The Aion Experiments

Project Arts Centre, Dublin

People often contend that the ’60s never happened in Ireland. While London thronged with juice-drinkers and sandal­‐wearers and everything coming from Scandinavia seemed a bit sexy, Ireland avoided rainbows and everything that utopian cliché symbolized. Across Europe, the era’s propensity for pop-­spirituality and worthy bohemianism (albeit in the shadow of post-­war trauma) spawned a number of alternative lifestyle movements that reacted against the ever-­growing militarization of life. Texts from Wilhelm Reich and his intellectual heir Herbert Marcuse provided a philosophical backbone for proponents of the pleasure revolution. Not much of this cosmic wonder filtered through to our shores, however, and the libidinous synthesis between science, mysticism and social life that such movements suggested remained a threatening element in the Irish psyche.
Odd then, that a distinctly hippie vibe appears to have taken over Dublin’s galleries in recent months. At the Douglas Hyde, Alfred Jensen’s psychedelic abstractions combine studies of the I Ching, Goethe’s colour theory and contemporary physics. At the Irish Museum of Contemporary Art, Ella Burke’s solo show Silent Vibrations replays the pop sensibilities of Archigram with a series of inflatable structures and Beuys-like healing machines while over at Temple Bar Gallery & Studios, Mark O Kelly’s large canvases relive moments of collective action and collapse in his iconic exhibition Leaders and Followers. In a time of widespread economic and personal depression, are we seeing a creeping romanticism for the good-humoured utopianisms of the 1960s, when achieving an alternative life-style seemed possible? If the ’60s are an issue today, it is because of two groups: an older generation passing through midlife who wish to return to the ideals of their adolescence through an identification with its cultural products, and a younger generation recuperating psychedelia’s ecstatic potential in the face of an uncertain future. In an age of global anxiety, such fantasies of returning to a pre-capitalist attachment with primal life forces are certainly attractive, although these gestures are now tinged with the soft irony that inevitably accompanies any repetition of the past.

Morris/Trasov Archive (aka Image Bank), Still from Summer at Babyland, 1972-­‐ 1974. Digital image taken from photographic slide, courtesy of Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery.
Morris/Trasov Archive (aka Image Bank), Still from Summer at Babyland, 1972-­‐ 1974. Digital image taken from photographic slide, courtesy of Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery.

Nowhere better are the promises and contradictions of early ’70s youth culture played out than in The Aion Experiments, a recent group exhibition at the Project Art Centre. On entering the gallery, one found oneself in a dark space in which various apparatuses and crystal formations were centered in glowing halos of light. On the back wall, Takeshi Murata’s Melter II (2003) pulsed out exaggerated colours and mindaltering patterns, soliciting absorption and visions of the infinite. A faint hum travelled from the corner where Ulf Rollof’s Stretchers (2007), a carry bed of copper tubes and fluorescent lights, resembled some sort of techno-­futuristic hospital anteroom. A large crystalline edifice (Sam Keogh’s Sacrilegious Totem, 2010) dominated the centre of the gallery, its asymmetrical shafts diffracting light beams that one could just about imagine being transmitted to Ciarán Walsh’s Isolated Elements (Receptor), 2010, a tall and slender antennae built to harness latent orgone energies. In the background of all this was a single projected image (courtesy of the Morris/Trasov archive) showing a pair of buttock-­clenched nudists cavorting in a sun dappled lake, linking arms and encircling a flotilla of rainbow coloured blocks.

The show’s title, The Aion Experiments, gives us the first hint of what to make of this overly performative staging of artworks. According to curator Pádraic E. Moore, we are to understand this as an experiment rather than an exhibition, with the hypothesis under investigation being the potentially rejuvenating effects of art. To back up this claim, Moore drew together a network of references from Nicola Tesla to the fictitious Aion Foundation, a sort of sci-­fi spiritualist group who propound a belief in body-­orientated energy. A disclaimer at the entrance warns that the devices installed are to become charged with an energy that fosters cell regeneration and the accompanying guide includes testimonies from previous test subjects, claiming to have achieved a higher level of consciousness. Although this sort of hippie-­dippie worldview could well have been a believable exhibition premise back in the hey day of mandala scribblers and sun worshipers, the fact that The Aion Experiments brings together artists who, for the most part, were born after such transcendental fantasies had been debunked suggests a more serious intent motivating the exhibition. Of the group Ulf Rollof is perhaps the only artists whose practice represents a sustained engagement with spiritual re-birth through a synthesis of technological and natural forces. Ciarán Walsh’s nod to Wilhelm Reich, Sam Keogh’s improvised crystals and Robin Watkins’s performance of low-­frequency audio recordings register stronger in the signifying systems of contemporary art than they do along the astral plane.
Image Bank’s (a.k.a. Morris & Trasov) inclusion made a convincing case that the origins of the psychedelic ambition in art was not so much about tripping out as it was about creating a collective vision of the future as seen from the past. Along with General Idea, Michael Morris and Vincent Trasov were part of a generation of Canadian artists in the ’70s who reinvented the Vancouver art scene through a heady mix of camp pageantry and nature worship. The naked swimmers of Summer at Babyland sum up everything the pleasure revolution symbolized: the promise of a new liberty based on the preferences of the individual –a colourful dream that quickly fell apart as consumer culture progressed through the 1970s. A.A. Bronson theorized Image Bank at this time as keepers of a folkloric archive whose images would go on to become the past of our present condition (Pablum for the Pablum Eaters, 1973). If these artists were prophetic, it was because the rainbow euphoria they staged in the ’70s already anticipated the eventual transformation of these moments of transcendence into mere images to be consumed by a future audience.
So did the theatrics of The Aion Experiments muffle out the artwork? Thankfully, no. When a group show purposefully replays the aesthetics of another era, it does so at the risk of communicating an ironic nostalgia for some lost state of innocence or conviction. Although The Aion Experiments flirted with this at times, the works, when taken together, made up an extremely complex and historically anchored view of the present. If the woozy mix of mysticism and experimentation still appeals today, it also reminds us how much more convincing trippy idealism is as an echo from the past than in reality.
The Aion Experiments was on show at the Project Arts Centre, Dublin, 12 February–10 April.