Candida Powell-Williams is currently an artist-in-residence at The Warburg Institute. In this blog post, Candida explains how she formulates her research and tells us more about her project Lessness, still quorum, and her current exhibition of work, which is showing at London’s Exposed Arts Projects.
Whilst artist-in-residence at The Warburg Institute, I have been exploring the cultural heritage of tarot with the intention of creating a sculptural and performative installation. A longstanding interest in our attempts to navigate the Absurd has led me to consider mysticism within storytelling and its meeting point with the mundane materiality of objects.
Like many artists I intuitively use a methodology comparable to Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas. My work has a fragmentary relationship to research, piecing together references and looking for chains of coincidences or the effects of Chinese whispers. Unlike an art historian’s research I tend to disrupt conventional narrative as ideas cross-pollinate. My research process involves a mixture of reading, drawing and Google image searches collated on Pinterest boards.
A sprawling mind map covers a wall of my studio in which references dart back and forth between each other covering topics including but not limited to:
tarot’s origins as a playing card from Italy and its evolution into fortune telling
the attempt to unite illustrations with mystical concepts through the formal language of tarot such as the use of symbols and figuration (e.g. Pamela Coleman Smith’s illustrations), vertical montaging (Austin Spare), geometric and biomorphic abstraction and automatic painting processes (Ithell Colquhoun) and synthetic geometry (Thoth deck)
Rudolf Steiner and senses
man and nature
how tarot has influenced abstract painting (e.g. Hilma Af Klint)
Tarot’s pictorial space and theatrical spectatorship
the relationship between psychic and literal space.
links with sculptural spaces including Niki de Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden and Bomarzo
links with the narrative genre of fairy tale and it’s relationship to time
its influence on literature such as Italo Calvino’s novel The Castle of Crossed Destinies
the problems with Carl Jung’s archetypes
magic and logic
This expansive map has informed the development of my own tarot deck reinventing it as a series of sculptural dioramas, digital animations and a performance. To illustrate the nature of my cross referencing I’ll guide you through where two strands led me.
The tapestries of the Lady and the Unicorn
Researching occult shapes I found myself directed to synthetic geometry, then to Rudolf Steiner, across the Thoth deck, to Hilma Af Kilnt’s paintings to depictions of the senses and then to the tapestries of the Lady and the Unicorn. When listening to Bill Sherman’s interesting talk on his cipher research, he mentioned a floral wreath in which each flower symbolises a letter to be decoded. The image of that wreath stuck in my mind, the meaning of flowers feature in many tarot decks. The background of the Unicorn tapestries are done in the Millefleur style, flowers are dispersed across the pictorial plane as if in a meadow but have no apparent meaning at all. The pip cards of my own tarot deck are taking shape with a mysterious Millefleur background. The same flowers reoccur elsewhere but are gathered up and given meaning in ceramic wreathes with messages to be decoded.
The Tower card
To give you an example of researching the legacy of one symbol, I’ll talk through the Tower card, which was originally known simply as Lightning. It is commonly interpreted as meaning danger, crisis, sudden change, destruction, higher learning, and liberation. Whilst reading about Warburg’s famous lecture on the Serpent Ritual, I was struck by the lightning symbol’s presence in the tarot deck. Warburg suggested in his lecture that lightning no longer terrifies us and by creating electricity we no longer need pagan rituals to neutralise danger and to bring about much needed rain. The image of the snake/lightning comes to symbolise control of the threat and Warburg believed it also created a space for reflecting.
In the Rider Waite Smith card, the lightning symbol hits a crown off the tower; a symbol of human control, order or materialism and therefore tarot provides a reminder of our vulnerability and a means to reawaken the spiritual bonds between humanity and the world or cosmos.
Marilyn Manson used a version of this symbol to promote his album AntiChrist Superstar, which was about superhuman self-transformation.
Another version of the lightning bolt is the flash and circle symbol which has been used by several organisations including the British Union of Fascists. This terrifying evolution of occult symbols forms one aspect of a two person exhibition between myself and artist Thomas Yeoman’s currently on at Exposed Arts Projects in Kensington. In this exhibition we explore occult symbols as a powerful language of persuasion which oscillate between “good” and “evil”.
Lessness, still quorum
In September my research informed the creation of an hour-long performance at the Serpentine Gallery London. In Lessness, still quorum, I reanimated the tarot as a three-dimensional space, exploring the encounter between action, storytelling, symbolism and magical thinking. Sculptural forms were configured and reconfigured, composing the architectural structures found in the Major Arcana of my own tarot. Metamorphosing between each card, dancers pierced and divided the space in a choreography inspired by spiritualist diagrams. The dancers act as puppeteers manipulating the objects rather than standing in for the archetypal characters.
For me, the viewers’ attempt to find meaning in these forms takes precedence over any meaning they might actually find. ‘Lessness’ is the name of a short story by Samuel Beckett from 1969, in which the sequence of sentences was determined by pulling each one out of a container. Lessness is thus the shrinking of the bewildering number of sequences there could have been, while a quorum is a minimum number of bodies required of a collective to pass judgment.
I have used the images created throughout the performance to make stop-frame animations for each of my 22 Major Arcana and I am currently working on the remaining pip cards. These digital ‘cards’ will eventually be installed as a bank of 78 screens which can be used for tarot readings. A version will also be made as a traditional card deck.
Stills from animation Lessness, still quorum, performed by Sara Barbagli, Chiara Favaretti, Alice Tatge, Harriet Waghorn, 2018:
Alongside the digital cards, I am playing with scale and notions of absence, presence and archetypes by creating a sculptural diorama for each card. Within these spaces each of the architectural constructions created in the performance are remade as small scale sculptures, frozen and whitewashed like ghosts. The surfaces of the works explore all the formal concerns I found in my research – figurative sculptures meet geometric forms with biomorphic marbled surfaces colours. The animations will be intermittently projected into these dioramas consequently disrupting the empty space.
The symbols in the animations act as both a memory and a catalyst for the series of works currently on show at Exposed Arts Projects. Symbols repeat and are rearticulated back into sculptural form where they shift in size and material: some are enlarged to human scale and appear like Disneyfied relics or ruins; others are shrunken down and embroidered or painted onto clay. Fabricated in sweet gradients of yellow, pinks and greens, they play with a positive and negative landscape. The landscape itself – even though it mimics the digitally pixilated – is rendered into real space and time. The objects created oscillate between conduits for practicing meditative rituals (such as a clay bell idol or prayer cushion) and ciphers. This coupled with the esoteric sculptural lexicon offer a collision of power and mysticism.
The project will continue to grow and spawn new associations over the next six months. I am making an artist book which tracks the development of my thinking with drawings and writing and which I hope to invite you all to the launch of in spring 2019.
The project is generously supported by Arts Council England, Bosse and Baum Gallery, Exposed Arts Projects and the Serpentine Galleries. I would like to take this opportunity to thank The Warburg Institute for all their support and interesting conversations.
Candida Powell-Williams graduated from the Royal College of Art, London in 2011 and the Slade School of Fine Art London in 2009. Her sculptural and performance works are a response to researching the slippage that occurs between primary and secondary source material, exploring the consequences of retelling history and how we construct identity through objects and memory. She manipulates historical narratives, plucking references from disparate eras, folding them into the present and condensing them into a singular experience. Selected exhibitions include: Lessness, still quorum, performance, Serpentine Galleries, London (2018); Boredom and its Acid Touch, Frieze Live, London (2017); Tongue Town, Museum of Modern Art, São Paulo (2017); Cache, Art Night Associate Programme, London (2017); Vernacular History of the Golden Rhubarb, Bosse and Baum Gallery, London (2017); PIC performance festival, Melbourne, Australia (2016); Coade’s Elixir-an occupation, Hayward Gallery, London (2014). In 2013 Powell-Williams was awarded the Sainsbury Scholarship at the British School at Rome.