Margaret Haines and Josefin Arnell “Sister Said to Satan: My Diary Is Too Hot for You” at Auto Italia South East, London
by Alice Bucknell
An energetic window painting caked in neon hues and featuring a cartoon devil decorates the entrance to Auto Italia South East in East London. Tricked out in hi-tops that scream 1990s, the little devil looks down nervously at the trident in his hands. Caught red-handed with this impulsive pinch from Lucifer, the regretful fraudster knows he’s in too deep.
Power, punishment, secrecy, and hot, hot heat: all engines are go in Margaret Haines’ and Josefin Arnell’s new joint exhibition Sister said to Satan: my diary is too hot for you. A sexy title with the sassy snapback of a teen, its bubblegum-pink and lime green signage is caught in a hilariously awkward face-off with the Catholic School across the street.
What’s inside the diary? “The elements of your life that are too sick and dirty to explain to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, but too badass for Satan,” according to Haines and Arnell. Extending beyond the binary realms of Heaven and Hell, the diary is a repository for contemporary and classical mythologies invisible to the human eye. It’s down with topics of mysticism, astrology, and new-age health rituals, but acutely aware of the circumstances of crisis that shape this renewed sense of soul-searching, escapism and desperation permeating today’s alternative wellness culture.
Sister said to Satan unfolds around texts, posters, and four moving image works exploring the allure of gods and legends, alternative belief systems and healing rituals, as well as trans-national tourism and ideas of destiny. The works also engage with the destructive forces of late capitalism on the body and city: from mental disorders that rupture and realign the self, to the intense depression and recession that tear apart the fabric of the city. This juxtaposition is treated half in reverie and half critically, producing a surreal exhibition where fact and fiction melt together in the heat, and remain unhinged in time and place.
Sometimes, as in Josefin Arnell’s Gag Reflex, I wanna puke in heaven (2016), that tension is vomited up on the sidewalks of Amsterdam while reciting verses of a self help book. In other worlds, like Haines I dreamt in Heaven (2017), it’s circumscribed inside an empty skate park in Athens, where three teens carve out their own space of survival within the void between ancient ruins and new economic depression and art world-fueled gentrification characterizing the city.
Dripping with irony, these moving image works force the viewer into an uncomfortable intimacy with the screen—thanks to the strategic placement of three leopard-print movie seats covered in stickers and scattered throughout the first room of the gallery. Through an aesthetics of detachment, characters never quite acknowledge the camera, instead remaining inside the microcosms they have created. Yet, as suggested by the title, there is a perverted sense of hope stuck in these micro odysseys, a kind of purity underneath the layers of rubble and puke.
Things get more personal in the back room. Upcycled movie threatre seats are replaced with a bare mattress hastily dropped on the floor at an angle; we are no longer at the movies. In both Haines’ and Arnell’s longer films, the slippage between reality and fantasy becomes further intertwined. With each film around twenty-five minutes in length, it picks apart the tension between the dark and light sides of modern mythology; as the works feature actual characters from each artist’s own life, the works become increasingly tender.
In Arnell’s Mothership Goes to Brazil (2016), the viewer is led on a spiritual pilgrimage to Brazil undertaken by Arnell and her mother, in search of alternative treatment for her mother’s alcohol addiction. It’s still saturated with irony: John of God, the internationally-acclaimed healer whom the two have travelled to Abadiana to consult with, is hospitalized at the time of their arrival. Humour, too, as the skeptical Mothership is in equal turns amused and distraught by the arsenal of potions, smudges, and prayer sessions her daughter encourages her to consume. “There’s no kiosk where you can buy things,” bemoans the Mothership. “I want fags!” It is a different type of consumption to the West, no doubt, but spiritual tourism still follows the logic of capitalism even while ostensibly protesting it, as Arnell is quick to point out through the cyclical nature of such trends.
Meanwhile, Margaret Haines’ The Stars Down to Earth (2015-2016) perfectly embodies the blend of fact, fiction, and cosmological wonder that inspires the exhibition at large. Having sourced her actors through an open astrology class the artist attended while living in Los Angeles, the twenty-five minute film is one part love letter to the philosopher Theodore Adorno (himself deeply entwined in the forces of astrology) and one part lucid dream-like tour through the multi-layered cities of Los Angeles and Athens. Their shared contradictory identities of ancient heritage and hyperactive tourism inscribe the film’s fractured narrative—“in the astrology class I attend, they say LA is a reincarnation of ancient Egypt,” Haines shares in an accompanying text—and add a further sense of otherworldliness to the dreamlike scene.
Further welding together these two schizophrenic cities are the film’s characters who stem from Greek mythology: Apollo, Aries, Pythia, and the protagonist Cassandra, who was simultaneously blessed and cursed by Apollo to utter prophecies that nobody would believe. In Haines’ film, Cassandra is embodied by a schizophrenic blue-haired boy from the artist’s astrology class. Pressure slowly builds as an insomniac camera pans over a hazy sunrise over downtown LA; waves crash on the beach, salt spray is caught in tousled blue hair. Slicing this dreamy scene are intimate close-ups of tearful eyes that avoid the probing camera.
As the background music picks up, we venture into night life caught in the peripheries of the city. Anonymous neon strip mall signs flicker as a waxing moon rises overhead, but it can`t hold the attention of the roaming camera. It dips into Haines’ astrology class, where a professor rattles through the star signs, ultimately landing on Cassandra’s star chart. Ruled by Neptune—a “bad sign” that promises disgrace, a fall from heights, and schizophrenia as well as a motivation to reveal clandestine information—Cassandra is here compared Snowden, whose birth chart shows Neptune in Sagittarius (opposing Sun and Mars in Gemini, for the astrology buffs out there).
The piece hits a breaking point in a 99-cent store that Cassandra visits twice: once alone, where she is promptly chased out by a threatening store clerk, and again with Apollo (played by Afia Fields). Basking in the overhead fluorescence, the camera pans through aisles of cheap plastic commodities, but Cassandra pays the trinkets no mind. The duo don pink and blue animal masks and approach the distracted clerk; a lazy cop finally emerges from his car, but he is too late. From the street, the neon signage breaks down, its illuminated commercial wares collapsing into a velvety red and silver abstracted light that eventually dims into the darkness of the night.
Sister said to Satan reveals the sprawl of micro-utopias possible in contemporary mysticism. In an accompanying essay Sex Without Threat (2016), Haines suggests the determinism of Marxism, if matched by the determinism of Astrology, might reach those idealized outcomes: the Age of Aquarius; the Communist state without alienation. But if the work on display in Sister said to Satantells us anything, it’s that this idea of a universal utopia does not care for unbroken dreams. Here, fate, destiny, and h(e)aven envelop the ruins of capitalism and casualty of reality, deifying both in the process. The collective high of chasing a lost utopia—the faker the better—and the pockets of paradise haunting these dreams instead become a perverse point of salvation, as real yet unreachable as the stars.
at Auto Italia South East, London
until 9 September 2018