Sunday, 27 February 2011

Spirit possession and cursed objects

In all cultures there is some traditional knowledge about spirits and all religions, including Christianity, have a chapter about the spirit world and spirit possession. Some Catholic priests are trained to administer exorcisms and such a practice has not been abandoned, though the number of people who ask for exorcisms has dwindled.

Photographer: Eoghan Brennan

Our 21st century rational mind is ready to reject such notions as being superstitions, relics of the past: possessions are the reflection of severe mental conditions, paranoid delusions. At one end of the spectrum there is total belief, at the other utter disbelief. Maybe it is not such a simple case of either/or.

In my younger days I travelled extensively to Southeast Asia. Bali is well known for its trance possessions, trance dance and in general as a place where the existence of  magic is never questioned by anyone. Note that people in Bali do not really distinguish between black or white magic, as those with magical power can, at a whim, do something evil.

Original photo by Talkingdrum Postprocessing by me

The Balinese are in tune with the spirit world, through their everyday worship and offerings to appease the bhuta kala. If you travel on the road you will often see little shrines where drivers will stop for a short prayer and offering. They are for the spirits of those people who have met with a violent death as a result of a car accident and who haunt those corners, unable to let go and move on and thus causing others to die, out of their 'distress'.

The idea of avesha, possession, is a fundamental trope of Indic religions, says Professor Geoffrey Samuel of Cardiff University, Wales. So Tantric Buddhism and a host of other religions, originally from India, deal extensively with it, at a pragmatic level, with a number of well defined measures to counter possession by evil spirits.

So far I have mentioned Asian practices. But shamanic beliefs are not confined to Asia and the idea of spirit possession is also found in Africa and in the Americas. Think of Voodoo or Santeria, whose roots are in the Yoruban religion from Africa.

Spirit possession, especially evil spirit possession, goes hand in hand with jinxed, hexed and cursed objects. These are things imbued with evil intent given to you by someone who may want misfortune to affect you. They could be absolutely anything and the gift may be totally innocent, but soon its ill effects will be seen, or so it is believed.

When I was in Bali in the early 1990s I met an extraordinary woman, Ibu Gedong Bagoes Oka, who used to run a Gandhian ashram in Candidasa, on the eastern coast of the island. She had been a university professor, educated in Dutch, which she spoke fluently, as well as English. The ashram was a special place for local villagers. She would take young people in , teach them and would work with them on a number of ecological projects. The ashram was also open to visitors who wanted to enjoy a full break in a peaceful environment. As a visitor you did not have to join the ritual practices of the ashram but you were invited to show respect and act according to a code of conduct - i.e. non-smoking, only vegetarian food, non violent behaviour etc. At the time I travelled with my son who was a young child . The ashram was a great place for him to stay, as there was a nursery school for local children. I'd often leave him there on his own, fully protected and well looked after and go off on excursions which for him were too difficult to negotiate.

Photographer: Martin Billings

Ibu always joined her guests for dinner and one evening the conversation inevitably turned onto the belief in magic. Ibu told us that  magic was the curse of Balinese villages, where people would sometimes end up poisoning each other believing that someone had summoned evil spirits. Her mission at the ashram was to get the villagers to go beyond that, teaching them that the best protection against black magic is to believe it has no power to affect you. A compassionate attitude, the belief that as a human being you have free will is enough, she said, to counter those 'psychic attacks'. What if you are given a cursed object? Oh well, she said, refuse to believe it is cursed, it will have no effect. Or bless it and recycle it, if at all possible. It will never hurt anyone but the person it was intended for.

I guess Ibu touched upon the most important point. Dont hurt anyone in your thoughts and no one will really be able to affect you, 'magically'. It is the safest and simplest way to counter the curse of black magic. And even if you do not believe in black magic, it is a good rule to adopt in life, anyway.

(All photos modelled by Alex B.)

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Sophie Hunter's new music video

Actress turned singer Sophie Hunter has released a new album and just made a music video directed by Chino Moya. I danced for her, I did a very dark solo to a haunting melody - no preview of the film is yet available. But Richard Hudson took photos and I have just been sent a few.  I look forward to the video.
Sophie is Jane Birkin's niece - she looks like her! and cousin to Charlotte Gainsbourg. A talented family indeed. She has a degree in modern languages from Oxford and has studied acting in Paris. I love her voice and her new album promises to do well.  I tried to interpret the song for the music video embodying its mood, as best as I could. The set was an old empty house in central London, high ceilings, empty rooms.
My very first music video. Huge thanks to Saskia for calling me in at the last minute
Anyway, these are the photos sent by Richard. Enjoy! By the way the fish is real.

(All photos by Richard Hudson and modelled by Alex B. )

Tuesday, 22 February 2011


Photographer: Martin Billings

Thanks to The Black Swan and Natalie Portman's performance Swan Lake and ballet in general have gained a new wave of  popularity. The film has turned the spotlight onto the darkness of the ballet world and in particular onto the darkness of Swan Lake with a brand new interpretation of Odette/Odile. The portrayal of the ballet world  has been a tad exaggerated but certain trends are definitely recognisable.
Ballet lovers have always been aware of the peculiarities of the ballet world: competition is fierce, the search for technical perfection an obsession that is inculcated from very early on -  there is plenty to make it an oddity. I will not dwell on this, there are essays by the hundreds which deal with such issues.

I like the interpretation given in the film of the Odile role - if you have not seen it yet I will not spoil your fun by giving too many details. I do feel that it matches the darkness of Tchaikovsky's haunting music. Odette/Odile are roles  traditionally danced by the same ballerina (and technically to dance this double role, you have to be very good indeed, as Odile performs thirty-two fouett├ęs, not a small feat). Odette is the innocent princess turned into a swan by the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart, Odile is Rothbart's daughter whom he turns into a copy of Odette to fool the Prince into marrying her, except that Odile is thoroughly nasty, an evil woman through and through.  That 'nastiness' has been variedly interpreted in different productions. In some, Odile is hinted at as sexually voracious and a dominatrix.

Photographer: Ray Spence

We have seen many versions of the ballet, including the famous gay production  by Matthew Bourne. The film makes the point that Odette/Odile mark a dissociated personality in the dancer, the possible onset of a psychotic disorder.
 Odette/Odile still have plenty of mileage, as characters, to be explored through newer stagings of the classical ballet. To me Odette/Odile are actually one and the same, two different aspects of womanhood.
I look forward to more interpretations that will really explore in greater depth the duality of ingenue/femme fatale, which I view as  the key to grasp the  Odette/Odile personality shift.

(All photos modelled by Alex B)

Monday, 21 February 2011

Editing day

Editing day for me, today. It's half term, I have a terrible head cold, am feeling very tired. Sitting with my laptop and working on photographs is relaxing. I found a handful I did with Brian, a photographer that asked me to edit the shots myself, he did not have the time. I was a little put out by this at the time but now I dont mind, I can work on photos myself which is good.  I also worked on more self portraits. I am planning a third self portrait session and a full fetish shoot,  that should be fun.
February is a good month. Not quite spring yet, but not as dark as January. The promise of spring is enough to make one feel elated. It's good to wake up early in the morning and find that there is light.
I would like to send some good wishes to ERosanne who was suddenly taken ill while flying to Germany. I did not realise how serious the whole incident was until I read her blog. Here is to a speedy recovery, ERosanne, I hope to see you bouncing back very soon.
I attach below a few samples of my editing efforts. Feel free to critique.

Photographer: Brian B. postprocessing by me

Photographer: Talkingdrum postprocessing by me (I have had this, posted unprocessed,  in my deviantArt gallery for over a year and I reprocessed it, it was looking very shabby)

Self portrait, own postprocessing

Self portrait, own postprocessing

Photographer: DG, reprocessed by me (with permission)

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Attachment bond

Self portrait

I unwittingly listened to a heart rending story today. I was at my physio appointment, at the hospital where I have been treated for my wrist fracture. In the waiting room two women were talking and one of them was crying.  I sat a little away from them to give them privacy but the sobbing was quite loud.We were the only people in the room.  One of the nurses came along to ask if anything was the matter. 'No, I am fine' she said, 'just a little upset'. Of course she was not fine and not just a little upset. She was distraught. Her friend, a slightly older woman, was trying to calm her down and comfort her.

I could not help overhearing the conversation, much as I tried to bury myself in my book, waiting to be called by the physiotherapist - and by the way my wrist is now "off splint", back to normal, only a little stiff. Even the worst wounds heal. My radius is now whole, once again.

Self portrait
The woman who was crying was in her twenties, neatly dressed,  with long brown hair. She sounded foreign but I could not make out from where, perhaps from Eastern Europe. Her companion was English, so they may have been friends, rather than being related. Soon the whole story was unravelled by her companion, who suddenly addressed me, while  the distraught woman went to the lavatory.  "Her baby girl was taken away by Social Services two months ago. She only sees her every fortnight. She wants her back but it is taking a long time". I listened, waiting for her to tell me more, I did not want to intrude.  I felt a wave of sympathy for the young woman, who was so visibly distraught. She had apparently just been to see her daughter, she is not allowed to be alone with her.  Her baby was taken away because she had hurt herself through a fall which had been  interpreted as being a suicide attempt. The authorities thought she was incapable of looking after her daughter, suspected her of self harming, and decided the baby was not safe. There was also an ex partner in the background that had been violently abusive, and could not be relied upon to look after the baby girl. So the decision was that the baby was better off with foster parents. For an indefinite time.

I did not hear the rest of the story because the young woman came back into the room and I was called up for my appointment.  Throughout the day I kept on thinking about her, her tears were so genuine, her distress so real. I have been totally wrapped up in my own little world, in the past few days, worried about photographs, slander, the unpleasantness of having to deal with mild intimidation, feeling a sense of betrayal and utter incomprehension at the unfolding of a situation that someone else has described as "juvenile". Meeting this woman made me realise that my problems are nothing in comparison.

 I remember how full of pitfalls my custody battle was and how I could not possibly conceive of living away from my son, when he was little and his father and I were divorcing.  But the sense of loss experienced by this young woman was so huge, I could not find anything in my own experience that would match it. I felt something grabbing me at the pit of my stomach. I thought of the horror of being branded as an unfit mother. I thought of the bond broken between that woman and her baby. Of how she was missing out on  her baby's first smile, her baby's gurgling sounds, her first words.

Self portrait. Edited by DG

I don't know the whole story. Who knows who is right?  Social workers sometimes get it wrong. Neglect is a terrible thing and children should be adequately cared for. It can happen that a mother is unable to provide care but it does not mean that she does not love her child. And it does not mean that she does not suffer when the child is taken away. On the other hand, sometimes babies are left by social workers to be with their families and then they end up being killed, as in the notorious case of Baby P. who sustained over  fifty injuries over a period of eight months even though he was being monitored by the NHS and Haringey Social Services.

One thing I know for sure. If infants, for whatever reason, miss out on bonding with their parents/carers they will grow up carrying within them a sense of being unloved for the rest of their lives and will not be able to be truly intimate or trust  anyone until they tackle that big fear they have within.  It does not happen only to children taken into care, it can also happen in 'normal' families.

It sounds  so easy, yet it is so complicated...

(All photos modelled by Alex B.)

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Reality and hyperreality

The real does not efface itself in favour of the imaginary; it effaces itself in favor of the more real than real; the hyperreal. The truer than true; this is simulation.

Unbearable Lightness in today's post over at What We Saw Today raises the issue of online art theft.  I would like to offer a few more insights to complement her excellent writing and the very interesting comments provided by readers. 

Where is the original work when we consider online images? Where is the reproduction? Already Walter Benjamin raised the question of the original in his famous The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. 

Baudrillard suggests this is the age of the simulacrum, it is the representation that determines the real.  The real has been replaced by its simulation, the hyperreal. We know the real through its representation and that transforms the real, so the real is no longer found. 

If we look at the issue of art theft from this perspective it begins to lose its momentum. What is actually being stolen? Think of digital manipulations which combine several layers out of which new meanings are created.

Or think of images created by photographers and edited by others. Finding the original is like peeling an onion.

The idea of the art work as an original was questioned by postmodern theoreticians, from Barthes to Foucault.  Ideas of copyright still follow a modernist concept of the art work as being something 'originated' by its author.  

Just playing devil's advocate here but perhaps ideas of ownership and copyright need some rethinking.


Photographer: me

When someone abuses you, you feel dirty and guilty and wonder why they have singled you out. There must be something about you that clearly invites this. Is it your looks? Is it your demeanour? 

Not long ago  someone wrote  they hoped I would stop breathing in my sleep. Since then I have had this nightmare of being strangled. I wake up in the middle of the night and I am gasping for air.

Today I had an opportunity to do some self portraits again at a photographer friend's studio. At some point my nightmare came back, uninvited. I asked my friend  to take a shot, I could not. This is the result.

Photographer: DG

Wednesday, 2 February 2011


Photographer: Talkingdrum. Postprocessing: Lmant

The past five days have been quite difficult. The deadline for my DMP essay is fast approaching and on Friday night I  realised I had to get on with writing it. From being a tutor involved in assessing others all of a sudden I was like my own students, worrying about word counts, referencing styles - subjects have different rules, in the arts we use Harvard whereas psychology uses MLA. 
But the real nightmare was finding the right angle. The essay is for a module called "Theoretical Approaches to DMP" and it involves constructing a critical  argument which illuminates two approaches to the practice. For the past six months I have been reading, have taken assiduous notes during lectures, written up my observations during practical sessions. I felt quite confident I could write this essay easily until I really got down to it. And then it dawned on me. Two thousand and five hundred words only! and I am supposed to discuss Freudian and Jungian approaches.  I nearly died. I had far too much to write and could not squeeze it all in just two thousand and five hundred words, inclusive of citations!
I buried myself with books at the weekend and did not go out at all. When I wrote my dissertation, years ago, the work was mostly done in the library. Now studying can be done online, in fact Google Scholar is one of the best tools, not to mention online journals and collections like JSTOR. It is easy to find the latest monograph if you do an online search.
Back to the essay. I truly agonised over it. Freud and Jung.  Libido and individuation. A structured psyche.  Collective unconscious and archetypes.  Relational psychoanalysis. And then there is Lacan  and the unconscious 'which is structured like a language' (Saussure in the background). What do I do with Lacan?

 I went round in circles, I wrote, then I began to  remove layers. From time to time I stopped writing and  played with Photoshop or answered emails, just to give myself a break.  The point of my essay was to examine the transference/countertransference relationship between client and therapist. In DMP this is approached non-verbally. But there are some important differences in how this is played out depending on whether the therapy is informed by a Jungian or a Freudian (or psychoanalytic /psychodynamic) approach. The two are irreconcilable. If you follow Jung, during the transference/countertransference  you try to reconnect with the collective unconscious activating the archetype-centred process of individuation. You aim for a transformation. If you are Freudian oriented, the process will be a dynamic that allows a recovery of past conflictual experiences of the patient , rendering them conscious, thus it will enable a resolution of the patient's  inner conflicts. 
I had to put Lacan on hold, I could not involve his psychoanalysis in this discussion, much as I wanted to, two thousand and five hundred words are simply not enough to do justice to all three - in any case Lacan was a self -professed Freudian, so in his formulation  the transference/countertransference would follow a psychodynamic model.  

I dealt with the question satisfactorily. My critique was directed at those who mix Freud with Jungian methods. Such eclecticism is unhelpful, unless you believe that the theory can be divorced from the practice. I dont. I believe that theory and practice are a continuum and not just in DMP.  Susan Melrose takes this concept further by invoking the very etymology of theory,  theoria, which in ancient Greece was a performance of wisdom. The theor was an itinerant performer.  I like this image. Thus the therapist is a theor, or should aspire to be one, just like the artist, any artist. There is never only a practice,  but a theorised practise, in all its variegated forms.

(All photos modelled by Alex B)