Véronique Béland As We Are Blind, installation view, Museu da Cidade, Aveiro, 2019.
Photo : Joana Magalhães, courtesy of the artist

Correspondences and Undecidable Occult in Contemporary Art

Fanny Curtat
Ornithomancy in Laurent Grasso’s work, magic spells in Cullen Miller and Gabriel Dunne’s, spiritism with Cécile Babiole, Matt Mullican’s hypnosis, Yen-Chao Lin’s radiesthesia, and witchcraft in Virginia Lupu — examples of what may be called the growing occurrence of the occult in contemporary art of recent years are legion. As vague as it is vast, it is a trend that would seem to fall within the scope of what, in the 1990s, sociologist Françoise Champion called the “esoteric-mystic nebula.”1 1 - Françoise Champion, “La ‘nébuleuse mystique-ésotérique’: Une décomposition du religieux entre humanisme revisité, magique, psychologique,” in Le défi magique : Ésotérisme, occultisme, spiritisme, Vol. 1, ed. François Laplantine and Jean-Baptiste Martin (Lyon: Presses Universitaires de Lyon (CRÉA), 1994), 315 (our translation). This oft-cited expression remains an effective description of a situation and a field of study characterized by an untended nomenclature and the free appropriation of various techniques and traditions. The very notion of the occult, a polyvalent term that can encompass both Western and Eastern esoteric traditions and their dispersion through popular culture, would merit an article of its own.

However, beyond the ambient constitutive blur, another observation must be made: keeping in mind the tenuousness of belief in a contemporary context, in which the practice of the occult tends to be more casual than ardent, many artists indeed cast doubt on their own intentions, placing a relationship left hanging between belief and non-belief at the very heart of their work. Does artist Véronique Béland, whose work As We Are Blind (2016) consists of an aura sensor that translates spectators’ electrodermal information into auratic portraits and into musical scores transmitted live to a mechanical piano, believe in auras? And Benoît Pype’s Chutes libres (literally, “free falls”) (2013) takes the form of droplets of molten metal dropped into water, by which, following molybdomancy practice, the future may be read — does Pype believe in divination? These unanswered questions disturb by their very presence in an art world accustomed to taking a critical distance from the subject of belief, which is considered muddled and disquieting. How to perceive this presence of the occult in a context in which belief — the prerogative of the occult — remains a thorny issue, even if the theory of secularization is widely questioned.

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This article also appears in the issue 105 - New New Age

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