Friday, December 9, 2011

The Seeking Kali Collective


From left: William Evertson, Susan Shulman,
Ria Vanden Eynde

The Seeking Kali Collective is three artists: Ria Vanden Eynde, from Belgium; Susan Shulman, from Canada; and William Evertson, from the United States. Their collaboration came about via a conversation on Facebook. After discovering their common interest in the mythology of Kali – the Indian goddess of primal female energy and destruction – they embarked on an intercontinental exploration of the imagery and meanings of Kali, sharing their work back and forth via social media. To date, their collaboration has taken the form of a blog, mail art, videos, performances, two-dimensional work in many media, a portfolio of prints, group exhibitions, and most recently a ‘zine. Imagery from the project has also been displayed on billboards across the USA, as part of a project that turns giant digital LED displays next to freeways into 24 hour art venues.
I can't really speak about the religious significance of the Kali myth, which I only know about generally. Personally, I was inoculated against any interest in religions, whether Judaeo-Christian, eastern, or New Age-y in betweenism, by a Catholic education in a school with nuns and priests prowling the corridors. So I am less interested in the Kali mythology per se, and more engaged by the high level of artistic discourse that is emerging from the collaboration.

The ‘zine (previous two photos), which arrived in my mailbox last week, is a whimsical story of an art heist in New York City, told in a garish cut-up graphic novel style, using photographs of the three artists and other guests Photoshopped in various Gotham locations. Is there a Kali reference in the story? The guy in the story comes off worst, and the women come out on top at the end, so maybe that’s the connection. I see more in common with the ‘exquisite corpse’ collaboration that the same artists were involved in through the “Mount Analogue” blog. The ‘zine has the same feeling of jumping from moment to moment in a kind of dream logic, perhaps as a result of a new person stepping in to add something to the plot. The exploration of yet another form of visual expression is entirely in keeping with the artists’ group trajectory so far, though.
The two parts of the project so far that I responded to most strongly are a performance piece, and the print portfolio. The Kali Shadow Theater (video here) was put together by William Evertson, who studied traditional Thai puppetry during a 2003 residency in Thailand. The performance used puppets, drawings, silhouettes, and live actors to create a compelling piece of visual theater. 

If I remember correctly, the goddess Kali is often associated with a deadly sort of dancing, a sword in one hand, and the video shows the shadows of live people and two-dimensional puppets dancing, gesturing, turning, building a landscape by fixing drawings on acetate to the screen in front of the audience, before finally re-enacting the classic story of Kali cutting off the head of Shiva and dangling it in her right hand. I admit I didn't really get that from looking at the video: I had to look it up on Wikipedia. But I guess the audience doesn't need to know this in order to appreciate the artistry of the performance.
The portfolio is a series of mixed media prints by Evertson, Vanden Eynde, and Shulman, collected in a hand-made box. 



The images are full of female faces, heads, and bodies, natural forms, long and short word collages, digital collage, expressive and gestural hand-made marks, setting up a continuous dialogue between artist and artist. Again, I think the references to the Kali myth remain obscure to the uninitiated. "Then go away and read more about it, Hartigan, you lazy pig!" I hear you saying. Fair point. On the other hand, I don't think a lack of familiarity with the mythology gets in the way of an aesthetic understanding of what these artists are doing.  I'm still drawn in by what I think is the more significant aspect to the project: the spectacle of a group of artists working to generate new and mysterious artistic forms in an act of collective contemplation. There’s much mystery and beauty in these prints, and this more than anything is what makes the Seeking Kali Collective something to watch.


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