Ira Cohen: The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda (City Gallery Wellington, 23 July – 16 October 2016)

Here are two versions of the 1960s. On the one hand, inside the art world’s metropolitan centres, it was a time of language and concept, of deskilling and documentation, the refusal of expression and genius. Everywhere else, on the other hand, it was all about the drugs, and the profundities and expressions that come with them. On the one hand idea and distance, on the other experience, exuberance and credulity. The two aren’t incompatible—the doors to Warhol’s Factory were open to all and sundry from the outside world, and their pills. However, the difference is there, and while the second 60s has bequeathed us a broader culture of postmodern spectacle and intensity, the contemporary art world still owes far more to the first.

Ira Cohen’s The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda, of course, is a product of the psychedelic 60s. Psychedelia is all about its trips, though trips, it should be noted, are not quite the same as narratives. They involve passages, visits to Hades and encounters with death, transactions with other worlds, none of which adds up to the lessons or closures of a story so much as a transformation of the soul. Pagoda is nothing if not a trip. It begins in ethnographic black and white, as the recording of some ritual involving hippies or primitives, or both. There is burial and exhumation and there is dance, and soon enough the ritual has worked its magic. There is a plunge into the interior, into the colour world of the psyche—presumably as the lysergides make their way across the blood-brain barrier and seize hold of the consciousness..

The inside is also literal, a large enclosed set made of mylar, occupied by a cast of characters, variously costumed and engaged in assorted indolent and dissolute activities. Insects are there, and death’s heads and other mythical beasts, each appearing as an emissary from some higher or stranger sphere. The room itself is one of the scene’s most interesting objects: a flexible metallic surface appearing as both background and distorting mirror. The scene viewed in it is warped to varying degrees, pushed often in the direction of pure, pulsing shape and colour. In the final scenes, the film’s figures are released back outside, onto the flowery fields of hippiedom, still at times distorted by a moving reflected surface—perhaps the outer surface of the room, or just offcuts of mylar. The whole thing is accompanied by Angus MacLise’s ambient, unstructured soundtrack, its vague percussions carrying the suggestion of ritual throughout the piece, and of trance states.

What can we make of all this? We might, in critical mode, detect a whiff of orientalism or primitivism—it’s there in the costumes and the rituals, the face paint and masks and opium pipes, and hinted at also in the participant-observer camerawork of the film’s opening, all of which suggest the ‘Western’ gaze and the desire to engage with a shamanic spirituality that we (Westerners) normally lack. This has, I suppose, also to do with Cohen’s time in Tangier, amidst a milieu of counterculture expats on the run from the Western mainstream. The escape from disillusionment and the search for answers means that, despite all the flippancy and play in evidence in Pagoda, we are asked at some level to believe in what we see. Since the psychedelic trip involves an encounter, a ritual passage and a transformation, it must have our full belief and participation. We step across the threshold without holding back. Our vision of the masked figure becomes the encounter with a god, the death’s head is death itself, and our souls are touched and reconfigured. Drugs help.

What has happened to those supernatural beings now, after all this time? And what are they doing in an art gallery? The current showing is, firstly, an inspired curatorial match both with Sister Corita’s Summer of Love upstairs—not least for its evocation of a 1960s milieu—and with Francis Upritchard’s survey show, which takes up the rest of the City’s ground floor. Many of the same concerns are there in Upritchard’s work: ethnography, transformation, exoticism, and visitors from other realms. I confess I’m only ever half convinced by the mythic figures that pop up from time to time in New Zealand art (Bill Hammond, John Walsh, Seraphine Pick)—and Upritchard belongs to this company. Their attempts to repopulate the world with other beings seem ultimately decorative, the presentation of curiosities. This is partly to do with context: magical beings wither in the art world’s contemplative and interpretive environment. As the wall text for the Upritchard show says, ‘[i]t is hard to know if Upritchard is poking fun at her subjects or taking them seriously. Her aims remain elusive. Ambiguity is her thing’. By comparison, the passage to the underworld evoked by Pagoda has no room for ambiguity, at least not of that sort. The mask is both mask and god, simultaneously, completely and immediately, without interpretation—there is no difficulty knowing.

So for all the resonances, the conversation between Upritchard’s work and Pagoda has also to do with contrast: the clash between the psychedelic 60s and the aesthetics of the gallery. For example, when we encounter the non-figurative moments of Pagoda, they have little to do with the aesthetic indifference of non-figurative art—the equalising and distancing gesture of ‘this could be anything’. Instead, they offer us sheer, vibrant presence, a colour or a shape that hopes to imprint itself directly on our brains. The camera moves in the enactment of a swooning subjectivity, drawn here and there to intensities. This explains the difference between the laid back, ‘documentary’ neutrality of much video art and the wild foregrounding of the lens itself on display here. If we’re immune to that kind of thing, it’s possibly because time hasn’t been kind to the credulity, and I daresay the transformative hopes, of the 60s.

It would have been interesting to see Pagoda placed on the wall of a gallery space rather than projected in the theatre. Framed on a flat screen and viewed in passing rather than from a seat, how would its images operate? It would certainly have intensified the conflict that I’m trying to evoke here. On the one hand, the hope that the image might become encounter after all, might sear through the disillusionment of the gallery; on the other, the likelihood that it will remain image, separate and fallen, open for judgment, a decoration filled with nostalgia for wilder times.

- Tim Corballis