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Study Day: Portals, Art and Spirituality (9 May 11:00 - 16:00)

Date: Thursday, 9 May

Time: -

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L'atmosphere, Meteorologie Populaire

L'atmosphere, Meteorologie Populaire by Camille Flammarion, 1888

Held at The Swedenbourg Society

The current global art scene is radiant with a variety of artistic proposals influenced by spiritual practices. Artists are exploring the contemporary relevance of ancient belief systems, embracing the wisdom of ancestral knowledge, and investigating the transformative energies associated with practices like witchcraft and shamanism. Through their work, contemporary artists are delving into metaphysical, psychic, and energetic realms to open up new perspectives to our existence on this planet, this universe and this cosmos. 

Whether as themes of investigation, modes of representation, or research methodologies, there is an increasing emphasis on aspects of ritual, ancient folklore, myths and storytelling, non-Western cosmologies, and other pagan belief systems and esoteric practices. Artists who identify as healers, alchemists, or brujas are being encountered more frequently. Exhibitions and events related to divination or astrology are being programmed in all kinds of art spaces worldwide. Books, essays, reviews and other texts and publications about mysticism and the occult, are being distributed in the virtual, physical or audio realms prolifically. This trend reflects the strong bond that there is and has always been between the human practice of art and the fundamental spiritual component that constitutes us as human beings.

Whether driven by the ideologies and frameworks of cultural postmodernity, the predicaments of contemporary crises, or the inexorable urge to reestablish a connection with the inherently spiritual essence of our existence, this unearthed desire for magic, which is so present in the art world, may offer alternatives to the time-space we share. Can magic be used to confront and transform our shared global pressing issues, such as social inequality, environmental violence, the growth of neoconservative ideologies, war. Or, could it help infuse with flavor and warmth the insipidness and coldness of atheistic societies?  

This renewed interest in the many forms of spirituality, which resist dominant forms of culture, may shape new pathways that lead towards transforming the systems and beliefs that no longer serve us while creating solutions and new perspectives in response to global challenges. If the very fundamental nature of magic is to produce changes of consciousness, and these changes are sympathetic to material realities, then magic can also be used for the fundamental conversions in consciousness that are needed to transform society at a deeper level. 

In the CAS Study Day, titled ‘Portals, Art & Spirituality’, we collectively explored this growing interest. The day was divided into two sections. It began with Professor Lisa Blackman’s presentation, where she talked about her research on hauntology and hallucinatory experience. Lisa’s presentation was followed by a conversation between curator and critic Michael Bracewell and writer Jennifer Higgie, author of ‘The Other Side: A Journey into Women, Art, and the Spirit World’. The second half of the day included an interactive contribution between artist Sammy Lee and writer Sarah Shin with a tarot reading. The event concluded with curator and author Stephen Ellcock’s presentation, who showed a selection of beautiful and uncanny virtual images from his inexhaustible virtual collection. 

The foundational ideas that inspired the curatorial framework of this Study Day were rooted in the art historian and theorist Carol Duncan’s influential work, "The Art Museum As Ritual," published in 1995. Duncan explores the idea of museums as ceremonial spaces akin to temples or ritual sites. Drawing on her academic yet creative and magical argument, museums are portals – liminal spaces where the boundaries of time and space become suspended, creating new sacred realms of possibility. The experience produced in these portals is transformative, spiritual, embodied, and magical, offering an opportunity for gaining new perspectives while generating new forms and ways of being. 

Portals function symbolically, yet at their core, they are material infrastructures facilitating actual connection and practical access. Scientifically, they serve as shortcuts to the unknown, entrances to other dimensions where other forms of time and space exist. Geopolitically, portals act as gateways transcending boundaries, merging once-divided regions and territories. Spiritually, portals reveal cosmic secrets and channels of energy that infuse life with magic, guiding towards profound discoveries. These thresholds mark points of transition where the occurrence of magic is set in motion. 

The invitation of this event was to reflect on the significance of spirituality within our personal lives and in our collective material culture. The suggestion was to think about magical strategies to enhance self-awareness, strengthen our communities, promote justice, and strive for liberation. Let’s recognize our commitment to honoring the sacredness of our bodies and the sacredness of the Earth we inhabit. Let's cast a circle and utter a spell to transform the predicaments of our contemporary shared time and space. By fostering the necessary shifts in consciousness for personal and societal transformation we might discover the portals that can help us reconnect with the planet, the universe and cosmos, on both material and spiritual levels.


Dr Paula Zambrano, Curator of Programmes