Ritual Incorporated: An essay on Sascha Hughes-Caley’s Negotiations with the Other Side by Roksana Filipowska

Ritual Incorporated: An essay on Sascha Hughes-Caley’s Negotiations with the Other Side

by Roksana Filipowska

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YES, AND (Goa), archival photograph and shaped frame, 38”x15”x2”, 2016.

Since 1945, a monumental bronze sculpture of the hypnotist Abbé Faria punctuates the old Government Secretariat in Panaji, the Indian state of Goa. Known as a pioneer of the scientific study of hypnotism, Abbé Faria was a Catholic monk who grew up in Portuguese administered Goa during the 17th Century. He eventually moved to France, participated in the revolutionary battalions of 1795, and introduced the West to hypnotism in 1819.

Abbé Faria drew on traditional Yogic healing practices and Western enlightenment thinking to publish treatises on autosuggestion, lucid dreaming, and hypnotism’s ability to guide another’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Simultaneously hailed as an innovator of therapy and dismissed as a charlatan, Abbé Faria is commemorated in a sculpture depicting him performing hypnotism. He stands with outstretched arms, below him, a woman lies with eyes closed, her torso drawn upwards as though pulled by an invisible magnet. Here, hypnotism is a relational act between the figure of Faria and his patient, with the charged empty space between them.

A photograph of this sculpture opens Sascha Hughes-Caley’s Negotiations with the Other Side, an exhibition on the distillation of ritual in western culture and moments of liberation within failed cultural belonging. Taken by the artist during a trip to India, the photograph is cropped to feature the cloudy sky surrounding the figures of Abbé Faria and the fallen woman. The sky appears flattened into a patch of color that both delineates and connects the figures—it is the chasm within which negotiation, or the attempt to think outside oneself and identify with another, can take place.

A keen observer of corporate culture, Hughes-Caley salvages images from branding tactics of profit-driven efficacy and restores their ability to bring distant geographic and cultural entities into conversation. One example is Hughes-Caley’s selected frame for this series of photographs: a white hard-edged outline of yoga pants. The abstracted yoga pant appears an icon of erasures—a dilution of the yogic tradition into an industry of wellness and discrete self-actualization retreats that rejuvenate the vacationer for return to work.

Yet the interplay of the photograph and frame invites the viewer to inhabit the image despite how far removed its subject is, suggesting that bodies offer alternative ways of understanding and remembering culture. Seen as a whole, photograph and frame constitute a shape evoking the practice of yoga. Individual bodies become figures whose rooted feet, balanced body, and upward stretched fingers unite earth with sky. Hughes-Caley plays with the frame’s function of demarcating the image and its connotation of yoga pants to transmute the photograph into an elastic surface that can be stretched and fit tightly—though perhaps still uncomfortably—around one’s body. The image of Abbé Faria and the fallen woman recalls the traumatic and colonial origin of Western appropriation of Indian tradition. History remains the excess in the cut of the frame.

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Blossoms, airbrushed acrylic and polypropylene on archival photograph, 17” x 20”, 2016

Hughes-Caley explores the limits of compression further by airbrush painting directly on the glass of several exhibited photographs. Display glass, valued for its transparency and protective quality, is here employed as an active agent that the viewer must negotiate to access the image. In one work depicting the erotica section of a store in India, the airbrushed paint obstructs a photograph while also adding a colorful and glimmering texture. The paint enacts the censure of sexuality according to cultural norms, simultaneously offering sensual pleasures for prohibited desire.

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still from Bow, found footage; audio collected by Rosetta’s Plasma, Consortium (RPC) of Comet 67P/C-G, 01:28, 2016.

While Hughes-Caley’s photographs and sculptures explore the compression of signifiers and desires, her video and performances slow down instances of western ritual and public shame to expose their cracks. Bow, for instance, features found footage of a wreath falling on the Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich’s head during a public ceremony in 2010. Hughes-Caley slowed the video down to reveal the president’s gestures of shame—he involuntarily rubs his head and smiles meekly before regaining his composure. Though brief, these gestures interrupt the carefully orchestrated ceremony to disclose the farce in ritual displays of political power. Several recordings of the event are accessible on YouTube and each video has several thousand views—a measurement of pleasure in witnessing a head of a state show human flaw and embarrassment.

In S6 E20 of the Finale Series, a steady and deliberate close-up of a seated woman is accompanied by a monologue about self-love. Yet the relationship between the image and its soundtrack remain unclear: Whose monologue is it? Is it really the silent woman who “speaks” and owns its narrative? Who does it address? In its ubiquity, does it belong to everyone and no one at the same time? Hughes-Caley’s displays a mastery of staging what Marc Augé termed the “non-place,” or sites that hold an excess of information yet a lack particularity, such as international airports, highway rest stops, or supermarket chains. Rather than focusing on place, Hughes-Caley mines contemporary entertainment and self-help manuals to create a montage of non-image and non-music—the utterances and tropes that act as filler in 21st Century culture. In S8 E19, the brown marbled wall behind the woman evokes the stock background of school and work photo shoots; the bland, inoffensive and anonymous piano and guitar score, meanwhile, is plucked from the same genre as elevator music that loops indefinitely while one waits for the next available representative.

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still from S8 E19, video, 2:51, 2015.

Navigating nondescript images and soundscapes of manufactured authenticity, Hughes-Caley’s crafts characters that attempt to access lifestyles unattainable to them. There is the unemployed Shelly Newhall and the yoga teacher Shanti Paz—two fragile female figures who experience public shame in their search for career success, everyday survival, and human connection. Appearing across Hughes-Caley’s photography, video, and performance, these characters manifest what Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism,” a relational dynamic where individuals create attachment toward desired object-ideas even as they inhibit the possibilities for their attainment.

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still from Interview #3: Shelly Newhall, video, 6:41, 2015.

With every job interview, Shelly gets one step closer to a job but farther away from her own happiness. She maintains the fantasy that being a productive member of western society results in self-acceptance, even as she entwines herself further in a culture that remains hostile towards her. In one video, Shelly recites her hirable skills as though reading from a script while her gestures betray her dissatisfaction with the spoken narrative. In observing the moments that these fantasies fray, the viewer catches glimpses of alternative ways of living in the present—vulnerable moments when one is liberated from the blind pursuit of success.

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still from Shanti Paz on the True Self, video, 6:20, 2014.

In one performance as Shanti Paz, Hughes-Caley conducts a guided meditation that unravels into cacophonies of cries—she offers her listeners a catharsis more stressful than serene. In another work, Shanti travels to India in search of enlightenment, yet remains removed from her experience by staging trip highlights for her Instagram followers. Like the fallen woman undergoing Abbé Faria hypnotism, Shanti relinquishes her agency even as she pursues self-improvement. A feminist strain of tragicomedy runs throughout

Hughes-Caley’s work and Negotiations with the Other Side appears to stage the following question: what if the fallen woman laughed? The resonance of this laugh could shatter the myth of authenticity, offering the ground for a new relational dynamic.

About the author:

Roksana Filipowska (PhD candidate in History of Art, University of Pennsylvania) works at the intersection of art and science. Her dissertation, “Polymorphous Plasticity: artists’ experiments in plastic as speculative thought, 1965-1975,” analyzes emerging aesthetics of the Anthropocene and the relationship between theories of plasticity and the material properties of new synthetics at the end of the 1960s. She has co-curated the 2015 “Biocode: Performing Transgression after New Media” conference, co-organized Listening (to) Cyborgs, a media archaeology workshop on sound technologies, and is a current Doan Fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. 

To download a PDF version of this essay, click Filipowska_RitualIncorporated_Final_Layout5

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