“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law,” wrote the magician Aleister Crowley in his 1904 grimoire, “The Book of the Law.” A cryptic and potentially amoral commandment, it might cynically be reduced to ‘figure it out for yourself,’ a commandment to follow no command but your own.
It makes a decent mantra for contemporary artists, who, having no external commander telling them what to do, must figure things out for themselves. But I doubt Crowley had imagined anything like Justin Beachler’s 2017 exhibition “Babalon Working” at the Bunker Center for the Arts. Inspired by his own lifelong research into occult traditions and hippie culture, Beachler has put on a very unusual exhibition of paintings and sculpture, primarily constructed out of spray paint, IKEA rugs, sex furniture and hippie blankets.
The artwork in “Babalon Working” falls largely into two categories. First, there are IKEA shag rugs of varying colors and sizes, which have simple colored squares painted on them. Secondly, there are simple, sparse, abstract paintings on unprimed canvas paired with colorful hippy blankets with sun and moon motifs, the kind you might find in a head shop or new age book store. The works have titles incorporating the names of demons like “void celestial = choronzon the pit” and “green formal = asmodeus.”
But the best part of the exhibition is in the final fourth room. On the ground in the center of a small wood paneled room is “Spare’s The Book of Pleasure (Self-Love),” a large circular IKEA rug spray painted with the seven- pointed star of Crowley’s Thelema religion. In the center of this magic circle is a Liberator brand ramp, a black fabric-covered foam wedge with handcuff restraints intended for kinky sex. On the wall is “let the vitriol destroy you,” a large, cheap, fleece blanket with an ominous white tiger staring down at the magic circle. In the corner of the room are a variety of magical tools, a common kitchen knife, a pyramid-shaped cup, a wand, and a bottle of amyl nitrate ‘poppers,’ a muscle relaxer to make the sex easier. Beachler sees the entire room as an homage to Crowley’s sex-magic rituals performed at the turn of the 19th century.
The entire exhibition is a bizarre combination of ready-made IKEA consumerism and black magic, two seemingly contradictory things. But for Beachler, these knock-off hippie blankets made in Taiwan reflect how he came to understand these cultures. Only in his 30s, Beachler isn’t old enough to remember the actual hippie era, and certainly not old enough to have partaken in Crowley’s various covens and temples.
And so Beachler is engaged in a second-hand, or possibly even third- or fourth-hand use of these motifs. Rugs which originated as prayer rugs in Morocco, Nepal and Afghanistan, were picked up on the Hippie Trail and repurposed for the vagrant hippie lifestyle, then rebranded through capitalist consumerism in novelty shops. And, of course, the history of western occultism is equally second-hand, steeped in mythical stories about the Emerald Tablet of Thoth, likely originating with Isaac Newton and other ‘alchemists’ of the Enlightenment, on through 19th-century reinterpretations by Madame Blavatsky and Aleister Crowley, and now in peddled in your local new-age bookstore by more recent magicians and self-help charlatans.
This is the story of “Babalon Working”: how purportedly deep values, whether Hippy Free Love or Crowley’s Thelema, are transformed and sold as consumer lifestyles. The Hippies practiced Free Love, which like the name indicates, was free. The Liberator sex ramp, a simple piece of foam and fabric, retails for $300. Liberator’s website describes the ramp:
“Experience the thrill of being angled high and held down. Savor every sight, sound, scent, and taste as your lover masters your anticipation as much as the action . . . there is no end to the opportunities for creativity and playful restraint.
You probably hadn’t realized how un-ergonomic your sex was until you read that. The message is clear: buy this object and your sex will be amazing! Free Love just simply isn’t cutting it in today’s consumer-driven sex industry.
But if you want Beachler’s “Spare’s the Book of Pleasure (Self-Love)” it will cost you $777. All of the artwork in Beachler’s show is priced with the magic numbers 333, 666 and 777, an homage to Crowley’s love of numerology and it draws attention to the absolute perversity of selling art. $777 is a bargain price for a contemporary sculpture, but it’s an absolutely horrendous price for used sex furniture and a paint-stained IKEA carpet.
Wizards often speak about “The Path,” while artists and musicians tend to talk about “their practice,” but the end is always vague. Perhaps the path leads to power, perhaps practice leads to great art. The tiger blanket lording over Beachler’s ritual room represent Vitriol, a substance the 16th-century alchemists used to dissolve metals, and which was metaphorically represented as a green lion devouring the sun. The alchemists believed that their pseudoscience occultism could transform both metals and souls. While the idea seems outlandish, this is essentially what every artist is engaged in: manipulating a material like paint or clay in order to gain knowledge and transform minds and souls.
“Justin Beachler: Babalon Working” continues through July 16 at the Bunker Center for the Arts, 1014 E 19th St. Hours are noon to 6 p.m. Thursday, Friday, Saturday. For more information, 712.314.0478 or https://www.facebook.com/bunkca/