created from mythical values that are external to it. If he is aware of his own limits - since he is missing a deeper reason to justify his existence, the spiritual values that used to satisfy him having disappeared—man must position himself before himself, with the independence that he has acquired in his terrible aloneness. (…) It is from spiritual emptiness that the new meaning will arise. All of the possible options are inscribed in it. (…) Now the common man is beginning to reach the position of the artist. Man has never been so close to his plenitude: he no longer has any more metaphysical excuses. There is no longer anything else to project oneself onto. He is free of irresponsibility. He can no longer deny himself as a total being. If there is no longer any transference possible, what remains for him is to live in the present, in art without art, as a new reality.”

These are two extreme positions: the totality of the instant of sensory plenitude, without any mediation, against the infinite quote, the liturgy that refers back to itself over and over again. Nevertheless, it seems to me that they coincide in various essential works - upholding the ritual, when perhaps the traditional myth has vanished. The ceremonial gesture that outlives the religion that generated it; and which now takes its meaning from the representation itself, made into a performance. Liturgy without content? Rather, it is liturgy as content.


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