How to Explain Magic to a Dead Rabbit

Essay by Trinie Dalton

Archetypal narratives bubble beneath the surface in Wendy Given’s demure, fantastic works, offering a hidden strata of meanings to viewers enticed by her interpretations of potential magic. Given embeds and collages story into image and sculpture from every corner of the supernatural map, referencing in this exhibition everything from Alice In Wonderland, to Yeti, to the medieval witch craze that plagued northern Europe. Aiming to produce work that “resonates in the deep, dark and unstable ground between consciousness and collective memory,” Given hopes that this mash-up reflects modern culture’s mode of assimilating and processing myth. While her subject matter dwells on the archaic, her aesthetic, reflected especially in her clean, crisp and processed C‑print photography, is distinctively contemporary.

How To Explain Magic to a Dead Rabbit, named after Joseph Beuys’ 1965 performance How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, is an exploration into recognizable fairy tales and legends as a means to excavating and applying their remaining root values, humor and beauty to our mundane existence. These photos and sculptures include remnants of the performances and rituals Given underwent to transfer her curiosities about her supernatural subjects into the artworks. In this, her works have an air of convincing documentary, as if the artist spied on that which remains unseen to average passersby. Part amusement park, part rare glimpse into secret, charmed territory, Given predicts a new approach to observing what she calls the “otherworldly in the everyday.”

Upon close viewing, then, Given’s works are not at all fantasy pastiche but studies of the ironies implicit to desiring a modern life in which one can still be ruled by the unexplainable. This exhibition, centering heavily upon forest lore, magic and witchcraft, feels like evidence of Given’s self-induced witch trial as test of her own beliefs and intentions. Take as example Given’s literal treatment of the rabbit, The Illuminating Glass (all works 2010). In this miniature L’Etant Donnes (1946-1966), whose title by the way roughly translates as “Given,” a taxidermic rabbit replaces the dead woman in Duchamp’s mysterious assemblage. Conflating the tweaked scale in Alice’s rabbit hole with Duchamp’s secretive treatise on elusive female sex, voyeurism, and wilderness among other things, The Illuminating Glass is both a sincere, complex homage and a tongue-in-cheek diorama. Who is the Dead Rabbit in this exhibition? Possibly the artist herself—in this body of work, she plays the roles of the creator and destroyer, the witch and her judge. While some days the artist is the visionary, other days she is the naysayer, chiding her own capricious flights of fancy.

Since Given’s works set up fantasy to, as she says, “address and foster visual ideas that are accessible as cues for opening up universal narratives,” it is unsurprising that many of Given’s images and sculptures have an uncanny quality. For example, Father to the Thought (all works 2010), a 20 x 20-inch close-up photograph of a furnace fire, registers uncannily as a substitute for real heat due to its actual-size simulation. While the image has magical affiliation only in context with its counterparts, the title offers a directive—Meditate on this thought-provoking element—a cue as open-ended as a party invitation. As cues, Given’s works ideally remind viewers of how their unique personal histories relate to her objects or settings. Mike Kelley summarizes this viewing experience succinctly in his excellent essay, “Playing With Dead Things.”

The uncanny is apprehended as a physical sensation, like the one I have always associated with an “art” experience—especially when we interact with an object or a film. This sensation is tied to an act of remembering.1

Here, he reminds us of one of the core ways in which art affects the human psyche—as a trigger. While this is a staple concept in many modern art movements from Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism forward, it is pertinent before returning to Given’s work in a contemporary art setting, to glance further back to the archaic concepts she revels in, placing why and how the uncanny unfolds in her work.

Beginning with the most overtly ritualistic photographs in this suite, such as On Myth and Magic No. 8: Ignis Fatuus, and Of Augur and Auspice No. 5: From Under the Pillow, one quickly gleans portent from Given’s works that directly riff on old wives’ tales and superstitions. More accurately stated, the mysterious remains in these settings provide one the option of inventing a murky, subjective portent. In Ignis Fatuus, one may first note the teepee-like stick structure that resembles a witch’s temple, hoarding the composition. Again, the title provides a clue to the more magical subject: the phosphorescent will-o-the-wisp hovering in the grass below. The Duratrans light box that illuminates the mythical creature becomes the doppelganger of this Ignis Fatuus as it intensifies the glowing photo. Here, materials and subject matter allow the legends to stack up, reaching an absurd boiling point that explodes in From Under the Pillow, Given’s tooth fairy fantasy. This photograph, set in a mossy Pacific Northwest foxhole, depicts an albino crow presumably guarding its nest of bones and porcelain teeth. Considering the reference to augury in the piece’s title, one is invited to count the crow— one bird symbolizes sorrow—though this piece does not have an oppressively ominous tone. Though Given’s riddles have no concrete answers, the viewer senses an artistic impetus to establish magic as an underlying, ever-present force that governs this artist’s aesthetic universe.

A definition of magic, here, is important to separate Given’s work from sensationalistic fairy tale illustration and from base sorcery, in which art is made as talisman to control the environment. Moreover, the exhibition’s title alludes to magic’s explanation. In this essay, magic is a term meant to conjure the notion of kosmos, or the interconnectedness of all life forces. Jeffrey Russell, in his text, A History of Witchcraft, links this spiritual concept to science under the kosmos rubric.

The basis of magic is the belief in kosmos, an ordered and coherent universe in which all the parts are interrelated. This is also the basis of the principle of uniformity upon which so much scientific theory has been constructed. In a universe in which all parts are related and affect one another, however remotely, there is a relationship between the individual human being and the stars, plants, minerals, and other natural phenomena. This is the magical belief in correspondence. Such doctrines have been carefully worked out in a coherent and sophisticated pattern. This sophisticated magic is called high magic.2

While it may seem risky and overly mystical to read magic into artworks that merely hint at magical fantasies, some pieces in the exhibit were made directly with magical intention. Not All Kept Is Hard or Soft, a 26-foot long, black-rope witch’s ladder knotted with 39 knots that the artist tied by hand, is packed with “all good intentions, hopes, dreams, and well-wishes for myself and loved ones.” The danger of sounding like a sorceress is not lost on Given, whose work ironically treads that fine line to challenge viewers’ comfort levels. She has a deep interest in witchcraft dating back to her childhood days in Athens, Georgia, where “supposedly there was a large practicing witch scene” and she had some girlfriends who dabbled. “Usually you hide it,” she says. “Some subject matter stays in your unconscious; you don’t typically want to share it. I think these silly or nonsensical ideas should be openly discussed, to question what people think of as taboo.” Given, conversely, finds it ridiculous that artists deny intention behind making artwork, which as a practice requires built-in ritual. “The ritual process,” she says, “becomes silly when we do these things, if not consciously. I want to make it super-conscious. We all work on things that we want.” Admitting and owning one’s desires, then, becomes a cornerstone theme in Given’s practice.

Given has a history of previous exhibitions centering on this theme, namely owning her desire to “find the otherworldly in the everyday.” Her series of photographs, A. hypogaea albus (Peanut Elves) (2008), showed halved peanuts with tiny elves carved into their centers, playing on a legend that elves live inside peanuts. Her photographic series, The Wilds (2008-2009), featured several large, densely composed photographs of decadent forest scenes that recreated overwhelming diversity in a patch of redwood forest. Given regularly expresses an appreciation of wondrous discovery in microscopic worlds. Cubiculum, in this show, reiterates this preoccupation, offering a so-called bird’s eye view into a cuckoo clock’s innards, where a sparrow lies—sleeping or dead—in a tiny doll bed. Here, the black clock is the forest, laden with omen and history.

Given’s observations of the microcosmos stem from her childhood days in “suburbia, where our backyard was a no man’s land full of creeks and construction, where I built fantasies of the unknown.” It is curious, noting the contemporary art phenomenon of women working with fantasy imagery based on urban/suburban clash—Marnie Weber, Stanya Kahn, Aurel Schmidt and Hanna Liden to name only a few—to wonder if critiques of this kind of living environment will lead to real social change. And, perhaps it is more than mere coincidence that these forest fantasies correlate to the etymological root of the word forest:

Although the words forest and forestry are now generally understood to be connected with trees, the former does not necessarily mean wooded ground or natural woodland, but has been considered to have been derived from the Latin foris, meaning ‘out-of-doors’ and thus the unenclosed open land. Dr. Wedgwood, however, considered it to be a modified form of the Welsh gores, gorest, waste or waste ground, when the English word gorse was derived as being the product of waste land. In the early Norman, Plantangenet, and Tudor days the word had a much wider and more significant meaning, and as many of these wastes were clothed with trees and undergrowth, the word ‘forest’ was in time applied to a great wood…Another definition speaks of a forest as extensive waste lands which include a certain mount of woodland and pasture within which the right of hunting was exclusively reserved for the king, and which was subject to a special code of laws.3

By this definition, the forest is quite different than that primordial wilderness more closely affiliated with the root word sylva, and instead looks like the suburban wasteland many of us are all too familiar with. This wasteland, these artists claim, may be the last refuge where magic can still be imagined.

So, where does this fascination leave us, and what is Given’s position on how much magic can be infused into an artwork without it losing its connection to contemporary life? These are the primary questions addressed in How To Explain Magic to a Dead Rabbit. While she offers no definitive answers, she does find humorous, temporary solutions to these conundrums through, for example, transforming a simple photo of a black cat into a witch’s pet portrait by naming it The Tutelary, or by calling a landscape photo of snowy mountains mirror-reflected in a lake, By the Boat of Charon. Everything has meaning, Given seems to say when scrutinizing nature under her magnifying lens. Upon setting the lens down, however, she never loses her remove, as is exemplified here through ironic titling. Hans Peter Duerr, in Dreamtime, his study of mythical beliefs in ancient cultures, asserts that since there is no way to completely obliterate modernity’s impact in art and culture, then personal wilderness must be redefined as increased self-awareness.

Human societies, as we have seen, erected the fence between themselves and the wilderness in many ways, and this fence assumed a number of different meanings. In contrast to our own culture, the societies possessing what we called ‘archaic’ cultures have a much clearer idea about the fact that we can be only what we are if at the same time, we are also what we are not, and that we can only know who we are if we experience our boundaries and, as Hegel would put it, if we thus cross over them. What this does not mean, however, is that we should endlessly move our fenceposts further and further into the wilderness and ceaselessly clear, work, categorize what is ‘out there.’ It means instead that we ourselves should turn wild so as not to surrender to our own wildness, but rather to acquire in that way a consciousness of ourselves as tamed, as cultural beings.4

In this, Given’s work has an air of convincing documentary on the contemporary state of wilderness, as if the artist is the last cultural producer privy to that which still remains unseen. Part amusement park ride, part rare glimpse into covert territory, Given’s art implores one to, as she says, “regain a lost part of yourself.”

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1 Mike Kelley, The Uncanny, p.26. (König, Cologne, 2004)
2 Jeffrey B. Russell, A History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics and Pagans, p.13. (Thames and Hudson, New York, 1980)
3 Alexander Porteous, The Forest in Folklore and Mythology, p.34. (Dover, New York, 1928/2002)
4 Hans Peter Duerr, Dreamtime, p.125. (Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1985)