It is Monday morning and I thought I was working for my day job today, but apparently my office is observing President’s Day, which is odd, because I am fairly certain in all my fourteen years with this firm, we have never done so. Never mind. As you do with a way-too-expensive-gift of unknown provenance that inexplicably has your name on the tag, I will grab it with both hands, stuff it down my pants, and run like hell before someone realizes they have screwed up.
I am taking advantage of the boon of this unexpected free time to transfer this Q&A session with Rik Garrett, an artist of a sublime and esoteric vision, to a WordPress draft; format it into a familiar call and response arrangement, and transform what are now dense, eye-scrambling blocks of text into something strange, striking, and surreal, with the interspersion of the mysterious imagery created by the subject of our scrutiny today. While cutting and splicing and struggling for here a word, there for a photograph that fits just so, I am listening to a recent release by Pye Corner Audio, Hollow Earth.
The Hollow Earth album itself has nothing much to do with with Rik’s art, or our conversations below; I simply became aware of its existence during the course of our correspondence via its appearance in my inbox, and intrigued by the coincidence, I gave it a listen. The “coincidence” aspect will make more sense to you when I divulge that Rik’s most recent solo exhibition was partially inspired by different belief systems that accepted a “hollow earth theory”, and which we delve further into below. I mean, it was just…weird, the timing on that, right?
After I mentioned this to him, he then shared with me that right around this same time, he learned from a radio interview, of a current best seller exploring the “human history of the worlds beneath our feet”. More hollow earth weirdness! This revelation was pretty wild, and OK, starting to border on a bit eerie. And what I love about all of these peculiar occasions of happenstance or serendipity or fate–or whatever you want to call it–is this: these synergistic collisions and cosmic influences, converging, are, at least as far as I am concerned, the meditative, disembodied-but-still-connected-to-the-aetherial-everythingness-of-everything, beating heart of Rik Garrett’s art.
Read further for our interview wherein we explore these uncanny, chimeric connections by way of catching up on Rik’s recent work, examine his influences of past and present, investigate the crossroads where these inspirations cluster, and wander the strange pathways that lead from their unexpected unions.
Haute Macabre: 2018 saw your Wonders of the Unseen World solo exhibition at Seattle’s Mortlake and Company. A body of work inspired by a number of connected notions, and tied together with the idea of “the obsession that takes over when one begins to delve beneath the surface” Wonders of the Unseen World is, I believe, a meditation on subterranean pseudo-science, occult secrets and esoterica, and pornographic content generally hidden from the public view–does that about sum it up? I’d love to hear about the genesis of this overall concept, how the inspiration came about, and how you made these connections, and if you can share anything about how you translated/transmuted them into art.
Rik Garrett: This body of work has been difficult for me to explain, as I haven’t been able to come up with a succinct blurb that ties it all together. It’s a collection of different bodies of work that aim to make connections between themes from wildly different sources.
In 2015 I had a series of meditations that brought subterranean themes to mind. I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was something very important. I remembered how there have been a variety of different belief systems that believed in a hollow Earth, or placed an emphasis on the origins of humankind being below ground. At the time, I didn’t realize exactly how universal this was. I did a little reading and learned that these ideas span everything from religious movements, indigenous belief systems, historical science and fringe science, New Age, science fiction, and conspiracy theories. I found myself obsessing, and realized that this is a common response to meditation on Hollow Earth themes – people tend to go off the deep end.
In a seemingly unrelated gesture, for Christmas one year my wife gave me a book about some of the earliest known pornographic films. One of these had the title of Wonders of the Unseen World. I thought that name had such a great ring to it, I joked about stealing the name for an exhibition. Originally the title was just a reference to showing the taboo nature of sex acts, but I thought about the potential for repurposing this regarding esoteric themes. It wasn’t until later that I learned that variations of this same title had already been used for a number of books, the themes of which included science (both microscopy and astronomy – microcosm and macrocosm), spiritualism, and even hollow Earth publications related to Richard Shaver. So my idea, originally intended to be irreverent, suddenly was part of a complex history.
My goal with Wonders of the Unseen World has been to explore all of these connections in a subtle way, giving the viewer an opportunity to make their own connections. They are a string of little gnostic meditations.
One set of images from the series are Portals. I took existing images and re-photographed them with a pinhole camera. I did this in a way that blurred the edges of the original images. Then I solarized the film, exposing it to light while developing. This inverts some of the shades, causing some light patches to turn dark, and vice versa. This causes new edges to be formed. So the original images – the first photograph of a human retina, the first photograph of the moon, the mirror in painter Francis Bacon’s studio, these become something new. The goal is that they become entryways.
One of these repurposed images is a painting of the side wound of Christ, included in a Book of Hours from the early 14th century. There was a historical practice of meditating on this imagery of the disembodied wound, touching or kissing the pages and imagining oneself entering into the wound itself. My goal is that people be able to use my artwork in this manner.
Speaking of pornography, and by extension of that, censorship, –I had to laugh when I saw that you posted on instagram, “How offensive that every corner of the internet has to be scrubbed clean and “family friendly.” What have families done for us? Obliterating art and culture and replacing it all with cooking blogs and strip malls.” I believe this was in response to what’s going on with in late 2018/early 2019. I am aware that the platform’s ban on nudity and adult content is impacting a lot of artists right now; how has it affected you?
I must’ve been in a bad mood that day! Still, I do think that there is something very insidious happening right now. Artists in particular feel the need to participate heavily in social media, but all of these platforms are being increasingly censored so as to have only the most mundane content – images that could not be construed to be objectionable to anyone, anywhere. It feels like a tired topic right now, but at the same time these are the means that artists sell artwork, get exposure, and get contacted by galleries. Censoring that artist can have drastic effects to them in real life.
There is another aspect that I haven’t seen mentioned much, and that is the self-censorship that happens in these environments. People might not post all of their artwork, for fear that it will get them kicked off of a platform that they need to be a part of. Beyond that, I know for me personally I get a lot more attention if I share images that include nudity – the same kind of images that run the risk of getting deleted, or getting my profile banned. If I share abstract aura photography, or photographs of handmade books… it almost feels pointless. These posts don’t generate the massive attention right off the bat, so the algorithms push the posts down and nobody even sees them.
I do wish that there were environments that encouraged the sharing of a wider range of imagery – not just for the sharing of my own artwork. I’d love to be able to see more of the edgy, decadent and erotic.
Over the years, you’ve worked with aura photography/aether portraits–to the extent that you experiment, develop, and modify your own techniques. Is this something you’re still tinkering with? As far as your body of work is concerned, I’ve seen these dated as far back as 2011, and more recently on tumblr as of 2017. I know I, personally, find these experiments endlessly fascinating, but I am curious–what makes this process a recurring fascination for you? Or does the interest lie more in reading and interpreting the resulting energy fields you’ve captured in the portrait, than it does in perfecting the technique?
I’m very glad to hear that this is something that you find fascinating. When I first started sharing my experiments in this vein, I really couldn’t tell what people thought of them. Some of the processes and techniques devised over the years to photograph the invisible – aura photography, spirit photography, etc. – are amazing. Really, it’s like the perfect convergence of all of my interests – photography, occultism and historical explorations of the unknown. So when I picked up some of these approaches and innovated on them, pushing them to their limits, I had a feeling that people would be very excited. My first works in this vein came out around the same time as both my Earth Magic and Symbiosis series, and both of those got a lot of attention. The aetheric works were eclipsed a bit.
For example, I took the process of Kirlian photography – a cameraless approach to aura photography developed by a couple in the late 1930s – and modified it in an extreme way. The normal Kirlian process only allows for the documentation of very small images. Usually you’ll see a fingertip or a leaf, which is the extent of what is capable with the standard technology. I ended up devising a way to create full-body Kirlian aura photographs on ten foot long scrolls of color photographic paper. The process to do this is incredibly elaborate – a number of different processes in a completely black darkroom.
I’m still playing with these processes – it’s something that continues in the background. They don’t translate well online, and really need to be seen in person to be appreciated. They also need a bit of an explanation to understand the history, process and purpose. So a book might be the best way to present this work.
When I first shared some of these online, I don’t think that people took them very seriously. Yesterday I turned on the radio and heard a lengthy piece about the Hilma af Klint exhibition that is currently on display at the Guggenheim. This went in depth regarding her art in connection with Spiritualism, spirit guides and mysticism. So maybe the time is right for more artwork of this type, by myself and others, to enter the public sphere. I’ve had more people contacting me recently about these projects. It definitely feels as though something is in the air.
In a previous interview you noted, “I try to keep an open pathway for inspiration.” I love the the imagery this conjures, ancient paths, neural pathways, crossroads in the aether where it all intersects and connects and and collides, and where ideas and magic are continuously sparking! Can you share what’s inspiring you right now in 2019?
Absolutely. I love these kinds of questions because they give me an opportunity to make lists. Here are some of the things guiding my projects which haven’t emerged yet:
-Continued Hollow Earth research and exploration
-Ceremonial Magic and historical grimoires
-Saint Yves d’Alveydre
-Personal correspondence with Michael Bertiaux
received languages, magical languages and ciphers
I gather that in 2018, with the planting of some creative seeds, 2019 is shaping up to be a pretty exciting year for you! Can you fill us in on some ideas, projects, or collaborations that have been percolating?
As I had a chance to mention, I’m still working on the Subtle Bodies series, which includes the aura work.
I’m also continuing to work with Hollow Earth themes. These are getting pushed in some exciting new directions. I’m currently planning two different handmade books to explore all of the concepts that I’ve dug up in connection to this. This is a return to form for me, with handmade books being a part of my art practice since 2004.
There are a few collaborations and exhibitions in the works, but I don’t want to give away too much before plans are finalized.
It’s true, though – 2019 is looking to be very exciting. I spent ten years in Chicago, and moved back to Washington State in 2016. Since then I’ve spent a lot of time adjusting to the change of environment, tinkering with experiment,s and taking down notes for new projects. It finally feels right to push ahead with those, and I’m looking forward to releasing some of these ideas out into the world.