On the Spiritual in Contemporary Art

Phenomenal exhibition
28 October – 9 December 2024

Andy Best
Adam Birchmore
Matt Huppatz
Monika Morgenstern
Henry Wolff
Min Wong

In a puckish gesture, the philosopher and psychologist Ullin T. Place donated his brain to the University of Adelaide, stipulating that it be placed on display accompanied by a label reading: “Did this brain contain the consciousness of U. T. Place?” (fig. 1) Today, one can view Place’s brain in the University’s Vernon-Roberts Museum. Place and his colleague, the philosopher J .J. C. Smart, worked at the University of Adelaide in the 1950s, there developing what is known as the “mind/brain identity theory” – a famous theory that continues to have its adherents among present-day philosophers. It holds that mental states and processes – which is to say, our consciousness, all our thoughts and experiences – are no more than physical states, specifically, brain states and brain processes. Did the brain preserved at the University of Adelaide contain the consciousness of U. T. Place? Place’s answer was an emphatic yes: some of the physical states and processes manifested in his brain while he lived were his consciousness. 

Figure. 1. The Brain of Ullin T. Place, Vernon-Roberts Museum, University of Adelaide. 

Regardless of whether one sees the identity theory as right or wrong, one can appreciate its ambition and impact. At a stroke, it assimilates, and indeed reduces, the mental to the physical, and in so doing makes a key contribution to the ontological view known as physicalism: the view that all things that exist are, at heart, properly understood parts of a physical world, and that there is nothing beyond the physical.

Since the development of postmodernism in the 1980s, art theory has also tended towards this view. One influence here is critical theory, which is committed to physicalism in the form of Marxist dialectic materialism. When I first worked in Adelaide’s artworld in the 1990s, any talk of the non-physical was met with a suspicion summed up by Walter Benjamin’s damning judgement of “creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery” (all notions that traditionally are thought to evade scientific, which is to say physical, understanding) as “outmoded concepts … whose uncontrolled … application would lead to a processing of data in the Fascist sense.” I’m still not sure what that meant, but it clearly wasn’t good. Psychoanalysis, another important element in postmodernist thought, is also based on a physicalist worldview – psychoanalysis, after all, originated in the sciences, as a branch of medicine and psychology. Georges Bataille, another influential figure on postmodernism, was deeply committed to an idiosyncratic kind of physicalism – a “base materialism” that transgressed against all those “outmoded concepts” decried by Benjamin.

Earlier this year I gave a talk at The Little Machine on the origins of abstract painting in the spiritualist ideas of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, which animated the practices of artists such as Georgiana Houghton, Hilma af Klint, and Wassily Kandinsky. It seemed to me then that those ideas had not made their way into contemporary art – postmodernist physicalism had done away with them. In the audience was the artist Riley O’Keeffe, and he asked a question that blindsided me. The gist was this: doesn’t the spiritual, despite everything I had said against it, continue to have a life in contemporary art? It was immediately apparent that I had missed something important – and I could only agree that, yes, ideas don’t simply vanish from art history, and surely there must be a continuing story to be told about the spiritual in art as well. This exhibition is a more extended, and I hope, more adequate answer to Riley’s question. As Eleen, my Little Machine Co-Director, and I began to ask artists about the theme of the non-physical, it became apparent that a great many contemporary artists – in Adelaide, and further afield – feel it is a deeply important in their practices, even if the critical language needed to discuss it barely exists now. To me – grown up with the postmodernist aversion to talk of the non-physical – that was a surprise. Indeed, it quickly became clear that there is scope for a much larger exhibition than this present one on the theme of the spiritual in art. This exhibition focuses especially on artists whose treatment of the non-physical continues the modernist engagement with spirituality through formal experiment and innovation. All the artists who Eleen and I spoke with shared a non-religious concern with the non-physical. Most organised religions significantly constrain their members contact with the spiritual. In organised religion, legitimate, reliable spiritual contact usually comes indirectly, via a priesthood and inerrant sacred texts. By contrast, the artists we spoke to all rejected this, instead insisting on a direct, unmediated experience of the non-physical. Nor do they typically make use of the stories of organised religion. Some draw on the iconography of new age spirituality, in ways comparable to the early modernists’ fascination with Theosophy. More often they construct their own ways of thinking about the non-physical, sometimes drawing on elements of existing cultural traditions and philosophical frameworks. The results are essentially personal spiritualities, that independently articulate and make sense of an artist’s own spiritual experiences. While they are not in any sense evangelical, these artists understand their experiences to have meaning beyond themselves, that there is something others can gain from their personal revelations. What could have given rise to this resurgence of interest in the non-material? Perhaps a retreat from antagonism and culture-wars? Perhaps the turn towards care and meaningful community. Perhaps the more inward focus that Covid and lockdowns have engendered? Of course, for some artists, especially indigenous artists, there has been no resurgence, because their concern with the spiritual has never abated.

More recently, philosophy too has embraced non-physicalist outlooks. For me – temperamentally uneasy about what one of the exhibition artists, Min Wong, calls “woo woo” – this philosophy provides a way to begin to appreciate the work of these artists. In another famous thought experiment, the Australian philosopher Frank Jackson asks us to imagine the following scenario:

“Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black-and-white room via a black-and-white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes or the sky and use terms like “red”, “blue”, and so on. … What happens when Mary is released from her black-and-white room or is given a colour television monitor? Does she learn anything new or not?”

(Frank Jackson ’Epiphenomenal Qualia’, Philosophical Quarterly 32(127), 1982)

Jackson says, yes – Mary does learn something new. She learns what red, blue and the other colours feel like. But since neurophysiology tells us everything about the matter of the brain – that means that colour – or at least, what colour feels like, its sensation – is not physical. So what then is it? Philosophers who take this view call the sensation of colour an example of qualia, or phenomenal experience. But beyond philosophy, it is not unreasonable to call whatever is not physical, spiritual. That does not mean that Jackson sees the world as thronged with immaterial ghosts, as spiritualists can do. His view is more modest; for him, our brain states give rise to non-physical states, but these non-physical states – qualia, as he calls them, or spiritual states as we might describe them – are causally inert, that is, epiphenomenal.

Another philosophical view that takes impetus from arguments such as Jackson’s but gives a more prominent place to the non-physical is panpsychism – also called double-aspect theory. It holds that every state in the universe has a physical aspect and a phenomenal aspect. So, there is something (albeit something very simple) that it is like to be an electron, or any other particle in the universe. Philip Goff’s Galileo’s Error: A New Science of Consciousness (Penguin, 2019) is an accessible introduction to panpsychism. Recently, the analytic tradition has gone even further than this. Cosmopsychism holds that “the cosmos as a whole displays psychological properties” (J. Ganeri and I. Shani, in The Monist, special issue on cosmopsychism and Indian philosophy, 105(1), 2022.) Miri Albahari, a philosopher based at the University of Western Australia, argues for a similar position, in which a universal consciousness exists, that unlike our minds, does not make distinctions between subject and object, and which is the ground for familiar conscious experiences. She presents this as a form of Aldous Huxley’s “perennial philosophy” – described in detail in her chapter in the Routledge Handbook to Panpsychism (2019). 

Figure 2. Brion Gysin (left) and William S. Burroughs (right) using a dream machine.

Radical as these recent positions may appear, they all share an understanding that the physical world and mental world are closely tied together. Our spiritual substance or aspect can never float free from our physical bodies. But perhaps these views can console us with the idea that following death we might re-join a universal or cosmic consciousness. Albahari’s view suggests we might not even need to wait this long, for meditative experience can also give us an awareness of the universal consciousness. Now, I don’t suggest that any of the artists in Phenomenal share these particular beliefs. What I am saying is that there are strands in contemporary philosophy which overlap and perhaps even converge with the thinking of the artists in this exhibition.

So, how does non-physicalism thinking manifest in these artists’ works? In the front window of the gallery, secluded behind a gauze curtain, is Matt Huppatz’s dreamachine23, a recreation of Brion Gysin and Ian Sommerville’s invention of 1959. (fig. 2)

To experience the dream machine’s effects one should sit facing it with one’s eyes shut. Under these conditions, the flickering produced by the motion of spinning, perforated shade over the light produces a stroboscopic effect which can produce psychedelic experiences in viewers. First, one may see coloured kaleidescopic patterns. A fortunate few may find this followed by full visual hallucinations akin to those of lucid dreaming. Gysin hoped that this would be an inspiration to artists, and that the visions it could draw from within us could even replace television. Gysin was also a mystic (Timothy Leary called him “one of the great hedonic mystic teachers.” (www.beatdom.com)) and he understood the dream machine as one of a range of methods to achieve mystical experience. For Gysin, the psychedelia produced by the dream machine provided, or pointed to, existentially profound experiences of the non-physical. I like to imagine that if the gauze curtains around it were drawn back, dreamachine23’s spinning form might provide the passers-by in Regent Arcade with mystical experiences.

In Huppatz’s Smoke and Mirrors, Maquette, a mirrored cube blows puffs of smoke through a pipe which penetrates into a transparent, similarly sized, Perspex cube. In my mind, its two parts are an elegant play on Minimalism, and Hans Haacke’s Condensation Cube. Together they suggest a queer version of the bachelor and bride panes of Duchamp’s Large Glass. But at heart this work is – obviously – a smoking machine, a reference to another method Gysin indulged in to achieve mystical experiences.

Adam Birchmore’s 821 Days to Supreme Consciousness comprises 821 postcard-sized prints. These apparently endlessly inventive works were made one day at a time, over 821 days, as a form of spiritual exercise and discipline. They challenge us to match this act of contemplation through our own sustained engagement with the work. The spirituality Birchmore evinces in 821 Days… is entirely personal and idiosyncratic. But that changes in his collaborative work with Matt Huppatz, which they show here under the name Adam & Steve. Their collaboration presents a kind of religion for two, with its own performed rituals and observances, and an array of improvised ceremonial objects. We see these in a selection of video works, on a screen propped up against a milk crate and resting upon scraps of tinfoil. The project is playful, but it is also serious – a meaningful and honest way of expressing spiritual impulses.

Min Wong’s could easily be taken as satire. Woo Woo Workout is an elegant circular steel framework. It looks like an immaculately-made high-end shelving unit cum new-age shrine made by a designer schooled in mid-century modernism. On it are arranged crystals reputed to have various protective and grounding properties. Globo Gym is a framed poster, showing an intimidating piece of exercise equipment, with the slogan, ‘Free your inner guru’. But witty as these works are, I don’t understand them as satirical – rather, the conflation of exercise culture, new age concerns, and modernism seems a genuine response to the challenges of expressing a meaningful spirituality within a fragmented, consumerist culture. ‘Free your inner guru’ is not so absurd a motto. Doesn’t it make sense to find value and wisdom within ourselves if we can? And Wong’s slogan essentially emancipatory – especially if the alternative is staying in thrall to received ideas?

Viewing Min Wong’s work at the Adelaide Biennial last year, I thought it would be wonderful to see it next to Andy Best’s work, and I’m especially happy to see Wong’s and Best’s work side-by-side here. Andy, who tragically passed away last year, foresaw this spiritual turn in art some years ago, as his painting, Balloons, from 2010, shows. My sense is that he came to this spiritual concern after tiring of the brilliant, knowing fusions and critiques of high and popular culture with which he began his career. While many others of his generation continued in that vein, Best turned in another direction, imagining a spiritual principle that he called Oom, which animated the life of a fictional, spiritually-oriented countercultural community. He invented a material culture for this community shaped from the flotsam and jetsam of various real subcultures. Balloons reflects this new outlook in his art. A piece of grafitti defaces or enlivens a blue pyramid, symbolizing eternity and connection to a higher realm. Various other elements bear in from the sides and bottom of the picture, including the balloons of the title, and forms recalling the “warp” pipes of the Super Mario computer games, all rendered in the style of the cubist painter Fernand Léger. Two cartoon eyes stare absurdly and forlornly out of a dark area of the painting. Best has painted them, and then, it seems, changed his mind, and begun to paint them out, leaving them in a half-effaced, teary state.

Monika Morgenstern’s four works present geometric forms – circles, straight lines, arcs and rectangles – all symmetrically presented beneath frosted acrylic surfaces. These simple abstract configurations suggest intensely coloured forms receding into bright fog and ambiguous depth. To my mind, they have figurative antecedents in the work of Caspar David Friedrich (fig. 3) – not only in the simple symmetrical forms and sense of space that Morgenstern’s and Friedrich’s works share, but also in the solemn stillness that both artists’ works call forth in the viewer. Friedrich would have called this feeling piety. For Morgenstern it is a sense of “the numinous”. (www.monikamorgenstern.com)

Figure 3. Caspar David Friedrich, Winter Landscape, 1811.

Lastly, Henry Wolff’s images of plants blur and dissolve in hazes of colour generated by Wolff’s broken Box Brownie camera. The plants are Brugmansia – commonly known as Angel’s Trumpet. The viewer’s attention has little choice but to shift and slide over the subject matter, tumbling vertiginously over and into foggy fields of pure colour. One feels as if one is walking through a garden while one’s senses fail and unravel under the influence of sunlight, and perhaps also under the effects of Angel’s Trumpet itself, which contains a natural hallucinogen. For Wolff this sensory disarray does not simply yield a distortion of reality. In drawing our awareness away from the objects in front of the camera, it focuses our attention all the better on the phenomenal – and perhaps points to a broader spiritual reality of which the phenomenal is part.

– Michael Newall, October 2023