A Modern Panarion: Glimpses of Occultism in Dublin

Derek Jarman / Gunilla Klingberg /  Bea McMahon

Richard Proffitt / Garrett Phelan / Dorje De Burgh.

(Curated by Pádraic E. Moore).

Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane.

19 June 2014 – 7 September 2014.

The problem points up a recurring blind spot in the reception of modern art, as when scholars duly note the Theosophical faith of Kandinsky or Mondrian and then make as little as possible of it, concerning the work. [...] Will any thesis writer pluck this low-hanging fruit?

(Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker)1

Curators and artists love to dabble in the arcane, but it's a fair weather interest, more über chic than natural fit. Over the years Pádraic E. Moore has dabbled in suchlike come rain or shine, and he has worn the proverbial robes well. I don't know Moore personally, only through his outré curated exhibitions and tasteful Twitter feed sensibility. Both of which paint a man with an air of old-world gentility, enveloped by mystic and mythic puffs of opium smoke in some occultist's den that Time's forgot.

The title of Moore's current curated exhibition at Dublin City Gallery reifies what were previously glints and shades of occultism, mysticism and shamanism hiding behind the slightly ajar wardrobe door of his particular type of curatorship. A Modern Panarion: Glimpses of Occultism in Dublin is Moore out of the closet so to speak, resulting in an exhibition that seems closer to his heart than his head. In other words, A Modern Panarion is an experiential encounter: the visual trumping the textual. Good riddance. No theoretical tags. No socio-political piggybacking. Just a nod to the theosophical faith that not only inspired twentieth century art in general, but influenced game-changer artists who irrevocably altered the course of Modernist abstraction. Think Malevich, Kandinsky, Mondrian, all theosophists of one design or another.

Rosa Abbott's accompanying essay does all the heavy lifting (so I don't need to), shedding historical light on the curator's localised, theosophical  underpinning, and preventing the individual artists, in theory anyway, from spinning out of Moore's curatorial orbit. The reality is, however, A Modern Panarion is an exhibition of two hemispheres: one that sits comfortably in the orbit of contemporary art, while the other is slingshotted towards a museological, history lesson.

The term “Panarion” in the exhibition title refers to a fourth century treatise on sects and heresies. The word itself, minus Father Epiphanius' adoption for his treatise, suggests an object that contains a collection of objects, e.g., coliseum, arboretum, aquarium. And you wouldn't be far off if you guessed similar. “The Panarion was so called as being a 'basket' of scraps and fragments ... a kind of medicine chest, in which he [Father Epiphanius] had collected means of healing against the poisonous bite of the heretical serpent.”2

Starting with the tail rather than the body of the exhibition, Part 2 of A Modern Panarion is located in Gallery 10 of The Hugh Lane, which requires asking for directions. Apt placement considering the subject of theosophy and how such secretive doctrines were viewed as fugitive by The Orthodoxy.

Artworks by Derek Jarman, Richard Proffitt, Garrett Phelan, Dorje De Burgh are placed alongside published material from Dublin's own Theosophical Society. This combination creates an environment that flits between evidence room and crime scene drama, typical of those American T.V. crime series that ritually dress serial killer pathology in Voodoo skulls and totems. We are not just “familiar” with such clichés as suggested by Abbott in her essay 'Full Circle: The Pop Cultural Orbit of Theosophical Thought', but tired of their now zombified and repetitive resurrection.

In two childhood testimonies by Garett Phelan in Abbott's essay there is a correlation between early New-Age experience as an afflatus for his art-making: 1), the artist's presence at Newgrange for the Winter Solstice in 1986; 2), his recollections of '70s children's television series Children of the Stones. However, Phelan’s artworks themselves, in black/white ganglia networks of collage elements and mock 'String Art' ( the origins of the latter found in nineteenth century mathematician Mary Everest Boole's 'curve stitch', a visual aid to make mathematical ideas more accessible to children), feel boxed in and illustrative. It would have been appropriate to the subject matter in question to let Phelan off the curatorial leash to expand across the walls like he has energetically conceived in the past. These sober 'Phelans' are indeed in keeping with the neighbouring vitrine of theosophical publications, but for me a missed opportunity to go beyond the frame. Across the room from Phelan's contribution, Dorje De Burgh's photographs of fantastical murals recently discovered at 3 Ely Place, the Dublin home of the Theosophical Society, have the slow burn fascination of an archaeological dig. Unless the murals are the subject of PhD research, those with a dilettante interest will perhaps find them a tad contrived and illustrative of the silly side of theosophy.

Things do get a little more lively and colourful in an adjacent dark room, where the late Derek Jarman's Super 8 film A Journey to Avebury, and Richard Proffitt's shrine-installation and sound work Cosmic Drift: Elevations of a Fried Mystic, bunk together. Jarman's film, a crepuscular meditation on Avebury – a haven of Neolithic stone circles in the Wiltshire countryside, England – sparkles with visual noise of rapeseed gold and electric blue. Yes, with Super 8 you can't really lose when it comes to eliciting transcendental mysticism. That said, Jarman's A Journey to Avebury is wonderfully trippy; redolent of watching analogue T.V. at 2am, tuned into BBC 2 and magic mushrooms. Further, it offsets Proffitt's eccentric and playful installation, wherein (among a plethora of curiosities) animal skulls, a pasted newspaper article on “Neo-HooDoo”3, ritualised trinkets, a psychedelic lightbox, and an eye catching ornate frame in which a shattered picture is held behind intact glass, have been vomited up to form a constellation of flea market mysticism. On top of which resounds an audio accompaniment of a repurposed '60s Pink Floyd lyric, set on loop.

1 Aug. 2014.

The Undiscovered Country

From Left, Clockwise: Richard Proffitt, archive material, Derek Jarman, Garrett Phelan.

© artists, courtesy of Pádraic E. Moore and Dublin City Gallery.



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