31 August, 2018 - 6 January, 2019
Review by Paul Black
Spellbound, the Ashmolean Museum’s autumn exhibition, explores the cross-cultural history of magic through 180 mysterious objects - from the ritualistic, to the totemic, including crystal balls and mummified cats - the exhibition also includes three works of contemporary art as a direct exploration of how our ancestors used magical thinking to defend against the misunderstood dangers of daily life.
The first object on display is a silver bottle, on loan from the nearby Pitt Rivers Museum. The bottle was given to the museum in 1915 by an old woman in Sussex, but it was handed over with a warning: “They do say there be a witch in this and if you’re let un out there be a peck o’ trouble.” To this day the bottle has never been opened. The question is: would you open it?
It feels as if this exhibition was always destined to be plucked out of a hat, given that the Ashmolean’s director, Dr Xa Sturgis, was once a magician called “The Great Xa”; and that the museum’s founder, Elias Ashmole, was a university astrologer who worked for King Charles II.
The exhibition also includes three specially commissioned contemporary works by artists, Ackroyd & Harvey, Katharine Dowson, and Annie Cattrell; each installation is a response to the notion of magical thinking and the often-unsettling themes that surround it.
Ackroyd & Harvey’s ‘From Aether to Air’ (2018), conjures a medieval universe of the ephemeral and ethereal. The artists’ installation possesses a Beusyian use of materials in the form of the alchemical; potassium sulphate, iron filings, and sulphur evoke the fires of hell and the corruptible flesh - as a crystalline human form appears to ascend, the material of crystal conjures the spiritual - evading the medieval terror of crouching anthropomorphic devils beneath.
With Katharine Dowson’s installation ‘Concealed Shield’ (2018), the viewer is met with a large crystal heart pierced with red beams of shifting light, as the sounds of scurrying creatures play in the background. The piece juxtaposes a contemporary medical understanding of the human body with the mysterious forces of the occult. The work exists inside a symbolic chimney - a location for totemic objects of protection; where magical thinking was used to protect the home from spirits and witches.
Finally, Annie Cattrell’s ‘Verocity’ (2018), consists of a rather ethereal video installation; the work is juxtaposed with the moving confession of a woman accused of witchcraft - explored through the slowly growing flames of accusation, as suspicion builds from a small black and white flame into an explosive conflagration of fire and the mass hysteria of accusation.
Spellbound is an exploration of meaning; instead of being disturbing for the reasons one might expect - it is in fact rather sad - it conjures a world where individuals struggle to guard against misfortune - to use the only defence they have against loss - that of magical thinking; and it becomes evident that we still possess that thought process today: in the form of the lovers’ padlocks cut from Leeds Centenary Bridge - a contemporary act of ritualistic magic, still existing in a western secular society.