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An Introduction to Ritual

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Involving movement, gesture, language both verbal and non-verbal, totemic symbols and objects, the practice of ritual is transformative and transcendental in intent. Human cultures across time and place have performed ceremony to enact rites of passage, healing and initiation in the hope of connecting the self and the ‘other’.

Can the use of ritualistic practices close the gap between art and life? Whether communal or personal, the eternal endeavour to unite the exotic and the everyday and convene with a higher power has inspired generations of artists.

The influence of ritual in art practice has been particularly evident in performative processes. Against a backdrop of social, political and cultural change, performance artists of the late 1960s - the vanguard - harnessed the power of ritualistic practices to challenge the antiseptic and restrictive space of the white cube. Manipulation of the body became, and continues to be, a pillar of this expression and in a manner reminiscent of religious rites, artists sewed, stretched and cut their own flesh - or invited their audience to do so for them. Drawing links between art and acts of faith and devotion, many performance artists evoke a sense of endurance and suffering that has long been used to symbolise the transcendence of death, and forge a relationship between the divine and the corporeal, the spiritual and the earthly. As art critic Lea Vergine has said, ‘there is nothing more physical than the act of mysticism’.

Ritual exists in the very act of art making. The process, the time (ritual is grounded in time, both creating it and dependent on it), and the interaction with audience all display elements of ceremonial practice. On the level of the everyday, the actions behind invention are ritualistic. Artists employ bodily and habitual forces in the studio in their use of preparation, pattern and repetition. Many borrow from the time-honoured acts of staging and adornment, lavishing their subjects in decorations to enhance their power and imbue them with magical efficacy.    

A ritual responds to the climate of its origin, but takes hold through a desire to ground this in the ‘now’. In times of upheaval and change, ceremonial acts can offer an escape, comfort and restore belief. What contemporary forms of this practice are emerging in response to our times? How do ancient customs continue to echo? What performative measures do we need now, and how do they operate?

Our nineteenth issue asks whether, in an ever-advancing society, ritualism can hold measurable value. And, for artists today, the institution can properly conjure altered states and meaningful emotion. From an array of perspectives, our writers contemplate and practice ritual in many guises: addressing spiritualism, intellectualisation and the metaphysical through poetry, image and text.

Our conversation begins with Celeste Aldahn (ACT), Hannah Brontë (QLD), Josie Dillon (SA), Imogen Dixon-Smith (NSW), Yusuf Hayat (SA), Kate O’Boyle (VIC), Saskia Scott (ACT), Wes Maselli (SA) and Marlaina Read (NSW).

— Joanna Kitto for fine print