Mia Salsjo is a Melbourne based artists whose expanded drawing practice encompasses photography and free-form geometric abstraction created with the mediums of graphite and coloured pencil on paper. Her exhibition, The New Age is a Cult, at MARS Gallery, Melbourne showcases recent works developed by Salsjo during residencies in Indonesia and Australia in 2014. Key pieces in the exhibition include three large vertical works on paper each over three metres high. Musical stave lines spaced in the manner of a Fibonacci sequence segment the compositions. These set the scene for a riot of serpentine, linear and crystalline forms that can easily be linked to musical arrangements. The works however are more expansively conceived; they extend from research undertaken by Salsjo across a range of interests – Indonesian culture, Balinese and contemporary orchestral music, her familial connections to Albania and a lingering fascination with alternative representations of reality. In ironical terms the latter interest has been encapsulated in the title of the exhibition – The New Age is a Cult. The line was appropriated from a sardonic piece of graffiti sited in the hilltop town of Ubud, an alternative cultural Mecca familiar to most any spiritual seeker sojourning on the tourist island of Bali.
New Age culture is a ubiquitous feature of contemporary Western life, yet despite its popular ascendancy it has never been embraced in official philosophical arenas. Akin to subcultural cliques from past historical epochs New Age thinking remains largely cultish in so far as it exists within yet only notionally permeates mainstream discourse and belief. While its persistence is a cultural problem that many identify yet seldom deign to tackle, this one feels is motivated by a fear of appearing naive. It remains the case however that countless individuals of distinction embrace esoteric, ethereal and now New Age modes of belief. The impression conveyed by the anonymous graffiti writer, wherein the New Age is a cult is productive for it enables us to recognise that it encompasses modes of thinking that are subjective, process oriented and in social terms best kept to oneself. Historically its antecedents include Theosophy and Surrealism and more recently the Hippy culture spurned in 1960s California, all of which were central to the artistic zeitgeist of their respective eras.
For Salsjo acknowledgment of New Age-ism is by no means a statement of belief, merely recognition of overlapping discourses that hover near the edges of artistic and also other creative modes of being. Her primary focus on drawing accounts for and translates a particular set of processes including modes of photographic documentation that are steadfastly pictorial in nature. They are methods that are linked to personal exploration and to perceptions about what constitutes the fabric of reality; looking inwards the outer appears not dissimilar and hence the two become enmeshed.
A substantial amount of Salsjo’s photographic material is presented in the exhibition in the form of divinatory tarot cards. This is no traditional European tarot but rather one of the artists own devising. It is entirely unlike the famed Thoth Tarot deck, 1938-43 designed by Lady Frieda Harris with instructions from occultist Aleister Crowley; nor is it comparable to the later Salvador Dali tarot, c.1970s, for these examples adhere to pre-existing models dating to the Medieval period. It does however possess stylistic characteristics that bring to mind the Contemporary Magic: A Tarot Deck Art Project, 2013, which includes images by artists ranging across Yayoi Kusama, Ultra Violet, Nan Goldin, Karl Lagerfeld and Vivienne Westwood. Maintaining the New Age trope Salsjo’s deck is called the love which I experience 21st Century Tarot. Each image in the deck is accompanied by an individual word while the written instructions invite the reader to ‘tune in’ to the images, which will ‘tell you what you need to know’. New Age language has here been appropriated to account for a personal iconography developed throughout many journeys, musings and adventures.
While Salsjo’s project is playful in its relationship to New Age and alternative cultural constructs there is a note of seriousness where the question of self-knowledge and spirituality is concerned. For the artist however the answer is not a case of dogma or cultish devotion but rather one of creative flow, as is evidently the case in her extensive drawing practice. This extends from the works on paper, which are mounted on large-scale drawing boards, to include a series of limited edition prints, titled Ambassadors of eternal moments I-V, 2014. In each of these the seeming overlay of computer pixilation is recognised as hand-fashioned stitches in an elaborate type of embroidery.
The final element in The New Age is a cult is a large-scale canvas banner featuring a dystopian urban landscape. It is overlain with photographs of medieval suits of armour and finely stitched designs, produced by the artist in collaboration with Turkish and Vietnamese weavers in the inner suburbs of Melbourne. The woven emblems include the most ancient of magical incantations – ‘Abracadabra’, along with pictograms that represent an apocryphal interpretation of that mysterious device. Tentatively derived from Aramaic it reads ‘I will create as I speak’. Interpretation of the formula is however so prolific as to constitute an entire area of study with variations ranging from ‘Fade away as this word is fading’ to ‘I give life to the corpse’. With a small degree of innovation Aleister Crowley changed the ‘c’ to a ‘h’ to reveal ‘Abrahadabra’ the magical formula that signified the arrival of a new age; circa 1925. His Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn linked it to ‘breath’ and ‘life’ and the great god Horus, therein confirming ‘Abrahadabra’ amongst cultish New Age extremists. As a counterpoint to the cosmic representations conjured in Slasjo’s drawings however, the banner, titled The Watchers, 2015 acts as a stark reminder of real life possibilities when industrial and capitalist models of development go awry. The ghosts of Medieval Europe hover over this impoverished urban scene that is poised between prosperity and collapse. The New Age, it suggests, may indeed be a cult but to what it aspires is a utopian vision that one cannot but contrast with the promise of free market economics. The two of course are inextricably linked, alluringly seductive yet faltering in their promise of ego-satisfaction; they persist as narratives of individualism, rather like the mythic condition ascribed to particular types of artists.
– Damian Smith