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Pop Paganism

Rituals without myth and liturgy within the occultist underground

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Pop Paganism | PlayGround | Music Features

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.


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