66 Wale Street
19.01 - 29.01.2022
This is a reflection on Gitte Maria Möller’s self-organised exhibition at 66 Wale Street, Cape Town, which ran from the 19th to the 29th of January, 2022. Parts of the text are informed by verbal and written exchanges between Möller and myself. All images courtesy of the artist.
0. The Fool
In the Tarot, the Fool represents both folly and freedom. The card is often unnumbered, or occasionally numbered zero: both empty and infinite. He is a precarious figure: in the Rider-Waite deck he is shown flouncing on a cliff’s edge, a white rose in his hand and a dog scampering at his feet. In Jean Noblet’s deck from the mid-1600s, it is not a dog but a cat that is pictured, its paws raised to swipe at The Fool’s exposed genitals. In the game of Tarot, The Fool is also referred to as the excuse: a card that cannot be claimed; is eternally untethered. He is unafraid of the precipice, perhaps because he is unaware of it, because he takes joy in the sight of the sky and the scent of the flower. The Fool is a “divine anarchist,”1So described by Jean-Claud Flornoy, who restored Noblet’s original Tarot of Marseilles deck. an idiot mystic who communes with God through the force of his own delirium, who stumbles into holiness because he didn’t watch his step. Transcendence requires a certain level of foolishness. Forfeiting one’s wits to some psychoactive molecule; placing oneself in harm’s way; denying the body its means of survival to incite a visionary fugue. After all, all saints begin as martyrs.
A few days after the exhibition’s opening, I return to the space to spend more time with the work, and to have a conversation with Möller. I have been reading communist2I use this term fairly loosely here. Weil was active on the left in her lifetime, involved in workers’ struggles and fervently antifascist. However she was never involved with party politics. philosopher and Catholic (née Jewish) mystic Simone Weil’s Gravity & Grace. Although my own religious knowledge is at best patchy, it occurs to me that Weil’s description of self-dispossession as the creation of a vacuum to pull God in is akin to secular experiences of ego death, perhaps also dissociation. Weil’s own life precedes her written work and is entwined with it. Though she never intended for Gravity & Grace to be published, it provides the basis for her posthumous hagiography. Her refusal to eat more than the rations given to citizens in Nazi-occupied France is re-presented by critics as girlish brattiness – anorexia3This is extrapolated at great length in Chris Kraus’s Aliens & Anorexia (2000). – as opposed to staunch political idealism and Christian piety, both with their own notions of sacrifice. Möller and I discuss the creation of images as an act of self-emptying: to ward off and see past death, to exit the body while simultaneously protecting, disguising and extending it through the use of avatars and symbols. Motifs appear and are repeated across different works. Icons of girlhood such as My Little Pony, Miffy and faceless, pigtailed anime girls share space with their ancient counterparts: sacred hearts, pentagrams, Rosacrucian sigils and an image of three rabbits with their ears intertwined, representing the Holy Trinity.
There’s a certain tackiness to Christian imagery. It is most intriguing when attempts to enhance the holiness of images of Christ, Mary, or the saints end up in the realm of Jesus holograms, flea market tokens or morbidly opulent reliquaries. The splendour here connotes an excess of care lavished upon the image. In Möller’s work, childhood is a sacred space, worthy of its own palatial shrines. Weil notes that the “I” can only be voided in an act of divine love. This visual exuberance is its own form of devotion.
The spatiality of Möller’s work produces a sense of disembodied viewership. The use of single-point perspective in many pictures creates a sense of depth that, in its precision, feels unnerving. The scenes are symmetrical, mathematically perfect, yet they implicate a viewer subjectivity without gravity: a single levitating eye, immobilised and static before the image.
In devotional art following the technical development of perspective and depth, balance and unity become important principles. Form must mirror function: the image must function as a formal representation of the subject’s goodness. This is shown through compositional beauty. In Möller’s work, this morality is more ambiguous. She utilises techniques of enlargement to prioritise those more crucial characters – a common technique in European art of the Middle Ages – imposing flat perspective onto the illusion of space. Good and evil, too, overlap, and even the sweetest motifs are loaded with a sense of foreboding. In The End, 14-02-2021, Home Sweet Home and No Small Dreams, hellish flames lick at the borders of the images. Apology shows Miffy situated between two burning crosses, holding court over a cosmic game of chess. The board is fenced off, pieces eternally confined to their starting positions. Monument depicts Miffy dethroned, standing next to a white pawn in the doorway of a chapel as though they are newlyweds; the carrot in her hands resembles a bridal bouquet.
Möller describes the process of laying out these spaces – she refers to them as containers. She uses photoshop first, then projects the digital sketches onto a 2D surface and traces them. The space becomes a portal, an empty vessel in which to pour meaning.
Gates, walls, and other representations of enclosure appear often in Möller’s work. She notes that the frame, too, is a border, perhaps even a type of prison. Dust Bunny depicts a character from My Little Pony in what looks like a child’s crib, cordoned off in the middle of an acid-green room, motifs of fishbones and two intersecting suns – one black and one red – hovering above the enclosure. Möller writes, in an email, that these borders act to both fence off the sacred and trap the images in their frames as though they were unruly ghosts.
2. The Mystic
The 12th century writer, composer, philosopher, herbalist, abbess and visionary mystic Saint Hildegard von Bingen understood her creative practice not only as a meditation on the divine, but a command from God. She constructed her mysterious Lingua Ignota4Latin for “Unknown Language.” to be a kind of sacred codex, a glossographia5The written form of glossolalia, or speaking in tongues. with which to record her visions. Möller’s personal symbolic register is similarly idiosyncratic, partially grounded in her own childhood experiences of Christianity, as well as an eventual disillusionment with it. She tells me that in her early teens the spirit of Christ entered her body during a church service. In this way, Möller’s visual lexicon is tethered to memory, emerging from the strange, uncomfortable and fraught liminal space of adolescence. It also, then, becomes an exercise in dissociation: to move backward through time in pursuit of a lost self, to search for the innocence and foolishness of childhood.
We discuss the role of fugue in Möller’s practice, the necessity of discomfort, physical exhaustion, feeling things slightly out of joint. The feeling should be something like the edge of sleep, where the boundaries of subjectivity blur into their surroundings, bodily senses dulled by the onset of dreaming. Many of Möller’s titles reference this sleeping state. Room no. 1 and Room no. 2 in particular convey the featureless, frictionless spaces of dreams. There is no sense of anything beyond them. Both paintings feature a meta-painting, almost identical across both works but for the reversal of colours on the floors and the walls. This repetition is surreal; it requires a double-take. It is the unsettling Déjà vu of a recurring nightmare, a relentless motif that gnaws at the edges of the unconscious.
16. The House of God
For Carl Jung, the mountain represents the divine. Its highest peak, like in Dante’s Purgatorio, represents earthliness untouched by sin, the closest one can get to God before the ascent into heaven. Middle Child and Crying Dreams both contain mountains. In the former, three cartoon bunnies perch on the mountain’s blunted peaks – another reference to the Holy Trinity. The latter shows a lone figure at the mountain’s summit: a My Little Pony pegasus, reduced to a glimmering silhouette. Both mountains rise from stylised, rippling pools, and behind them stand gated walls. It is unclear if the gates are exits or enclosures. The pegasus seems startled by its own precarity, its front legs raised above the mountain’s edge.
I mention to Möller that her use of colour and symbolism reminds me of the setpieces of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1973 psychedelic masterpiece, The Holy Mountain. The protagonist represents the Fool card, yet he is mistaken for Christ. Along with a group of war criminals and thieves, he is roped into a quest for immortality by The Alchemist, who leads the group in summiting the holy mountain. Immortality escapes them – it was always a ruse, a construct to motivate them on a path to enlightenment, to experience themselves in communion with the world. The Fool remains a fool, even as he becomes enlightened. Möller notes that this is the card she identifies with most.
In the Rider-Waite deck, The Tower represents the ruinous consequences of human arrogance. In the Marseilles deck, it is named The House of God. It can be entered only in an instant of inflamed fusion with the divine. But even the most intrepid mountaineer must eventually descend. Flornoy observes that once descended from the tower, this experience of divine communion will only recur at the moment of death. I once again catch echoes of Weil: “Belief in immortality is harmful because it is not in our power to conceive of the soul as really incorporeal. So this belief is in fact a belief in the prolongation of life, and it robs death of its purpose.”
We return to The Fool at the precipice: he is suspended in stasis, immobilised by his love for the world. Never to rise or fall. “Beyond the world, beyond renunciation, there remain the forces of humour and body heat. The cycle is complete.”6Quoted from Jean-Claud Flornoy’s description of The Fool.