Why Ritual Art in the Gallery Space Is Doomed to Fail

Penny Rafferty attended Berlin's inaugural Altered Conference to explore the conditions required for successful ritualistic practice — and her findings are bad news for gallerists everywhere.

Anyone who’s even remotely connected to the art world will have noticed the explosion of ritual art in the past few years. Neon lights have been passed over in favour of tea lights; the white cube has been invaded by symbols roughly drawn on sheets, crafted objects, feathers, and screens projecting mandalas. One thing unites them: having the artists-cum-shamans set center stage.

Many artists have re-appropriated and created rituals in successful, thoughtful artworks — Joseph Beuys, CA Conrad, Caroline Schneeman, Erica Scourti, Joachim Koester, Mariana Echeverri, Anastasia Booth, House of Killing and General Idea, to name but a few. But arguably, the most successful of these works have happened (at least partially) outside of the traditional gallery space. AA Bronson and Peter Hobbs’ “Invocation of the Queer Spirits” gathered together small groups of men for secret group rituals, on sites which had particularly powerful queer and marginalised histories. Erica Scourti’s “bot with feelings” is also a very effective example of the ritual that lives in and outside of the white cube; the bot she programmed acts as a tarot deck, sending readings in response to individual tweets from its followers in the real world.


So what happens when the ritual is brought into the gallery? Attempts to lift an audience into an altered state in the gallery space often fail to conjure any real emotion or participation. It’s typical to hear murmurs of colonization, fetishization, and eye-rolls about yet another performance based on ritual from the crowd. But if it works outside the gallery, why doesn’t it work inside too? And if ritualistic practice is ineffective, why is the art world so obsessed with it?

My search for answers took me to Schöneweide train station at 8am on a Friday. The mix of people present was unusually diverse; commuters from the former East German suburb fought past a sea of Berghain dropouts, tech-normcore freelancers and homegrown hippies. The reason for this swell of activity? The inaugural Altered Conference, which was held at an eco-hotel in Zone B of Berlin’s public transport (widely considered a wasteland by residents of the city centre, who mostly go there only for lake excursions and to get to the airport). The aim of the conference was to gather members of the psychedelic community for a two-day summit. Over the two days, guests could attend a variety of talks, workshops and rituals, with names like “Sailing the Psycho-nautical Seas”, “Riding the Dragon: Working through a psychedelic crisis” and “Dying to Live: Transcendental transformation through psychedelics, NDEs and OBEs”. The subjects ranged from spell casting to redefining value systems in the 21st century, but most were united by a strong left-wing, feminist ideology. As someone who often engages with these themes in the art world, I was sincerely intrigued to spend two days in a space where ritual was an everyday tool, rather than an artistic performance.

The more time I spent at the Altered Conference, the more I started to see that the viewer cannot just step into a zen-like zone because a performance has started. Similarly, you can’t participate in a ritual within a 20-minute time frame, whilst brandishing a cheap glass of wine under dimmed neon lights. The spiritual place artists hope to transport us to isn’t accessible under strict time restraints. The gallery system today is often built on a few key sacraments: audience size, Instagramability, and networking potential (schmoozeability, if you will). It does not lend itself to lengthy participation, and you could argue it never has.

Ample time and space seems to be key to effectively replicating ritualistic practices. At Altered Conference, people ate, mediated, drank steaming hot coco, and took saunas together for 12hrs a day. They sat through talks, think tanks, reiki workshops, film screenings and discussed the pros and cons of their arts. Perhaps those 7-day silent retreats are only possible in 7 days, and not 7 minutes.

Altered Conference. Image: Joana Diaz

Another key is collectivity. If everyone in the room is genuinely interested in participating in the ritual, it’s more likely to be successful. Unfortunately, the gallery is more of a drop-in space than a turn-up-and-stay space; not to mention, of course, the aforementioned eyerolls. Beyond valid concerns about cultural appropriation, ritual practices today are critiqued on how entertaining they are, or how crass/ hip the artist’s dress sense is, rather than on what they mean to the audience. (I’m particularly thinking of Anne Imhof’s work “Angst” here, which I think was sincerely the only artwork that I have ever reached any trance-like state in a gallery). The white cube is also more of a competitive space than a collective one — there is a pecking order, so to speak. Entering a state of collective consciousness was much easier at Altered Conference because the power structure was much more horizontal. We were not broken down into artists, performers, gallerists, and viewers.

The final key is verisimilitude. Ritual practices in galleries often behave like theaters, with start times, seats, spot lights, a defined finish, and applause. When something appears staged, it’s hard to become real again.

Clearly, the gallery is not set up to be ideal space for ritual practice. Rituals in art face the same problems now as they did in the ’60s: it’s seemingly impossible to translate ritualistic practice into the very particular and mundane context of the gallery. It seems for artists to overcome this seemingly impossible obstacle, they must re-write the meaning of the gallery space, slow cook the viewer, and subsume the unconscious into the contemporary cube.

AA Bronson, “We are the Revolution”, 2011. Image: Esther Schipper.
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