What is a witch? Earth Spells: Witches of the Anthropocene doesn’t answer the question, but opens it up. And fuels more of the fascination with the female link to the thoughtful, fiery, wise and wonderful world of defining what is meant by the modern-day witch.
The Anthropocene defines a time of dual ecological and climate crises caused by our own behaviour. Starting in the 1950s, that age’s vision of a silver, wipe-clean future, could have been better served with muted browns, with a societal approach to match. As a response, the artist witches here have been mixing their own brews and consorting with the earth, nature, history, the environment and themselves rather than Grey Malkin or an atomic-age future. The exhibition focuses on a connection to nature and spirituality.
A cauldron stands sensitively alone in a glass case at the start of the exhibition. This highlights an activity so fundamental as cooking something up, and is an example of a commonly used object on Dartmoor, back in the day. Its witchiness of now has a certain familiarity. This one belonged to Mrs Elizabeth Webb, the famous ‘White Witch of Dartmoor’ who died in 1913. And then again a cauldron could be a melting pot, indicating the mixture of styles, ideas and expressions of that relationship with nature, the environment self and each other.
Suspended and quietly imposing, the hangings of Florence Peak gently dominate the room. Gossamer thin with a sense of weight and a feeling of waft, painted on the fabric is Florence’s own banishing spell for shame and guilt. Their light weightiness is in opposition to and complimentary of the weighty lightness of the lichen wall clinging ceramics, with their touch-remembered shape.
Each one has traces of Florence’s experience of a visit to a Shaman on Dartmoor. For a more visceral idea, there’s a film from Switzerland where Florence walks the boundaries of a weather-worn world.
Florence said: “I wanted to think about Dartmoor as a portal, a cauldron even and the moor as a site that we can commune with, a site that can activate storytelling, healing practices, where we can make wishes and dreams, set intentions, engage in imagination, encounter the phenomena of geology, plant life and the wildness that Dartmoor holds. It is a site to anthropomorphise, imagine into and trick the logical mind; poetics and presence become the tour guides.”
Opposite that video is one of another journey. In Labour Birth of a New Museum, Grace Ndiritu opens a portal for others. Acting as a Hopi goddess, Grace rhythmically invites women into their own inner realms. The film allows us to witness a ceremony where pregnant women explore the spirit names of their younglings. Calming and mesmeric, Grace guides, as we witness this intimate journey, which took place in the RAMM gallery, and opened up, or ‘activated’ the protest carpet.
Grace said: “The performance for Earth Spells fits into my practice because I’ve been making protest carpets, shamanic performances and lived off-grid in nature for many years. The first carpet I made used an image of women protesting about women’s labour in the 1970s and this was inspired by Silvia Federici who has also written a lot about ecology and the idea of the witch and how that is a potent term. I think this is important, to connect that with a radical reimagining of women’s place in society and also within new practices in the art world.”
Displaying the hubble and bubble of spoken words is Emma Hart‘s Good Vibrations. The 13 ceramic hangings pose questions to power and have an intimate power of their own. Each one is similar, but different – like a chant, or an evolving speech. Or a spell.
Emma said: “I am drawing a connection between the idea of a spell – some words that are said to change something or cause something and J.L.Austin’s notion of performative language. For example, you can’t make a promise or a bet without saying ‘I promise’ or ‘I bet’. You need to say a spell to enact it.”
Lucy Stein found magic in objects. She explored the RAMM archive to unearth objects that meant something to her, whether that was facing up to a fear of feathered friends or engaging in more fundament trinkets. It’s the energy of the exploration that pounds out as the ‘inspiring’ objects are peppered within paintings they gave birth to.
Lucy said: “To a certain extent as an artist/witch, I have to stay in tune with an uncultivated state inside myself. I’m always searching for wildness and for the freedom to operate on my own terms. For this commission at RAMM, I am trying to tap into the vibe of my childhood, death, the mystical feminine and the spirit of place in the South West.”
Mercedes Mühleisen’s video installation Lament of Fruitless HEN is eerie, nagging and mind-chipping. The sculpture Baubo Dance by Kris Lemsalu feels musical, real and unhumaning in its ceremonial dance. That energy is countered by the calm of Kiki Smith‘s jacquard tapestry. And in terms of the importance of fabric is the colourful statement from Caroline Achaintre Ghost Duck.
Earth Spells: Witches of the Anthropocene opens up a world of power and understanding. It shows that investigating, being open and reflecting and responding can tilt the world to your own degrees. The space itself is one where you can contemplate action. And be inspired to act.
Earth Spells: Witches of the Anthropocene is at the RAMM until 7 May 2023
top image: Grace Ndiritu, ‘Labour Birth of a New Museum’, 2023, film still (Earth Spells, RAMM, Exeter, 2023).
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