The rather lengthy and somewhat obscure title of Ben Jeans Houghton’s first solo UK exhibition, ! Blessed Be :)) Merry Part :(( But Again ! left me unsure what to expect when I went to see it. The exhibition, showing at Space In Between until the 25th of February, functions as an investigation of the occult: exploring correspondences between Alchemy, Magick and Contemporary Art. The word occult, from the Latin occultus, literally translates to “hidden” or “secret”, and in common English usage it denotes something that is not usually seen as part of “normal” or expected human practice; given this definition, it would seem that the occult and Houghton’s exhibition have shared characteristics.
Stepping from a bleak Hommerton back street into Space In Between, a curatorial collective and platform for emerging artists, the visitor is confronted with a colour coordinated den of shrine-like assemblages centring around a “birth chart” that covers the floor. Topics of mysticism and astrology seem to be becoming increasingly relevant today, almost as if, since 2017 began by hurling the world into political turmoil, an ever-growing number of people appear to be turning to the spiritual realm for reassurance. This increased fascination with mysticism has been demonstrated in number of recent exhibitions, including Richard Healy’s Lubricants & Literature at Tenderpixel in October 2016 for which he presented a video piece narrating the journey of a queer shaman, and What Does Our Future Hold? co-curated by Polyester Zine, The Coven, and Isabella Podpadec, which saw over 50 artists reimagine the traditional tarot deck. Houghton sees links between contemporary art and divination: for him both are activity grounded in rituals, adopting a visual arrangement of objects and symbols to provoke changes in the invisible worlds of concepts and emotions, and this comes through strongly in ! Blessed Be :)) Merry Part :(( But Again !.
Houghton reinvigorates ancient and esoteric practices through his immersive installation. On the far side of the gallery sits the artist’s childhood bed covered in a rainbow emblazoned duvet. Placed beside the bed is a stack of Aquarian Arrow magazines: a journal at the core part of the British magical community during the seventies and eighties. During these decades an archaic revival lead various Pagan orders to develop in England, a few of which are still practicing Pagan witchcraft Wicca to this day (there are several Witches in London ‘meetup’ groups if you’d like to join in). Witchcraft permeated popular culture in an occult explosion; the teachings of famed occultist Aleister Crowley were rampant and witchcraft found its way into mainstream cinema with numerous satanic plots taking to the screen, such as now famed titles The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby and The Wicker Man. The choice of the occult as a theme for ! Blessed Be :)) Merry Part :(( But Again ! therefore reflects themes present in Houghton’s childhood, making the exhibition’s collection of installations a self-portrait of sorts.
At the heart of the exhibition the circular birth chart displays the twelve symbols of the zodiac around its circumference, each one assigned its own unique hue. This centrepiece invites visitors to calculate their own planetary alignment – by use of an astrology website – and add their initials to the diagram, writing on the artwork itself. The work thus develops over time through recording and incorporating the gallery’s visitors within it and allowing them to take part in the rituals presented by Houghton’s art. On the facing wall are a series of shelves displaying collections of objects in corresponding colours to those of the chart; these objects are an eclectic mix, ranging from a mint green deity of the Virgin Mary to a brilliant blue butt plug. Houghton manages to tie together the diverse range of artefacts presented in his exhibition beautifully, and it is well worth a visit if you fancy seeing something a little more out of the box than Rauschenberg at the Tate.