As I’ve been developing a body of artwork about myth and masked mythic characters over the past few years my thought process has frequently been drawn to the concept of ritual. Not everyday rituals like shaking someone’s hand as a greeting, but those rituals probably better described as rites.
Like most artists (and writers, musicians, filmmakers, etc.) I have notebooks and electronic documents stuffed full of ideas that have never seen the light of day—and possibly never will—usually due to constraints of available time or money, or because the ideas have been superseded, rejected as not being good enough, or partially salvaged and included in another piece of work.
One such document of mine is called The First Lunar Rites of the Outer Circle, a page-and-a half of writing describing a series of rituals, and it consists of the instructions for an imaginary initiation ceremony. Written in 2014, for various reasons it never got more than a first draft before languishing in the electronic folder of half-formed ideas.
More recently, my large-scale charcoal drawing The Procession (see also at the top of this post) from earlier this year picks up on the strand of ritual.
This train of thought about ritual and rites was awoken again earlier today as I was watching Derek Jarman’s 1987 film The Last of England. The film includes a succession of scenes of rituals, all very much married to the decaying urban landscape in which they take place: military parades; firing-squad executions; strange ritual dancing around a fire to a soundtrack of sub-machine guns, merging into post-punk music; a funeral procession; and, memorably, the wedding scene at the end of the film culminating in Tilda Swinton dancing to Diamanda Galás.
One of the extras on the DVD was Jarman’s short silent film A Journey to Avebury (1971). I’d previously seen the version on YouTube that includes the soundtrack by Coil added in the early-mid 90s that was never officially released. A Journey to Avebury is also connected to the idea of ritual, but more in the sense of a ritualised journey through the landscape - in Jarman’s film it’s a more sacred ritual than the marriages and funerals in The Last of England.
As if in some sort of religious trance from the ritual journey, the flow of time in the film’s journey seems to become slow and dreamlike. As Adam Scovell describes it:
The reality of the countryside almost blurs and becomes disconnected from a simple capture or recreation; it moves outside of the typical “sculpting of time” as Tarkovsky often suggested and into the realms of something other.
Adam Scovell concludes his post with another reference to rite and ritual:
The rites of A Journey To Avebury are not so much of fertility or traded sacrifice but of the simple act of walking. Jarman captures a sense of great place (and therefore its history) through the measured use of a subjectivist perception of the landscape. The ritual isn’t so much a pulp tie to the function of the stones and the fields around them but of turning the imagery of them into a captured, fragmented memory; the sacrifice, if any, being the slaughter of adherence to reality and the worship of the mind’s eye and its will over all.
John Coulthart notes that rituals—particularly ritual fires, such as the one the dancer dances around in The Last of England—are a familiar visual device of Jarman’s (along with masks, mirrors, and flowers), so I probably should re-familiarise myself with more of Jarman’s work as soon as I can.
My fascination with ritual, however, strikes me as slightly odd. To be meaningful, rituals require a sense of ownership of, or belonging in, the ritual and/or the social structure around it, and I’ve never felt that with any ritual I’ve actually experienced. I always felt a sense of complete disconnection with the rituals I grew up with and was forced to attend—marriages, baptisms, church services, and so on. A lack of any religious belief as a child—despite parental attempts—probably didn’t help at a time when these rituals were predominantly overseen by Christian officiants; the memories of being forced into wearing your “Sunday Best”—which meant ill-fitting, uncomfortable, and at least a decade out-of-date with regards to any sense of fashion—may have ill-disposed me towards them as well.
I think the sense of ownership and belonging, needed for any ritual to remain vital and relevant, died for many people in the general malaise and dejection of the 1970s and 80s, because I’m sure it’s not just me who feels disconnected in this way. When I’m obliged to attend such rituals now, as an adult, they seem to enforce solemnity as a hollow alternative to meaningfulness and, when they try for it, pomposity instead of any sense of grandeur, transcendence, or catharsis. I should say that I’m not just talking about religious rituals here, so I don’t think it’s just my lack of any religious beliefs that forces me into the role of outsider at these events.
So, as I said earlier, my fascination with ritual is slightly odd considering my experience of it. I don’t know why it intrigues me, but I hope to put together an understanding of this as I tackle it more in my artwork.