We chose six artists to reinterpret the tarot card as the mystic and esoteric are gaining ground in art
In the lead-up to Halloween, Dazed Digital is running a Dark Arts season inspired by our November Dark Arts issue. Among other things, we've walked the path of darkness via the Hollywood Walk of Death and talked to Don Mancini, the creator of Chucky. Check back on our Dark Arts section for a journey to hell and back.
Taken from the November issue of Dazed & Confused. For more dark arts, head here.
The mysticism of the tarot, astrology, witches, Jungian symbolism and esoteric rituals is feeding into exhibitions internationally, from the Venice Biennale to big shows at the Centre Pompidou and Modern Art Oxford. The tarot in particular seems to be tickling contemporary artists’ fancy. The structure and accessibility of its images are ripe for reinterpretation.
Part of what makes the tarot interesting to artists is that you don’t have to believe that the 78 cards are a tool for divination to connect to their archetypal imagery. The pack’s 22 Major Arcana cards (including juicy ones like The Devil, The Lovers, The Moon and The Fool) echo through art history, from Leonardo da Vinci to William Blake, Michelangelo to Paul Klee. The surrealists created their own deck with fictional symbols. Aleister Crowley co-created a pack called The Book of Thoth. The Le Gun collective and Focal Point gallery in Southend have both put on shows that reinvent the deck.
The most interesting contemporary cheerleader for the tarot is the 84-year-old Chilean film director, comic-book writer and all-round creative genius Alejandro Jodorowsky. For him, the tarot offers a new direction for creativity and art. André Breton turned him on to the 16th-century Tarot de Marseille deck, and Jodorowsky later laboured for a decade to create and print a perfect reproduction pack. He memorably lectured and did live tarot readings at Dazed Live in Shoreditch in 2011, and for dOCUMENTA (13)’s 100 Notes 100 Thoughts series in 2012 he created a zine filled with tarot collage works, covered in personal scrawled notes dissecting the imagery and its meanings. The pamphlet was an artwork in its own right. “Art can be anything,” he once said. “The art that I am interested in is an art with which one can heal. I am also not interested in an art to get prizes, applause and that horrendous Nobel Prize. What I’m interested in is making an art to give a bit of happiness to people, heal them a bit, free them a bit.”
The best psychics tend to be queer. We are witches, shamans, medicine men and so on by our very nature" - AA Bronson
Tarot imagery is so rich that it can be reworked in incredibly diverse ways. One of the most leftfield is by London-based Italian artist Francesca Ricci. While studying in Florence, she became interested in the relationship between visual art, music and symbolism in anthropology, spiritualism, mysticism and psychology. In 2011, with Kiril Bozhinov, she created Tabula Impressa, a project “based on the urban semiotic found on London’s pavements”, for which they collected hundreds of images of the spray-can scrawls used for marking maintenance works on the ground – dots, lines, crosses, arrows, question marks etc. Ricci was amazed that an alphabet could be extracted from the lines and used in the context of “signs, symbols and systems of interpretations found throughout civilisations and centuries.” The result has to be one of the most abstract, inventive takes on street art in a long time. Ricci’s artworks can be used as tools to tell the future or seen as representations of the city and its undercurrent of history, meaning and transformation.
Tarot and the esoteric in a wider sense connect with the cultural expression of queerness. “The best psychics tend to be queer,” claims Canadian artist AA Bronson, who made his name in the 70s as part of the hugely influential art trio General Idea. “In the 19th century in northeast USA, there was an outbreak of spiritualists who were mostly women who manifested as powerful men (Indian chiefs and so on), while the few men manifested as powerful women. There has been much documentation of the berdache, the medicine man in certain North American Indian tribes, who was usually queer and/or transgendered. We are witches, shamans, medicine men and so on by our very nature.”
The influence of the tarot and spiritual began dominating Bronson’s practice after the death of his two General Idea partners (Jorge Zontal and Felix Partz) from Aids-related illnesses in 1994. In 2002 he made a triptych of lifesize photographs documenting him hanging upside down. “Hanged Man came to me at a time when I had no idea where I was going in my life. The photos are not Photoshopped. I am naked because that was a point in my life in which I felt my identity had been stripped away, and I was starting over again, like a newborn child in a sense. I hung like that for about 20 minutes, which felt like a lifetime! It was only after I had completed the work that I realised it was an exact rendition of the tarot card of the same name. And, of course, my intent corresponds to the meaning of the card: this is a time when there is nothing you can do. You can only wait, and the future will come to fruition."
All art is magical in origin – it’s meant to make something ‘real’ happen.
The lifesized photographic triptych is on show as part of The Temptation of AA Bronson at Witte de With in Rotterdam, an exhibition looking at themes of “body, spirit, sex, religion, community, death, ritual, and magic.” Exhibits include Chrysanne Stathacos’s aura portraits of Indian Sadhus, a “ritual of queer rituals” in an abandoned public swimming pool and a fortune teller’s tent made by Bronson in collaboration with Scott Treleaven. “Our relation to esotericism is cyclical,” Treleavan says, “and it’s usually tied to periods of economic and social uncertainty. We get desperate to cling to something.” Art, psychomagic and the esoteric are natural partners. Treleavan: “All art is magical in origin – it’s meant to make something 'real' happen.”
Tarot can be used in different ways. Suzanne Treister’s HEXEN 2.0 project was developed into a tarot deck published in 2011. She used the cards to discuss the histories of “scientific research behind government programmes of mass control”, counterculture and resistance. Her dense, hand-drawn images touch on everything from cybernetics and the rise of the internet to Timothy Leary and William Gibson. “As I got to understand the interpretations of the cards and ways of working with them,” she says, “it became clear that they could be used to think about the politics of technologies, past, present and future, apart from their more conventional use for personal readings.”
It took Treister, a 90s pioneer of digital and web-based art, three years to complete the project. Her approach to incorporating fictional and eccentric narratives reflects a wider focus on symbolism. “I think an interest in the esoteric rears its head from generation to generation. At the moment there seems to be a need for escape, fantasy and novelty. HEXEN 2.0, however, is not centred on the esoteric but utilises its manifestations for another purpose.” The cards became a structure – their meaning a sidestep that was simply a way to make the depth of research about politics and technology accessible. The tarot became a structural building block.
The artwork reflecting ideas and imagery from the tarot is different from the post-9/11 darkness, with its emphasis on blood, death and horror. Instead, this is all about searching for meaning and mystery. As publisher Robert Ansell, who co-edits the brilliant Abraxas journal of esoteric studies, puts it: “With esotericism, you’re not really looking at overarching theology or dogma. It’s about the individual’s approach to the material and how you can build your own perspective.” Even if you’re hot on the cards, most practitioners would argue it would be wrong to take the tarot literally. Tarot images are suprahuman – which is why they are so fun.
This card obviously represents sex, love and attraction, but it can also suggest the idea of choices – in early decks the man was depicted between an old and a young woman, sacred and profane, mother and mistress. It can be seen as the moment when ideas, events and people become so attractive that you have to make a choice and break away in a new direction. The interpretation here is one of 27 drawings made by self-taught artist Dorothy Iannone in 1968/9 that depict her relationship with Dieter Roth. These rarely seen Ta(Rot) cards took the concept of The Lovers and spread it across the whole deck, reflecting her desire to depict a romantic connection that went beyond sex into the spiritual.
The Magician represents miracles and deception. In some decks, The Magician is represented as a trickster about to perform – a wand in one hand, a coin in the other. In other versions, he is a priestly figure, raising his wand like a big cock to the sky as a conduit for heavenly power. Jung noted that both magic and miracles are accompanied by the hopeful expectation of people taking part. The Magician is a perfect symbol of the artist, creating things out of the energy around us. Here, artist Robert McNally, reflecting his personal scepticism of the tarot, has chosen the card as a representation of tarot in a wider sense as a form of trick or control. “I wanted a card that I felt trumped them all,” he says. “The principle of ‘as above, so below’ embodied by this card made that easy because of the microcosm/macrocosm connotations of that, and the fact that he is depicted controlling the four suits.”
The first card in the deck, The Fool is where the whole tarot narrative begins. A fool stepping off without a care into the abyss of life – or off a cliff, depending on how the card is drawn. This is the archetypal image of purity and potential, innocence and new beginnings. The Fool is a blank slate, before the mistakes and experience of life and the future have begun. It has also been interpreted as a representation of trusting your instincts. Sculptor Klara Kristalova, who here depicts The Fool as a feminised toy-like figure, was drawn to the card for its openness. “The Fool interests me because it’s the lowest card, she says. “It has zero as a value – it’s the wild card, and from here anything can happen. It’s where everything starts.”
“All art is magical in origin – it’s meant to make something ‘real’ happen” – Scott Treleaven
The World – or The Universe as it is called in Aleister Crowley’s deck – is the last card in the Major Arcana. It depicts The Fool transformed into a dancing woman at the end of his/her journey, part of the macrocosm and at one with the universe. The female figure has been interpreted variously as Eve, the Kabbalic bride and the Virgin Mary, and represents fulfilment, accomplishment and wholeness. She is depicted in an egg-like oval space – implying ideas of the womb, and that the cycle of life starting with the fool will begin again. This is the card for the moment when all feels just right.
The Hanged Man
The Hanged Man is a symbol of surrender and letting go. It depicts a young man hanging upside down, his face beneath the earth like a turnip, enclosed by trees either side, pinned between life and death. It echoes pagan northern European rituals in which animals and men were hung on trees as sacrifices to Odin. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn sect, which included the poet Yeats and Aleister Crowley, connected it to the Egyptian myth of Osiris, who was hung from a tree for three days until ripe for dismemberment, and Crowley also linked the image to the crucifixion. It’s a card that asks you to turn things upside down and wait for a new way of thinking. The card appealed to Danish artist Anika Lori as a representation of “time for change. I like the fact that you need to surrender to achieve something greater. Wishful thinking... The anthem of self-fulfilling prophesies.”
The Hermit shows a bearded old man walking away, searching for solitude and truth. The image has been linked to the Greek philosopher Diogenes, who saw poverty as a virtue and lived in a big ceramic jar. A more modern echo would be Van Gogh’s painting “The Sower”, which depicts the title character walking alone through wheat fields at dawn. If you are feeling like getting off-grid and moving to the woods of northern California, this is your card. Ryan Mosley – who has long been intrigued by the tarot scenes from the Bond film Live and Let Die – connected to The Hermit’s art references, especially “one of my favourite paintings, ‘The Hermit’ by Patrick Caulfield. The artist’s studio is a cave or den of hoarded ideas.”